Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Thomas Jefferson Books

Yesterday there was a AP story on Thomas Jefferson's books that was picked up by major newspapers and services including the Huffington Post and the New York Times. See click here for the full story. Briefly, they reported 28 books that once belonged to former president, Thomas Jefferson, were found in the Special Collections of Washington University Library.

I wondered why this was news. Did the library suddenly decide to catalog books that were sitting around since 1880? As a good researcher, I went to the library catalog. The books are all in the catalog. The cataloger made local added entries, Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826. Former owner. and Dwight, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, 1826-1894. That means the library always knew the provenance of these books. While I can't tell when the books were first cataloged from information in the public areas of the catalog, these are good cataloging records done to the latest standards. The MARC 005 field includes a date of last change. From these dates we know the records were edited between 1991 and 2007. Some have a note that they appear in the Catalogue. President Jefferson's library (1829.) This book is available from Google Books, Click here

Washington University's catalogers did a great job on preparing the catalog records for these books. Anyone who checked the catalog of Jefferson's library could have found these books. Anyone could have checked WorldCat to find that Washington University Library owned these books.

Why is this news? Why did no news organization check the library catalog?
Comments received via e-mail
From Patrick Cates, General Theological Seminary

MARC tag 005 (Date and Time of Latest Transaction) should provide an
answer. A check of 2 records from Washington University's catalog
shows dates in 2007 and 1991, so I think we can safely assume these
notes and added entries predate the current hoopla.

I didn't know this about the 005 tag as it is not in the OCLC list of tags. I heard from others who said that not all systems use the 005 field in the same way. Some will enter the first time the book is cataloged and some will update this field when the record is edited. In either case the 005 field date indicates these records were done at least before 2007.

02/24/2011, from Esther Mandel, Sarasota County Public Libraries
1. I'm inclined to feel that sloppy research methods following the advent of Google doesn't do much to cover the time from 1880 to the new millennium.

2. If the cataloging is so up to date, it must be recent. Who's to say if there was anything in the catalog previous to the recent discovery?

3. Before search engines, a scholar could only have found these if they appeared in a bibliography, in Mansell, or by browsing the shelves. It's a case of not found because never found, I think.

4. J'accuse. The head librarian, history professors, lit professors, scholars at the university appear to have been better administrators/teachers than scholars. Interesting that no one looked at the items before, although I can think of a dozen reasons why not. Unless, of course, they had actually been in some university catalog somewhere.

5. When I was in library school, the rare books class professor sent his classes out into the pre-recon stacks (we still had quite a chunk) to search for rare and unusual books, although he warned us that he'd been doing this for years, and pickings were getting slim. I found a Danish Hamlet from about a hundred + years ago, printed on paper made from chopped straw, and a 1797 V. 2. of a British novel in French written by the first woman to actually make a living as an author: Elizabeth something or other, in the original paper-covered boards with a text block in simply magnificent old paper, watermarked, signatured, with depressed
print. Lovely. Every school should have some such project. Everyone in class found something interesting.

6. If the cataloging came before the "discovery," shouldn't the cataloger have brought the items to someone's attention? Maybe he did. Maybe that's how they were "found."

Thanks for your comments. If the news came from the library after a special project, I would react differently. The library would have presented the story in a different light than a journalist. I don't have a way to look at an old version of the catalog. This is one time that I wish there was a book catalog.
02/24/2011, John F. Myers, Schaffer Library, Union College wrote:

While the cataloging records found in the WUL catalog are delightfully upgraded to AACR2 and have a full range of local added entries for the provenance history, we cannot determine the editorial history of the records. Numerous records have evidence of being recon additions to the online catalog, during WUL's time with a DRA ILS. As recon records, it is doubtful they were in such beautiful AACR2 condition, so the AACR2 upgrades and the provenance additions have occurred at some indeterminate point since recon. Curiously, the Hippocrates title, Peri aeron, hydaton, topon, lacks the recon data in the 910 field, but has indication of Marcive authority review in 2008 -- indicating a recent addition to the catalog. The catalog indicates 28 records with the Jefferson provenance, but the article states that there are a total of 74 now known to be in the WUL's collection. My suspicion therefore, based on the incompleteness of the provenance ascription and the quality of those records with provenance ascription, would be that the edits are relatively recent and due to the closer examination of the material engendered by the research process that led to their recent "discovery".

The library cataloged them, yes, but its positive and active knowledge of the Jefferson provenance up to now is questionable and the point of the reporting. I would take the reporting at face value, which quotes the WUL's Rare Book Curator that the discovery came from "out of the blue".

I looked at the first 10 or so records myself; they exhibited the markers I mentioned.

Thanks for your comments. You add some ideas that I did not consider.
I finally heard from a librarian at Washington University Library.
02:05 PM 02/25/2011, Masha Sapp, Catalog Librarian/Russian & Spanish Bibliographer
Olin Library, Washington University wrote:
Only two of the 28 titles had previously been identified as belonging to Jefferson (with the appropriate tracings in the catalog records). The other records were updated with the correct provenance information only last week (by me), as the University prepared to announce the discovery. Until a couple of months ago, we had no idea these books had belonged to Jefferson (there was no announcement of his former ownership when the gift was made in 1880), so the information was not in the records.

This ends the mystery as to why the announcement was made at this time. However, the AP wire story that was picked up by many newspapers gave a slant to the article that seemed to diminish the role of the library catalogers.


A Cataloging Librarian said...

Could it be that the issue is not in the cataloging, but in the fact that people are losing the skills to properly do research? What can we do about this issue? Anything? Are people going to just continue to do sloppy research in the Google environment we find ourselves in?

Daniel Stuhlman said...

To Cataloging Librarian--> The first thought was that people are losing the ability to do careful research. I am now telling classes that research is slow and tedious. Google may provide "instant" answers but the answers do not always fit the questions or the needs of the searchers.

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