Five questions for Anna Ferris

Head of Special Collections, Archives Cataloging, Norlin Library, CU-Boulder

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Anna Ferris says her job is "bringing order to chaos."

As head of Special Collections and Archives Cataloging at the University of Colorado Boulder's Norlin Library, which celebrated its 70th birthday in January, Ferris' goal is to provide useful records so that library patrons can quickly find the information they need for research and teaching requirements. And without the work of original catalogers such as Ferris, who create the "surrogate" catalog records for each individual resource, people would not be able to find links to items in the libraries' online public access catalog (OPAC).

The records she creates don't just end up in the local catalog, but also in world, national and regional catalogs.

Such technological wizardry provides instant access to materials that otherwise might take hours, days, or even weeks to find, especially as the globe shifts from a predominantly "book-centered" model to an overwhelming amount of digital and web-based resources, Ferris says. Part of her team's job is to provide the extensive tables of contents, abstracts that allow for detailed keyword searches, and links to remote digital repositories or related resources such as digital images and audio recordings.

Alas, because most of her and the team's job is performed behind the scenes, she says, "Our work is rarely recognized if it is done well ... once (a patron's) information has been found, they are free to move on to the next task."

While some have speculated that technology will lead to the demise of books, Ferris thinks otherwise. "From my experience working with centuries-old monographs in Special Collections, I'm certain that books will outlast technology — present and future. Unfortunately, you and I will not be around to witness this for ourselves."

— Cynthia Pasquale

1. You received your bachelor's degree in French. Explain how you got from there to your current position of associate professor and head of Special Collections and Archives Cataloging at Norlin Library.

My interest has always been in Romance languages. Born in the Dominican Republic, I grew up in New York, speaking Spanish at home. But I chose to major in French (with a minor in Spanish and Italian) while at City College (CUNY) and continued my graduate studies at the Université de Nancy, France.

I realized quite early on that teaching French grammar did not interest me. I could not imagine teaching the same lessons over and over again in a classroom environment. What I did enjoy, however, were the personal interactions that resulted from using my languages skills in various jobs, such as working as an interpreter and translator for an immigration lawyer in New York City or as an export manager at a gold refinery in Buffalo, N.Y.

I discovered librarianship while volunteering at the media center of my children's elementary school in Connecticut. I became fascinated by the concept of information organization while working with catalog records encoded in MARC (or MAchine Readable Cataloging) format in the library's database.

I enrolled in library school at Southern Connecticut State University just so I could work with catalog records. From there, it was only a matter of time before I found that I could also use my language skills to catalog Romance language materials. My first position as a professional cataloger was at Yale University. Since moving to Colorado in 1999, I have made my way up through the ranks at Norlin Library as a monographic original cataloger, starting as an instructor, then senior instructor and today I am an associate professor and managing the Special Collections and Archives Cataloging team.

2. Libraries have eliminated paper card catalogs in favor of an online public access catalog, but do some libraries, including Norlin, still use the old system?

Almost all libraries have eliminated the card catalog. If you consider that in a card catalog, each card is a surrogate for a tangible "bibliographic" item that is sitting on a shelf somewhere in that library, then you can understand why, in this day and age, the actual cabinet of cards has been superseded by the OPAC.

Libraries today must provide access to so many other types of resources — in addition to their bibliographic holdings — that are intangible in nature, i.e., in either digital, audio or web format. The OPAC enables us to provide direct access to these resources as, say, a full-text article, or an e-book, or a digital image or a sound recording.

That said, card catalogs still do exist, but they are only as useful as the people, time and funds spent to maintain and keep them up-to-date. The Special Collections department actually keeps a card catalog in their reading room since it is the only means of identifying the uncataloged items that are sitting in their closed stacks. That is an ongoing aspect of my job that I take very seriously — providing quick yet thorough access to those items through our local catalog.

All libraries have uncataloged materials, due mostly to the fact that many have not caught up with the retrospective conversion required to shift the data, previously available in catalog cards, over to MARC format so that they can be accessed via the online public access catalog. We continue to work on this at Norlin despite drastic budget cuts and a serious shortage of cataloging personnel.

3. Tell me about Norlin's special collections and archives. What do they contain and what are some of the most interesting things you have seen?

Each department is a separate unit within Norlin Library and each is a world-class research facility with holdings of primary source materials of cultural and historical significance.

For example, the Special Collections department holds an extensive collection of resources on photography, mountaineering, 19th and 20th century children's books, and publishers' bindings, among others. They offer classroom instruction, special exhibits and other events that are very popular among CU faculty, students and patrons.

The Archives department holds primary resources of national and international importance, especially in the fields of Western Americana, Colorado politics, labor, environmentalism, and peace and justice. Examples of two archival collections we are preparing to catalog are the Gary Hart papers and the Ken Salazar papers.

I have cataloged so many interesting collections of monographs and archival manuscripts, but it's the small items, the ephemera, I find unexpectedly tucked inside the books I catalog that are the coolest part of my job. For example, a cardboard flyer from 1907 promoting the Studebaker ("The Automobile with a Reputation Behind It" — Gasoline and Electric 1907 Models Ready for Immediate Delivery) or a photograph of Stan Brakhage and Werner Herzog found in a book written by Herzog and dedicated to Brakhage.

4. What are some hobbies you enjoy away from work?

I am an empty-nester with three grown children — a 24-year-old son who graduated from Northwestern, a 22-year-old daughter who just graduated from Middlebury College and a 20-year-old daughter who is a junior at Columbia — and so, being newly single, I like to spend my free time dancing! I am an avid contra dancer (that's a New England style of folk dancing) and have joined the Colorado Friends of Old Time Music and Dance, a group that holds dances every weekend in Boulder, Denver or Fort Collins. I also love to dance salsa and I am the faculty sponsor of Ritmos Latinos, a student-based dance club that provides salsa and rueda lessons to members of the CU community (students, staff and faculty) twice a week during the semester. I mentioned this by chance at a happy hour get-together of the Faculty of Color recently to Tanya Greathouse, the director of the Center for Multicultural Affairs, and as a result she generously offered our group the use of the J.D. Abrams Student Center in the new Center for Community building for our weekly lessons.

5. You deal with so many items. Could one slip send a 16th century manuscript into hiding for years?

This might well be a problem at the Bodleian Library in Oxford or at the Beinecke Library at Yale, institutions that deal with thousands of 16th century manuscripts. But in our collections at CU, the rarer, more distinctive items are well safe-guarded in special locations, so I doubt that this would ever happen here.

On the other hand, it can cause a real problem within our general stacks if a book is shelved out of order. If I notice a misshelved book while browsing the stacks, I make a point of returning it to its rightful location. But, I understand the Library of Congress call number filing system since I formulate these numbers each time I catalog a book, and I know how challenging this classification scheme can be to most people. For that reason, we encourage patrons to place books on special carts in the stacks for library personnel to reshelve.

We do sometimes mistakenly overlay a pre-existing catalog record with a totally different record as we export it from the Online Computer Library Center database into our local catalog. It's not always possible to identify the book to which that original catalog record belonged.