The first manuscript I encountered in the Greggiati library was a bit of a puzzle. Continue reading
After spending nearly two and a half days cataloguing my first manuscript, I began to despair that we would ever make it through our allotted lists by the end of our time in Ostiglia. There turned out to be a pretty steep learning curve for the first record, and progress was slow as we collectively worked through each field, often discussing at length the more theoretical questions that arose in the process. Should we create separate records when two clearly independent manuscripts were bound together, or are Greggiati’s finished products the objects of our cataloguing attempts? Do we trust Greggiati’s notes on provenance and history, and thus integrate them into the fabric of the record as “facts” about the manuscript, or do we treat them separately as simply one more layer of historical data, interesting less for what they tell us about history than what they tell us about Greggiati? How do we treat manuscript groups that have been treated by previous scholars as multi-volume works, but which were clearly bound and collected at different times? These discussions and many more were necessary before we could forge ahead in our task, but consequently work was slow. Happily, now that we have worked through many of these issues, work on subsequent records moves much more quickly. Finishing my first manuscript after nearly 20 hours, today I moved on to my second manuscript, which took only 45 minutes.
After some introductions to the collection and some unforeseen problems with our wifi connection (which have finally been resolved), yesterday was our first full day of cataloguing. We spent the day learning how to use the XML language (fairly easy) and working through the more theoretical issues involved with our particular cataloguing project (somewhat more difficult). While a few of my colleagues have experience with library cataloguing, none of us have ever had to develop a cataloguing system from the ground up, which turns out to be more complex than I had imagined. Since last year, we have made significant changes to our process in an attempt to make our data more reliable and uniform. Many of these changes have involved implementing authority controls to several fields of our records, so that we fall in line with modern cataloguing standards. In an attempt to make our catalogue as universal as possible, we have chosen to encode such fields according to both RISM and Library of Congress standards. Moreover, as we begin to delve into specific manuscripts, we sometimes find ourselves rethinking our cataloguing philosophy or encountering unanticipated needs that require adjustments to the XML schema that governs our data entry.
The effect of these changes is that we are, in some ways, straying from the path marked out by our colleagues in last year’s Ostiglia team and forging a new path. This task is made somewhat more daunting by the departure of our awesome tech specialist, William Guerin, whose help has been invaluable during these first few days. Still, the more we work with the records, the more familiar we become with the possibilities this project holds. I suspect that over the next few days we will continue to fine tune the cataloging process in an effort to make our data as useful as possible to future scholars.
Participation in the Greggiati project represents, for me, a number of firsts. For one, the project offers a first taste of archival work. Living and working in the midwestern United States, I’m not exactly tripping over piles of interesting pre-20th century music manuscripts. Thus, while I have had some exposure in the past to manuscript study and description, I have not had a great deal of hands-on experience. As a scholar interested in music of the Reformation era in England, I hope that the experiences gained and issues confronted over the course of this project will be invaluable to my own future research, not because 19th-century Italian music manuscripts necessarily present the same problems as 16th-century English church inventories or municipal records, but because the process of solving the problems presented by an unknown manuscript is universal and transferable.
This will also be my first experience with library cataloguing. I have to admit, the prospect of cataloguing, with its careful sorting and clean categorization, appeals to me on an almost primal level. To tame the wild and bring order to chaos seems to fulfill some sort of innate human purpose. (Wasn’t Adam’s first job taxonomical?) But one mustn’t get carried away. I have yet to face the task of cataloguing a hand-written manuscript—a very human object—with all its problems and peculiarities. I expect there will be a marked difference between the ideal and the reality, for which I have tried to prepare myself.
Finally, this will be my first time in Italy, and though I come equipped with language skills and European travel experience, I feel strangely unprepared. I have my bags packed, my important documents secured, and plans finalized, yet I know that one can never anticipate every eventuality. Is it ever possible to approach such an extended trip without a certain degree of nervousness and uncertainty?
It is difficult to prepare for the unknown, to anticipate the unpredictable. I don’t know how prepared I truly am for the experiences of the next four weeks, but I do know I am fully prepared for one thing: adventure—a term that, when applied to a four-week program of manuscript cataloguing and archival research, will probably amuse my friends and acquaintances outside of academia, but that remains appropriate nonetheless.