Thick Description: Fingerprints, Sonnets, and Aboutness in Special Collections

Discoverability of special collections has long been a top concern of the OCLC Research Library Partnership.  What works? Break out of the OPAC? Beyond MARC? End run around EAD?

Constance recently started a conversation here in the office about “catablogs.”  She’d seen that NYU’s Chela Weber taught a workshop in New York about how to use a blog as a low-overhead collection management system.  A “catablog” can create searchable, browseable online presentations of collections.

Today the Atlantic posted a short article about the impact of blogging rare books. At St Andrews, Daryl Green’s blog played an unusual role in what are otherwise standard special collections procedures – identifying new acquisitions and raising scholarly and financial support. (Book-nerd disclosure: I’ve been following Daryls’ blog for his 52 weeks of fantastic bindings, but Constance sent me the Atlantic article this morning.)

Ellen’s blogging about collections in ArchiveGrid is driving a healthy amount of traffic to ArchiveGrid itself. This is exactly the kind of research question we wanted to pursue with ArchiveGrid. Bruce has wondered if commentary and interpretation wouldn’t improve discovery and make it easier for a researcher to decide what to pursue.

This has prompted me to revisit The Metadata IS the Interface and user studies of relationships between description and discovery or use. Archivists and librarians contribute to discovery when they discard illusions of neutrality and express their excitement for the materials and their opinions about their significance. MARC and EAD have enhanced our management of collections, but don’t necessarily serve all the needs of our users these days.

Over on the RBMS-ish (rare books and manuscripts) side of our profession, considerable thought has been given recently to more rich description – “records more like sonnets,” as the Beinecke’s Ellen Elickson put it. I might borrow a term from the anthropologist Cliff Geertz and call it “thick description.” Michelle Light and Tom Hyry have advocated post-modern colophons and annotations. One of the RBMS hipsters has been arguing it is time to bust out of “the coldness of our description.” Mark Dimunation (Library of Congress) and others have imagined meaty and flexible descriptions of special collections like a wheel: hub and spoke. Merrilee blogged about Mark’s talk:

“Dimunation has been intrigued by James Asher’s call for progressive bibliography in which catalog records are viewed as hubs where information can be linked in, or hung on the core record as necessary. In this way, additional information can accrue over time, and doesn’t necessarily need to be contained in the catalog. Links to information that lives outside the catalog form a virtual vertical file that can document unique characteristics, and help form the fingerprint of an item.”

When I first joined OCLC Research, in the days of Shifting Gears, I thought that I’d wasted the past 10 years of my career building curated web exhibits of boutique collections of rare books, manuscripts and archives. In 2007 we needed to scale up digitization. Now my thinking is coming full circle. Curated blogs and exhibits, combined with the voice of the librarian/archivist, accomplish exactly what we’ve always wanted – to make collections visible and increase their impact.

PS: Merrilee credits Rob Cox at UMass Amherst with the first “catablog,” UMarmot. Chela started the “catablog” Emma at the Brooklyn Historical Society, before she moved to NYU’s Tamiment Collection. At the highly-interesting/highly-usable end of the scale, Bruce likes the New England Chowder Compendium. Come to think of it, one of the principles we learned during the Missing Materials experiment was to “blog your thefts” to make them discoverable.

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About Jennifer Schaffner

Jennifer Schaffner is a Program Officer with the OCLC Research Library Partnership. She works with the rare books, manuscripts and archives communities. She joined RLG/OCLC Research in August of 2007.

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