Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Micro Press In Online Databases: Karen's Objectives for Cataloging the Underground

Cutter’s cataloging objectives suggest that a catalog should be useful for finding, collocating, and identifying works (Taylor, 2004). Though published in 1904, I believe they still apply to today’s online cataloging environment. But what, if anything, is unique about cataloging micro press items such as zines, underground newspapers, handmade or xeroxed books, or even perfect-bound books from very small presses? If there is something unique about cataloging these items, then what might small press databases have to offer small publishers, researchers, acquisitions librarians, and library catalogers? After my initial perusal of a number of online catalogs, coupled with my own background (over about the last 10 years) in small press (as [variously] bookseller, writer, publisher, editor, promoter, distributor, and book designer), I came up with my own objectives to be added to Cutter’s. I believe that small press catalogs should serve the additional purposes of Visibility, Context, Sharability, and Aesthetic Viability. For this paper I will look at five online catalogs against these objectives: ABC No Rio, CMC, Edmonton Small Press Association, Printed Matter, and Zine Wiki.

By Visibility I mean that organizing and describing these books offers them (and their publishers and creators) a higher profile in the world. Small press books and zines have both transience and other idiosyncrasies that make them variously: hard to obtain, hard to shelve, unknown outside of tight-knit circles, not profitable enough for many bookstores to carry or promote, rarely advertised, and/or less reviewed than other books. Visibility means that there is a system of bibliographic records which yields more chance for readers, buyers, catalogers, and researchers to see, be aware of, browse, and imagine these items. Additionally (and more simply), visibility means that an item in a collection is made known by the fact of a catalog. As librarian Sandy Berman (1981) has said, “It’s not enough to simply acquire alternative and small press materials. They must also be made easily accessible to...users by means of intelligible, accurate, and generous cataloging.”

By Context I mean that a catalog is a chance to point to an item’s community origins, the nature of its publisher, associated publications, publication history, or its author’s biography; or in short, its place on an historical/literary/artistic continuum. Context shows a potential buyer or researcher why to consider this book, an acquisitions librarian why to collect it, and sometimes, a cataloger how to classify it. By Sharability I mean the catalog should employ relevant metadata, and by relevant I mean in two directions. The metadata for micro press items should allow for description of the specific physical and content idiosyncrasies of these items, so, relevant to sharing the subculture of micro press with the user. Zine librarian, Julie Bartel (2004), writes of the many different physicalities that may be part of the zine’s bibliographic description, including “size, page length, printing style, binding, graphics, ‘extras’ and cover material....” By relevant I also mean metadata should be relevant to/potentially sharable with other databases. An online catalog for a store selling handmade books shouldn’t waste the opportunity to become a sharer of information with, say, a short-on-time “copy cataloger” organizing a zine collection at a public library. As Earl Lee pointed out in a 1995 article, since “libraries have come to rely more and more on shared cataloging,” the reason libraries don’t acquire more small press items is “not the content, but the format.....The real problem is in processing the book.”

By Aesthetic Viability I mean that the creators and publishers of micro press items have spent so much time and energy making their books and zines unique and attractive, that I believe that these online catalogs best do their holdings justice when the aesthetics of the catalog itself maintain design that is unique and attractive. Further, quality website design best serves both the user and the site content when it is well-organized for findability: the look of a site and its findability soon become almost the same quality. So, this last objective brings us back to the first. I believe Aesthetic Viability can become nearly synonymous with Visibility: If I don’t enjoy looking at or maneuvering through a website, I won’t spend much time there, and I won’t see or know the items described therein.

ABC No Rio’s Zine Library Database:


[The ABC No Rio Zine Library catalog is no longer online. I've since pasted in the Wayback Machine's view of its search engine]

ABC No Rio’s database offers the browser 42 categories for their 7000 zines, and the categories are not exclusive—one zine I look up falls under both “Seafood” and “Environmentalism.” The best feature of this database is its potential Sharability with other databases, as the record set-up (not every field is always filled in) offers a good number of relevant descriptors—such as frequency, volume/issue number, author, editor, list of contents, place of publication, keywords, and format, among others. In this sense these descriptors also offer a Context that is relevant both to the zine browsers coming to the site and to the zines themselves. But the number of descriptors and the layout of their names: “place_of_publication” I also find a bit cumbersome to read on the page. Each record has its own page, but the user must scroll down to find the whole record. Coupled with the lack of pictures or of differentiating font characteristics (save for putting the zine title in bold), I find the overall Aesthetic Viability more basic than inviting, and sometimes a bit off-putting.

Civic Media Center: http://www.civicmediacenter.org/db/

In the Civic Media Center database, I spend more time trying to figure out what field the given information belongs to than being able to imagine what the item might be. This is the only database of the five that has bibliographic records but no names for the descriptors, such as Title, Author, Description. In a bib record for “To Be One: A Battle Against Racism,” “Rutstein, Nathan” is the second bit of data given--presumably the author. But in the fourth field it lists “George Ronald.” Without a descriptor such as “Editor,” “Subject,” or “Publisher,” this latter piece of data is useless, and so, this record fails the Sharability test. It does not share well with the user trying to learn about this item, nor with the librarian trying to copy-catalog this item. The largest field on the record “page” seems to be for comments, a longer description of the book or item, or keywords, but is only sporadically used. There are 7000 books in this database and with very little description and poorly labeled records, not much Context is offered, nor enough ways to narrow a search. I would worry about books getting lost in this database, so I would say browsing Visibility is low here, reserved for the most patient researchers.

Edmonton Small Press Association: http://www.edmontonsmallpress.ca/catalog.html

Printed Matter, Inc.: http://printedmatter.org/

Comparatively, I find the Edmonton Small Press Association and Printed Matter databases a dream for micro presses, their catalogers, and their researchers. In each database, an initial browse might offer several records, which come as thumbnail images and abbreviated descriptors, several to a page. Next the user can click on one bibliographic record, which gets its own page and boasts a larger, full-color cover reproduction off to one side and more well-organized descriptors to the other side. Each site scores big for Aesthetic Viability and offers wonderful Visibility to the micro press items and artists’ books held by each institution. Each database also offers descriptors that are relevant to their holdings (as ABC No Rio did): ESPA has Type Detail, Physical Description, a Notes field, and an interactive option for the user to add (site-moderated) Comments. Printed Matter offers the fields Cover [Material], Binding, Process, Color, and Edition.

Zine Wiki: http://zinewiki.com

Finally, Zine Wiki and Printed Matter triumphed for the Context they offer the potential researcher, acquisitions librarian, or library cataloger. Printed Matter’s site has well-displayed links for “Curated Lists” of their holdings (with a paragraph of commentary per list from each curator), and also for “Critical Essays”--written by scholars and curators about PM’s items. Zine Wiki is a Wikipedia-style site, an open-source encyclopedia with entry pages for both zines and their creators. While it does not offer bib records with the kind of organized metadata the other databases had, this site has enormous potential for “connecting the dots” (often literally, with linked pages) and making sense of the far-flung and transient zine scene that flourished in the 1980s and ‘90s and still continues in present-day. Another joy of context-building is the tags at the bottom of each page, called "Categories." These Categories (as on ESPA, “Subject Categories”) can be clicked to collocate all zines tagged with that same descriptor.

Earl Lee (1995) advised that small publishers might forge their own CIP data, the better to be bought and cataloged by libraries. Could these small press databases not serve almost the same function, and much more? Last year's publication of Brandon Stosuy’s Up is Up But So Is Down (2006) is an exciting example of a smartly-researched, illustrated, and annotated anthology coming out of one particular micro press collection (NYU’s Downtown [New York] Collection); for Stosuy, the collection was first made “visible” to him when he was employed in the NYU Library’s rare book room. With a number of significant micro press collections becoming visible through these online catalogs, I do believe that we may have seen only the beginning--both of the appearance of the web catalogs themselves, and the possibilities of their effect on the research, information sharing, and further collection building of micro presses.

Reference List

Bartel, J. (2004). From A to Zine: Building a winning zine collection in your library. Chicago: ALA.

Berman, S. (1981). Access to Alternatives. In S. Berman, The Joy of Cataloging (124-148). Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

Lee, E. (1996). Small publishers and big libraries: How bureaucracy and hugeness work to suppress non-mainstream ideas. In S. Berman and J. P. Danky (Eds.), Alternative library literature, 1994/95: A biennial anthology (91-94). Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.

Stosuy, B. (2006). Up is up, but so is down: New York's downtown literary scene, 1974-1992. New York: New York University Press.

Taylor, A. G. (2004). The organization of information. Library and information science text series. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited.


Earl Lee said...

Thanks for your mention of "Small Publishers and Big Libraries"

These issues are still important today with media consolidation.

Earl Lee


Tricia said...

I'm having a hell of a time finding the link to ABC No Rio's zine database. Do you still see it on their website, or has it disappeared?

tech said...

the Civic Media Center just relaunched its website and we hope that finding things will now be a lot easier, especially with the advanced search.

If you are still interested in zines and have a hard time getting useful information out of our site, we'd love to hear your comments.

Our collection