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The Collation

Cataloging at the Folger: a Primer

When I meet people for the first time and they hear that I am a rare book cataloger, I can expect one or both of these questions: “What’s a rare book,” and “What is cataloging?” This crowd doesn’t need my expostulations on the first, but cataloging is just enough of an unknown that a primer may be in order.

Library cataloging is the process of providing structured description and controlled vocabulary into bibliographic records, and of collecting these records into a system of some sort. 1 Card catalogs are one such system (and until every single thing we own is online in Hamnet, still indispensable), while online catalogs comprising individual records represent the current state of play. 

  1. Many people incorrectly correlate the cataloging process with assigning call numbers, which is just one of its parts and not even the most important (or interesting for the cataloger). While our open stack books are classified according to the Library of Congress classification system so that they are browsable by subject, most of our vault materials are, within broad categories, shelved in the order received.
  2. For vault materials, that is. Several years ago we decided to purchase cataloging and shelf-ready processing for as many modern, mass-produced materials as possible. Although Folger editing makes for higher quality catalog records, we decided that accepting vendor cataloging as-is for secondary source materials was well worth the payoff provided by concentrating cataloging staff time and attention on our vault materials.


Lest some find it confusing, let me clarify that the two screenshots are from Hamnet rather than WorldCat. The content is the same, but Hamnet provides a richer and clearer display.

Deborah J. Leslie — November 26, 2012


A tangential comment– those verbose early modern title pages make more sense to me since someone pointed out that books were sold unbound, so the title page served the same marketing function that the blurb-filled dust cover does today.

Richard M. Waugaman, M.D. — November 26, 2012


Love your writing about cataloging and the value it adds to the Folger collection, not withstanding the rest of the Library world via OCLC.

Susan Fifer Canby — December 7, 2012


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