Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

Houghton Adds 2,000th Finding Aid to OASIS

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Senior Manuscript Cataloger Bonnie Salt examines several letters from the recently-cataloged collection of “filleuls de guerre” letters sent by World War I soldiers to "godmothers" in France. The collection is the subject of the 2,000th finding aid added to OASIS
by Houghton Library.

June 23, 2009 – Houghton Library, Harvard University’s main rare book and manuscript depository, has vast holdings collected over centuries.  Until these treasures are cataloged, however, they are considered “hidden collections” – available, but hard to find unless one knows who to ask. It is the goal of each new generation of librarians to work through the backlog to make as many of these collections accessible to scholars as possible, and this month Houghton Library succeeded in adding its 2,000th finding aid to the OASIS (Online Archival Search Information System) catalog.

Cataloging in the past was slow, painstaking work, but in recent years catalogers at Houghton, under the direction of Associate Librarian for Technical Services Susan Pyzynski, have made efforts to expedite the process.  While still accurate, the new records are less detailed, allowing catalogers to create more finding aids in less time. Heavily used collections, however, may be revisited, and additional detail may be added to finding aids as needed.

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Finding aids are descriptions of the contents of archival and manuscript collections and usually include an inventory of the material and background on the person, family or organization that created the material.

After nearly a century of obscurity, hundreds of “filleuls de guerre” letters sent by World War I soldiers to war-time “godmother” Mary M. Engel were selected to be Houghton’s 2,000th finding aid in OASIS. Begun by the French during World War I, the letters are part of the “marraines de guerre” program, in which French women acted as war-time “godmothers,” corresponding with soldiers on a regular basis as a way of providing emotional support, as well as small luxuries in the form of packages of food, tobacco, chocolate and other items. Houghton’s collection consists of hundreds of letters sent by soldiers to Mary Engel, a Parisian who participated in the program from 1914 until 1919.

“This 2,000th finding aid represents a major effort by Houghton Library staff to make accessible material that has not been available for far too long; after 90 years this collection is no longer hidden,” said William Stoneman, the Florence Fearrington Librarian of Houghton Library. “Cataloger Bonnie Salt and Susan Pyzynski are exploring ways to fast track cataloging more of our hidden collections going forward.”

The library’s effort to catalog hidden collections and to make finding aids available electronically has been vital for scholars, said Houghton Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts Leslie Morris, who spearheaded the earlier effort to convert Houghton’s older typescript and handwritten finding aids to electronic form. “Making finding aids available online makes it easier for scholars to plan their research trips in advance.”

Houghton in recent years has been one of the largest contributors to OASIS - the 2,000 finding aids produced by the library are nearly one-half of the total aids available through the online catalog.

For Pyzynski, the milestone serves to highlight the dedication of the library’s catalogers, who work diligently to produce exceptional sources which are relied on by scholars all over the world.

“In some cases, months or even years go into producing these finding aids,” she said. “This 2,000th finding aid is a tribute to all the catalogers, past and present, who have worked at Houghton.”