By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
Last year, I cataloged part of a unique collection at the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution Libraries—the Russell E. Train Africana Collection. This blog post was inspired by a series of conversations about descriptions of the collection materials that already existed and how Field Book Project catalog records would utilize and add to them. If you have the chance to look at the Train Collection exhibition website, “The Art of African Exploration”, you might ask the question I used to entitle this post. If the materials are already described, why was I there cataloging them? When I first looked at the existing item descriptions, I began to wonder. However, when I started looking at the items themselves, I realized that the way we catalog would indeed add new descriptive information to what already existed.
A collection like this, which includes archival materials, objects, and print materials, is a challenge for any institution to house and catalog. Each of these types of materials is usually associated with a specific type of institution. Primary documents usually go to archives, objects to museums, and published materials to libraries. Each type of item comes with its own challenges for description and housing; each type of institution has developed their own ways of meeting these challenges.
Four types of descriptions for items within the Train collection existed before I began cataloging.
- Book description: tailored to published works, this describes items as self-contained, stand alone works.
- Archival description: developed specifically for unpublished works, this emphasizes contextual information and relationships among parts of the collection.
- Conservation description: intended for items in need of conservation, this notes physical deterioration and possible conservation treatments.
- Booksellers description: created to sell items, this focuses on physical description, history (historical significance), and value.
Given these four types of descriptions you’re probably wondering what my cataloging added to the mix. The Field Book Project cataloging structure is a mixture of library and archival approaches, which fits well with some of the cataloging challenges in the Train collection. In addition, we include information specific to natural history researcher needs.
For many of the items I cataloged, I started by using portions of existing descriptions to which I added relevant information. Here is where an example probably helps. Above is a description taken from page 80 of the catalog compiled for Russell E. Train. It describes the 8 volume set of journals written by N. C. Cockburn. Below is the bookseller’s description for the same set of journals.
When I catalog, I focus on the following:
- reason the person is at a location
- type of collecting
- dates of the collecting event
- types of information recorded about the collecting event (e.g. weather, terrain, vegetation, collecting method)
Often the pre-existing descriptions include limited or no information like that types listed above, thus being enhanced by the field book specific cataloging methods I used.
The field notes within the Train collection are a good illustration of the inspirations and challenges for the Field Book Project. The wide variety of field book materials means they can be described as library materials or as archival collections. In the case of the Train collection, the field books had descriptions that were not specific to researcher needs. Our Project has worked with museum and archive professionals to develop a cataloging system to address the wide variety of formats and diverse information field books document.