“Cataloging Spirits and the Spirit of Cataloging”
With tongue slightly in cheek (I think), Nancy M. Babb uses an arcane set of bibliographic rules involving “spirit communications” — works from the dead, communicated to the living via mediums — to show how cataloging rules and popular culture can evolve over time, and perhaps shed light on evolving theories of authorship and bibliographic identity in the changing world of electronic resource cataloging.
Known for rapping on tables and communicating by Ouija board, spirits were prolific poets and novelists in the late 19th century, and were duly recorded as such in most library catalogs, before the advent of bibliographic standardization. An example: Food for the Million (1876) gives main entry to medium Sarah A. Ramsdell, with added author entry for spirit Theodore Parker, who in his previous fleshly life had published his own works.
Babb admits it’s an odd subject, but insists the concept of “spirit authorship” provides insight into broader underlying principles of authorship: It’s not just quaint folklore. Babb calls the field “an exemplar of complex authorship, entailing both joint authorship — as a collaboration between medium and spirit — and ascribed authorship, in which the seemingly obvious author, the medium, makes attribution to another, the spirit.”
The issue has been addressed different ways in different times. Babb researched a sample of such works and found a hodgepodge of differing treatments, with the relationship between spirit and medium either more or less vague.
Spirit communications were directly addressed in the 1941 and 1949 cataloging guidelines from ALA, with main entry generally given to the mitigating medium and the communicating spirit treated as an interviewee, making a clear distinction between spirit communication and other types of joint authorship.
But even after 1949, differences and variations remained in cataloging: “Spirit communications in which the spirits were established historical figures entailed main entry under the medium and added entry under the historical figure. Spirit communications in which the spirits were prolific, well-known, but not of proven historical existence entailed main entry under the spirit, with qualifier added to the heading. Spirit communications in which the spirit was either not prolific [or] of unknown origin…entailed entry only for the medium.”
Seymour Lubetzky’s 1960 Code of Cataloging Rules dictated: “A work…attributed to the spirit of another person, is entered under the person who prepared it, with an added entry under the person to whom it is attributed.” Perhaps surprisingly, the first set of Anglo-American Cataloging Rules in 1967 softened Lubetzky’s “bibliographic banishment of spirit communication,” reverting to pre-20th century treatment, but getting rid of the label “mediumistic writings” in favor of “reporter or person reported.”
Spirits attained further bibliographic prominence in Anglo-American Cataloging Rules of 1978, which insisted it was not the cataloger’s job to debate authorship, only to interpret the bibliographic encoded data.
Can a book be ascribed to a spirit if spirits don’t actually exist? Well, given the moral neutrality of modern cataloging, an author need not physically exist to have bibliographic identity. A main entry under the spirit is not an admission of the existence of spirits but merely “to affirm user access and authorial intent.”
Over time, credit for authorship under cataloging rules has passed back and forth across the mortal veil from Spirit, to Medium, and back to Spirit again. Today, AACR reads: “Enter a communications presented as having been received from a spirit under the heading for the spirit.”
Babb intriguingly uses the concept of spirit authorship to throw light on the ever-expanding modern idea of authorship. She smoothly intertwines the halting evolution of the catalog as it tracks with the cultural context of the various time periods. It’s a fascinating story, if a dense and confusing thicket to untangle, and Babb does her best.