Swimming with the Fiches: Reviving the International Aerospace Abstracts Collection to Make It Discoverable and Accessible to Researchers

By Davis, Angela R.; Edmunds, Jeff | Library Resources & Technical Services, January 2018 | Go to article overview

Swimming with the Fiches: Reviving the International Aerospace Abstracts Collection to Make It Discoverable and Accessible to Researchers


Davis, Angela R., Edmunds, Jeff, Library Resources & Technical Services


Imagine yourself stumbling upon a forgotten microfiche collection in the far reaches of your library. Fiche is no longer a preferred format for information storage, but before online databases were commonplace, microformats allowed libraries to provide access to large collections in a small footprint. This format is alien to many of today's users. With the rapid evolution of research libraries away from warehouses for physical items and toward spaces for collaborative creation, research, and learning, many uncataloged or undercataloged collections are being moved off-site or discarded. This may cause these collections to become lost. Microformat collections are especially susceptible to this fate because few libraries have cataloged these collections at the title level. The absence of good title level metadata makes it difficult for libraries to know what they own and for users to find what they seek.

A newly discovered or rediscovered microformat collection raises many questions: Is the collection still useful to users? Has it been cataloged? If not, does metadata exist? What are the best methods for ensuring discovery and access? Does the library still own the equipment required to access the information in this format?

These questions were explored through a case study of an extensive collection of full-text aerospace engineering papers issued on microfiche from 1967 to 1973 held at Penn State University (PSU) Engineering Library that are abstracted and indexed in International Aerospace Abstracts (IAA), published by the Technical Information Service of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Microformats are flat pieces of film containing microphotographs of document pages. The IAA papers are a collection of journal articles, conference papers, monographs, and theses from mostly Soviet Bloc scientists and engineers. This collection is important to researchers because it covers international aerospace research during the height of the space race between the Soviet Union and United States. Most of the papers are in English or Russian, and approximately two dozen other languages are represented. While the information contained in the collection is partially duplicated in other sources, IAA is one of the only resources to gather Soviet Bloc technical aerospace information in one place.

Microfiche collections in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects are particularly easy to overlook because this format is far less prevalent than in the humanities or social sciences. In Heynen's extensive survey of microformat collections held by libraries, the vast majority of sets are historical, literary, or humanistic in focus. Of the eighty-five sets given highest priority for cataloging by libraries, only three are science-related: Landmarks of Science parts 1 and 2, and United States National Technical Information Service Selected Reports in Microfiche (SRIM). IAA does not appear on the lists. (1) The goal of this case study is to help librarians tasked with making decisions about microformat collections and, more broadly, about any collection that runs the risk of being overlooked. Decision points, workflows, results, and cataloging practices are explored.

Literature Review

Libraries acquired microforms for a variety of reasons. They offered a way for libraries to provide access to large collections in an economical and space-saving way. (2) Additionally, microform collections contained research material that was not readily available electronically and did so in a format ideal for long-term preservation. (3) These factors made microformat collections desirable to libraries since the 1940s. Even in the digital age, some information is still only available on microform. Despite this fact, microforms are often not treated in a similar manner to other library materials. (4) Almost all library-held microform collections are under: or uncataloged, resulting in a lack of understanding of the value these collections bring to the library. …

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