Saturday, September 28, 2013

Rare Book Cataloging: A Policy Review

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 Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, the James Ford Bell Library, Special 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.

For 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.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Emergency Planning and Response

Anyone who has suffered a natural disaster knows the multitude of emotions connected with such an event: feelings of loss, pain, fatigue, frustration, confusion—the list is nearly endless. Archives and libraries—and their associated staff—are no different. At least a few of us have endured (and survived) professional lives disrupted by flood, fire, earthquake, or other calamity. Among the many questions that linger after such an event is one of paramount importance to archivists and librarians: how can we be better prepared the next time such an event comes our way.

To that end, the Libraries formed a Collections Emergency Response Team. Led by Mary Miller, the Libraries’ Collection Management and Preservation Strategist, this team is engaged in updating and enhancing collections emergency response procedures for the Libraries and the Minnesota Library Access Center (administered by Minitex). University Librarian Wendy Lougee charged the team “with assessing collections emergency preparedness in the Libraries, overseeing emergency planning, and fostering a culture of preparedness in the Libraries through strategic communication, education, and hands-on training. In the event of an emergency involving collections, the team will provide leadership, advice, and assistance to the Libraries during the response and recovery phases.” I was invited—along with nearly a dozen of my colleagues—to be a member of this team.

Hands-on training is an important part of “fostering a culture of preparedness.” In early September the team, along with other members of staff, participated in two days of exercises designed around collection damage assessment and salvage. Our sessions were led by Julie Page, a trainer for the Western States and Territories Preservation Assistance Service (WESTPAS). Julie is the former head of the preservation department at the University of California, San Diego and now serves as a preservation consultant. In addition to her work with WESTPAS, she is a trainer for the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (FAIC) Emergency Response for Cultural Institutions program, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and a member of the American Institute for Conservation Collections Emergency Response Team (AIC CERT).

We were instructed to wear “grubby” clothes, as we would be handling wet books and papers during our training. I was happy for the cautionary instructions. Our first day included a “stack assessment” exercise in Wilson Library. Portions of the stacks on the fourth floor were draped in different colors of crepe paper; blue indicated wet ranges of books, white indicated damp ranges. We divided into smaller teams and headed to an assigned area of the stacks. Once on site, our task was to assess and document the number damaged books, assign salvage priorities, note anything special about this portion of the collection, and create a sequence of response activities. These activities included activation of a telephone calling tree and notification of University facilities/emergency personnel, all designed to insure staff safety and a proper approach to an incident of this kind. In a debriefing session following this exercise, Julie emphasized the importance of an accurate assessment. The assessment drives much of what follows in terms of conservation treatments and other actions.

In the afternoon of our first day, following an introduction to salvage techniques and response issues, we ventured outside for a second hands-on exercise. Here we were exposed to, and instructed on, the correct handling for damp or wet books and papers. We practiced air-drying damp volumes, wrapping and packing saturated volumes, safe handling and drying of wet papers and record cartons, and treatments for other types of media such as microfilm or compact discs. In a real-life scenario much of this work would have been conducted indoors, but we wished to spare the interior of Andersen Library from any water damage during the exercise. It was amazing to see how much moisture books can absorb or how fragile an item or page becomes when wet.

Having survived the first day of mock disasters, we entered the second day more knowledgeable, yet humbled and eager to learn more. The major training of the day involved a “tabletop” exercise that presented us with a cascading series of events. Most of the incidents we might face in the future—so statistics and the risk management folks tell us—involve water. So, having divided ourselves into two teams, we were given a storm scenario. Faced with a series of spring storms, high winds, and extremely heavy rainfall, Wilson Library (on a Sunday afternoon) experienced “water all over the floor and collapsed ceiling tiles on the west side of the fourth floor….You have been called in to provide guidance and assistance.” The scenario indicated that our group had assembled in Wilson Library and was starting to assess the situation when a second call came from library staff on the St. Paul campus informing us of a second event involving more water and wet books. Our teams energetically worked through the steps outlined in our response plan as we tackled the scenario. At two points during our interactions Julie injected new events. The first involved two feet of water at the foundation level in Walter Library on Monday morning; the second occurred later on Monday morning, with water leaking into the Wangensteen Library and damage to a small number of rare books. These injections complicated the scenario and led us to think about related matters such as staff fatigue, meal breaks, security, and communications.

While the scenario (and its two injections) might seem unrealistic, we know from experience that such things could happen. We were presented with a robust set of circumstances that tested our situational awareness and previous training. One of the goals of the tabletop exercise was to put the draft of our current response plan through its paces, testing how well this document functioned under the stress of an active scenario. By the time we completed the exercise our copies of the response plan were littered with additional notations with suggestions for improved clarity or re-working. It was an extremely valuable drill that will result in a better plan.

Following a final debriefing, we concluded our training on collection assessment and salvage. I’m sure more training sessions and conversations will follow as we refine our emergency response plans for the collections. A special word of thanks goes to Mary Miller and other members of the staff for organizing this two-day session, and to Julie Page for her expertise in guiding our team toward better readiness and response. We hope such disastrous days will never come, but know at some point the inevitable will happen. The strength of our training and a commitment to developing a culture of preparedness will keep us vigilant and ready for such a day.

***** This post originally appeared on the departmental blog "Primary Sourcery" for Archives and Special Collections at the University of Minnesota.

I've taken a month break from blogging for a personal vacation and the start of the school year, but intend to resume regular weekly posts here starting next week. My "30th Year Reflections" series will end in October. From that point forward I'll blog about anything related to my work in special collections, rare books, and archives.