Guides untangle 1,000 ULS collections
Local composer and jazz guitarist Joe Negri donated his recordings, memorabilia and original composition scores to the University’s Center for American Music in 1999.
This month the finding aid for the Joe Negri Collection became the 1,000th collection guide produced by the University Library System (ULS).
Written by Center for American Music staffer Kathryn Miller Haines, the 161-page finding aid describes, one by one, each item in the collection — everything from Negri’s class notes from his music studies at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon), to scores for the “Beat ’em Bucs” Pittsburgh Pirates fight song and the “What’cha Smilin’ About” Eat’n Park jingle, to recordings of jazz standards performed by the Joe Negri Trio.
Pitt’s Archives Service Center houses the majority of the University’s archival collections, with the remainder held by Special Collections in ULS and the Center for American Music.
Finding aids are crucial to making the library’s vast archival holdings accessible for scholarly research, said Ed Galloway, head of the ULS Archives Service Center. “An archival collection, by definition, is unique. The only place it exists is here,” he said.
“Like any other kind of information, one needs to be able to search it in order to use it well.”
Finding aids document a collection’s content box by box, down to the folder and item level. “Then when a researcher comes to campus to use a collection, library staff can find the items,” he said. “It’s an intellectual tool or roadmap as to how the collection is arranged. It tells the researcher what’s in the collection and how to find it.”
A finding aid can be a single page describing a collection of a dozen photos, for instance. Or it can be hundreds and hundreds of pages long, as for the papers of former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh.
Today’s collection guides are uniform and widely available online, but at one time, finding aids were simple typewritten inventories, created at the local level with no agreed-upon format.
“There was no type of universal way of knowing what anyone had,” Galloway said. Scholars would get clues as to where source materials were held through footnotes in published works, then would contact the repository with their research requests and await a response.
Finding aids went digital in the 1980s with the advent of word processing but there still was no uniformity until 1993, when archivists established a template defining the elements and how to represent them in markup language, Galloway said.
It’s taken dozens of ULS staffers and students 50 years to complete 1,000 collection guides, Galloway said. About 500-600 guides were converted when the encoding standards were set in the mid-1990s. “Since then, we have been rapidly processing collections,” Galloway said. “There’s been a huge burst in the past 10 years.”
By last summer, 960 guides were complete, and this month the Negri collection guide became ULS’s 1,000th. To mark the milestone, Galloway and Haines presented Negri, a Pitt music faculty member, with a copy of the finding aid.
The library system has a backlog of more than 100 collections awaiting guides, Galloway said. If an archive is healthy and growing, it’s a task that’s never finished.
To browse ULS’s collection guides, visit www.library.pitt.edu/archives-service-center.
—Kimberly K. Barlow