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Rare Book Cataloging: A Policy Review

By October 24, 2013September 16th, 2023No Comments

by Tim Johnson, Curator of Special Collections & Rare Books; E. W. McDiarmid Curator of the Sherlock Holmes Collections

Much of what we do happens beyond the public eye.  Rarely do students, faculty, or researchers observe us unpacking collections, crafting finding aids, or scanning materials.  However, all of these activities–and more–have a profound impact on how information consumers discover and use archival and special collections.  We constantly scan our own procedures and practices looking for ways to improve service and access.

One example of this “back office” work involves our rare book collections.  These volumes constitute some of the “crown jewels” in the Libraries’ catalog and are found in various repositories around (and off) campus. Primary gatherings of rare books are found in the Charles Babbage Institute, the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, the James Ford Bell LibrarySpecial Collections & Rare Books, the Riesenfeld Rare Books Research Center in the Law Library, and the Andersen Horticultural Library at the University’s Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen.

RBCat_ArboretumFor the past several months, staff members from these collections have engaged with colleagues from cataloging and metadata services to review the Libraries’ rare book cataloging policy.  You, gentle reader, might be tempted at this point to offer a disinterested yawn or plead to be spared a microscopic examination of a rare book catalog record.  Consider your plea heard; the remainder of this post will not dive into the minutia of such a process.  But we do want to share with you a few tidbits from the process and the kind of questions considered from a researcher’s perspective.

The current draft of our rare book cataloging policy is based primarily on a similar document conceived by colleagues at the University of Illinois.  Our policy was written by Marilyn McClaskey and Christine DeZelar-Tiedman.  It covers items “distinguished by notable characteristics of age, high value, format or production (particularly items printed on the hand-press), or by their inclusion in discrete collections of materials with these characteristics.”  The objectives for our policy are closely related to researchers’ interests and needs and take their cues from the Bibliographic Standards Committee of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries.  By properly cataloging a rare book we want users of our materials to be able to:

  • discern and identify different editions or “states” of a book.
  • answer questions they might have about a book without having to physically examine the book.
  • investigate the various printing, illustrating, paper making, binding or “post-production history and context” connected with a book.
  • access information, perhaps of a technical nature, on the creation of a book for use in identification or “advanced bibliographic purposes.”  This might include information on the construction of the book, its format, paper manufacture, binder, or illustration techniques.

When we think about this policy from a researcher’s perspective, a number of scenarios present themselves for consideration (and provide lively conversation):

  • How do we describe a book that includes notes made by a reader in the margins (or back cover, flyleaf, or other part of a book)?  The presence of annotations is often important information for a researcher to consider and examine.
  • How are personal libraries described, cataloged, and arranged on the shelves?  Do we keep such collections together as discrete units or intersperse the collection?  If the collection is not kept as a discrete unit on the shelves, how will the catalog identify a book as belonging to a personal library or specific collection?
  • Should important reference works associated with rare books be cataloged in a similar manner?
  • Should facsimile volumes (some expensively produced) be cataloged as rare books?
  • If a fine press publisher creates a prospectus for a volume, should that prospectus be cataloged (and shelved) along with the volume?
  • How do we describe a book if it has been rebound or received some sort of conservation treatment? What do we do if a binding is signed or identified as the work of a significant bindery?
  • In the process of cataloging a rare volume how should it be marked as University property?
  • How do we handle “laid in” material or ephemera, e.g. clippings, photographs, or letters placed inside the book?
  • How is a book described if it includes an autograph, inscription, or bookplate?
  • If a book comes with a special enclosure or book jacket, how should these be treated and described?

This is just a sampling of questions our committee confronts as we review this policy.

The work of review and improving our rare book cataloging policy is necessary, not onerous.  Our meetings take place near some of the most amazing collection spaces in the University Libraries.  Once, taking advantage of delightful summer weather (and sparing a colleague the long drive to the Twin Cities campus), we repaired to the Andersen Horticultural Library at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.  It was an enchanting (and invigorating) setting in which to discuss rare book cataloging issues.

Other meetings and discussions will follow.  In the end we’ll have a better policy for use by catalogers as they describe new and wonderful items added to the collections.  That policy will also be “user-focused,” providing as much useful information as possible to all who discover our collections in an electronic environment.  Those of us in the University’s rare book community still desire onsite visits, to have individuals and classes see and handle original items.  But when such visits are not possible, we want to insure that the best and most useful information is available to any who use our online discovery tools.  A review of our current policies and practices help make this possible.

Mark Engebretson

Author Mark Engebretson

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