Absolute Identifiers for Boxes and Volumes

AbID in action in the RBSC vault.

AbID in action in the RBSC vault.

Most library users are familiar with call numbers such as 0639.739 no.6, or D522 .K48 2015q, or MICROFILM S00888. These little bits of text look peculiar standing on their own. However, together with an indication of location such as Microforms Services (FLM) or Firestone Library (F) they can guide a user directly to a desired item and often to similar items shelved in the area. In Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC), there’s no self-service. Instead, departmental staff members retrieve (or “page” as we call it) items requested by users. Finding those items has not always been easy. Over the years many unique locations and practices were established on an ad-hoc basis. The multiplicity of exceptional locations required the paging staff to develop a complex mental mapping that rivaled “The Knowledge” that must be mastered by London taxi drivers. The Big Move of collections in May 2015 provided the opportunity for a fresh start. Faced with growing collections and finite space, we imagined a system that would adapt to the new vault layout, which is strictly arranged by size. By “listening” to the space, we realized that shelving more of our collections by size would result in the most efficient use of shelving and minimize staff time spent on retrieval and stack maintenance. We couldn’t do anything immediately about the legacy of hundreds of subcollections–except to shelve them in a comprehensible order, by size and then alphabetically. However, the break with the past in terms of physical location of materials prompted some rethinking that eventually led to the use of “Absolute Identifiers” or “AbIDs” for almost all new additions to the collections.

RBSC has long used call number notations that are strictly for retrieval rather than subject-related classification for browsing by users. “Sequential” call numbers, which were adopted for most books in 2003, look like “2008-0011Q.”  Collection coding came along many years before that, in forms such as “C1091.” The Cotsen Children’s Library used database numbers as call numbers, such as “92470.” As a result RBSC has vast runs of materials where one call number group has nothing to do with its neighbors in terms of subject or much of anything else. A book documenting the history of the Bull family in England sits between an Irish theatre program and the catalog of an exhibition of artists’ books in Cincinnati. In the Manuscripts Division, the Harold Laurence Ruland papers on the early German cosmographer Sebastian Munster (1489-1552) have a collection of American colonial sermons as a neighbor. So what’s different about AbID? Three things are different: The form of the call numbers, their uniform application across collections and curatorial domains, and the means by which they are created.

The form of AbIDs is simple: a size designation and a number. Something like “B-000201” provides the exact pathway to the item, reading normally. It tells the person paging an item to go to the area for size “B” and look along the shelves for the 201st item. Pretty simple. Size designations are critical in our new storage areas. In order to maximize shelving efficiency, and thus the capacity for on-site storage, everything is strictly sorted into 11 size categories. (Some apply to very small numbers of materials. So far only two sizes account for two thirds of AbIDs.) In a sense, using AbIDs is simply a way of conforming to the floor plan and the need to shelve efficiently. That’s why the designations can be called Absolute Identifiers. They are “absolute” because the text indicates unambiguously the type and location of each item in the Firestone storage compartments. In other words, all information needed to locate an object appears right in the call number, with no need for any additional data. Even if materials must be shifted within the vault in the future, AbIDs remain accurate since they are not tied to specific shelf designations.

AbIDs are applied across curatorial domains (with the notable exception of the Scheide Library). Manuscripts Division, Graphic Arts, Cotsen Children’s Library, Western Americana — all are included. A great step toward this practice was taken with adoption of sequential call numbers for books in 2003. To make the sequential system work, items from all curatorial units were mixed together. Since curatorial units were previously the primary determinant of shelving, the transition required some mental adjustment. The success of sequential call numbers as a means of efficient shelving and easy retrieval made the move to AbIDs easier. So, bound manuscript volumes of size “N” sit in the same shelving run as cased road maps for the Historic Maps Collection, Cotsen volumes, and others. The items are all safely stored on shelving appropriate for their size and are easy to find. Of course, designation of curatorial responsibility remains in the records and on labels, but it is no longer the first key to finding and managing items on the shelves.

Finally, AbIDs are created via a wholly new process that was developed by a small committee of technical services staff. At the heart of the process is a Microsoft Access database. The database has a simple structure, with only two primary tables. A user signs in, selects a metadata format (MARC, EAD, and “None” are the current options–“None” is for a special case), and designates a size, along with several other data elements required for EAD. The database provides the next unique number for the size a user declares and if items are not already barcoded provides smart barcodes (ones that know which physical item they go with). Rather than requiring users to scan each barcode individually, the database incorporates an algorithm that automatically assigns sequential barcodes after a user enters the first and last item number in a range. For collections described in EAD, the database exports an XML file containing AbIDs, barcodes, and other data. A set of scripts written by Principal Cataloger and Metadata Analyst, Regine Heberlein, then transforms and inserts data from the XML export file into the correct elements in the corresponding collection’s EAD file. (These scripts also generate printable PDF box and folder labels at the same time!) For books and other materials cataloged in MARC, the database uses MacroExpress scripts to update appropriate records in the Voyager cataloging client. Overall, the database complements and improves existing workflows, allowing technical services staff to swiftly generate AbIDs and related item data for use in metadata management systems.

Getting started in the AbID database.

Getting started in the AbID database.

Making metadata and size selections in the AbID database.

Making metadata and size selections in the AbID database.

With the 2015 move we are starting afresh. Old locations and habits are no longer valid. We have a chance to re-think the nature of storage and the purposes being served by our collection management practices. Our vault space is a shared resource, and inefficient use in any area of our department’s collection affects all. With AbIDs, the simple form of the call numbers, their uniform application across curatorial domains, and the means by which they are created make for efficient shelving and retrieval, which ultimately translates into better service for our patrons.

Out With The Old [Lions] And In With The New [Tigers]

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Our current and on-going library renovation has meant a lot of shuffling of our collections from place to place. “For the move” is a phrase constantly uttered in Rare Books these days. But which move? There have been at least 13 so far since 2011! In order to manage all of these moves (great and small), our department formed a task force in 2013, although work had started well before that. This group consists of four members of Technical Services tasked with assessing the current collections situation, providing data for more informed decision-making, and mapping them to new locations. Like all the best endeavors, it usually starts with a survey and an Access database. For each move our basic raison d’etre is to identify what we have on the shelves (sometimes harder than it sounds), identify projects to facilitate the move, fix any problems, anticipate how (and if) the materials will fit on the new shelves, determine any new organizational methods—physical or virtual, plan the move logistics, and see that the collection materials actually get moved…unscathed.

All of these earlier moves brought to light just how many objects our department has stashed away in various corners and drawers—from hulking great historic furniture to delicate pocket watches. You don’t realize it until you have to find a new place for them all! One project that sprung from the last move was to consolidate many of our museum objects into one location and organize them by size and collection number, both of which are numerous. I have come across many interesting objects during this process of reorganization—new to me, but long-standing library “residents”.

One such item is a 21” wide x 10” high bronze tiger statue that had lost its identification number. The distinct patina and artistic style of this beast looked rather familiar. I could come up with at least two sets of life-sized statues on campus that have a similar look. After a rummage through old accession books (worthy of a blog post themselves), I discovered the secret of our diminutive big cat: it is a cast made by A.P. Proctor.

With further investigation, I found out that it is [probably] a cast for the tiger sculptures outside of Nassau Hall. According to an article in the Daily Princetonian from February 19, 1909, the tiger statues currently flanking the steps were preceded by lions. Alexander P. Proctor (1860-1950) was called upon to make the new sculptures, gifted by the class of 1879. Known for his meticulous portrayal of animals, Proctor has sculptures across the country—including Princeton.

So, out with the old and in with the new. Eventually the collections will settle into their new locations and the RBSC staff will settle into our new offices on C-floor later this year. All this moving gives us a chance to reconnect with the past while enjoying new beginnings.