Friday, October 19, 2007

Klingons at Temple

I'll begin this post with the caveat that I'm not a big science fiction fan and what I don't know about Star Trek and Cons and so on could fill a decent sized library. That being said, one of the sci-fi collections that we surveyed recently at Temple University has really stuck with me. (Temple has a great science fiction collection, by the way, if you're interested. Check out their page describing the Paskow Science Fiction Collection.) The one we looked at the other day is the Sue Frank Klingon/Star Trek collection of fanzines and organizational newsletters. These were assembled by Dr. Frank from groups within and outside of the U.S. -- fan groups are to be found in Britain, New Zealand, and Italy, among other places. The titles include "Klingon Assault Group Force Recon," "The Pillage Voice," "Engage!," "Disruptor," and "Something Else." The newsletters reflect the range of Klingon-related activities afoot in the terran world. They contain drawings, photos, recipes, letters, poems, stories, technical information, and analyses of many aspects of Klingon language and culture. And lots of pearls of information; did you know, for example, that the species of cocoa bean grown on earth is inferior to that grown by the Klingons?

The collection consists of about six linear feet of material, so I'm sure it's just a drop in the bucket of the total Star Trek fan literature that exists in the world. Even so, when you see it all together, it seems like a great resource, both for those looking for the facts and the flavor of Klingon life and for those interested in the phenomenon of Star Trek fandom. What the collection as a whole conveys is the extent to which this piece of popular culture has worked its way into people's everyday lives. It's impossible to tell from the fanzines what proportion of their lives the fans spend as Klingons; I assume that for at least some of the fans, the Klingon identity is pretty central.

At any rate, the production of all this Klingon-related material is a nice illustration of the theme of the "dedicated collector" that crops up again and again in our surveying. (With this collection, I think both Sue Frank and the creators of the fanzines count as dedicated collectors). The collections we see that were created by this kind of devoted, focused person are almost always compelling, if not always as obviously interesting as the Klingon stuff. When a collection is visibly a labor of love, it inspires a certain respect, regardless of the research value of the information contained within.

And for a summary of science fiction collections around the country (including plenty of Star Trek materials), see the Research Resources at AboutSF.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

I dream of genies

Lately we've been simultaneously surveying at two different sites. While John and Jenny progress through Temple's collections, I've been back at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, working on collections of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania with special guest star David, a reference librarian at HSP. Under the terms of HSP’s strategic alliance with GSP, materials which GSP collected (including several hundred feet of manuscript collections) are now part of HSP's holdings, so we’re surveying the manuscript material to help HSP's staff get a better handle on what's there.

HSP is already a rich source for genealogical and family research and the resources of GSP undoubtedly add to that richness. We've only been at the surveying for a little while, but already we've seen a variety of types of collections that fit under the "genealogy" umbrella, including funeral home records, items related to a Catholic church and cemetery, diaries of a minister recording his responses to personal and world events, and small caches of family papers.

By far the largest category of material, however, is genealogical research, created by people with various purposes: professional genealogists who conducted family research for others, individuals researching their own family connections, individuals interested in the genealogies of great persons like Charlemagne or William the Conqueror. The collections vary quite a bit both in how the research was compiled and how it was presented. Some people created scrapbooks or narrative histories that present a polished final product, while others maintained the research in its raw form. There are transcribed or photocopied extracts from published sources, printouts from microfilm, correspondence that documents the researcher’s inquiries to various libraries and archives, government offices, religious institutions, and personal contacts, pedigree charts, rough notes, and detailed data forms. Sometimes sources are cited, sometimes they're not. Some collections are thoroughly indexed by their creator or by volunteers at the society, while others are so idiosyncratic that at first glance their method seems decipherable only by their creator.

These collections provoke a number of questions when it comes to assessing research value. What do measures like "documentation quality" and "interest" mean when what is being assessed is someone's research using primary sources, rather than the sources themselves? We know that genealogy itself is a high interest topic; some sources claim that genealogy is now the second most popular hobby in the United States. (Even though some dispute the accuracy of these claims, anecdotal evidence and the success of services like clearly points to a large segment of the population being interested in tracing its roots.) But how are genealogical research materials in archives used by researchers other than the person who created them – and how likely are they to be used? While each collection has a fairly narrow focus, does its value exponentially increase when added to an accumulation of similar materials in a place like HSP? Is this a category of material where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts?

Taking a slightly broader perspective, in addition to the genealogical content of these collections, do they tell us something about the nature of genealogical research? There’s a small but growing body of archival literature on the information seeking behavior of genealogists. For example, see Wendy Duff and Catherine A. Johnson's 2003 article from the American Archivist titled "Where is the list with all the names? Information-seeking behavior of genealogists" (soon to be available online, but currently print only) or Elizabeth Yakel's "Seeking information, seeking connections, seeking meaning: genealogists and family historians" from Information Research. These studies used interviews with and observation of individual genealogists to ferret out details of their research methods, but might an examination of those methods as exhibited in the collections they create also be useful?

Given that we still have over a hundred collections to survey, we'll be grappling with these questions for awhile. We have colleagues onsite here at HSP and GSP whose expertise will be invaluable, but I'd be interested to hear from other people who collect or access genealogical research materials about how such collections are used once they've passed from their creator into a repository.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Chess by telegraph, Quaker golfers, and Philadelphia numismatists...

Is this the answer to a Carnac riddle?* Possibly, but it's also a sampling of the subjects of collections you might uncover when searching our database of unprocessed and underprocessed collections. These are the results of a search for collections related to the PACSCL-designated theme "Leisure activities" (full results can be viewed here), but there are plenty more waiting to be found. Our database currently features 1,000 collections from eight repositories, and more collections and institutions will be added regularly.

This database is the first step of many toward improving physical and intellectual access to the collections surveyed for this project. It's also our small contribution to the increasing push in the archives and special collections community to provide researchers with information about our collections -- both processed and unprocessed -- in a timely fashion.

There are a number of other interesting approaches to providing information on unprocessed collections. For example, Yale University’s Beinecke Library has a searchable database of uncataloged acquisitions online, and its blogs often highlight particular collections from this queue.

The American Heritage Center, under the leadership of Mark Greene of "More Product, Less Process" fame, undertook a massive reevaluation of its holdings (the majority of which were unprocessed) and created MARC records in OCLC’s WorldCat for all the collections it decided to retain (you can read a press release about this project at here).

Princeton University's Mudd Manuscript Library provides multiple access points for both unprocessed and processed collections; within the last eighteen months, the staff have created collection-level MARC records for every previously uncataloged archival collection in its holdings, then used the freeware program MarcEdit to convert them to collection-level EAD finding aids that are web discoverable, like this one. The catalog records go into Princeton’s online catalog and Worldcat, and the finding aids are contributed to Princeton’s own EAD website and OCLC’s ArchiveGrid.

Lastly, but certainly not leastly, our very own University of Delaware provides preliminary descriptions of many of its unprocessed collections and lists them on its manuscript collections web page (see one for landscape architect Armistead W. Browning Jr. here). It's a simple, but effective, way of calling researchers' attention to these collections' existence.

Telling the world about our unprocessed collections is certainly not without its challenges, but our researchers will certainly benefit from it, and I’m confident that we will too.

* Yes, I know this is an incredibly dated reference, but even more than 15 years after Johnny Carson vacated the airwaves, there’s still no more recognizable trope for linking seemingly unrelated items!