Essay

From Margin to Mainstream: An Italian Collection's Renaissance

From a paper given at a session on collection-level cataloging, Rare Books and Manuscripts Pre-conference, held as part of the 1993 American Library Association National Convention, New Orleans.


Paula Jeannet Mangiafico
Archivist/Manuscript Cataloger
Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library
Duke University Library

In the late summer of 1949, 151 large wooden cases arrived at the Duke University Perkins Library loading docks. They contained the life-long work of Guido Mazzoni, a Florentine professor, Senator, and bibliophile who, over a span of half a century, had amassed a library of some 23,000 monographs and about 50,000 off-prints, pamphlets, newspaper clippings, librettos, and small volumes, whose materials ranged in date from 1572 to 1943. There was no doubt that this was a collection of major importance to scholars of European and Italian history.

Shortly after the collection arrived at the library, the staff set about processing it as they would most any other newly acquired collection. In 1949, that scenario ideally looked something like this: the staff would unpack and shelve the collection, making an initial assessment of its condition and treatment; they would then laboriously hand-produce "temp slips" for each item; next, the catalogers would catalog each item individually; and, as a last step, the staff would add hand-typed cards for each item to the card catalog. Finally, the collection would be accessible to library patrons, who would locate the items through the card catalog and, rarely, through whatever other finding aids there might be.

Though the Mazzoni monographs eventually received full-level cataloging, the Mazzoni Pamphlet Collection, nearly 50,000 items strong, defied this process. For years the Perkins Library staff was hard put even to reach a decision as to which lucky department would house this massive collection. The onus finally fell to what was then known as the Rare Books department. Through the 1970s and early 1980s, its staff gave full MARC format cataloging to some 2,000 pamphlets belonging to an important sub-collection of pamphlets, the "per nozze" pieces -- items published on the occasion of a wedding. But there the work on the Mazzoni Pamphlet Collection ground to a standstill, and it remained in that holding pattern, unused, like an immovable mountain, for nearly twenty years.

i.

The turning point for the fortunes of the Mazzoni Pamphlet Collection came in July, 1991, when Dr. Jerry Campbell, University Librarian, delivered his unique brand of wake-up call to Duke librarians in a speech at the American Library Association's national conference in Atlanta. In that speech, he challenged the Perkins Library staff to eliminate its backlogs not in 24 years, as had been optimistically projected, but in 24 months.

Confronted with this call to arms, the Special Collections Library staff considered its own backlogs, and targeted the Mazzoni Pamphlet Collection as a candidate for a new approach to bibliographic control: collection-level cataloging. The staff felt that adopting this innovative strategy would not only help eliminate the backlog, but would also serve as a precedent for libraries acquiring similar large collections in the future. Most important, a unique collection of materials of great value to scholars would be made fully accessible in just two years rather than the sixteen and a half years it would have taken to complete full item-level cataloging. (The staff also considered another possibility -- cataloging each piece with minimal-level MARC records, but given the size of this collection, even this type of cataloging was far beyond their means.)

In 1992, the Special Collection Library received a Title II-C grant from the federal government to initiate the proposed collection-level treatment of the Mazzoni Pamphlet materials. In 1993, the Special Collections Library received another Title II-C grant for the second and final phase of the project, which was completed in October, 1994.

ii.

Collection-level cataloging has been developed by analogy with traditional archival practice, and can be applied to materials that share some, but not all of the characteristics of manuscript materials. [1] The Mazzoni Pamphlets are an example of such a collection. About 20 percent of the holdings consists of formats that do not take very kindly to conventional full-level cataloging for monographs, formats that include newspaper clippings, scores, manuscripts, single articles within periodicals, broadsides, and even one home-made World War I photo album. Given the size of the collection, it would be unnecessarily complicated to send items to other departments for cataloging in other MARC formats, and it would be excessively time-consuming to provide full-level cataloging for the more ephemeral materials such as the thousands of newspaper clippings.

An even more significant characteristic of the Mazzoni Pamphlet Collection is that, like most archival or manuscript materials, its value lies in its collective identity: as an intellectual resource created by a single individual with a specific purpose in mind. Keeping bibliographic control focused on the collective level thus responds to the archival principle of unity, of respect for the integrity of the whole, or "respect du fonds." [2]

How the Mazzoni Collection is being managed, however, also depends on another kind of collective identity -- its arrangement into certain well-defined groups. The materials Guido Mazzoni chose for his enormous library fall into distinct subject areas such as Italian drama, Italian church history, and education; these collectivities define our model for bibliographic control, because is usually this bibliographical richness rather than individual titles that initially attracts scholars to the collection. [3]

In addition to the one collection-level record that represents the entire 49,583-item collection, then, the staff created collection-level records for each of the thirty-one subject areas which define the strengths of the holdings. For example, the Mazzoni Pamphlet Collection offers researchers a particularly rich group of World War II materials. A patron interested in this subject area is offered a collection-level record based on the Library of Congress subject heading "World War II - 1939-1945" which describes these particular holdings; the patron can locate this record in the national OCLC database and in the Duke Libraries on-line catalog, which resides on the Internet-based Perkins Library network.

The benefits of this approach are clear: using collection-level records relieves OCLC and the library's OPAC from the additional and redundant weight of over 49,000 item-level records -- assuming the staff would even choose to undertake the task of creating them. Most important, however, these thirty-two collection-level records that reside in OCLC and in the library OPAC finally allow patrons all over the world to access this important collection of Italian materials.

The use of collection-level records reflects the pamphlet collection's affinities with manuscript collections. However, the pamphlet collection also shares some of the characteristics of monographic materials. Approximately eighty percent of the collection consists of published textual material with standardized features such as author and title statements, imprints, and pagination. For this reason the staff felt that the Mazzoni Collection would also lend itself well to some form of minimal item-level cataloging. Therefore, complementing the collection-level records is an electronic in-house finding aid, which takes the patron to a higher level of detail by providing access to each individual item, all formats included.

The project staff (the supervisor and three part-time students) created this database as the first step in their two-year enterprise, using a networked version of DataEase software. Each of the 49,583 item-level records provides the following information on one screen: the item's call number, title, short title (system-supplied), authors, year of publication, one Library of Congress subject heading, and three internal codes used to streamline processing. With this software, the staff input about twenty-five records per hour. If one contrasts this average with the average two records per hour needed for full-level cataloging, the advantages to this approach become obvious.

In the second year of the project, after all the item-level records were entered in the database, the staff created the collection-level records, using the finding aid to obtain an accurate description of the holdings in each subject area grouping. The records are in USMARC book format, and closely follow the Library of Congress suggested guidelines for collection-level cataloging. [4] The collection-level record and the item-level records share the same Library of Congress subject headings, a structure which unifies the two levels of bibliographic control and facilitates patron searches.

To further strengthen the link between the broad collection-level records and the item-level database, a pointer in the collection-level record's note field refers the patron to the in-house item-level database. This descriptive, electronic finding aid is accessible only through the Special Collections Library terminals. Researchers who find references to material in the Mazzoni Pamphlet Collection through the collection-level catalog entries in OCLC or in the Duke Libraries on-line catalog, can request (or perform themselves) a more specific keyword search in the Mazzoni database. The Special Collections reference librarians have already performed a number of these searches, and produced for patrons a number of custom-made printed indexes.

The next logical step, and the most exciting aspect of this project concerns Internet access to the pamphlets database. This final key will take place in the next year, when the item-level finding aid will be made accessible directly from the Special Collection Library's World Wide Web pages, with users moving immediately and seamlessly from collection-level MARC records in the Duke Libraries on-line catalog (also available through the Web pages) to the more detailed pamphlets database. In this scenario, patrons will be able to search the bibliographic records in the finding aid from any computer connected to the Internet, making the Mazzoni item-level database accessible to virtually any networked computer in the world.

iii.

There are thousands of holdings similar to the Mazzoni Pamphlet Collection in both American and European library backlogs whose sheer size makes conventional cataloging -- even at a minimal-level -- an impractical and often impossible proposal. Most librarians are only too familiar with these types of collections in their own institution's holdings. Collection-level cataloging now offers us a model for bibliographic control by which librarians can finally make these large collections fully accessible to the patrons who need them.

From the item-level finding aid, to the Duke Libraries on-line catalog, to the national OCLC database, the Special Collections Library at Duke will offer librarians and patrons a seamlessly linked, automated hierarchy of data which will take them to whatever level of detail they wish in a matter of seconds. On a broader level, we also offer them a radically new way to conceive of information delivery and retrieval, and give them new tools to carry out those tasks.

The Special Collections Library at Duke University is just one of the many academic and research libraries that have made a commitment to provide a broad international constituency with access to all our holdings. By initiating projects such as the Mazzoni Pamphlet Project, special collections libraries can contribute significantly to this universal commitment by becoming visible participants in the movement to develop and enhance electronic access to collections. This is just one of the ways in which special collections libraries can bring their collections out of the margins and into the mainstream.



1. Steven L. Hensen,Archives, Personal Papers, and Manuscripts: A Cataloging Manual For Archival Repositories, Historical Societies, and Manuscript Libraries (APPM), 2nd Edition (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1989), p. 3.

2. See Hensen's remarks on this topic in the APPM (1989), p. 4.

3. For relevant comments on describing collections by means of their intellectual content and inter-relatedness, see Richard Saunder's discussion in his article, "Collection- or Archival-level Description for Monograph Collections," in Library Resources and Technical Services:38 (April 1994), 139-148.

4. See also "Collection-level cataloging at the Library of Congress," Cataloging Service Bulletin: 53 (Summer 1991).