What are cataloging parties? And why do they matter? In this post, Interference Archives organizers Bonnie Gordon and Jen Hoyer describe the ways in which Interference Archive has used cataloging parties to build their CollectiveAccess- based digital collections site.

Using the term “party” is a loose concept when we’re cataloging at Interference Archive, but we’ve been holding what we call cataloging parties since about 2012. Our earliest “cataloging party” predated our implementation of CollectiveAccess and involved a Google Spreadsheet. Exactly what we’re looking to do when we have a cataloging party has changed over the years, but the common thread is getting together with folks to share the labor of making our collection accessible online.

For several years, our cataloging parties were ad hoc and focused mainly on testing out the cataloging working group’s attempt to customize Pawtucket. We found these parties to be effective in kicking CollectiveAccess’s proverbial tires, and they helped up decide how to customize and use the platform to best describe and give access to our collections. At our earliest cataloging parties we sat down together to talk about what item format options we wanted to make available within our Providence instance, and the “roles” that we wished to make available for describing the relationship between an item and an entity, among other topics.

These conversations enabled us to develop catalog strategies that reflect the needs of our collection and our organization’s values. Rather than adopt an existing metadata schema for our Providence customization, we decided to use a modified VRA Core to provide fields for describing the collection as we think its creators would also describe it. And, instead of applying a subject authority list like LCSH, (which can be problematic in general and especially so when attempting to give voice to communities that have typically been marginalized and/or under-described), we set up a field that allows us to create our own subject terms as we catalog, adding to a running list of local subject terms. This system continues to be refined as we work out what’s possible with the database. We also wrote cataloging instructions on our wiki (check that out here), and edited/added to these on the fly during cataloging parties as we made decisions about exactly how we wanted to use our system.

As our Pawtucket instance became more functional and settled into a state that we were happy with, we started to have cataloging parties to work on specific sets of material. For example: a group of people sat down one afternoon to catalog all our material from Black & Red Books.  Because much of this material is organized around similar topics, we were able to have conversations as a group about what subject keywords to use. In addition to supporting the development of a local controlled vocabulary, this conversation provided a great learning opportunity for those of us who were less familiar with these publications.

In the spring of 2016, with our catalog firmly up and running and our Providence customized to properly show more of the unique metadata fields we had created, one of our volunteers initiated a more regular series of cataloging parties.  Our goal since then has been to have two cataloging parties per month; at the moment, these alternate between weeknights and Saturday afternoons. One person bottomlines each cataloging party, and an email goes out to the Interference Archive volunteer listserv to let people know. We also sometimes advertise these to our main email list, as well as to other local listservs and networks. The volunteer who coordinates these events has Administrative privileges in CollectiveAccess and can set up new user accounts at the cataloging party as needed.

At our cataloging parties, we work on zines or serials, depending on our mood. No experience is required; we simply ask that people bring a laptop. Party organizers often start by talking about the Interference Archive’s collection and our motivation for cataloging. We’ve discovered that it’s important to make folks familiar with the amount of description we expect. We also explain that no one needs to be a subject expert, that we are doing this work communally and developing knowledge as we go. Organizers then usually take one item and walk participants through the cataloging process field-by-field together, before sending them off to work at their own pace on other items. Throughout the event, we have conversations about naming conventions and choices for subject terms. And we acknowledge that if someone comes back later and sees ways to improve on the record we’ve created, we are glad for them to do that: we do not own the metadata we create, and we recognize that a collective process can add more to a record — and contribute to better access — than any of us could on our own.

Our cataloging parties are great social events! They also serve as a mechanism for us to share skills and collectively solve problems that come up in our work.  Some volunteers gravitate towards these cataloging parties as social events; others like to come and learn skills so that they can come back and catalog on their own at a later date.

We’re slowly, together, providing online access to our collection. Check it out at catalog.interferencearchive.org

Join our next cataloging party! Email info@interferencearchive.org for dates.