The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

How to catalog 100,000 playbills (give or take a few thousand)

You’re probably aware that a significant amount of the Folger’s collection remains uncataloged; the majority of items have at least brief records in our online catalog Hamnet, but even today some collections are accessible only through the card catalog. We don’t like that any more than you do—we want all our materials to easily findable, in one place! However, we have so many materials and only a small staff, and we don’t want to put inaccurate information into the catalog just to have something there. This conundrum is not unique to the Folger—many other libraries and archives face similar situations.1

One of the most effective tools in any library’s backlog-tackling arsenal is recon cataloging, and we’ve made extensive use of it here at the Folger. “Recon” here stands for “retrospective conversion,” not “reconnaissance.” We work from the card catalogs to transform their printed contents into brief placeholder MARC records in Hamnet. Catalog cards aren’t as detailed as modern catalog records, of course, because of their limited space and formatting, so electronic catalog records based on cards can leave a lot to be desired. However, they provide basic information about items, including access points (names, subjects, etc.) and call numbers (not to mention simply the fact that the item exists!). This information is usually accurate, but working from cards means the cataloger does not necessarily have the item in hand to verify everything, so we include a cautionary HBCN just in case.2

Many of the records in Hamnet actually predate Hamnet itself—the Folger began creating electronic catalog records in 1982 in order to contribute them to RLIN (the Research Libraries Information Network, a shared catalog maintained by the Research Libraries Group, which later merged with OCLC). However, the Folger did not maintain a local electronic catalog yet, so paper catalog cards were printed from RLIN and then sent back to the Folger to be filed into the card catalog here! As we prepared to launch Hamnet in 1997, conversion of the card catalog into electronic MARC records was a major component of the planning process. Recon of open stacks records was prioritized: these materials circulate openly, so it was important to be able to keep track of them in the new system, and additionally, they do not require the detailed cataloging that our rare materials receive. However, planners of the transition did not forget about rare materials; Folger staff worked with RLIN to export Folger records back out of that shared catalog and import them into the Folger’s new online catalog (via magnetic tape).

Since Hamnet’s launch twenty years ago, we have undertaken several additional recon projects, both in-house and by working with a external contractors. We have made sure records for our STC and Wing books were updated and cataloged correctly in both our local catalog and in the shared ESTC database, converted card records for all manuscripts and art into electronic records in Hamnet, and most recently, fully cataloged the bulk of our Shakespeare editions. Currently, we are preparing to work with a contractor to get our Continental item records online. Our modern cataloger (i.e. me) is also working slowly but steadily on creating recon records for our playbill collection.

The playbill collection is a great candidate for an in-house recon cataloging project. It consists of roughly 250,000 items, most of which are too fragile to be handled frequently and are stored in sturdy but unwieldy housing. Most of these materials are at least minimally described in the card catalog or in printed inventories, with only a few exceptions; this allows me to work almost exclusively from the cards, in true recon project style, which also protects the materials from further handling. It is made slightly more approachable by its organizational system: it is broken down into a few sub-collections by geographic area of the theater, such as London, other English theaters outside of London, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the United States, and Europe (outside the United Kingdom). Most of these categories were devised in the mid-twentieth century, when several major inventories of the playbills were undertaken, and reflect the strengths of our collection: for instance, we have approximately 103,000 playbills from London theaters. I started creating playbill records last November, and as of last Thursday, I’ve added records for 102,418 of them to Hamnet. By the end of the month, all 103,000 or so records for London theaters should be present in Hamnet.

The left and center drawers contain shelflists, and the right drawer contains the official list. Sticky notes mark theaters that need some additional research.

It’s usually a straightforward process. Working from the shelflist (minimal information, organized by call number) and the official list (slightly more information including dates and former owners, organized by theater name), both shown above, I copy the information typed on the catalog card into the appropriate fields of the MARC record, using a template to help streamline things even further. Each record is considered to be a “collection-level record,” meaning it describes a group of items—in this case, playbills associated with a particular theater—instead of only a single item. Each record will have the theater as both a name access point and a subject access point, as they are both the subject of the playbills and the entity issuing them. It will also include the location, the approximate number of playbills, a generic subject heading for “Theaters,” and the range of dates that the playbills for each theater cover. Some sets of cards are bigger than others: we have probably between 5-20 associated playbills for most theaters, but thousands of playbills for major theaters such as the Theatres Royal at Covent Garden and Drury Lane.

Catalog cards for the Surrey Theatre (representing 6,718 playbills).
Catalog cards for Terry’s Theatre (representing 5 playbills).

There are a few drawbacks to recon cataloging, of course. As I mentioned above, the resulting catalog records will inevitably be brief, and I can’t guarantee the accuracy of the information that I’m transferring from the cards. The records also don’t include exact dates for the playbills at this time, identification of the playbills’ printers, or any information about the shows or actors they advertise. Hopefully, we’ll be able to add this information in future years! In the meantime, you can find our existing playbill records by searching “Playbills” as a genre/form term, and you can learn more about the playbill recon project on Folgerpedia.

  1. In fact, it’s so common that it even spawned an acronym—MPLP, which stands for “More product, less process.” This acronym comes from the title of a 2005 article published in American Archivist which called for archivists to concentrate on getting minimal processing complete to make archival collections available as quickly as possible, rather than letting backlogs accumulate while they prepared a pristine finding aid for each collection in turn. The authors, Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner, argued for describing each collection just sufficiently to make it usable. While this mindset can be challenging to adopt for catalogers and archivists who like completeness, it’s a helpful concept to keep in mind when facing down a substantial backlog.
  2. And occasionally, the information on the cards is inaccurate, either because of a mistake made when the card was originally created, or because new information has come to light since then.

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