One Inventory to Rule Them All

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January 7, 2019

One Inventory to Rule Them All

This time it won't end at Mount Doom


Washington, D.C. Jewal Mazique cataloging in the Library of Congress. Collier, John, Jr., 1913-1992, photographer

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

No known restrictions. For information, see U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White 

We have a confession to make. A lot of library work is repetitive and dull. It’s not exciting, it doesn’t make people gasp or sigh. It is the daily behind-the-scenes work that often goes unnoticed by library visitors, but it’s the work we’re passionate about. It may seem boring to the average person, but it’s this work that keeps the library functioning and running smoothly (and to us it really is exciting!) Libraries do a lot of amazing things these days, but when you distill a library down to its most essential and simple functions it’s a) to collect resources, b) know what resources we have, c) and make those resources available to people. We spend most of our time on the second and third parts: knowing what we have and making it accessible to the public.

When we received the Wenner Collection, we knew we had a big task on our hands. We’ve previously explained that an important difference between a personal and an institutional collection is the cataloging system and in 2019, we’re planning to begin cataloging the collection. In the meantime, we need to gain intellectual control of it. We know a lot about the collection already (David Wenner, the collector, provided us with amazingly detailed information!) and we need to translate those details into a tool that we can use for the next few years. So we’re spending months creating a preliminary inventory to assist us in future bibliographic description (cataloging) and to help us find things while we’re cataloging to ensure the collection is as accessible as possible.

In a more typical book collection, an inventory might only include a bibliographic description: the formal elements of the book such as the creator/author, titles, dates, and the contents of the work.  However, we wanted to go beyond mere bibliographic description in order to preserve the connections between items that David Wenner created through his organization of the collection and description. The original order of the collection - his method of grouping certain items together in boxes - are unique and worthy of being recorded in the cataloging.


An example of the bookmark in each item

We also want to preserve the context he added with his descriptive bookmarks in each item. Bookmarks are easy to get lost over time, and we both want to preserve the connections between bookmarks and items as well as the contents of the bookmarks themselves.  We also wanted to note any condition issues, areas of interest, and items that may require further study. We know a lot about who wrote what, but when people ask us which language is most represented in the collection, we have to say, “We don’t know yet.” But after this inventory we will.

I started planning for the inventory months before we even received the books. I knew it was going to be a huge project and possibly our one chance to make sense of the collection before cataloging. But even with months of thinking, I knew there was no substitute for loading a book cart with materials and just starting. And boy was I right!


A loaded book cart

Sometimes even the seemingly simple questions are difficult. We are conducting our inventory in a spreadsheet, but what should be represented on each line? A physical entity? A box may contain many journal articles from different authors and eras. A volume may be a monograph, a single volume of a journal, or even a sammelband (a book of individually printed works that are bound together at a later date). How do we describe this? Wenner’s original description of the collection focuses on the ideas and concepts within each item. He is most interested in the science that makes the material significant, so his access point to the material was a book, article title, or an author. As librarians, we are working to preserve those valuable connections, while also thinking about how researchers will access these items in the future.

I chose to document a combination of physical and intellectual items in the inventory. For monographs, that’s relatively easy, as they are by definition one independent work, usually with just one author and title. Of course, for sammelbands there may be multiple authors and titles, but in that case, we describe the physical entity of the book while also describing the individual entities within the book. For bound journals, we describe the journal volume or issue rather than the individual articles, while retaining the information about which articles Wenner described as most important within. For individual journals and articles grouped together in boxes, we describe the items themselves rather than the boxes. Sometimes it’s easy to decide at which level to describe an item, and sometimes it’s not. We do our best to decide, but ultimately this is just the first level of bibliographic description so we can’t get too hung up on any one for too long.


Journal issues in a custom-made box

This custom-made box (photo on the right) contains journals that Wenner grouped together about the Compton effect.  Journals are published as serials and typically have a date, volume, and number in the series. Pictured here are Nature, Bulletin of the National Research Council, and five Physical Review journals.  All of these contain articles by American physicist Arthur Holly Compton and have dates ranging from 1922-1925. In the inventory, each journal gets its own accession number. The white card pictured in the box is Wenner’s bookmark that calls out the individual articles by Compton within each journal.  

There is quite a lot of information to gather and there are many decisions to make about each of the 3,800 items in the Wenner collection, but there’s even more yet to come!  Later this year, we’re going to add a layer of further value to the inventory: information about whether items have been digitized already by other institutions, if they are freely available online or behind a paywall, and what their copyright status may be so we can understand better if they are eligible for our own digitization project. Stay tuned for further updates!

About the Author: 

Allison Rein is the Associate Director of Library Collections & Services. She has a B.A. in history from UMBC and an MLS from the University of Maryland. She oversees the book collection at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives, and if she had to pick a favorite book in the entire collection it would be Radium Girls by Kate Moore.