Welcome to our Knowledge Café!

At this year’s WLIC in Kuala Lumpur the Rare Books and Special Collections section held our first ever Knowledge Cafe, on the subject of rare materials cataloguing. This format is designed to encourage people to come and discuss issues with one another, and we wanted this one in particular to look at the following questions

• Are existing standards satisfactory and effective?

• Are there gaps in the existing standards for cataloguing rare materials?

• What can be done to promote and develop standards for rare materials?

There were a few brief presentations designed to stimulate thinking on the subject – Adelaida Caro Martin and Helen Vincent reviewed DCRM and ISBD, the two dominant standards used in North America and Europe; Hui Ling Ng reviewed the cataloguing of a wide range of Asian materials and formats at the National Library of Singapore; we heard the first report of the recent survey the RBSC section carried out on rare materials cataloguing worldwide, which will be shared with the wider world shortly. We also were given an introduction to a new set of guidance being developed for the cataloguing of palm leaf manuscripts.

Presentation by Adelaida Caro Martin (right, standing)and Helen Vincent (left)

Presentation by Adelaida Caro Martin (right, standing)and Helen Vincent (left)

To sum up our discussions, it seems that although we have very different materials, formats, cultures and languages to deal with, the cataloguing of rare materials across the library world throws up the same consistent challenges, which need to be factored into cataloguing standards, practices, workflows and staff skill sets:

  • Describing the material object: mainstream cataloguing practice focuses on identifying items bibliographically, assuming that the main purpose in finding the item is to locate any available copy and read the contents. Early printed books, other rare materials, and special collections, almost always requiring to be preserved longterm, come with provenances and other copy-specific information which need to be documented for reasons of identification and distinction, collection management and preservation, and recording the history of the item. This information also contributes to the broader knowledge and understanding of these objects and to their discovery and use.

  • Discovery: people looking for early printed books, rare materials and other special collections have particular needs: the need to distinguish between the physical original and any digital surrogate, ideally with easy discrimination between the two but also effective connection for easy transition from one to the other;

  • The challenge of accurately describing particular historical and cultural materials produced in ancient and minority languages, sometimes requiring knowledge of unfamiliar alphabets

  • The challenge of the sheer volume of uncatalogued materials, whether backlogs or legacy collections, or collections with a large volume of items which ideally would be described individually such as single-sheet ephemera

  • Local needs – of institutions, research or cultural communities, etc – leading to local practices such as recording particular information in particular note fields. How best to share these practices to enable us all to learn from one another, and how to manage local requirements in an age of shared interoperable metadata?

  • The need to collaborate with our GLAM sector colleagues – many librarians are familiar with the need to collaborate with archivists, but early print, manuscript, and other rare formats are also likely to be found in museums and galleries. While the top-level models LRM and CIDOC-CRM are compatible, there is still a lot of work to be done to enable effective collaboration and sharing of metadata at the level of actual cataloguing and cross-walking metadata across our systems.

  • The impact of digitisation on our metadata practices – while researchers and experts look for ever-richer metadata, and standards enable its provision, can the use of physical images replace some of our words? At the Knowledge Cafe we discussed how this should be a user-centered discussion: what level of description is sufficient to enable the efficient retrieval of relevant information from our catalogues?

  • The challenge of non-standard formats: there were many stories about how people have had to devise their own guidelines for particular materials in their collections, to a level for which no standard will ever provide fully comprehensive guidance. How can we share these guidelines to enable the development of best practice and minimize the need for cataloguers to repeat work which has already been done?

  • Manuscripts: individual manuscripts, often discrete objects or codices not part of a larger archive, have particular cataloguing and description needs which are not altogether catered for by the standards for published materials or the standards for archival cataloguing. Are there adequate standards for these materials, and are they adequately promoted?

We would like to thank everyone who came to our Knowledge Cafe for your lively discussions. They will contribute to future work by the Rare Books and Special Collections section on cataloguing and metadata issues.

Look out for a full report of the results of our survey into rare materials cataloguing shortly!

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