I’m the Serials Description Librarian and Coordinator in the Resource Description department of Collection Services. As one of only two serials catalogers working in the Duke University Libraries, and the only one as of now qualified to make CONSER level original cataloging records, I catalog serials across formats (print, electronic and microform) in English and a number of other languages of which I have at least a bibliographer’s knowledge. I volunteer with CONSER to catalog electronic serial titles for the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) and spend a quarter of my time cataloging rare print serials for the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. For the Rubenstein Library, I’ve worked on such diverse materials as the Lisa Unger Baskin Collection, the Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Project collection and even cataloged Civil War General Orders, containing very important information like where new latrines were to be dug the next day.
What this all actually means is that I don’t have a typical working day. While all of my work relates to serials cataloging in some way, the content of the serials I work on spans a wide spectrum of subjects created throughout written history. As I don’t want to bore you with the minutiae of my work, and there is a lot of minutiae I could bore you with, I thought today I’d focus on my work with a particularly interesting collection, the Edwin & Terry Murray Comic Book Collection, part of the Rubenstein library’s holdings, which I’ve been working on for over six years now.
While the collection is primarily comprised of Marvel and DC comics you’re almost certainly familiar with, it also includes titles from the companies that predate Marvel and DC. (Their origin stories? Sorry, comic book joke.) There are also plenty of titles from smaller independent publishing houses and comics for much younger readers like those published for Walt Disney. Cataloging these materials takes quite a bit of online research involving not only official websites like Marvel and DC’s but also sites like Comic Vine, a labor of love undertaken by comic book fans and collectors.
Why does this work require so much research? Because comic books were originally ephemera, never intended to be collected and preserved. In the past, in part because they were discredited as acceptable reading material for young people by psychiatrist and anti-violent imagery zealot Fredric Wertham and his ilk, the comic books that were catalogued had brief records at best, listing little more than the title, publisher, place of publication and, if very lucky, the dates of publication. Volume numbering was often omitted or merely noted to exist (‘also has volume numbering’, etc.) and the records often had no acknowledgement of preceding or succeeding titles.
Comic book publishing has always been a commercial venture, so if a title fails to sell well, it’s cancelled posthaste. But fear not, intrepid comic book readers! The cancelled character may well be revived even decades later with different writers and artists and, perhaps, a different publisher. In the case of the early Captain Marvel titles pictured, the earliest dates from 1968 and the latest from 1975. These titles were published as separate runs with only the titular character and publishing house, in this case, in common. While it might seem unimportant to omit the volume numbering when you have a title that has 55 numbers published over 12 years, with all issues having the same volume number, that volume number serves as a clue to researchers that perhaps an earlier or later related title exists.
In addition to fleshing out the cataloging records for this collection by adding subject headings for the fictitious characters as well the genre (Arthurian romances, anyone?), we’ve made a conscious effort to credit the writers and artists who produced them, often creating Name Authority records for them for the very first time.
So, you can see why all of the research associated with my role is important and why I see myself as a sort of literary Indiana Jones some days. (Thankfully my fear of snakes is less of an issue than it is for Indy!) Of course, these adventures take place alongside my more general workflow, though calling even that work general isn’t exactly accurate since I’m never certain what language, subject and/or format I will see next. The life of a serialist is never boring, at least to a serialist!
[Blog note: check out this post from 2020 on the Edwin and Terry Murray Collection for even more comic goodness!]