Tag Archives: LCSH

not-so-revolutionary diagnostics

For your consideration: a handbill (Case FRC 27552) describing the medical training and expertise of physician Antoine-François Maillet.

Case FRC 27552

Dr. Maillet lists a copious repertoire of maladies he is capable of treating and, at the end, invites prospective patients to send him urine samples for diagnosis.  It would seem he was peripatetic (or perhaps just prudent), since the printed text leaves his domicile blank.  In the Newberry’s copy, “Il est logé chez” is completed in manuscript with “Bonnet a Riom”– presumably Saint-Bonnet-près-Riom.

Case FRC 27552

Uroscopy, a diagnostic method practiced since antiquity, was still in use at the turn of the 20th century, as this doctor’s test case shows.  For every 500 pamphlets in FRC with the Library of Congress Subject Heading of, say, “Taxation–France–Early Works to 1800,” there will  be one with completely novel subject matter.  This pamphlet was the first “Urine–Diagnostic use–France–Early works to 1800 ” that I’ve come across in two years.  It is rivaled in novelty only, perhaps, by the subject heading  “Uterus–Religious aspects–Drama–Early works to 1800 ” that came up for two oratorios in the Howard Mayer Brown Libretto Collection.

Embroidered bindings from Barcelona

Because most of the libretti in the Howard Mayer Brown Libretto Collection (BLC) are housed in archival envelopes, the process of cataloging feels a bit like unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning.  Every  item has the potential to be a treasure.

Recently there were three in a row that were unusually thick and that grated strangely against their housing — what could these be?  They were the first of seven libretti in jewel-like bindings: boards covered in silk embroidered with metallic thread, ribbon, and sequins.

The first three jewels: Case ML50.2.A78 P53 1763 (BLC 439), Case ML50.2.P67 S33 1761 (BLC 440), Case ML50.2.M67 G65 1765 (BLC 441).

All of the works were published in Barcelona by Francisco Genéras. Although library collocation numbers on the inside front covers indicate that they came from the same library, no further evidence of provenance is immediately apparent.

Case ML50.2.A78 P53 1763 (BLC 439). Embroidered binding, detail.

Case ML50.2.M67 G65 1765 (BLC 441) — Carlo Goldoni’s Mondo della luna — was a particular treat since, in addition to the interesting binding, it offered up one of my favorite clusters of subject headings:

  • Credulity–Drama[/Humor]–Early works to 1800.
  • Marriage–Drama[/Humor]–Early works to 1800.
  • Extraterrestrial beings–Drama[/Humor]–Early works to 1800.

Case ML50.2.M67 G65 1765 (BLC 441). Embroidered binding, detail.


A day in the life, or, The subject kaleidoscope

One of the pleasures of cataloging the French Revolution Collection (FRC) is the daily encounter with a wide variety of subjects.  Of late, many of us are working on portfolios that consist almost entirely of legislation. These are generally one- to two-page affairs promulgating laws; they are the end product of all those projets de decret and rapports we’ve cataloged for so long.  Unlike the bulk of those proposals and reports (and other materials like plays, sermons, what have you)–which are organized alphabetically by author and can therefore have large swathes of pamphlets on similar subjects–the laws are organized numerically, giving a cross-section of what was on the mind and the docket of the government in a given period.

Laws from the portfolio Case folio FRC 9712-9756

Laws from the portfolio Case folio FRC 9712-9756

Since these pamphlets tend to be short and their structure is formulaic by definition, the cataloging experience can be topically kaleidoscopic. For fun, recently, I decided to jot down the gist* of every item I worked on for a day.  What follows is my highly unscientific gloss of a portion of FRC 10330: a portfolio of 107 individual decrees issued by the Convention nationale in the spring of 1793.

  • Cadavers and air quality (exhalaisons funestes)
  • Founding of the Tribunal revolutionnaire
  • Gunpowder and saltpeter import/export
  • Customs officials–salaries
  • Paris must sell flour cheap to bakeries
  • Guards troops for the Convention nationale, Tribunal de cassation, Ministère de la justice
  • Notaries… refugee property/acts
  • Certificates of residence
  • Abolition of the Maison royale de Saint-Louis
  • Death penalty for proposing subversive land tenure legislation
  • Émigré‘s property and aliens
  • Public welfare
  • Annexation of territory (Belgium and Germany)
  • “Payeurs de la guerre” are not to be drafted
  • Municipalities must plant the fallow land of émigrés
  • Restitution
  • Hotel de la monnaie de paris — inventory and mint
  • Planting unsowed émigré land
  • Slight emendation to some previous law
  • Legislators who were judges but left some decisions unsigned must figure out how to get that taken care of
  • Decrees against émigrés — civil death, etc.
  • Military enlistment, measures against desertion and illegal arms sales
  • Service du genie–recruiting from Ecole nationale des ponts et chaussées
  • Lifting embargo of Hansa town ships and abolishing privateering of same
  • Inventories for former civil listers and royal households
  • Sedition and punishment for printers, colporteurs, etc.
  • Freight tax on grain from Italy suspended
  • Passports of recognized foreign diplomats not suspended
  • Government sale of royal and church property
  • Repealing the law prohibiting legislators from being pamphleteers
  • Weapons industry employees exempt from draft
  • Transportation of rags; import tax on foods and other merchandise
  • Covering operating and maintenance cost for buildings and establishments from the former civil list
  • Where grain is too expensive, it will be supported with public funds lifted from the wealthiest
  • Argenterie–turning confiscated Belgian silverware into coin
  • Founding the Comité du salut public

This small sampling offers up some of their preoccupations: keeping people fed, dealing with the draft, filling the coffers, quashing sedition.  And, of course, alongside the quotidian and the bureaucratic is the momentous: the founding of the Tribunal revolutionnaire (Case folio FRC 10330 no. 19) and the Comité du salut public (Case folio FRC 10330 no. 54)–those embodiments of the Reign of Terror.

Decrets relatifs a la formation d'un tribunal criminel extraordinaire

Case folio FRC 10330 no. 19

Decrets relatifs a la formation & composition d'un comite de salut public

Case folio FRC 10330 no. 54

What these pamphlets lack in panache, they make up for in surprise encounters like these.  Taken collectively, they give a Cook’s tour of the halls of French government.

*Fear not, librarian friends: the Library of Congress Subject Headings in the actual records pass muster.

Ancient catalogue records

It should (hopefully) come as no surprise that the majority of the catalog records that already exist for these pamphlets are old. Very old. Most of them predate anything like modern cataloging standards. This means that, while ostensibly we may be taking older records from other institutions, proofreading them, and then adding any local notes as necessary, the actual day-to-day work is more like completely tearing down old records and rebuilding them from scratch.

In addition to the obsolete standards being used, there is another, technology-driven problem with the extant records. Most of these pre-AACR2 records were created as part of retrospective conversion projects or converted from the UNIMARC or UKMARC formats, meaning that, frequently, information is garbled, incomplete, or missing. This problem is similar to the metadata issues associated with other large-scale projects, and helps to demonstrate the value of human-driven cataloging and metadata creation over automated metadata harvesting.  Retrospective conversion projects face technical limitations that can result in confusing records, but cataloging librarians rarely have the time (or funding) to go back and fix these records. Awards like those provided by CLIR represent one of the primary ways in which libraries can go back and improve on these records.

Generally, because of the technical limitations of retrospective conversion projects, records are generated without any subject headings. For those rare few pamphlets that do have subject headings, the batch-addition of these records frequently results in garbled, combined, or just plain bizarre subject headings. This results in records for pamphlets about, say, trial by jury with subject headings for the animal rights movement, or records where all of the subject headings end up being combined into one field.

All of these issues end up greatly increasing the amount of time required to catalog these pamphlets. Of course, the extra work we do in cleaning up and modernizing these records ends up creating added value for everybody. Hopefully, the work we do here will end up saving everybody’s time – from researchers, who will now be able to find the correct pamphlets, to future catalogers, who will not have to spend (as much) time completely reconstructing poor quality records.

Au revoir!

As the last day of my job at the Newberry, today marks the end of my involvement with the French pamphlet project. Cleaning out my desk over the past week has produced a sort of time capsule from the year and a half that I spent in this position. I found the MARC worksheet I was given my first week (it’s hard to remember a time when I didn’t know what went into the 245 or 300 field of a record!). There were notes from our earliest team meetings, in which we discussed the peculiarities of emphyteusis and eminent domain, annuities and émigrés, and made extremely important decisions about whether to append “Pamphlets” or “Sources” or “History” or “Early works to 1800” to various subject headings (I’m pretty sure the New York Times reported on our decisions). Missing from my notes are the more entertaining parts of our meetings, in which we shared the funniest, weirdest, and most ridiculous pamphlets we had come across lately.

From my desk, I also unearthed scraps of paper on which I had scribbled my questions about cataloging: how much guesswork can we do about where a pamphlet has been printed? What is the difference between the subject headings “Aristocracy (Political science)” and “Aristocracy (Social class)”? What do we do when the information we find in the definitive bibliography of French Revolutionary pamphlets is clearly wrong? How can we tell the difference between variant editions and states? Although there are still no cut-and-dried answers to all of these questions, over time I have learned how to handle a variety of confusing and murky situations, often by using the sacred principle of “cataloger’s judgment” (i.e. “just make a decision and stick with it”).

I’m definitely holding on to the running list of favorite subject headings that I kept during the project. Those that actually ended up in my records include “Rogues and vagabonds,” “Brigands and robbers,” “Swindlers and swindling,” “Sexually transmitted diseases,” and “Illuminati,” as well as fantastic subject strings like “Clergy—Alcohol use” and “Seafaring life—Study and teaching.” Then there are the random ones that I somehow came across in my many searches, subject headings like “Boy with leaking boot (Statue)” and authorities like “Almighty God, 1950-” (he’s alive!). Not on the list, and infinitely more frustrating, are the headings that don’t exist, even though the subjects come up in our pamphlets again and again: payment in kind, the Thermidorian Reaction, political denunciation.

Although I won’t miss the vagaries of Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), I will certainly miss the pleasure of working with such an important and comprehensive collection of documents, as well as such an intelligent and engaging group of catalogers.

Oh, and the pie. I will really miss the pie.

Financial subject analysis

Taking a look at the subject headings that have come up so far in the project reveals a heavy bias towards financial matters. Anyone reading the blog posts up top this point is likely to be unsurprised by this. As far as I’m concerned, the preponderance of public finance related pamphlets presents a set of special challenges for cataloging. The dilemma that immediately comes forth is that with several thousand pamphlets on public finance, any user searching for public finance will be presented with an overwhelming number of records. Because these are special collections materials, individually paging thousands of pamphlets to search for a specific financial topic is unwieldy, time consuming, and inconvenient for both researchers and library staff. Is it worthwhile to tack on the Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) Finance, Public on every pamphlet that touches on the subject?

We asked a similar question early on in the project: should we add the France—History—Revolution, 1789-1799—Sources subject heading to all of the pamphlets? In that case, the decision was no. Having the same subject string for 20,000 records that are all part of the same collection means that the subject is virtually meaningless. Researchers could use it in combination with other headings, but in terms of making the pamphlets easily findable, it doesn’t accomplish very much, especially when the name of the collection is French Revolution Collection (FRC). We decided not to add this string. This dilemma helps to underscore why local cataloging practices are important. A library with a less extensive collection of these pamphlets would be well served by including this subject string as a method of collocating all the primary source documents in its online catalog.

This is where more specific subject headings come in handy. While it seems like there are a great many highly specialized, apparently redundant, subject headings on financial matters, subtle distinctions between subject headings become vital when the collection becomes this large. Of course, this also requires additional time from the cataloger. A good example of this is the various “policy” subject headings that are narrower terms under Finance, Public (Fiscal policy, Monetary policy, Commercial policy, etc.). These headings have proven invaluable to prevent a deluge of Finance, Public, but require careful analysis to understand the distinctions.

Fiscal policy, monetary policy, and commercial policy all concern government attempts to control the economy. Each of these three headings represents a different method of doing so. Fiscal policy is essentially government tax policy. This covers government activities designed to affect the economy through manipulation of taxes. Monetary policy is similar, but the vehicle for economic manipulation is currency, be it through printing more fiat money, less fiat money, or converting to decimal currency. Commercial policy is slightly different in that it focuses on government policy towards foreign trade. By double checking pamphlets and making sure that none of these three headings applies before applying a Finance, Public heading helps to reduce the “wall of finance” effect.

What if a researcher did want to collocate all of the financial records in one place? What if some penitent cataloger feels the need for some masochistic collection analysis? Well, this is still possible with the FRC collection without engaging in fancy search strategies involving multiple limiters. There is still a heading that gets applied to nearly all of these pamphlets, France—History—Revolution, 1789-1799—Economic aspects—Sources. This heading has several advantages over the vanilla Finance, Public. The Economic aspects string is significantly more focused than Finance, Public, since even with the appropriate subdivisions (Finance, Public—France—Early works to 1800) the subject heading still covers over 1000 years of French history. While still presenting a daunting number of options, the longer subject string only covers ten years, and different period subdivisions (Directory, 1795-1799, Reign of Terror, 1793-1794, etc.) allow for even more precise identification while still collocating relevant pamphlets.

About-ness, revisited

One method that is helping teach the concept of subject analysis is having the Project Cataloging Assistants assign subjects to their records using natural language.  This will allow me at first to add subject headings to some records during my review, while still allowing the them to get through records before mastering Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH).  It will also help teach the concepts of identifying what something is truly about without getting bogged down on the controlled vocabulary of LCSH.  Once the Project Cataloging Assistants are used to thinking in terms of what things are truly about, we can then take those natural language terms and begin translating them into LCSH terms.


A challenge for me personally will be training new Project Cataloging Assistants in the… art?… science?… of subject analysis.  Having a controlled vocabulary with which to describe the subject of an item is helpful, in that it potentially eliminates too many variables in describing a subject, helping numerous individuals cataloging items and, later, individuals searching for them to do so using the same terms.  The idea is that by having a collections of preferred or approved terms, with cross references to the non-preferred terms, people can be more easily led to the same terms in describing and accessing material by subject.  Maybe it’s due to the rich complexity of the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), or maybe it’s because I often find myself having to assign subject headings to materials in on subject with which I am less familiar, but I find subject analysis the most challenging part of my own work as a cataloger.  I will admit that the thought of teaching new Project Cataloging Assistants to do subject analysis is a daunting one.  It seems like this is becoming my mantra for the project, but I’m betting I’ll learn a lot about this as I try to teach others how to do it.  18th century French legal terms, anyone?