The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Cataloging at the Folger: a Primer

When I meet people for the first time and they hear that I am a rare book cataloger, I can expect one or both of these questions: “What’s a rare book,” and “What is cataloging?” This crowd doesn’t need my expostulations on the first, but cataloging is just enough of an unknown that a primer may be in order.

Library cataloging is the process of providing structured description and controlled vocabulary into bibliographic records, and of collecting these records into a system of some sort. 1 Card catalogs are one such system (and until every single thing we own is online in Hamnet, still indispensable), while online catalogs comprising individual records represent the current state of play. 

At its most fundamental, a library catalog is the inventory of the library’s collections. As such, it must serve the administrative and managerial needs of the library itself, whether of acquisitions staff searching to see whether we already own an item before putting in an order, curators looking for exemplars of particular genres for an exhibition, public services staff tracking down who has charged a modern book, or administrators deriving numbers and statistics about the library’s collections. And I haven’t even begun to mention the uses other Folger divisions make of the collections to support research, education, and public programs.

Far be it from me, however, to downplay the central importance of the catalog as the prime discovery tool for readers, which is why the collections exist in the first place. Providing the means of bringing readers, researchers, seekers of information together with our unimaginably rich resources, well, that’s why Folger catalogers exist!

When catalogs went from paper to bytes, their traditional function as a finding tool for items known by author, title, or subject, has been increasingly supplemented by an ability to get at materials through mixing and matching bits of information. Interested in manuscripts related to the business of Drury Lane Theatre, depictions of Measure for Measure‘s Isabella, or a list of everything in the Folger vaults published in 1527? Hamnet can help you.

What I find particularly interesting is the use of the catalog as a research tool in its own right: did you know that in English titles published in the 16th century, the spelling of “honorable” outnumbered “honourable” 3 to 2?

Search results: 73 hits for "honourable" with a u, 125 for "honorable" without one.

As for the process of cataloging itself, the days are long gone when a cataloger sat down with a book and a stack of blank cards. Shared cataloging is an economic necessity, and began 111 years ago in this country when the Library of Congress started selling its cards to other libraries. These days, the OCLC WorldCat database is the prime source of shared cataloging in the English-speaking and, increasingly, the non-English-speaking world. That said, Folger catalogers do not simply accept whatever we find. 2 And we contribute our fair share of enhanced and original cataloging that other institutions can use. Many of the records we find on OCLC or the ESTC (the subject of a future Collation post) need to be upgraded to comply with current rare material cataloging standards, as well as the particular demands placed on them by the nature of Folger collections and the needs of Folger readers.

Let’s look at the cataloging history of an ordinary book from our large collection of early Italian imprints. This Latin translation of Euripides’s Hecuba was issued without a title page; the opening pages are a dedicatory epistle facing the first page of text. Publication information is from the colophon. The Folger copy belonged to Michael Wodhull (1740-1816), a book collector, poet, and translater of Euripides’s corpus into English. There are no manuscript annotations within the text, but Wodhull recorded details of the book’s purchase “from the Duc de Valliere’s auction” on a front endleaf. Bound by Roger Payne, this copy sports Wodhull’s elegant armorial stamp on the front cover.

Dedicatory epistle and beginning of text
Endleaf with Michael Wodhull’s manuscript notes
Front cover, showing Michael Wodhull’s armorial stamp

Senior Cataloger Ron Bogdan did book-in-hand recataloging of this 1506 Parma imprint. The existing Folger cataloging for this book displays a laconicism typical of cards from the period.

catalog card

The master record on OCLC—the record available to the world for shared cataloging—is a digitized version of Yale’s catalog card and is about as sparse as the Folger’s card. Retrospective conversion, the largely automatic process of digitizing cards, is how most catalog cards got to be online records. You can see that the name of the city, Parm[ae], is a little garbled, and illustrates a common type of problem with digital conversion of cards for early works. Here, the symbol that looks like an e overlaid with a comma is actually a Latin symbol of contraction for the letters ae.

“Before” OCLC master record

Ron’s recataloging of the book has resulted in not only significantly more information about the edition in general, but about the life of this particular copy took after it left the printer’s shop. What’s more, the enhanced Folger record is now the new master record in OCLC.

the new record, as updated by Ron Bogdan

This may be shocking to some of you, but errors do manage to sneak into our records occasionally; let us know if you find any, at I look forward to writing more about cataloging at the Folger and beyond; drop us a note with questions or topics you’d like to read about. In the meantime, happy searching!

  1. Many people incorrectly correlate the cataloging process with assigning call numbers, which is just one of its parts and not even the most important (or interesting for the cataloger). While our open stack books are classified according to the Library of Congress classification system so that they are browsable by subject, most of our vault materials are, within broad categories, shelved in the order received.
  2. For vault materials, that is. Several years ago we decided to purchase cataloging and shelf-ready processing for as many modern, mass-produced materials as possible. Although Folger editing makes for higher quality catalog records, we decided that accepting vendor cataloging as-is for secondary source materials was well worth the payoff provided by concentrating cataloging staff time and attention on our vault materials.


  • Lest some find it confusing, let me clarify that the two screenshots are from Hamnet rather than WorldCat. The content is the same, but Hamnet provides a richer and clearer display.

  • A tangential comment– those verbose early modern title pages make more sense to me since someone pointed out that books were sold unbound, so the title page served the same marketing function that the blurb-filled dust cover does today.

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