Behind the scenes Collections Long read Series

Digitising and Cataloguing the Special Collections: Bringing the Digital Backlog and Cataloguing Practice under Control

 Posted on behalf of Ourania Karapasia, Metadata Assistant (Imaging).

In my previous post: Digitising and Cataloguing the Special Collections  I gave a condensed account of digitisation and image cataloguing that has taken place at The John Rylands Library over the last decade. This post will focus on how we have developed our cataloguing practices to a point where we are now working without the shadow of a legacy backlog hanging over us.

Our service usually receives and processes up to 1000 enquiries annually, originating from any source and for various purposes. An enquiry may involve the digitisation of just one leaf of a manuscript or the entire volume. There is no limit as to the number of images one can order and so digitisation requests, because of their size, often become ‘small-scale projects’ in their own right. For example, the digitisation of 200 letters from a specific archive would require a considerable amount of time and effort for both the photographers and the cataloguers.

All of our images and records are manually catalogued and uploaded into our online collections database. Images from the Library’s collections can be accessed directly through the Manchester Digital Collections, using the Luna software. What really happens behind the scenes though, is neither direct nor straightforward.

In 2015, I had the privilege to join what was then the Heritage Imaging Team. Finally, I would be able to immerse myself in working with the Library’s digital collections. At that time however, the Team’s modus operandi was going through a period of considerable transition. We were upgrading our system to LUNA 7 software and the actual migration process from LUNA 6 to LUNA 7 resulted in duplicated, background collections that had to be processed in order to facilitate a smooth and successful launch of the new Luna Library. What is more, new digital preservation standards were introduced and brought with them the need to assess and prepare both images and metadata. Also, new digital collections were created, and these required redistribution and reorganisation of images and records. As a result, since 2015 we have more than trebled the number of our digital collections. Notable collections include:  The Mary Hamilton Papers, the Elizabeth Gaskell Collection, the Dante Collection, the Hebraica Collection, the Maps Collection and the Peterloo Collection.

Through all these changes, as cataloguers, we had to make sure our aims were constantly met: to ensure that a consistent set of cataloguing standards and procedures were applied, maintained and revised where appropriate. As a consequence of these changes (mentioned above), all our collections of images and records were thoroughly reviewed for the first time. LUNA authorities were revisited, metadata standards were rechecked, and records and headings were re-edited and upgraded.

As these developments were taking place, our legacy information recorded in spreadsheets was never updated, resulting in inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and items being photographed more than once. This left the team not only with unnecessary workload; it also meant we were performing ineffectively as a unit. Further, photographing the same material over and over again did not represent best practice around the preservation standards that we aspired to work towards. It became apparent that this backlog issue had to be put to bed.

In 2016, I was delighted that my proposal to tackle the backlog was approved and that I was going to be leading the project and coordinating all practices related to cataloguing. Our legacy spreadsheets had to be assessed and processed in conjunction with LUNA. This process resulted in 3 main categories. We had material that was:

  • PUBLISHED: which included all the catalogued material available online in LUNA
  • NOT PUBLISHED which included:
  • incomplete records already in LUNA
  • all the material with copyright and IPR issues
  • images that hadn’t been catalogued at all
  • NOT TO BE PUBLISHED: which included all the material identified as unlikely to be published in the future:
  • old images replaced by new imaging
  • images for internal Staff use
  • images where the Masterfile was corrupted or lost

The first point of call during the item-by-item assessment was to identify items that were digitised in their entirety and catalogue, upload (as Bookreader objects), and make them available (publish) online. Next, incomplete records already in LUNA but with no images attached were identified; the metadata was upgraded, and images uploaded and linked. Items remaining unpublished consist of materials subject to Copyright and IPR restrictions. However, there is strong likelihood that the majority of these will eventually become available online, if enquiries for permission were to be pursued in the future.

After identifying the items that needed processing, thousands of images were catalogued and uploaded into LUNA in all three formats: as single images, Bookreaders and PDFs. Some of the newly catalogued highlights from the backlog work include: VPH.47.1-100: Stereo cards: Western Front 1914-1917 and VPH.46.1-100: Japanese Russian War Through the Stereoscope; the uncatalogued – WFP: John Dalton Album, 1833-1903; a number of items from Thrale-Piozzi Manuscripts; several items from the Papers of Edward Augustus Freeman [EAF]: Letters to Freeman on miscellaneous subjects; large number of various items from the Methodist Collections; over 250 images of the The John Rylands Library historic building; hundreds of Bookreaders as a ProQuest 2012-2013. In addition, the Copyright on Arthur Rackham’s magnificent works expired in 2010 so, images uploaded and linked to the already existent records were also made available online: R141905: Arthur Rackham’s book of pictures, with an introduction by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch; and many more…

The chart below is a general visual representation of published and unpublished material after the backlog had been tackled. The numbers are indicative of the total of all the images that have been catalogued, throughout the last [nearly] decade.


It was of great significance not only to eradicate the backlog, but also to ensure it did not come back to haunt us. This was achieved by introducing a number of procedures. A workflow was established to ensure that at the end of each month a dedicated cataloguer and a photographer took cataloguing forward (monthly cataloguing) so records and images could be imported into LUNA and linked. In order for our cataloguing to be effective and accessible, we defined and established the basic level of information that should go into a record. Scheduling and sustaining recurrent, bi-weekly meetings in order to discuss our challenges, actions and priorities, balanced this. Looking back, we have a more continuous process now, rather than the on-off process we had before; we have managed to be consistent with these monthly cataloguing practices and thus, for the last three years, we have been backlog-free.

As a result, we are now in the advantageous position where we have control over our digital images and their relevant metadata. Whether published or not, our ever-growing digital collections can be easily accessed to organise, manage and preserve through our current single source of Digital Asset Management (LUNA).

Over the last year, there have been a lot of changes to our team and a lot of our functions have been reshaped. Colleagues have moved on, we (the cataloguers) have been incorporated into a larger team (CCD – Content, Creation and Discovery) within the University Library, and there are a lot of fresh ideas and practices to look forward to, such as the forthcoming Digital Image Viewer and the new TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) standards. I am proud to have faced the challenges of the backlog in a positive and proactive way and of being instrumental in establishing cataloguing practices and standards. It may feel like it is the end of an era but one with a clear and promising horizon.


4 comments on “Digitising and Cataloguing the Special Collections: Bringing the Digital Backlog and Cataloguing Practice under Control

  1. Penelope Blackburn

    Brilliant! Well done all of you🎉 What a sense of achievement you must feel. A good job well done, and lasting legacy for those who will come after you, always a nice feeling💖

    I remember working as a volunteer in the Wolfson Room a few years ago transcribing a collection of letters from WW1; it was quite a journey, a very proud and fullfilling one not least because of the nature of their subject matter. I was a little apprehensive though when then sent me off to do the encoding course!

    But, but! For someone who was very good at avoiding anything computer related up untill about 10 or so years ago, I was quite proud of myself. The lovely people in the Wolfson Room believed I could do it, so.did I!

    I guess it’s all about faith and an end goal in mind, and of course a little bit of ‘Pixie Dust’ 🌠

    If you do have the time to reply, could you explain the differences between an Archivist’s role and that of a Catalogue? Do those roles cross-over sometimes? I assume they relate in some way.

    Many Thanks and very best wishes for all future endeavours😊🌈

    Penny Blackburn

    • aanderton

      Hi Penny,

      Thank you so much for sharing your story and for your lovely comments…

      I’ m not sure if I got this right but here is my answer to your question:

      They do and they don’t cross-over as the use of definitions, terminology and practice can all differ from one institution and discipline to the next. An Archivist has a specific qualification that involves management and preservation of archives and records; cataloguing is an integral part of such a role. A Cataloguer is anyone who is involved in cataloguing practices. Cataloguing is more of an aspect of a role. The real difference between an archivist and a cataloguer lies in the nature of material that they are dealing with. In a library context, there are archivists, curators and collections assistants that specialise in cataloguing manuscripts, printed books, and collections of personal papers as well as visual material; all following appropriate metadata standards applicable to the respective materials.

      Regardless of the nature of the material, when it comes to digital, cataloguing is a different world, a technological one.
      Digitisation is the process of creating an item from original, existing format to a digital format. The digital image file created from the item, becomes the digitised version of the actual item, which can be stored and shared electronically. The digital assets that are created will need to be catalogued.

      Our own LUNA schema is based on multiple standards such as Machine-Readable Cataloguing (MARC) standards; Visual Resource Association Core (VRA); Library of Congress Subject and Name Headings; Getty Arts and Architecture Thesaurus (AAT), Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names (TGN), and Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI). These metadata standards can sometimes modify, adjust and/or enhance original cataloguing descriptions borrowing and acquiring relevant data from all existent sources of information.

      I hope this helps!

      Best wishes


  2. Mumtaz Currim

    Bravo and God Bless is all I can say. All the
    Best for 2019.

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