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During the second meeting of Curating Hidden Collections & the Black Archive (CHC), Jennifer MacDonald, Jaime Margalotti, and Theresa Hessey, librarians from the University of Delaware’s Special and Digital Collections, came and spoke to our class.[1] They laid out the nuts and bolts of the practice of metadata and cataloguing for us—a vital presentation, even if it was initially overwhelming to someone with no cataloging or programming background. These practices guided us through the semester in our work cataloguing and creating metadata for digital archive of “The Baltimore Collection.” In my notes from that day, among the many acronyms and technical terms, I took down the guiding words Jaime Margalotti told us catalogers must live by: “more product, less process.”

These words cut to the core of the practical, everyday work of cataloging—a librarian or archivist needs to be able to get through large quantities of material efficiently and accurately. As Jaime told us, “too much detail is deadly” in archiving. These words have stuck with me throughout the semester, particularly when I consider the largely unseen labor of metadata in the context of its importance. As Murtha Baca lays out in her “Practical Principles for Metadata Creation and Maintenance,” “Metadata creation is one of the core activities of collecting institutions and memory institutions. Quality metadata creation is just as important as the care, preservation, display, and dissemination of collections; adequate planning and resources must be devoted to this ongoing, mission-critical activity.”[2] Metadata creation is something that much be approached carefully, thoughtfully, and professionally, but—essentially—it must also be produced consistently.[3] Visiting guest speaker Erika Piola reinforced this message in her discussion of the work of cataloging and her approach to it.[4] Piola emphasized that the work of an archivist is enormous and nearly endless, and thus, in addition to being careful and thorough with the process, an archivist must be expedient or the work will not be produced.

A casual perusal of “The Baltimore Collection” WordPress site, however, let alone of the class syllabus, shows that our work includes vast amount of process for comparatively little cataloging product. From a metadata standpoint, the twelve of us (eleven students led by our instructor, Dr. Julie McGee) produced in three months what a single cataloguer would need to produce far more efficiently.

We spent weeks looking at and critiquing metadata examples from other institutions, reading about theory of the archive and the history of Black photography, and talking to experts from a variety of relevant disciplines about their work.[5] We thoroughly discussed every stylistic decision, collaboratively created a style guide to ensure uniformity, and provided each other extensive feedback about the metadata we created.[6] We produced a final product we are proud of and that reflects our carefully considered decisions on how to approach the issues we feel exist in cataloging.

It is important for us, and for our readers, however, to recognize the tremendous position of privilege our work represents, particularly in terms of time. As students in this graduate-level course we were spending class time (3 hours a week) as well as out of class time to work on this single, small project (this project is small in terms of the number of objects; we do not believe the significance of “The Baltimore Collection” or the work we have done on it is small). We had the time to explore nearly every research lead we conceived of or others suggested, and had the research guidance of librarian Carol Rudisell who not only came to our class and talked us through advanced research methods and databases for our project but also created an exhaustive library research guide page for us to use throughout the semester.[7]

I am certainly not listing these benefits to criticize the work of our class. I am celebrating it while also seeking to remind us and visitors to this site of the position we are working from. It is impossible for me to consider our privilege without linking it to the larger issues of privilege in libraries and archives we engaged with throughout the semester, particularly the white- and western-centric cataloging and classification systems that are the established norms. Our readings reshaped how I understand these institutions and systems. Alberto Manguel describes the origins of the ‘objective’ Dewey Decimal Classification System, in which Dewey based his idea of objectivity on Anglo-Saxonism, deciding “that everything ‘not Anglo-Saxon’ could somehow be forced to fit into categories of Anglo-Saxon devising.”[8] Marisa Elena Duarte and Miranda Belarde-Lewis make the results of this (not to mention centuries of pre-Dewey Western information collection) clear, “At this point in history, libraries, museums, and archives, and the cataloging and classification systems promulgated therein, are designed around a Western European orientation to texts, reading, and the categorical particularization of knowledge…From the perspective of the systemically oppressed, library catalogs read like a great mirror of the modern Western consciousness.”[9]

The privilege of CHC enables us, as students, to engage in the push back against this white-centered classification system—to join archivists and scholars in thinking about cultural oppression and ways to counteract it.[10] Our experience working with the enthusiastic and supportive University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press, who guided us through the systems that exist and supported our ideas that fell outside of cataloging norms, brings to mind what writer/activist/educator/poet Walidah Imarisha calls for in a keynote address about the need for community archives. Imarisha argues that community archive activists can use “a diversity of tactics” based on the concept of “‘yes, and’ rather than ‘no, but.’” She believes community archives are “not about saying no to institutional archives, no to university archives. It’s saying ‘yes, and.’” Imarisha calls on archivists to find “spaces and ways to reclaim” and “subvert” the “white supremacist patriarchal capitalism” that she believes university systems were “created to maintain.”[11] One particular and significant way “The Baltimore Collection” itself answers this call is through its very existence in the University’s Special Collections and Museums. The act of including and acknowledging Black material culture in institutional archives decolonizes the archive, and is a necessary step in evolving the theory and practice of cataloging.

I am calling attention to the privilege of our work in CHC and to the historic and enduring issues of privilege in libraries and collections because I hope “The Baltimore Collection” and the work we did with it can continue to serve as a catalyst for important discussions. These discussions must question archival norms and consider nontraditional and radical approaches to cataloging and libraries, all while being cognizant of the practical realities of metadata creation. As I explain in Note 10, theorists are catalogers and catalogers are theorists. As we were told by many of the experts we worked with when we asked them about the decisions they made, much of cataloging is “a judgment call.”[12] Change in cataloging comes from the meeting of theory and practice in these ‘judgment calls,’ as our class learned while we worked together to create a style guide for our metadata. This is where the “process” of CHC meets the production of metadata. Change in “process” must evolve alongside continual development of “product.”


[1] Jennifer MacDonald, Associate Librarian and Coordinator, Special Collections Cataloging Unit from the Metadata Services Department; Jaime Margalotti, Associate Librarian, Archival Description Librarian from the Special Collections Department; Theresa Hessey, Assistant Librarian from the Center for Digital Collections.

[2] Murtha Baca, “Practical Principles for Metadata Creation and Maintenance.” In Introduction to Metadata, edited by Murtha Baca. 3rd ed. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2016.

[3] Baca highlights the “professionally” element later in the same piece. She calls for “an adequate number of appropriately trained staff.” However, it is important to note that Introduction to Metadata also addresses the increased democratization of metadata creation in the digital age. In “Setting the Stage” Anne J. Gilliland tells us that as more information resources became web-based “metadata considerations were no longer solely the province of information professionals” and, in fact, that the creation of this digital metadata is frequently in the hands of people unfamiliar with the term itself. This certainly does not lessen the need for information professionals working with institutions; it highlights the need for a broader understanding of metadata.

[4] Erika Piola, Associate Curator of Prints and Photographs and Co-Director of the Visual Culture Program, The Library Company, Philadelphia

[5] See “About” for a complete list of visiting scholars.

[6] I encourage you to visit “Our Artstor Guidelines” under the “Theory and Practice” menu to view an annotated version of our style guide. It walks you through each Artstor data field we used, what the Shared Shelf guidelines are for it, what we decided to do, and an explanation of why we made that decision.

[7] Carol Rudisell, Librarian, Reference and Instructional Services Department, University of Delaware.

[8] Alberto Manguel. “The Library as Order.” In The Library at Night, 36-63. Yale University Press, 2006., 59-60.

[9] Marisa Elena Duarte & Miranda Belarde-Lewis (2015) “Imagining: Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies,” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 53:5-6, 677-702, DOI:10.1080/01639374.2015.1018396, 683.

[10] I list both archivists and scholars here but I view them as one and the same. The scholars whose writings we read also engage (or have engaged) in the day-to-day work of cataloging and those who deal primarily with the daily work of cataloging spend their entire careers discussing and dealing with these issues. Laura E. Helton’s forthcoming essay, “On Decimals, Catalogs, and Racial Imaginaries of Reading,” in PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (2018) reinforces the power of the cataloger as theorist in telling the story of Dorothy Porter, the first curator of Howard University’s Negro Collection. Porter, working from a Black center, radically revised much of Dewey’s system to create a system for a Black archive and who also worked to aid researchers across the country by creating bibliographies that identified “undetected” examples of Black print culture “readily found in local libraries” but hidden within Dewey’s system. Porter fuels social change through the work of cataloging, through databases and (re-)categorization.

[11] Walidah Imarisha, opening keynote address at The Liberated Archive: A Forum for Envisioning and Implementing a Community Based Approach to Archives, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) 2017 annual conference in Portland, OR. Transcript accessed through her website,

[12] This particular phrase comes from Erika Piola’s visit to our class, but the theme came up frequently throughout the semester.

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