Unknown Treasures: Cataloging the Andover-Harvard Rare Book Backlog

Project Summary

Submitted by Nell Carlson of Andover-Harvard Theological Library.

We propose a year-long project to complete cataloging for a portion of the rare book backlog at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library.

Andover-Harvard has been without a dedicated rare book cataloger for many years. As a result, a backlog of 1,758 uncataloged titles has accumulated, consisting of materials acquired decades ago. Books have provisional records in Harvard's local catalog only and so are difficult to find in HOLLIS and largely invisible to external researchers.

Recently, staff discovered in this backlog a Bible with a note identifying it as having belonged to the great 16th-century Protestant Reformer, Philip Melanchthon. The provisional cataloging made no reference to this note or to the fact that the book was annotated. Furthermore, the record had a date of publication incorrect by fifty years. If funded, this project could unearth even more unknown treasures.

Two-thirds of these books were printed before 1700, including 300 printed before 1600. Most are in Latin and German with smaller subsets in other languages. Many volumes are inscribed or annotated, though provenance data is lacking. The nature of the material necessitates the hiring of a highly-skilled cataloger. The project cataloger needs experience with rare books, facility with the relevant languages, as well as subject knowledge in theology and preferably Reformation history.

As part of the project, items would be triaged for conservation treatment. Where item condition permits, the project would include the scanning and deposit in the DRS of title pages, etc. as part of the Scanning Key Content initiative. Notable, newly discoverable items would be announced through appropriate media.

Amount requested is $80,000-$95,000 Salary + fringe for term project librarian to catalog the materials.

Expected Results with Partial Funding

Even partial funding could advance this project, provided that an appropriate candidate could be hired. A joint appointment between Andover-Harvard and another Harvard library with rare book cataloging needs might be more appealing to a potential employee than a part-time engagement.

Estimated Follow-on Activities and/or Costs

Follow-on costs will include ongoing DRS storage fees for the “key content” scanned and deposited. The Andover-Harvard Library will be able to cover these costs through existing lines in its annual operating budget.

Benefit to Harvard Scholars and Patrons

The project will greatly improve access to an important collection of rare books. Researchers will have a more predictable search experience, and problems related to transcription will be reduced. In some cases scans of title pages will allow users (both internal and external to Harvard) to determine themselves whether the book we hold is the version sought, saving time and energy.

Ways the Project Supports Cross-Unit or Cross-Discipline Activities

Fuller description will allow for more effective search and discovery actions both for known item searches and for other search activity. As part of the project, information about the book as physical object will be drawn out (including provenance, annotations, and interesting binding features) that may be of interest to scholars outside the fields of theology and early modern history.

Resources the Sponsoring Library Can Support or Will Need Support For

Andover-Harvard holds a rich reference collection that will be essential to cataloging the backlog efficiently. Library staff would provide Macro support to make the routine parts of cataloging as efficient as possible. The library also holds scanning equipment to facilitate capture of “key content.” Costs for urgent conservation activities will be borne by Andover-Harvard.

Other Approaches to Achieving Goal or Result

As suggested above, at least a portion of the backlog could be processed during the period covered by the grant if we shared a term rare book cataloger with appropriate linguistic ability and subject knowledge with another Harvard library.

Risks if Proposal Is Not Approved

The primary risk is that important, unique resources will remain unknown to the scholars who can use them.

Evaluate Proposal

Please evaluate this project by the four criteria below and provide comments in the comment field.