Sunday, May 30, 2010

Refining the Wheel: Library Edition

Greetings from the library at Kiplin Hall! For our field school project, Virginia Noxon and I are working with Kiplin's large collection of books, most of which date to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The books have been documented several times in the past, but they are now being recataloged as part of the museum's collection in the database system Catalist. We are busy working at the neverending museum job of fixing problems created by our predecessors while doing things that will probably drive our successors batty.

 Because of the multiplicity of former cataloging systems and the complexity of the current one, each book is associated with a dizzying array of numbers. If the book was at hand in 1893 when the local vicar inventoried the collection, it has one simple numerical identifier. He wrote out a list of all the books he found and penciled a number inside each cover. In the twentieth century, new catalogers scrapped the first system as they uncovered more books that he had missed. A 1972 inventory undertaken in Kiplin's first years as a museum started from scratch with a new but similarly straightforward numerical system (though these numbers are not actually written in the books).

In 1992 Kiplin began a complete inventory of all their possessions. This used an accession number scheme more typical for modern museums, with a year, group number, and item number all included. This system has the advantage of being infinitely expandable without getting longer (if the collection somehow grew to ten million artifacts eighty years from now, an accession number could be 2090.1.1 rather than 10,000,000). It also incorporates identifying information about the item into its moniker. The books were not fully cataloged in 1992, but the current curator wishes to continue with that number pattern. In a slightly confusing twist, we are continuing to write "1992" in each book because they were in the house at that time and should have been included in that survey. So my favorite book so far, a 1693 Latin-English dictionary, has the number 1992.1020.280 (1020 refers to the library, and it was the 280th book or set of books cataloged).

There are also other numbers associated with the latest cataloging attempt. Each book has a location marker based on its bay, shelf, and position on the shelf in the library. In addition, each photograph of it has a unique number (which is related to, but not the same as, the accession number). The first photo of the dictionary mentioned above gets KL280-1 ("KL" for Kiplin Library, "280" from the accession number, and "1" for the first photo). To make things especially complicated, Catalist can only recognize six digits when attaching a photo file name, so if the book is part of a set with a long number the "KL" gets shortened to just "L" or left out all together, convoluting the list. It's working for now, but I'm afraid future employees will be scratching their heads (if not cursing us outright) for the complexity of the system.

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