Rare book cataloging projects during shelter-in-place, part 1

May 14, 2020
Ann K.D. Myers

Rare book cataloging activities are somewhat limited during shelter-in-place, since without the books in hand, we cannot create complete and accurate catalog records for them. We may do some preliminary cataloging of some new acquisitions based on dealer descriptions and other information, but for the time being, we have been focusing our efforts on editing existing metadata for rare books. In this post, I'll describe a project that has been completed; in part 2, I'll describe a large, on-going metadata cleanup project.

Manuscript waste editing project

The manuscript waste editing project was inspired by a blog article by conservator Beth Ryan. Rare Books Curator Benjamin Albritton alerted us to a project done by Assistant Professor of History Rowan Dorin's students. Students in the Spring 2019 History 14N: Making the Middle Ages course identified books in Special Collections that contained manuscript leaves or fragments as part of their binding, and recorded details about these fragments including language, approximate date, and text identification whenever possible. Their report, entitled Manuscript Afterlives, can be seen here. Here's an example of one of the bindings they studied; the photo is from the Manuscript Afterlives report:

I took the information from their report and used it to expand the catalog records for these items, which wound up being 45 in all. Previously, some information about the manuscript waste had been recorded in a note describing the copy-specific characteristics of the books, but the level of detail and even the phrasing of these notes was not consistent. I expanded the information in these notes to include the following elements whenever possible or applicable:

  • Writing surface (i.e. vellum, parchment, paper)
  • Language
  • Country of origin
  • Approximate date
  • Ink colors
  • Number of columns
  • Presence of notated music
  • Identification of text or topic

Here's an example of an expanded note, taken from this record:

"Binding: full leather, blind-stamped; with illuminated parchment manuscript pieces used in binding: includes a decorated initial and initial letters in red and blue; text is from a psalter and includes portions of Psalm 47 (Magnus Dominus) and Psalm 49 (Deus deorum Dominus)."

In addition to expanded free text descriptions, I added controlled access points for as many aspects of the manuscript fragments as I could. Whenever the exact text was identified, I added title or author/title headings to the record as appropriate, with proper coding to indicate that these headings only apply to Stanford's copy of the book. I also added genre headings for the type of manuscript fragment; examples include:

  • Deeds
  • Devotional literature
  • Legal instruments
  • Notated music
  • Papal documents
  • Sacred music

Finally, every record got the genre term "Manuscript waste (Binding)", which allows all of these records to be located through a search for "manuscript waste" or by using the Genre facet in SearchWorks. Here's an example of the Genre facet search for Manuscript waste (Binding), and here's the full catalog record for the book whose binding is pictured above, in its expanded form.

This does not mean that we have located every instance of books with manuscript fragments in their bindings in our collections, however. If you find an example for which the catalog record does not seem complete, please let us know by using the "Feedback" button in the upper right of the SearchWorks page. I will also be running some additional reports on the catalog data to try to find more examples in need of editing.