Cataloging and Digitizing Ephemera: One Team's Experience with Pennsylvania German Broadsides and Fraktur

By Copeland, Ann; Hamburger, Susan et al. | Library Resources & Technical Services, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Cataloging and Digitizing Ephemera: One Team's Experience with Pennsylvania German Broadsides and Fraktur


Copeland, Ann, Hamburger, Susan, Hamilton, John, Robinson, Kenneth J., Library Resources & Technical Services


The growing interest in ephemera collections within libraries will necessitate the bibliographic control of materials that do not easily fall into traditional categories. This paper discusses the many challenges confronting catalogers when approaching a mixed collection of unique materials of an ephemeral nature. Based on their experience cataloging a collection of Pennsylvania German broadsides and Fraktur at the Pennsylvania State University, the authors describe the process of deciphering handwriting, preserving genealogical information, deciding on cataloging approaches at the format and field level, and furthering access to the materials through digitization and the Encoded Archival Description finding aid. Observations are made on expanding the skills of traditional book catalogers to include manuscript cataloging, and on project management.

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Ephemera and ephemera collections well deserve the attention they are receiving of late. Academic librarians concerned with exposing hidden collections have acknowledged the value of ephemera. (1) The American Antiquarian Society has pointed to ephemera among its primary resources that allow scholars to study print culture from its earliest beginnings in North America. (2) The Library of Congress' digital collection, "An American Time Capsule, Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera," celebrates "the everyday activities of ordinary people who participated in the events of nation-building" captured within the artifacts. (3) The September 2005 symposium, "Ephemera Across the Atlantic: Popular Print Culture in Two Worlds," sponsored by the Library Company of Philadelphia and Winterthur Museum and Country Estate, focused on the wealth and variety of genres in public and private hands--from early printed broadsides to contemporary culinary artifacts, from the sacred to the secular. Several monographs and two major exhibitions on the Pennsylvania German broadside, and the launch of a project at the University of Gottingen to record all broadsides printed in North America in the German language between 1700 and 1830, reveal a groundswell of current activity regarding ephemera. (4)

The recent experience of the Pennsylvania State University Libraries Special Collections Cataloging Team in cataloging a collection of ephemera, consisting of Pennsylvania German broadsides and Fraktur, was timely in addressing access to such materials. The term Fraktur, which originally described a type of German printing similar to old English Gothic, today refers generically to a form of Pennsylvania German folk art, in print or manuscript, that is embellished with illustrations of birds, hearts, flowers, and angels to document births and baptisms, marriages, and other occasions. When cataloging these items, the intermingling of folk art with printing, handwriting, and graphics raised many questions. With genealogical material calling out to be preserved, how much should be recorded? Given the hand-painted folk art and the graphic dimensions of the individual pieces, what set of cataloging rules--graphic, manuscript, or monographic--should be used? With clusters of like items, how should one decide between a collection-level versus item-level approach? What kinds of metadata might be suitable for a digital presentation of such materials?

This paper discusses the various challenges of cataloging mixed collections of ephemera and makes a case for ensuring access to ephemera through Machine Readable Cataloging (MARC), Encoded Archival Description (EAD) finding aids, and, ideally, digitization. It also describes the way one cataloging team worked through the issues to solve problems, document decisions, and create a metadata-rich digital project.

Literature Review

In a theme issue of Rare Book and Manuscript Librarianship on "Descriptive Cataloging of 19th Century Imprints for Special Collections," Zeitz suggested that the "bibliographic control of ephemera is now in its infancy, with the exception of the major ephemeral genres: broadsides and the graphic arts (woodcuts, engravings, drawings and lithographs), book-like pamphlets, and major manuscript materials such as letters, diaries, journals, and ledgers. …

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