Rare book cataloging projects during shelter-in-place, part 2

May 19, 2020
Ann K.D. Myers
Rare books on a shelf

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. So, we have been focusing our efforts on editing existing metadata for rare books. In my previous post, I described a project that has been completed; in this post, I'll describe a large, on-going metadata cleanup project.

Rare book metadata cleanup project

Our biggest and most ambitious shelter-in-place project is addressing outdated metadata fields in rare book catalog records, specifically local subject headings, local geographic headings, and bibliographic citations (these are the 690, 691, and 510 fields for any MARC aficionados out there). I will go into each field below, but the overall goal of this project is to improve the accuracy and consistency of headings in our rare book catalog records.

Local subject headings

Historically, we used the local subject heading field to record the names of people other than the author involved in the production of books: binders, illustrators, printers, and former owners. Now, rare book cataloging standards recommend the use of the contributor field (700 or 710 in MARC), which we have been doing for the last 8+ years. This field has the advantages of being indexed for searching using the Author/Contributor search in SearchWorks, and includes a relator term indicating what role the person played in the production of the book. The local subject display in SearchWorks does not indicate the role, and, for some reason some of the fields are duplicated, making for a confusing display:

 From the SearchWorks record for Wolfenberg by William Black (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., 1892).

We are working on converting these local subject headings to the contributor field, which has the added advantage of allowing us to do some authority work so we can ensure that these names will link to other instances of the same name in our catalog. This should improve searching and research capabilities.

Local geographic headings

Historically, we used the local geographic heading field to record the place and date of publication in a uniform way. The Imprint field in SearchWorks records this information as it appears on the title page or colophon of the book, which means that the place name might be in another language; providing this information in a uniform way allows researchers to find every instance of books published in Paris, whether Paris is recorded in the book as Paris, Parisiis, Lutetia Parisiorum, Parisia urbs, or any other variant. However, rare book cataloging standards now recommend the use of the Hierarchical place name field (752 in MARC) which is labeled as "Location" in SearchWorks (and which, again, we have been doing for the last 8+ years). The date information which we used to record in the local field can now be captured through the use of the date facet in SearchWorks.


We are working on converting these local geographic headings. The added advantage of using the hierarchical place name field is that we can also add information about whether this location was the place of publication, manufacture (printing), or distribution.

Bibliographic citations

Bibliographic citations are added to rare book catalog records to indicate standard bibliographies where the book being described is referenced. This can help with verifying which edition is being described, identify authors or printers not named on the book itself, and sometimes leads to digitized copies of the book in question. The field where this information is recorded has not changed, but the way we record the information has.

Historically, rare book catalogers used a shorthand to record the bibliographic citations in order to save space on catalog cards. There was also an assumption that everyone in the field would know what "Adams" refers to, so citations like "Adams" and "Evans" were common. I can tell you from personal experience that trying to identify the correct bibliography written by someone named Adams was nearly impossible. Now, rare book catalogers use extended forms of these citations so that the citation can be put into any search engine and the correct resource identified; "Adams" becomes "Adams, H.M. Catalogue of books printed on the continent of Europe, 1501-1600, in Cambridge libraries". The Bibliographic Standards Committee of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the American Library Association maintains a database of these standard citation forms, so we are going through our catalog and expanding all of these abbreviated citations to match the new standards.

Here's an example of bibliographic citations before editing:

And here's the same example after:


Progress so far

When we began this project, I had identified over 58,000 records needing editing work. As of this writing, we have 52,910 records remaining. This amazing progress would not be possible without the many volunteers contributing to this work: myself, Brian Bethel, Aude Gabory, Gurudarshan Khalsa, Beth Ryan, Jill Sison, and Peter Whidden. A million thanks to you all!