Committed to Providing Access: Cataloger Honor Moody

Honor Moody, a cataloger, handles posters made by her fourth-grade class, housed in the Schlesinger's collection. Her own contribution, about Mary Queen of Scots, is on the left. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff PhotographerHonor Moody, a cataloger, handles posters made by her fourth-grade class, housed in the Schlesinger's collection. Her own contribution, about Mary Queen of Scots, is on the left. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff Photographer
By Ivelisse Estrada

Honor Moody’s first visit to the Schlesinger Library occurred in the fourth grade. A classmate’s mother—Joyce Antler, a women’s historian and Bunting alumna who has conducted research at the library—organized the field trip. Moody vividly remembers drawing posters with the other children in honor of Women’s History Month, which they presented to the library, and receiving a behind-the-scenes tour.

Years later, while working toward a master’s in library and information science at Simmons College, Moody received a hands-on assignment: go to a local repository and experience the archives as a patron. Thinking back to that long-ago visit, she decided to return to the Schlesinger. “I found the collection of these posters,” she says, “and requested to see them.” There, she saw her own past—in the form of the posters she and her classmates had lovingly drawn—preserved for her future self.

Now Moody is a cataloger of published materials at the Schlesinger Library, a position she has held for 11 years.

Cataloging is the means by which a library asset is described and the record made available to researchers. Back in the day, the record would be kept in a card catalog, which could accommodate only limited information. Today, catalogs are online, and records, no longer limited to a 3"x 5" space, can carry much more information about an item. The more information in the record, the more likely it is that a researcher will find it. “If you collect something and it doesn’t get a description, then nobody can find it,” Moody says. “It may as well not even exist.”

Moody came to cataloging after working in manuscript processing, drawn to the cataloging community’s wide-scale use and reuse of metadata—data that describes documents—and development of new technologies for users’ benefit. “Ultimately,” she says, “the everyday challenge is how best to provide access to our material.” She’s active on a Harvard-wide committee that is concerned with enhancing the efficiency of cataloging processes in the face of an ever-increasing volume of published materials—in both print and e-formats. “We need to take advantage of automated systems to make sure that librarians can focus their energies on the intellectual work of description and not a lot of hand-keying of information,” she says.

The intellectual work of describing materials at a special collections library like the Schlesinger—which, within its focus on women and gender in America, collects items as varied as academic monographs, romance novels, comic books, and cookbooks, along with more ephemeral items—can be rigorous. For example, as an early advocate for zines in the library, Moody often must struggle with clashes between cataloging standards and conventions and the identity politics of “zinesters” themselves. “Zines are created by individuals often within communities, so how can we make sure that those communities are involved in metadata creation?” she asks. “How do we make them accessible more broadly and carry the community ethos into their storage and preservation?” To this end, she has become involved in professional organizations—the Zine Union Catalog and the Zine Librarians (un)Conference—devoted to developing standards for the collection of these unique publications and their participatory cultural production.

Moody is intrigued by issues around collecting e-materials, but she plans to stick with describing the physical objects. “When you read an e-publication, your experience is mediated by the device that you use to read it, but when I hand you a 17th-century book, your interface with it is essentially the same as that of all of the people who have read the book before you,” she says. “There’s something to be said for that materiality in the face of change.”

Journey of a Book: The Cataloging Process

Cataloging is as much about sleuthing as it is about being up-to-date on digital technologies, Library of Congress subject headings, and changing nomenclatures.

By the time a book comes across Honor Moody’s desk for cataloging, it has already been handled by many other people at the library. When the book arrives, a bibliographic record is located—anything from a very good-quality record from one of the cooperative cataloging programs to a stub record created on the fly—and the piece is housed in a special dust jacket or a custom box, which bears the item’s identifying bar code.

Moody locates the item’s record in an online database to ensure the subject headings are accurate. Oftentimes, the description of the item was created in the era of the card catalog—Moody may even need to go to the Schlesinger’s own card catalogs to locate it. She may enhance the description with additional subject headings or include a physical description beyond a transcription of the title page: noting a dust jacket, original binding, special inscriptions, marginalia, or special-numbered printing. Other times, she may be called upon to do original cataloging, which requires a more thorough inspection and the application of appropriate subject headings. Only after the item is thoroughly described in the database does it take the next step in its library journey: to the stacks, where it will be available to researchers.

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