Evaluation and Analysis

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Vertical Files in Museum Libraries: Increased Access Through Flexibility and Collaboration


The value of vertical files in museum libraries has long been debated, but recently there has been a push toward increasing their visibility and shedding light on their value. With this value, comes increasing need for access to these collections. The museum, library and archive community are starting to reach conclusions about what methods of cataloging and, more generally, increasing awareness to these collections is most effective. Because of limited resources and the time consuming nature of the collections, however, no set standard has been reached. Drawing from my own experience cataloging vertical files at the Brooklyn Museum, as well as interviewing cataloger Danny Fermon from the Arcade libraries consortium partner, MOMA, I aim to further explore access options for vertical files in museum libraries, through increased collaboration.

Vertical Files: An Issue or an Asset?

It seems to me that virtually every institution with a library contains a collection that could be deemed “vertical files”; at least most museum libraries that I have encountered have such thing. It also seems like most places are unclear of the best ways to handle them, how to make them accessible, how to maintain them with limited staff, and what value they have to researchers. They inherently pose these problems because they do not fit into traditional library cataloging protocol, yet they don’t constitute an archival collection either. Additionally, vertical files are made of materials that are constantly being produced, either clipped by library staff, or sent to the library from other institutions. The amount of material alone is hard to keep up with for libraries with limited resources.

My very first experience of working in any sort of library setting was when I was a volunteer at the Oregon Historical Society, and I was working mainly with vertical file material. I immediately saw how valuable this resource was. It was often the first place researchers would go when a topic piqued their interest. I think that the some of the library staff saw them as resources for less serious researchers, someone who had a notion or curiosity about a particular subject were told to check here first. It was an easy reference solution. Often this was the case. The person would find an article or two, and that would be enough to satisfy their curiosity, and they would move on. However, over time I found that there were those serendipitous moments when a vertical file would contain a piece of historically significant information, just the information a researcher was looking for. And here the files remained hidden from most, until a reference librarian pointed them in our direction.

Herein lays the problem. Much of the time the value of these resources are questionable, especially when they mostly contain newspaper clippings that can be found on microfilm or digitally. Many librarians today still view these collections as reference files, somewhere to go for some quick answers on a topic, when they should really be viewed as historical files. We saw this attitude in Cynthia Anderson’s article, “Vertical Files: The Super Eights of tomorrow” when she claims, “some of us secretly want to get rid of the vertical file but aren’t ready to take that huge leap yet” (Anderson, 2001). This should not be a leap libraries should consider taking, in my opinion. Much of the ephemeral reference material of yesterday has real historical value to researchers today.

The question remains of how we can maintain and make accessible these files, to properly support this new function. Let me first try to define what a vertical file is in order to begin to answer this question. They may also be referred to as “grey literature,” “ephemera files,” “mixed material files,” “subject files,” “artist files,” “institutional files,” and even “fugitive files”. What all of these have in common is that they are usually literally, a file folder, stored in cabinets or possibly archival boxes, which contain “ephemeral material” on a certain subject, person or place. I will discuss further what constitutes ephemera, but since this project is largely based on observation from my current experience of cataloging vertical files at the Brooklyn Museum, I shall define it from their standpoint. A catalog record for an institutional file in the museum’s online catalog claims that the file contains “announcements, clippings, photographs, press releases, brochures, reviews, invitations, small exhibition catalogs, resumes, other ephemeral material…compiled by BMA library staff from 1917 to the present” (Brookmuse, 2010).

In the case of the Brooklyn Museum, and I believe this to be true of most art libraries, the research value of these collections is unquestionable. These are not files of merely newspaper clippings; they are largely made up of exhibition announcements, small catalogs and other ephemera that document the history of an artist or institution. Because so many museums collect these items for local artists and institutions, these may not be well documented anywhere. In the art world, provenance becomes a very important issue, and these ephemeral materials can help to document this.

In the case of the Brooklyn Museum, one of the strengths of the collection is the material they collect on small Brooklyn based galleries. Often times a search for the gallery in OCLC will return no other holdings and thus this file may be the only accessible material on this institution. Even when there are other holdings, they may not be the same ephemeral material as the Brooklyn Museum contains. An example of this would be the Proteus Gowanus gallery in Brooklyn. There are 4 total records in Worldcat. One is the gallery’s website and two are books published by the gallery on individual artists, and one of these books is available at the Brooklyn Museum as well (Worldcat, 2010).

Additionally, vertical file material can also be valuable as a collection as well. Since the Brooklyn Museum has so many of these files it should be the first place a researcher studying art in Brooklyn of any time period after 1917, should come. It is imperative therefore, that these materials are collated somehow. The Brooklyn Museum does this by adding a subject heading to these records: Art galleries, Commercial. Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.). This brings up another interesting problem confronting vertical files today, which is whether they should be cataloged to the item level or as a collection.

Cataloging Vertical Files: The Old-Fashioned Way

As my experience has taught me, cataloging vertical files individually can be tedious, time-consuming work, which ends up being expensive for most institutions that do not have a constant supply of volunteers or interns willing to do it. Lucky for the Brooklyn Museum, they do, and they now have a large majority of these files cataloged in Worldcat, their own catalog, Brookmuse, as well as the consortium catalog with the Frick and MOMA, Arcade. There are of course, ways to make this go faster. In the case of the Brooklyn Museum, they created a template, so that interns can apply a constant data stamp to an OCLC record, so that they only have to enter in the corporate author, corporate name subject heading, a barcode and filing letter, to have a complete catalog record. Still, there is the laborious work of finding the authorized heading, if not available, creating one according to Library of Congress authorities, tracking down all other folders that are misnamed and misfiled to combine them as well as weeding the folders for materials that don’t belong. It does end up taking more time than it initially seems like it should.

Even so, I believe that this option, for most institutions, is probably the best for making these collections available. Even if it is the very least that an institution can accomplish, it is valuable in that it makes each institution accessible by title. It also serves to provide an inventory for the staff, in the event they want to further explore access options, they know exactly what is in the collections. It also is relatively easy to set up an intern or volunteer to do this work, as long as you have the template for the catalog record set up. At the very least, it takes a collection that was virtually hidden from the world, and makes it searchable by any computer with Internet access.

Though I mentioned that there are as of yet, no standards by which to maintain these collections, there are some guidelines, as we have seen with the ARLIS/NA 2008 publication “Artist Files Revealed.” The Artist Files Working Group set up some basic guidelines for cataloging artist files (in this case, they include institutional files relating to artist work in the definition) that involves the standard MARC format and the minimum record necessary to provide basic information. The example they used was very similar to the records we see on Brookmuse, with standard author and subject access, as well and a generic explanation of what might be found in the file (Art Libraries Society of North America, 2008). This document serves as an excellent jumping off point for libraries trying to figure out what to do with their vertical file collection.

Cataloging at the Collection Level

In many ways, vertical file material lends itself to cataloging at the collection level, as an archival collection might be. For one, the issue of provenance is very important to these materials. Even when cataloged at the folder level, as previously discussed, this mimics archival collections, on a very small scale of course. All of the items, or “papers” in archival terms, of one institution are housed together as a collection. In the case of vertical files, they are made accessible through one minimally descriptive catalog record, whereas with a larger archival collection they would be accessed through a finding aid, which would describe the collection as a whole, as well smaller elements such as sub-groups and series, possibly even down to the item level in some instances.

I make this analogy, because it becomes easy to see how we can re-envision vertical file collections into ephemeral archival collections. By re-categorizing the files from standard alphabetical classification, into groups based on subject, location, or even time period, we can see how a finding aid to a collection like this might be useful. Many of the authors in my literature review discussed similar views of these collections. Jacqueline Cooke, for example, sees “a blurring of roles” between what traditionally “we would define in a library as an ‘archive’ or a ‘collection of ephemera’. The material produced by an organization reflects its activities, thus giving it an ‘archival’ function, and libraries too may contain archives of projects or organizations” (Cooke, 2006, p. 35). This blurring of roles is what makes these collections so unique, as well as so problematic when it comes to cataloging.

From my own experience, I recall instances when there was a vertical file I was cataloging for an institution for which the archives also held materials. I couldn’t help but wonder how these materials may have related, and how they could better be linked to each other. For instance, a collection level finding aid for the vertical file collection, might have a related material section that would point out this overlap. Or, in the archives finding aid, this vertical file could even be listed in the container list. The arrangement of the container list does not have to match the physical arrangement of the materials as long as they can be located from the folder and box information.

One problem with this method of cataloging is that archival collections are often not available through a library’s OPAC. In the case of the Brooklyn Museum, there is one catalog record for each archival collection. There is some basic information in the MARC field “Biographical/Historical Note” as well as “Summary” but most records other wise just say, “Finding aid and database access in repository.” (Brookmuse, 2010). In some records some of the contents of the container list are indexed but not many, making it hard for researchers to find what they are looking for, if they are “one stop shopping”, so to speak.

The report, “Artist Files Revealed” which I previously mentioned, highlights the need for individual cataloging, largely to get around this problem. However, they also discuss the benefit of taking both approaches to vertical file collections. Their answer to a broader collection level access is through the website, Artist Files Online Directory. (http://www.artistfilesrevealed.com/tiki/tiki-index.php) (Art Libraries Society of North America, 2008). As of right now, only 25 institutions have contributed to the database with general information about their holdings, material type, amount, areas of specialty, etc. Not as robust as a finding aid, and without the individual identification of an individual record, this type of database can be useful as a way to standardize this information. However, I only see it being useful for researchers who are specifically searching for artist files, which does not seem to be a popular area of research right now.

Collaboration and a Combination Approach

I feel that ARLIS/NA is headed in the right direction with their approach to making this material accessible. However, I feel that the most valuable aspect of having some collection level access to vertical file collections is the institution’s ability to highlight their areas of strength and specialty. The records in the Artist Files Online Directory focus too much on materials, amount of files and issues of accessibility that the uniqueness of each institution gets lost. The section for “Artistic Styles/Periods” is useful for researchers and this is also searchable, but with only 25 entries, this resource is not as all encompassing as it could be. I think that right now, some amount of collection level description would be a valuable resource for each institution to have. Of course, vertical files already create the problem of the their time consuming nature of cataloging, and it may seem like an extra added step to create something like this, after already having them individually cataloged.

I think that the individual cataloging is actually the time consuming work, and this second part, can be relatively simple. One thing that the Brooklyn Museum has been doing is adding to an Excel database, whenever a file is found that has extensive information in an area of the museums interest and collections. This information can be used in any number of ways including adding subject headings for these areas to each of the records. I think that a finding aid to the collections, with a container list that just contains the files that fall under the area of interest, with a note of course that this does not encompass the entire collection, could be very useful to researchers. It would not be difficult either to export this information into this format, since it is all already contained within the database. I also think that this information should be more prominently displayed in the library catalog, as well as the museum website. The Brooklyn Museum is big on blogging about new and exciting updates to the collection and this seems like an area that should be blogged about frequently.

The Arcade Consortium and MOMA’s Files

One thing that I continually noticed when I would search for a vertical file, to see if it was already cataloged, was that MOMA has a pretty significant overlap of vertical files as the Brooklyn Museum. This at first struck me as something that would be beneficial to researchers; being able to search one consortium catalog and come up with similar records, and also to be able to find more vertical file material between the two institutions, if for instance the Brooklyn Museum contained one file they needed and MOMA another, they at least can find this information in one place. I decided do take a small sample of 100 records that I cataloged to see how much of an overlap there was an I came up with 28%, meaning that 28 of the records that I cataloged were also available at MOMA. I further wanted to know how much of the material inside the files were similar, and further information about how MOMA began cataloging the material this way, since they began long before the Brooklyn Museum. To begin to answer these questions, I made a visit to the MOMA Queens library and storage facility to interview long time cataloger Danny Fermon.

The main lesson I took from the visit, was the need for standardization. In the case of the MOMA, the way their files are cataloged have changed over time, making it nearly impossible to conduct one search that would bring up all of the catalog records for vertical files. This was mainly due to the fact that they had an outside vendor import the catalog records from microfilm to the online catalog, and now they have volunteers do it. They also differentiate between artist files, which contain exhibition fliers and announcements, subject files, which are their institutional files that contain clippings (and they have decided not to keep adding to) and PAD pamphlet files which came to them as a donation of archival materials that they decided to catalog individually. The titles of the files vary from Artist File to Artist File: [Name of artist] to PAD/Pamphlet file, and so on. Even though it is possible to get similar records for a search for items in this collection, it is apparent that a standardized way of cataloging would benefit researchers because they would get multiple item results for one bibliographic record. As well, it would help for other institutions to catalog their vertical files more effectively, as already happens with published materials in that they could utilize copy cataloging.

One problem that the MOMA is struggling with right now is a large backlog of material. One of the reasons for this is that they catalog each individual exhibition catalog, no matter the size (whereas the Brooklyn Museum catalogs these that are over 50 pages). The collection is much larger than the Brooklyn Museum with 60,000 vertical files compared to the currently cataloged 18,000 of the Brooklyn Museum. However, as they struggle to keep up, he expressed the consideration of the museum to do away with the vertical file collection altogether. We discussed the laborious nature of cataloging these files, and the amount of value and benefit to researchers verses this amount of labor and whether or not the benefits outweigh the costs. It seemed to me the staff was struggling with this question.

Conclusion: Flexibility of Approaches

This conversation solidified my own opinions about some of these issues. The way I see it, making a conscious decision not to catalog each and every exhibition catalog individually can easily rectify the problem of the backlog. These items can be added to vertical files, which are already cataloged in Arcade anyway, unless they require special attention because of their length or area of specialty that the museum collects in. Of course, in many ways this is a step backward in accessibility of the materials, but as Green and Meissner (2005) note in the article that created such a stir in the archival community “More Product, Less Process”, isn’t it better to have all of your materials available and accessible, even if not up to the institutions usual standards, than to have some collections, perfectly described? I think in this case librarians might be able to learn something from archivists.

Which brings me to my next point. The lack of access created by not cataloging these items individually might be somewhat rectified by creating a collection level finding aid. This could be similar as you might see in an archive and in fact should be a collaborative effort between the archive and library staff, in order to best utilize each staff’s strengths. It should highlight the collections areas of uniqueness and specialty, including folders that may contain a large amount of these more substantial exhibition catalogs.

Lastly, collaboration among departments within an institution is not the only key factor, but cooperation among institutions is also important. As we saw with the Artist Files Online Directory, many libraries, museums and archives are headed in this direction. In the case of MOMA and the Brooklyn Museum, the arcade consortium provides a good opportunity for this sort of collaboration. One way to approach it would be to standardize the way vertical files are cataloged. But another would be a combined finding aid, which breaks down each collection into its strengths, highlighting what unique features each museum has to offer.

In a struggling economy, with museum libraries just trying to stay on top of cataloging their regular collections, vertical files may seem like their last concern. I argue that libraries that are able to prove their uniqueness, highlight their special collections, and serve the needs of this new kind of researcher, devoted to ephemeral and primary source material, are the ones that will succeed. Minimum cataloging standards, as well as the flexibility to also create collection level guides, as well as collaboration within and among institutions; I feel are the key concepts to consider when re-contextualizing these collections.


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Erin Matson,
Dec 13, 2010, 7:08 PM