I am knee deep in the Western Americana archival collections of the Magnes–physically processing them and cataloging them for access at the Bancroft. I find myself reflecting frequently on the power of the cataloger, that creature who selects and categorizes and classifies and shapes our access to so many things. Oh, I know. All things are relative and the cataloger’s power is perhaps not as impressive as that of, say, your average Wall Street executive. But with our dependence on metadata in so many spheres of our lives growing all the time, we might want to think a little more about how the cataloger (broadly defined) exercises his or her special power over us.
I know it is the decisions of the cataloger, first and foremost, that determine whether people easily find the information they seek. What the cataloger reveals (and doesn’t reveal) in any given catalog record could mean the difference between a collection or item, on the one hand, reaching interested researchers and, on the other hand, remaining unknown and unexplored for decades to come.
In my role as cataloger for the Western Americana archival collections of the Magnes, I make decisions everyday that I hope will bring these collections and researchers together in new and and exciting ways. Even small decisions made in cataloging, like the ones I made the other day to highlight a couple of hidden gems in the Adele Solomons Jaffa and Myer E. Jaffa papers, might establish some new connections out there. Maybe the collection’s photograph of Sarah and Michael Stein at the wedding of their son Allen in Paris in 1922 or the 1899 booklet called Hither and Thither in California, which provides an illustrated report on a trip organized by Myer E. Jaffa of agricultural scientists around Northern California, will find their researcher. It sounds a little corny, but that is the joy of cataloging to me!
Below is the photograph of the Steins. I snapped it with my iphone, so it is a little blurry.