Virtual Reference, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Local Note

One of the best privileges of being a staff member at a special collections library is free access to stacks closed to researchers. This is particularly helpful if, like me, you are terrible at remembering long Latin titles; I tend to remember books based on their cover and location. Need a book on a certain subject? Sure, I saw a great one for your project– it was about halfway down that one aisle and has a red cover.  Browsing is also key for my ability to support classes or research into material study. The old adage may warn to never judge a book by its cover, but sometimes I need to wander the stacks looking for the best example of a manuscript waste binding.

Since Burns Library has temporarily closed, I’ve been relying more than ever on alternative ways to gain that same kind of access and information. Enter the library catalog!

Two long rows of shelves, filled with books, from the stacks of Burns Library

The book you need is right down here!

Before anyone can “discover” one of our books, whether through the library’s catalog or other search engines, a lot of work has to be done. While this labor can seem invisible, it is key to everyone’s research. The Technical Services Team at Burns Library spends its days learning more about the physical characteristics and intellectual content of the book, and then trying to describe both according best practices and in ways that researchers might search for and use.

Whether you, too, are trying to discover as much as you can about the material aspects of books while our doors are closed, or want to refine your search skills as you compile your research list for when you can get back to our reading room, here are some suggestions of description fields I find useful, even when I can wander the stacks myself.

Physical Description

Size can tell you a great deal about a book and its intended purpose. But it can be difficult to determine size while reading a book online. Cataloging to the rescue! The “physical description” field can tell you how tall the book is, and often how many pages it is as well. (If you’re based in the United States, make sure you have a converter ready, as description standards are on the metric system.)

Book next to measuring tape showing height paired with image of catalog record reading

The physical description of this copy of Charles Dickens’ The Chimes lists the height as a very small 6cm! PR4572 .C65 1904 GENERAL FOLDERS

Looking particularly for illustrations in books? The physical description field can provide vital clues. The phrases “ill.”, “illus.”, “illustration”, and “plate” in the physical description provide a great clue that there are pictures somewhere in the book, and sometimes an indication of how extensive they are. Maps and portraits may be mentioned as well. This note will occasionally include other details, such as “color illustration,” and whether or not the plates are oversize foldouts.

Tip: This field can be searched! By adding a truncated keyword search (ill* or port*) to your advanced search, you can narrow down your search results to illustrated materials.

Hand unfolding map bound into a book

Use the physical description field to find foldout maps, such as this one from William Dampier’s A new voyage round the world (1699) which is described as “3 v. in 4 : Ill., maps (part fold.), 19 cm. (8vo)”. G420 .D16 1699 WILLIAMS

Local notes

Depending on your research, you may need to know details about a very specific copy of a Burns Library book. For this, turn to the local note.

Interested in the binding of a book? Binding material is often noted in local notes, so you know whether a book has a contemporary calf binding even if you can’t see the book in person.

Tip: This field can be found in a keyword search as well, which is helpful if you are on the hunt for limp vellum bindings or want an example of gold-tooling!

Green book cover with gold, highly-decorated title and spin

Catalogers tip you off on this beautiful cover with the description note, “Gilt edges; front cover and spine with gilt decoration”. Cary, Alice. A Lover’s Diary (1895). PS1265 .L6 1868 GENERAL

Interested in provenance, the record of who owned the book throughout its life? Inscriptions may be noted in the local note as well. In some cases the inscription is transcribed, as in author Graham Greene’s copy of Our Man in Havana, which was given to him by Soviet cosmonaut Georgy Grechko.

Fly leaf of book with handwritten note. Catalog record below reads, " Burns Library copy: bookplate: "From the library of Graham Greene" ; inscription below epigraph: "There are books which you forget as soon as you've read them, there are some which make you read them a second and a third time. And as to this one -- I've been rereading it all my life, both on Earth and in space. I've learnt it by heart. While in Havana I specially visited all the places described here. This is the most valuable thing of mine and I give it back to you with gratitude. [B? Gretchia!?]," dated from 7.9.85 ; extensive notes throughout text."

The local note for this copy of Our Man in Havana includes a transcription of the note at the front of the book. PR6013 .R44 O8 1962 GREENE’S LIBRARY

For some research projects, annotations and marginalia– otherwise known as people writing or doodling in the margins of their books — can be a goldmine but nearly impossible to find. Cataloging to the rescue, yet again! Local notes can mention annotations, and include a sense of how extensive these notes are. On the rare cases that we know who annotated the book, that may be noted.

Tip: You guessed it, this field can be searched! Try variations such as “marginalia”, “annotations” and “inscriptions”  in a keyword search to find books where prior owners have left their mark

Hand-drawn pen sketch of bird on top of pyramid of shields

You can find this sketch, drawn by some prior owner of L’art des emblemes (1662), via the local note, which reads “Burns Library copy: drawings in ink and pencil on front and rear flypages; some scribbling.”. CR19 .M464 1662 JESUITICA


Other parts of the catalog record can also be very helpful. Description includes helpful notes about the text of the book, which can include the collation formula (those funny letters and numbers you see on the bottom of some pages), details about decorations on the title page, if it includes an index, and other similar notes that can give you a sense of what to expect from the book.

As you continue to research during this time of online classes and social distancing, there is a lot you can find in the notes of a catalog record, if you know where to look. Of course, we’re here to help as well. Contact the Burns reference team for any questions about searching for materials or interpreting the descriptive content.

–Kathleen Monahan, Reference, Instruction & Digital Services Librarian

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1 Response to Virtual Reference, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Local Note

  1. Paul Connolly (1970) says:

    This article is informative and entertaining. Thank you, Kathleen, for bringing the catalog to life for us.

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