Friday, June 29, 2007

End of ephemera

One more for the road: the recaps of two more RBMS sessions before we head into the weekend.

On Thursday afternoon, Joan Beaudoin, a student and IMLS Fellow at Drexel's College of Information Science and Technology, presented her paper "Digitizing Ephemera: Criteria for Assessing Materials." Beaudoin had worked on a grant-funded project to assess a huge collection of visual Philadelphiana for digitization, and created a list of criteria based on her extensive literature review. The criteria, in order of prevalence:
  1. Use and access
  2. Value
  3. Processing (time, effort, complexity, fragility)
  4. Preservation
  5. Institutional mission/resource development
  6. Intellectual content (including level of cataloging/indexing already present)
  7. Funding
  8. Copyright
  9. Technology infrastructure (including the feasibility of digitally reproducing the salient features of the analog--I particularly liked this caveat. Sometimes there is no substitute for the real thing.)
  10. Staffing
  11. Partnerships/collaboration (including consortia, e.g. the Northwest Digital Archives)
Using these criteria, Beaudoin then developed a matrix for scoring each of the institution's collections, in much the same way as Helena Zinkham had assessed the materials at LC (only with more columns). Also like Zinkham, Beaudoin advised listeners to use objective criteria to assess materials, and to document decisions for future reference. Finally, she urged us to examine our mission statements, so that any digitization projects would be aligned with institutional goals.

Just after Beaudoin's talk, I quickly switched rooms to hear Julianne Simpson's take on "Collecting Medical Ephemera in the 18th and 20th Centuries"--a bit of a misnomer, since the ephemera under discussion were from the 17th and 20th-21st centuries. Simpson, who is Rare Books Librarian at the Wellcome Library, talked about the Library's outstanding collection of early medical ephemera and recent efforts to catalog the 17th century items in ESTC. She also briefly mentioned the strong link between medicine and printing in 17th century Britain, when booksellers were often purveyors of patent remedies. There was a lively discussion in the question-and-answer period about why this might have been, with consensus seemingly reached on the notion of booksellers' shops as early convenience stores.

More interesting from my perspective (not having large quantities of early modern medical ephemera to hand in local collections) was the Wellcome Library's efforts at collecting contemporary medical ephemera--trade cards, pharmaceutical company giveaways, you name it, they'll collect it. What to do with the tide of incoming materials? It turns out that they use a system very much like one we have in place here: incoming items are thrown into boxes which are periodically emptied and categorized. While we use our existing subject and vertical file structures, the Wellcome has decided to sort their ephemeral materials into broad categories based on the NLM Classification. I was much taken with the ease and practicality of this idea, and some day (when things slow down!) it might be nice to reorganize some of our ephemeral materials in this way.

So, that wraps up my conference recap. Next week: back to more news from the home front, and believe me, there's no shortage of things to discuss!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Ephemera: the collector's-eye view

Plenary IV of the RBMS Preconference, held the morning of Thursday June 21, featured two presentations addressing the theme "Ephemera: Collectors and Collecting." William P. Barlow, Jr., talked about his passion for materials relating to restaurants recommended by Duncan Hines in the first half of the 20th century, and William H. Helfand presented his talk "Ephemeral Guides of the Medically Perplexed." Needless to say, I was a bit more interested in Helfand's talk than Barlow's (although, I will admit to being a lot more curious about Duncan Hines now.)

While Helfand is a well-known scholar of all sorts of medical ephemera, most of his discussion that morning centered around his collection of street guides. These guides, which contained maps or lists of the major streets of various cities, were often produced by local physicians and used as a means of advertisement for (primarily quack) medical services. Some contain essays about the latest cure-all drugs, others warn readers that they may already be suffering from dread diseases (usually fake conditions).

Helfand noted that these guides were being produced during an era when the American Medical Association frowned upon any advertising by its members, and confirmed that the medical men producing these guides were "the losers"--they were the physicians who left no other traces in the cities' medical archives. Quacks and hacks, they typically specialized in "sexual diseases" (imagine a print version of today's Viagra spammers, if you will). The guides therefore document a part of American medical practice not otherwise obvious to scholars.

The guides are useful in other ways as well: they serve to document the introduction of various drugs and therapies into the mainstream of medical practice (penicillin is first advertised in a street guide from 1947, for example), and they often contain biographical data and/or portraits of the physicians who produced them. The similarity in layout, design, and content for guides from different cities leads Helfand to surmise that a single printer (or a handful of printers) probably advertised guide production in the many city and county medical society journals then cropping up around the nation.

The guides collected by Helfand to date come from a wide range of locales, but he did note in particular that he has not yet seen any from Portland, Oregon. I notice in Summit that Oregon State University does have one Portland street guide cataloged in its Special Collections: Street number guide of Portland, Or. dated between 1910 and 1920. The physical description in the catalog record does indicate the presence of advertisements; perhaps it, like Helfand's guides, promotes a local physician as well as the City of Roses...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Greene-Meissner at RBMS Preconference

Having shot my mouth off, in person and online, about my opinion of the Greene-Meissner mantra of "less process, more product," I felt I had to attend the Wednesday afternoon session "Curators and Catalogers Revisit Decisions about Description: the Greene/Meissner Proposal," at last week's preconference.

Dennis Meissner spoke first, presenting the findings of his research with Mark Greene on streamlining archival processing. The recap was then followed by two additional presentations, one by Helena Zinkham from the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, and the other by Tom Hyry, head of the Manuscript Unit at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Zinkham impressed me with her practical approach to handling the overwhelming amount of rare and fragile materials in her care. She outlined the Division's approach to processing collections, which is done to one of three levels: baseline, standard, and premium. The processing level chosen for a given collection reflects the materials' "fitness for purpose"--determined through a cost-benefit analysis of use, value, and viability (meaning condition, but also legal status and amount of resources required/available for processing). The rankings are simple: 1 is low, 2 is medium, and 3 is high. Collections with scores of 8 or 9 get premium processing; collections with 3s and 4s get baseline processing. Her parting advice included three recommendations:
  1. Accession with care. It may be the only time you touch that collection.
  2. Prioritize using criteria, not subjective judgments.
  3. Insist on good storage conditions. The best thing you can do for any materials is to keep them cool and dry; even with minimal processing, they'll last a long time.
In the final talk, Hyry struck a note familiar to my ears: the shift of responsibility from processing staff to public services staff when collections are minimally processed. He urged repositories to make accession data available to researchers, and to process collections with one question in mind: "Can this collection be serviced in the reading room?" His emphasis on access leads him to conclude that description is a critical component of even baseline processing; without adequate description of a collection's scope and content, researchers face a nearly insurmountable hurdle in obtaining the desired materials. He did spend a few minutes musing on the potential uses of Library 2.0 features such as tagging and commenting to allow the community of researchers to add value to minimally processed collections (Yale hasn't experimented with this yet; I'll be interested to see how that develops.) Finally, he reminded his listeners that archival processing is an iterative process; do what you can now, and you may find that you are able to return later to expand on prior efforts.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Return from ephemerality

Ah, back to alpine Portland, Oregon--although the Baltimorean weather seems to have followed me home from the 48th Annual RBMS Preconference. This year's theme, From Here to Ephemerality: fugitive sources in libraries, archives, and museums brought together hundreds of librarians, archivists, dealers, collectors, and scholars to discuss the state of ephemera in institutions as well as in private collections. I can't remember ever hearing eBay mentioned so frequently in such a short span of time!

The opening plenary on Wednesday morning featured Michael Twyman, father of ephemerology, speaking on "The Long-Term Significance of Printed Ephemera." Displaying a small handful of the thousands of ephemeral items in the collections of the Centre for Ephemera Studies at the University of Reading, Twyman easily demonstrated the significance of the content of ephemeral materials. He then moved on to a discussion of the typographical significance of ephemera, noting that posters, handbills, advertisements, et cetera led to developments in:
  • Bold typefaces
  • "Street reading" design-- layout, typography, and punctuation meant to catch the eye of the passing reader
  • Blank forms
  • Technical innovations such as embossing and lithography
  • Printing on colored papers
  • Innovative combinations of text and image
Most of these developments cannot be usefully tracked in book production, so ephemera become crucial to the study of the history of printing and design. Ephemera also provide evidence of orthographic and linguistic changes, with ephemeral examples often predating the appearance of new forms in books or newspapers. The next time you discard junk mail flyers from your inbox or steal a glance at the latest billboard posted next to the highway, give a thought to the creative minds who have worked and still work to bring you the latest announcements in the fastest, most fashionable way!

For more on ephemera, check out The Encyclopedia of Ephemera, edited by Maurice Rickards, Twyman et alii in 2000.

For more on the conference, stay tuned: I'll recap more sessions tomorrow.