Written by Anne-Marie Viola
It was the first week of November when I traded in my daily routine as ICFA’s Metadata and Cataloging Specialist for a three-day adventure as a “Shadow Cat,” that is, a participant in the “Shadow Cataloging” program at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs (P&P) division (no tail required). I hoped a few days learning how images are cataloged and managed by our national library would yield the guidance I sought on how to tackle ICFA’s diverse collections, an assortment of photographs in various formats and instantiations, architectural drawings, notebooks and other visual documentation of the various fieldwork projects whose records we hold. And that it did!
Over the course of a whirlwind 72 hours, fellow “Shadow Cat” Ann Woodward, VR Curator of the Department of the History of Art at Johns Hopkins University, and I met with nearly a dozen members of the P&P team, and learned how each member handles a different part of the process to make the millions of images in their collection accessible, covering everything from accessioning and cataloging to digitization, preservation, and reference.
The program included tours of the P&P Reading Room by reference librarian Jan Grenci and the storage facilities for the Architecture, Design and Engineering (ADE) collection and the Adams building by cataloger Greg Marcangelo, following which we delved into the business of image cataloging and management with catalogers Arden Alexander, Mary Mundy, and Woody Woodis.
One of the first subjects of conversation that arose was the question of WHAT we were cataloging: the image, an album, a group, or a collection. (As a trained archivist, this conceptualization of the various record levels in a collection felt familiar and provides a great model to use for ICFA’s collections.) Beginning with the description of the whole, catalogers start with what is captured in the accession record and expand from there. Item-level cataloging typically only happens upon request, unless a collection is high-value or in-demand by researchers or curators. Or a selection of a collection may be cataloged.
I also learned that P&P is a mix of library-assembled and provenance-based collections, for which catalogers may create detailed “Collection” overviews. Created as microsites within the P&P catalog, these collection pages include at a minimum collection-specific search and direct access to digitized images (“View All”), along with background information and rights statements. And may also provide highlights, a bibliography, and statements about scope, access, arrangement, digitization, rights, and related resources. Collections of photographs are also described using traditional MARC records referred to as “Guide Records” (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/guide), which provide “compact summaries of creator, date, subject, and historical information.”
Another way in which groups of photographs are described are as “lots,” which reflects P&P’s long history of group-level cataloging, a practice begun in the 1940s and maintained in the “Divisional Catalog.” According to Mary Mundy, the P&P member of the team responsible for collection- and group-level cataloging, “We catalog at the group-level if it seems more appropriate that the material be studied as a group.” Read more about lots on the LOC P&P website.
Albums are handled similarly, in that they are cataloged both as a collection of photographs and linked to the individual digitized images within. However, albums are also digitized page-by-page and presented using a “Pageturner” display. View the album of hand-colored images like the one below using P&P’s Pageturner by clicking on the link for the “digital files of album pages” in the album record for the American Colony’s “Photographs of Jerusalem and the Middle East.”
Having addressed the “WHAT” of cataloging, we turned then to address the “HOW”: which is MARC. Although MARC is the traditional standard for libraries, P&P uses a wide range of fields that go beyond those commonly used in book cataloging to describe their image collections. For example, 351 is used to document the arrangement of a collection, while 037 is used to catalog physical instantiations and 856 for digital instantiations. And a significant number of 500 fields are used for all types of notes, including inscriptions and attributions (500), a descriptive summary (520), rights and restrictions (540), accessions information (541), the availability of a finding aid (555), the collection to which an item belongs (580), along with notes for publications (581), exhibitions (585), and condition (590).
Tackling the 600’s, cataloger Karen Chittenden explained P&P’s approach to subject analysis: “If I was looking for a picture of the proposed subject, would I want to find this picture?” If it’s a good depiction then include it. They try to limit themselves to 3-4 entries and focus on what the picture is “of” rather than “about”. Karen also gave us an introduction to the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials (TGM), the controlled vocabulary that P&P developed in-house and makes available through their online catalog.
The TGM was developed based on the ANSI/NISO guidelines for monolingual controlled vocabularies, is re-published quarterly, and is generally in synch with the Getty Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT). Terms appear in natural order and are qualified during cataloging with relevant dates. Karen also explained that while P&P makes use of the names in the Library of Congress authorities, they rarely use LC subject headings.
P&P welcomes new term proposals from outside the Library of Congress (find the form online) and meet regularly to discuss new submissions, a fun, collaborative activity that we participated in during our visit. The proposed terms included “cupcakes,” “food fights,” and “bounty system.” In considering the proposals, discussion addressed the forms of the term, its scope, and its relationship in the overall hierarchy, or as Karen so aptly phrased it, “When considering broader and narrower terms, ask ‘Is this a type of that?’”
In addition to the catalogers, I met with P&P’s digital library specialists, Anne Mitchell and Gay Colyer, to discuss how the library manages born-digital collections, such as the Carol M. Highsmith archive, and large-scale digitization projects. They explained the different procedures for reference requests for individual images, which are handled by Duplication Services, and mass digitization, for which they use an in-house contractor, The Crowley Company. Anne also described how the division is using a web 2.0 approach to cataloging using crowdsourcing via commenting. As P&P digitizes the glass negatives, they post 100-200 new images from the photo morgue of Bain News Service on Flickr each week and monitor the posts viewers add. The most valuable comments typically submitted by one of P&P’s regular contributors, whom they call their “frequent flyers,” yield new description based on what Anne believes is a result of viewing the image in relation to the collection and research into related publications.
No discussion of image cataloging and management would be complete without addressing the subject of rights and restrictions. So on our final afternoon, we met with the entire team including manager Brett Carnell and division chief Helena Zinkham and viewed how P&P wades through the troubled waters of copyright and fair use, using various online measures. In addition to a site-wide disclaimer found in the footer under “Legal” and an FAQ on copyright that P&P maintains, each catalog record displays the following text highlighted in red, “Rights assessment is your responsibility.” The division also maintains individual pages for each collection, a list of which is maintained on the “Rights and Restrictions Information” page.
As for display, those images for which P&P lacks the copyright are made available in low-resolution, and some images are only available for download from within the physical walls of the P&P Reading Room. (Note: P&P digitizes images upon request at the cost of $50 per image; already digitized images are freely available as there is no publication fee.)
A hearty thank you to all the staff of the Prints & Photographs division! Your time and energy were much appreciated.