Sackler 101: Cataloguing the Sackler’s Special Collections

The Trials and Tribulations of Assessing a Catalogue Record

Since November 2017 I have been working on a project at the Sackler Library to assess the quality of existing library cataloguing for different subsets of materials held in the library’s Special Collections.  With the goal, ultimately, to inform the decision on whether bibliographic access to materials held in closed stacks is satisfactory, we have examined a sample of resources from the Rare Book Room and the Wind Room and asked: Are these resources recorded in bibliographic records (or ‘bibs. in cataloguing parlance’) in SOLO, and are these bibs.[i] sufficiently ‘good’ to enable readers to complete the user tasks[ii] necessary for their research and study?  While only a very small number (four out of the initial sample of 312 resources) turned out to be omitted entirely from the catalogue, we have become aware of a wide range of issues that adversely affect retrieval.  Hence, the short answer on whether appropriate bibliographic access to Sackler Special Collections materials exists, is … usually.

A number of underlying factors might contribute to this qualification: the period during which a resource was first catalogued (professional standards have varied and evolved over time, and the earliest bibs., transcribed from early printed catalogue entries, are very basic indeed), the expertise of the cataloguer, whether she or he had sufficient time to catalogue a resource adequately, and – not to put too fine a point on it – how engaged the cataloguer was on the day.[iii]

But sometimes the specific nature of the resource in hand is intrinsically problematic: some ‘books’ are much better behaved than others; sometimes ‘books’ aren’t ‘books’ at all. And sometimes the sheer mass of resources held in the Bodleian Libraries and Oxford’s constituent college libraries obscures collocation, duplication, relationships.

For this post, I’ve taken for a starting point a bib. [(UkOxU)013068990 — type the number in SOLO’s Search box and you will find the record] that’s not ‘up to snuff’.

The work is catalogued under the title:

              22 photographs from the Oxford loan collection of historical portraits exhibited in 1906.

Sounds simple enough? As catalogued, the resource is comprised of two small portfolios of black-&-white photographic reproductions of painted portraits exhibited in Oxford in 1905 and 1906.  Speaking frankly, this is the sort of thing that was probably passed over on the to-do trolley for some time[iv] before someone sufficiently brave – or foolhardy – decided that the Time Had Come. Everything about these materials is problematic, from their format, to the inconsistent way in which they are titled, to their relationship to one another and to other resources.  Clearly, the two portfolios are related. But are they, in bibliographical terms, two instances of the ‘same’ resource?

Here is what is revealed with a little bit of digging. Early in the twentieth century, three loan exhibitions of portraits of English sitters were held in Oxford’s Examination Schools:

  • In 1904, the exhibition focused on sitters who had died before 1625.
  • In 1905, the exhibition focused on sitters who had died between 1625 and 1714.
  • In 1906, the exhibition focused on sitters who had died between 1714 and 1837.



Printed catalogues were published for each exhibition, in both a large, illustrated issue, and in a smaller issue illustrated only with a frontispiece.  (It is difficult to determine, without consulting the various copies around Oxford, but it appears that the smaller issue was presented as a second edition of the larger).  In addition, a number of the portraits were photographed during the second and third exhibitions, and small portfolios of these photographs were sold as ‘unofficial supplements’ to the printed catalogues; see some examples, below. (The Sackler Library holds copies of all three illustrated catalogues, the unillustrated 1904 catalogue, and both of the photographic supplements).



So the most straightforward possibility is that eight publications (large-format illustrated issue catalogues for each of three exhibitions, small-format unillustrated issue catalogue for each of three exhibitions, portfolios of photographic reproductions for the latter two exhibitions) exist. SOLO, however, lists sixteen different bibs. (including the last, the bibliographic record which initiated this blog post):

  1. Represents the illustrated catalogues from all three exhibitions on a single record (eight holding libraries within Oxford, including Sackler)
  2. Represents the illustrated catalogue from 1904 only (ten holding libraries)
  3. Represents the small-format catalogue from 1904 only (two holding libraries, including Sackler)
  4. Appears to duplicate no. 3 above, evidently unenhanced from an original printed catalogue record (Bodleian holding only)
  5. Represents the illustrated catalogue from 1905 only (seven holdings libraries)
  6. Appears to duplicate no. 5 above, evidently unenhanced from an original printed catalogue record (Bodleian holding only)
  7. Represents the small-format catalogue – described in the bib. as the ‘second, revised edition’ – from 1905 only (six holding libraries)
  8. Appears to duplicate no. 7 above, evidently unenhanced from an original printed catalogue record (Bodleian holding only)
  9. Represents the illustrated catalogue from 1906 only (seven holding libraries)
  10. Represents the small-format catalogue from 1906 only (four holdings libraries)
  11. Appears to duplicate no. 10 above, evidently unenhanced from an original printed catalogue record (Bodleian holding only)
  12. Appears to duplicate no. 10 above, evidently unenhanced from an original printed catalogue record (Bodleian holding only)
  13. A bit of a puzzle: the title suggests that it duplicates no. 10 above, while its stated size suggests that it duplicates no. 9 above (Bodleian holding only)
  14. Represents the photographic supplement to the 1905 exhibition (three holding libraries)
  15. Another puzzle: Represents either both photographic supplements, or only the 1906 exhibition (Bodleian holding only)
  16. Attempts to represent the photographic supplement to both the 1905 and 1906 exhibitions, but under the cover title for the later supplement (three holdings, including Sackler)

Are you still with us?  The broad point is that the sheer weight of duplication, coupled with the ambiguity engendered by inadequate records derived from early printed catalogues (such as the Bodleian’s), actively hinders the researcher seeking to locate and access a specific catalogue.



But the Sackler Library is our immediate concern. Record 1. is a solid overall record, but it does have problems.  First, nowhere in the bib. is the exact title of any of the three catalogues transcribed verbatim, even though the MARC (‘Machine Readable Cataloging’) standard allows the opportunity to do so.  Second, while collecting multiple physical pieces under a cursory ‘3 v.’ (as done here) was common practice until quite recently, it does obscure the textual and illustrative extent of each piece.  And third, some aspects of its ‘subject analysis’, the parts of the bib. that describe the intellectual content of a resource, rather than its physical form, are either incorrect, or unduly vague.

More alarming, however, is record 16, which first brought the situation to our attention.  The cataloguer began with a bib. for the later supplement, borrowed from the library at the Getty Research Institute.[v]  But s/he then attempted to accommodate both of Sackler’s photographic supplements on this single record, an attempt that, without fundamental revision, was doomed (doomed!) from the outset.  (To base a record for a ‘continuing resource’ — or series — on a later issue rather than on the earlier is, in technical cataloguing parlance, ‘naughty’).  And in any case, should the two supplements in fact be considered as two instances of a single resource?  Are they more closely related to each other, than to the exhibition catalogue that each ‘supplements’?  In intellectual terms, the decision to combine both on a single bib. is dubious; in practical terms, it effectively obscures that Sackler holds the earlier supplement from any researcher not aware of its title (although the bib. does provide this, redundantly, three times).  There are additional problems with the record, including another occurrence of an unhelpfully vague statement of physical extent (‘2 portfolios’); subject analysis inherited from Getty that is sufficiently far from correct practice to inhibit collocation with other similar resources; errors in coding variant title information; a simple typo, stating that the earlier portfolio contains thirty, rather than thirty-nine individual photographs…



This record ticks a lot of wrong boxes.

So what should have happened?

  • In the first instance, the two supplements should have been catalogued separately.  They do not form a series (a ‘continuing resource’ in current Cataloguerspeak).
  • Cataloguing rules afford good ways to collocate related resources.  It is possible to establish each exhibition as a distinct entity (MARC X11) and to use these entities to connect all works related to that exhibition.  Further, standards allow us to point between the catalogues and their photographic supplements (MARC 740).
  • Subject cataloguing will always be inconsistent, at least until Skynet takes over.  But context is important.  A cataloguer cannot help but be influenced by the records s/he has recently worked on; by the same token, it’s worth quickly checking for usage already present in the catalogue as a whole, in order to improve consistency within the bibliographic file and to avoid introducing new errors.
  • Ideally, a cataloguer would have noticed the proliferation of bibs. and contacted the Bodleian’s Database Maintenance team.  They’re very helpful, and very good at sorting these things out: we’re all in this together, comrades!

Now, this is an isolated record, and we don’t know the circumstances that led to its errors.  And, to be fair, it was not a simple knot to unpick.  In contrast, most records in the sample are about adequate for retrieval.  The concern is that even when bibs. abstain from any single mortal sin, unforgivably odious in the eyes of the Cataloguing Gods, many nevertheless evince accretions of minor peccadilloes that, collectively, place them in a parlous state.

So, next time SOLO reveals the exact resource that you sought, remember that it was the combined knowledge and judgement exercised by library cataloguers that thwarted the powers of entropy and enabled this discovery.

Joseph Ripp
Special Collections Cataloguing Consultant, Sackler Library

We welcome suggestions for future blog contributions from our readers.
Please contact Clare Hills-Nova ( and Chantal van den Berg ( if you would like propose a topic.


[i] Want to be effortlessly cool like a library cataloguer? Refer to a catalogue bibliographic record as a “bib.”

[ii] For readers whose FRBR2a is rusty, the catalogue should enable the reader to: “Find > Identify > Select > Obtain” resources.

2a “Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records”: do please try to keep up…

[iii] As measurable by the international standard of T minus coffee/T minus quitting time/T minus holiday/T minus the gentle slide into a well-earned and indefinite rest in the Home for Former Cataloguers and Otherwise Punchdrunk Precisians.

[iv] Not entirely speculative: the less-than-ideal state of conservation of these portfolios suggests that they might have lingered in a corner or beneath an ever-replenishing pile of books for some time until fished out, catalogued and hastily stuffed into an ill-fitting box “to get them out of our lives forever.” (They are now somewhat more adequately housed.)

[v] The existence of tools that facilitate sharing bibs. is one of the great strengths of the international library community.