Friday, March 7, 2008

You describe my back...

Recently Josie, our intern for the semester, and I surveyed a collection that reminded me of one of the hoped for outcomes of this project: that once people find out about some of these "hidden" collections we're surveying, they will want to use them, and that maybe they'll even want to assist in bringing them further into the light.

The particular collection that spurred these thoughts consisted of 140 feet of 19th and 20th century records of an prominent Philadelphia publishing house, the J.B. Lippincott Company. I'll admit I had been holding off on surveying it for awhile, because it seemed like, to use a highly technical term, a monster - more than 90 boxes of volumes and paper records, plus nearly one hundred volumes that weren't in boxes. We had an accession record, and some donor correspondence to work from, but it seemed like that was it.

Before we started surveying, however, our staff liaison brought another access tool to our attention. It turned out that within the past year a researcher had learned of the collection's existence and requested to use it. Undaunted at learning that there was very little description and that it would be difficult to use in its current state, the researcher worked out an arrangement with the institution whereby he would provide a preliminary assessment and listing for the entire collection. The result was a very useful (albeit skeletal) wordprocessed box- and volume-level inventory that will undoubtedly aid both staff and other researchers who request access in the future. (A secondary benefit for the PACSCL survey team is that a collection that could have taken the good part of a day to assess, got done in less than an hour.) (Update: HSP has posted a preliminary finding aid for this collection that combines the survey description and the inventory.)

In this era of movement towards minimum standards cataloging and processing and increasing pressure to make resources available more quickly, there is a lot of talk of what role user-supplied description could play and how best to encourage it. Some people seemed convinced that this is something far on the horizon, something that requires advanced cyberinfrastracture and a thorough understanding of Web 2.0 technologies. While I'm all for exploiting technology as much as possible to improve our service to and interaction with our researchers, this example is a reminder that we don't have to work out all the technological kinks to make user-supplied description a reality now. Something as simple as asking a researcher to give you a copy of that Word document they produced on their laptop over the course of their research visit can make access better -- and the lives of your friendly neighborhood surveyors a whole lot easier!