Classified information

I had a delightful day at work yesterday. It started with a two hour long debate with my colleagues about method and theory. Once we exhausted the possibilities we put our ideas into practice. After I made my contribution a senior scholar reviewed my work and directed me to make some changes, the end result was pretty good. I love this environment of collaboration and shared decision making!

This summer I am volunteering at The Mariners’ Museum as part of my training in information science. I help them with grunt work necessary to meet a funding deadline, they give me work experience and expand my professional network. I get three credit hours towards my Masters to boot. The museum library is housed on the campus of Christopher Newport University and we have one of the most expansive collections of ship’s registries and nautical themed rare books in the US.

My current project is working in the library’s archives creating catalog records for individual items. This is unusual because archives are typically only described at the collection level, who donated the collection and what sorts of materials are included. Its rare for an archive catalog to index each and every thing present in a given collection.

The work I’m currently engaged in is an accrual to an existing collection of pop culture items, all donated by the museum’s vice-president who enjoys perusing eBay, flea markets, and antique stores for anything that references ironclads, the Monitor, or the Battle of Hampton Roads. In 1862 the local waterways hosted a major Civil War naval battle, it was the first encounter between metal ships heralding the end of wooden navies. So this local historical event is of global significance, at least to Navy people anyway.

The Monitor, like the Space Shuttle, was something of a celebrity. It signified something was “the best” or “state of the art” from 19th century farming implements to well pumps and stove polish. So there’s a lot of stuff in the accrual like this:

What we have here is a document, being that it is a clipping from a magazine from 1948. It features a vignette of USS Monitor and CSS Virginia engaged in combat. Its also about distilled spirits in the United States. I would measure its dimensions so that it could be properly stored and note that it is printed in English. Describing what this is about was easy.

However, waiting for me at the bottom of the stack is one that would throw me for a loop. Coming to a consensus about how best to describe it is what occupied most of my day yesterday.

What is a punk album from 2010 “about”?

This is “The Monitor” a 2010 album by New Jersey punks Titus Andronicus, which the Library of Congress disambiguates from the Shakespeare play as “Titus Andronicus (musical group).” We are stumped on how to classify it. This is not a document in the library science sense, but a musical sound recording. This is very unusual in our library, we don’t have a lot of albums and none of them are described at the item level. In this case what I am looking at is a vinyl record, chosen because when properly stored vinyl has the longest lifespan in an archive environment of any AV format. There are two 12 in. long-playing records and associated sleeves and jacket. We will remove the sound discs and store them in a separate container from the cardboard record cover, so unlike, say, a letter and envelope, each part of the item will have its own location.

What one notices at first is that it is relevant to our archival collection of pop culture imagery: the album cover features a group portrait of US sailors on the deck of the Monitor. This is a classic Civil War cyanotype, I’ve seen this picture before, but in this case its being used ironically or symbolically as album art. The liner notes have a portrait of Lincoln, the back shows a military band. So I could say that it is about the Monitor and US sailors, Lincoln and military bands. But then one does not describe Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” as about prisms and rainbows! No, it is about Rock music, 1970-1979. We might even use a narrower term like Prog rock music or Classic rock music, but an album is not about its cover art.

So should we listen to the album to discover what it is about? No. We cannot listen to it either, because each time vinyl is played it degrades. The reason we’re putting it in an archive is to preserve it not to consume it. Ideally it might be played once in order to create a digital master copy, which can then be made available to users to listen to. So identifying the themes of the album is out of the question.

We looked it up on OCLC and found that about 200 libraries had cataloged the CD as Rock music/ Alternative rock music/ Punk rock music but that there were no vinyl records in archives. We were doing something unique in the world that morning. In the end I made the case that we should create two catalog records for the item. One describes that record cover and one describes the sound discs. These catalog records are then linked to one another in a special “Associated Records” field.

It was interesting to participate and observe in the process of open debate in the archive. There are multiple checks and balances among the librarians, archivists, and technical services people as the different specialists express their view points. In this case we don’t have very many sound recordings so there wasn’t an established precedent or protocol for us to follow. We were making it up as we went along. But it was fun to be a part of and very interesting. I made suggestions and they were taken seriously. Today our MARC person will take a look at the code our software generated from the records I created and I’ll have to justify the whole thing over again.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR 'hidden collections' grant to describe the museum's collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

3 thoughts on “Classified information

  1. What a wonderful blast from the past. Growing up in Grafton, VA, with a father who worked for Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock, the Mariners’ Museum became a treasured part of my childhood memories. And, yes, I do remember the Monitor

  2. I didn’t know if anyone else would care about this story but I thought, “If John McCreery reads it, he’ll say something.” Glad you enjoyed the trip down memory lane. TMM’s library and archive is really impressive and its a great place to work!

  3. Interesting reflection on archival behaviors, Matt. Actually the kind of archives that sees itself as a “manuscripts collection” (which many that collect literary and other manuscripts do) tends to do document-level description of a more librarianly kind, but most archives have responsibility for so much stuff that granular description is just beyond their workload to do. And such discussion is commonplace in many archives because by definition archives contain unique items (including items acquired for unique purposes, as the album you cite). I hope you are planning to do an ethnography of archival practice? 😉

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