The Unknown Cataloger

Catalogers are the unsung heroes of scholarly pseudo-discoveries

October 22, 2010

Hardly a month goes by without a story in the newspapers or elsewhere in the media about a scholar who has “discovered” a lost or hitherto unknown manuscript of a text or musical work by a famous author or composer.

Typically, following a headline such as “Twain’s Lost Story Discovered by Professor” or “Scholar Asks: 'Is This Mozart’s Undiscovered Masterpiece?’” there is a tale of an assistant professor of something or another “stumbling” across the manuscript on the “dusty shelves” of a library or the “forgotten files” of an archive.

“It had been lying there undisturbed and unknown for decades but when I came across it, I knew what it was immediately,” said Professor Hebden-Snorkel. “It has the unmistakable stamp of [fill in famous name] that a scholar in the field could not fail to notice.”

I suppose that the popular idea of the scholar finding something that everyone else has neglected must be accurate in rare instances (a fortuitous visit to a garage sale or a pink-tape-wrapped folder of manuscripts collected by the scholar’s great-grandmother, herself the granddaughter of a Viennese music master) but in the vast majority of cases the “discovery” is owed to the work of an unknown cataloger (library or archival) and the conservation and storage activities of the library or archive over many decades.

But it is Professor Hebden-Snorkel who gets the scholarly papers and the tenure for which she thirsts, the interviews on NPR and in the New York Times, and, with any luck, the surpassing glory of thousands of hits on her “Twainette” or “Wolfie’s Girl” blog. No thanks are rendered to the Unknown Cataloger or for the preservation activities of the library or archive, and their work forms no part of the media story of “Indiana Hebden-Snorkel and the Lost Manuscript.”

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres was built (in fact, rebuilt) between the end of the 12th century and the latter part of the 13th. It is considered to be the ultimate expression of the Gothic Catholic sensibility and one of the surpassing achievements of humankind. The name of the person who designed it is unknown, as are the names of the master-builders and the countless stonemasons, carvers, glaziers, sculptors, carpenters, metalworkers, and laborers who built it over the 70 years or more it took to make the great cathedral. But there it stands—a monumental sum that is greater than its many parts.

The catalogs of the great libraries of the world have been under construction, in many cases, for even longer than it took to build Chartres Cathedral and they are still growing despite the many forces that affect cataloging negatively today. They, too, represent a totality that is more than the sum of the work of their many, largely anonymous contributors.

So, let’s hear it for the Unknown Cataloger playing her or his part in the sublime mission of preserving and transmitting the human record and the more mundane task of enabling the discoveries of Professor Hebden-Snorkel and her many colleagues that will, if all goes well, bring them tenure and the other outward signs of inward academic glory.

Meanwhile, we have work to do.

MICHAEL GORMAN is university librarian emeritus of the Henry Madden Library at California State University, Fresno, and served as American Library Association president in 2005–06. His most recent book is Our Own Selves: More Meditations for Librarians, ALA Editions, 2005.


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