Material processing workflows

This article is adapted from two lunchtime talks given by Central Library staff in May 2015—titled "Books in process" talks as a riff on Folger Institute's Works-in-Progress talks—about the process of selecting, purchasing, reviewing, cataloging, shelving, and circulating materials.

Unsurprisingly, the processing of open stacks and Vault materials differs at several points. Since the acquisition, processing, and cataloging of Vault materials is generally more complicated, it is treated in greater detail below. As the Folger acquires both circulating (open stacks) and non-circulating (Vault) materials, we find and acquire materials in a variety of ways. While we try to carefully consider what will best help the Folger community, using the guidance of our collection development policy, sometimes a title of interest might slip past us: if you have a suggestion or request, please email us at to let us know.

Open stacks materials

There are too many new books published each year for us to discover and purchase them one-by-one on our own, so we make use of subscription services such as YBP to find and send us what we need. As part of our subscription, YBP keeps us informed of books we might want based on a long list of subject areas we’ve given them. If it’s an academic title related to Shakespeare or to Early Modern England, YBP just puts it on our bill and ships it automatically. But we don’t have the budget to buy every book that has to do with European literature or history, so other titles come to us in weekly online lists of about 20 of 30 books for us to review.

Books ordered through services like YBP get shipped to the Acquisitions Department, part of the “Staff Only” area on Deck A (under the New Reading Room). There they are unpacked, checked against the packing slips to see if anything is missing or extra, and paid for.

As part of our subscription with YBP, we pay them to pre-process the books: they come to us with a call number sticker, a Folger bar code, and a clear plastic dust-jacket sleeve already attached. (This is commonly referred to as "shelf-ready.") We also purchase vendor-created catalog records for open-stacks books whenever possible so that our catalogers can concentrate on detailed and accurate descriptions of our unique Vault materials. Vendor cataloging doesn't always match Folger standards, so if you find an error, please let the Reading Room know.

Some of our open stacks books are not acquired through YBP, but through other booksellers or direct from publishers. These do not come to us "shelf-ready," but are cataloged by modern cataloging staff.

After they’re unpacked, paid for, and cataloged, regardless of their source, open-stacks books go to the Reading Room for final processing. Reading Room staff create spine labels for any books which do not already have them, select a few highlights for the “New Books Truck,” and take everything else down to Deck B for shelving in the open stacks.

Vault materials

Acquiring materials

Acquisitions staff, curators, and other members of the collection development team follow booksellers' catalogs (both electronically and in print) and news of upcoming sales and auctions, to determine what the Folger might be interested in acquiring.

Once materials have been selected and purchased, Acquisitions staff create a basic catalog record to act as a placeholder for each item, with the advisory statement, "This record represents material that has not yet been cataloged. It may contain incorrect or incomplete information. Please consult Curator for assistance." When the materials arrive at the Folger, they are checked in by the Acquisitions department; staff check that each item's condition matches its description, and assign it a six-digit accession number. Curators, conservators, and other senior staff members also review materials as they are received so that they are aware of any damage, long-term preservation requirements, or unique features.

Dispersing materials

Once a truck's worth of Vault materials are accessioned and reviewed, Acquisitions staff create a list of their accession numbers and emails it to the cataloger in charge of dispersal. From there, the cataloger creates a review sheet of all the accession numbers, and begins assigning call numbers and locations to each item following Folger call number guidelines. The major exception to this step are STC books, which go directly to the Senior Cataloger responsible for English books, who checks them against the STC database and assigns their call numbers accordingly.

While assigning call numbers, the disperser creates a call slip for each book. Most books will be sent directly down to the shelves of the Vault, and the appropriate cataloger will be given the call slips so that they can sign out and pick up books for full cataloging when they are ready. In some cases, books are needed for upcoming exhibitions or seminars, and then the process is reversed: call slips are sent down to the shelves as placeholders, and the books go directly to catalogers for preliminary or full cataloging. Once books and/or slips have been assigned and distributed to catalogers, their counterparts are taken up to the Reading Room along with the review sheet of accession numbers , where they are checked in and shelved (or filed, in the case of the call slips).


Cataloging (particularly rare book cataloging) attempts to balance describing the item as a representative of an edition or a print run, while also describing the item as a unique object. It is always done "item-in-hand": working with the actual item (rather than a surrogate) to create its descriptive record.

The cataloger starts by searching OCLC (the shared database behind WorldCat) via their cataloging client, Connexion. Few catalog records are started from scratch; instead, catalogers work from records created by other libraries who own copies of the same edition. Once a cataloger finds a record that represents the copy that they have in their hand (matching the title, edition statement, publication information, number of pages, etc.), they edit it directly in OCLC. Even starting from an existing record, the cataloger must verify the information in it against the item-in-hand, and add any missing information that may help users. Catalogers check that the title, edition, and publication information are transcribed correctly, add or verify pagination, and add signature statements for handpress-era books. As part of this process, catalogers routinely consult standard bibliographies and dealer descriptions, making reference to these sources in the record when they are used.

For rare books, especially those of the handpress era, Folger catalogers often verify and enter additional information beyond standard cataloging requirements, following rare materials cataloging guidelines. The Folger especially emphasizes item-specific information - aspects of the item that differentiate it from other items in the same edition or print run, such as annotations, bookplates, bindings, provenance, type evidence, etc. Catalog records provide access to this information through both free-text notes and controlled vocabulary terms, such as those for the genre and form of an item.

Once the item is fully cataloged to Folger standards, the cataloger saves the record to OCLC and then downloads it into our local catalog Hamnet. They create a call number flag (and a restricted access flag if appropriate) for the item, and it then goes to the Reading Room.

In the Reading Room

Eventually, all accessioned and catalogued materials come to the Reading Room. Reading Room staff log in items on a spreadsheet, and remove the “In Process” status from the Hamnet record. For newly-accessioned items, they check each item against the review sheet; for items that were checked out for cataloging, they retrieve the item's call slip and check it back in. When all items are accounted for, review sheets and call slips are filed, and the materials are shelved in the Vault.