Half-Day AM – From Discovery to Archaeology: Working with Rare-Book MARC Records as Data ($10)

Time: 9:00am-12:00pm

Facilitators: Dolsy Smith (The George Washington University), Jennifer King (The George Washington University), Leah Richardson (The George Washington University)

Max. participants: 25


This three-hour (or half day) workshop will introduce participants to methods, tools, and techniques for working with MARC records as data. While covering some basic computational approaches to cleaning and analyzing a large set of catalog records, we will give special attention to the complexities and ambiguities that make the MARC format and its associated descriptive standards — especially in the context of rare-book cataloging — both a rich source of meaning and a challenging topology for computation. Our metaphor of an archaeology is meant to suggest the multiple strata of information that can reside in such a collection. In addition to information about the contents and publication history of the items in the collection, these records contain evidence of the history of the collection itself (i.e., its provenance and its shape over time), as well as markers of changing descriptive practices.

The goals of the workshop are as follows:

  • To formulate research questions about collections as data, with a focus on rare-book collections;
  • To engage in shared inquiry into the challenges associated with normalizing and analyzing MARC records;
  • To gain familiarity with writing Python code to address such questions.

Participants will get hands-on practice in the following:

  • Loading and parsing a set of MARC records with Python;
  • Serializing a subset of MARC fields and subfields for analysis;
  • Cleaning and normalizing the data in those fields;
  • Doing basic data visualization with Python libraries;
  • Using Python in the Jupyter environment (which facilitates code documentation and reproducibility).

While we will provide a set of MARC records for participants to work with, they are also invited to use their own set of records (provided those records can be downloaded ahead of time and saved as a binary or text file). In addition, we take a de-centered, anti-hierarchical approach to instruction, seeking to create an environment in which workshop leaders and participants alike can share their expertise as programmers, catalogers, rare-book scholars, or simply curious readers. Prior experience in either MARC cataloging or Python is NOT required. The only prerequisite is a a willingness to experiment, to be challenged, and to participate in a shared enterprise of discovery: in other words, curiosity. We prize curiosity as a form of expertise in its own right.


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