Missing Metadata, Categorization Chaos

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Currently, I’m most excited about the mini project centered around the original college library (If you’ve been following our internship at all over the past few weeks this probably comes as no surprise…). I’m interested in asking the following research questions: How do student-developed and institution-developed libraries differ in terms of subject matter and contents in the 1830s at Amherst? Are library collections during this time at the college consistent with the college curriculum, or not?

Seeking answers to these questions will elucidate the place of college libraries in the early intellectual environment at Amherst. With those questions and goals in mind, over the past few days, I’ve been examining potential primary sources for the project in the archives. These include: The 1833 College Library Catalogue (manuscript), the 1833-44 Alexandrian Society Library Catalogue (manuscript), and the 1821-36 Athenian Society Library Catalogue (print).

I specify whether or not these sources are printed or handwritten because this has substantively affected how I engage with them. The printed Athenian Library Catalogue is exceptionally user-friendly compared to the other two…it is completely legible, intuitively organized, and tallies the total number of books in each subject area in a nifty little table in the back. The other two catalogues are far more challenging. Since they’re handwritten, they were able to be expanded and corrected over time, making them more difficult to read and understand through crossed out areas, different hands, and different organizational styles, and the nineteenth century handwriting doesn’t help…

On top of that, each catalogue has a different way (or lack thereof) of organizing their books and presents a different set of information about the texts, which adds another layer of difficulty to the task of comparing the contents of the three libraries (this experience is certainly deepening my library-nerd love and appreciation for standardized call number systems like Dewey and LOC…). 

In essence, as I begin to tackle these materials, I’m having major flashbacks to the metadata workshop–if you’re not really deliberate and standardized about how you categorize/organize/structure metadata, it becomes really hard for future people to do anything with the piles of stuff you leave behind.

Then there is the problem of trying to impose categorization onto bodies of materials that were not organized by subject matter in the first place, like the college library, which is essentially a giant list with no discernible order. Some of the books have ambiguous titles or might fit in more than one category, and as the researcher, I must decide where these books fit. I am trying my best to be faithful to the categories already designated by the other nineteenth century catalogues, but in order to apply these categories to other materials that were originally uncategorized, I’ll have to be sure I understand what the categories meant back then.

Though the research and data collection methodologies here are posing quite a challenge so far, this is a project that I’m very excited about, and hope to produce compelling data visualizations from once I’ve been able to structure and compile the data. Hopefully, armed with my ever-deepening appreciation for metadata, I’ll be up for the challenge!

(and hopefully, as library practices have become far more standardized and metadata-focused, researchers of the future will have a less-difficult time working with the stuff that we leave behind!)

3 thoughts on “Missing Metadata, Categorization Chaos”

  1. Emma – I’m glad there is a silver lining to the dark cloud of metadata-less early college library research: learning the importance of systematic categorization. Applying the technique towards your final project will certainly be a valuable exercise. I can’t wait to see what your efforts yield.

  2. Your affinity for good metadata is so important! I’ve come across a few bumps in the road due to poor metadata in my own research, but nothing as frustrating as what you’ve going through with the handwritten catalogues–oh my goodness! It’s amazing how far the “library world” has come in terms of logging data, and us interns are really learning that firsthand this summer. I wonder if these 19th Century librarians ever imagined that some Amherst College graduates (and 3/4s of them women!) would be snooping through their records 200 years later?

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