The Fragment Project Series: The P4 Collection

Now that you have been introduced to the Fragment Project in my blog, let me take a step back and focus more on the nature of the fragments and where they are coming from. Fragments are pieces of an item in different sizes and shapes that got detached from it for various reasons. This is called dissociation and it is one of the agents of deterioration that cultural heritage faces. In library collections, this can happen due to the fragile condition of the paper, or because the binding was not steady enough to hold all the pages together or maybe because of wear and tear of the volume among other things. The fact is that fragments can vary from a small piece of a page, or one entire page, or even few pages from the book. While these fragments do come from all subject areas present in the General Collection, this blog will focus on a particular collection from which the majority of the fragments derive and whose nature of the books and pamphlets made them more vulnerable to damage and losses.

The P4 Collection (an abbreviation for Priority 4 Collection) consists of over 75,000 items acquired by the Library of Congress during the 1920s and 1930s for which only minimal catalog records exist. It is a collection covering every subject matter in many languages, in fact, a microcosm of the overall General Collection. There is quite a number of unique pieces in this collection. Most materials are in European languages – Italian, Portuguese, French, Spanish, German, and English, though some Nordic languages, Russian, and even Japanese and Vietnamese items have been discovered – and the majority dates to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many pamphlets or books in Eastern European languages reflect publishing after World War I when many countries were newly independent.  The poor quality of the paper and bindings reflects the publishing conditions of the period.

                                        Details from the P4 Collection at Landover. Photograph Beatriz Haspo (2009)

Due to space constraints on Capitol Hill, this collection was stored at our storage facility in Landover, Maryland for decades under less-than-ideal environmental conditions. Once the time came to transfer this material to our state-of-the art off-site storage facility at Fort Meade with the best preservation conditions for library and archival material, a massive project had to be carried out to address the thousands of items of the P4 Collection. So, in 2008 the Collections Officer of the Collection Management Division (former CALM Division) started a large-scale preservation project in order to improve the physical condition of these P4 items, especially the most fragile ones. The project included a needs assessment for every single item and recommendations for preservation actions to stabilize the items on the shelves, in transit and in use. In addition, further preservation actions were taken such as tying many thousands of fragile items with cotton string to keep pieces together; rehousing all fragile, brittle, and damaged items inside custom-made acid-free adjustable covers or envelopes; and duplicating bibliographic information on the enclosures, prior processing for transfer. An enormous and challenging endeavor, considering the quantity of items, their fragile condition, and the strict timeline for the move.

The project was primarily carried out by interns and volunteers under my supervision and took a little over three years to be successfully completed. Today, the vast majority of the P4 items are currently stored at the Library of Congress Collections Storage Facility at Fort Meade under controlled environment which will prolong the life expectancy of the collection five-fold.

Surveying and rehousing the P4 Collection. Photograph Beatriz Haspo (2009/2012)

Examples of P4 Collection rehoused inside acid-free envelopes and adjustable covers. Photograph Beatriz Haspo (2009-2012).

However, during the processing of this collection, due to the brittle and fragile nature of the material, about 5% of the items (approximately 3,750) were isolated, as they were not complete books, sometimes just fragments of a book. Most of them were placed inside envelopes with flags identifying Fragment, while many others where just loose pieces inside boxes. I labeled the boxes as Disaster because it really felt that way to see all these orphan pieces detached from the original books. This is when I initiated the Fragment Project to make sure all books were complete and accessible to patrons, aiming to establish search protocols to reunite missing pieces to the original volumes, update the bibliographic information and carry out further preservation actions once all the pieces were reassembled.

Details of fragments collected and sorted. Photograph Beatriz Haspo (2009/2012)

In 2017 my colleague Jan Lancaster of the Digital Collection Management & Services Division (DCMS) joined me in this effort until her retirement a few months ago. We focused mainly on the P4 Collection fragments. Sorting the loose, fragmented items was the first priority. Some pieces still retained the original P4 numbers which were easily matched with their P4 bibliographic records in the Library’s catalogue. We requested the volume from offsite storage and were able to reunite the remaining of the pages, making it complete. These items were sent for digitization.

On the other hand, the loose fragmentary items without any identification consisted mostly of single pages, loose boards, or signatures (multipage sections) from books, periodicals or pamphlets. The search for the original book is much harder in this case, demanding a great deal of analysis of the pieces, documenting each clue, such as language, topic, details of illustrations, captions, among others that may help during a search in the Library of Congress bibliographic database and other global databases.

The single cover with the bookplate of Amida Stanton was among the first fragments from the P4 Collection reviewed and was found in one of the boxes loose fragments labeled disaster. This single fragment led to the dramatic discovery of a major gift to the Library by her sister, Alta Stanton, of more than 300 books from Amida’s personal library of French, German and Italian literature – all of which were once shelved with the P4 Collection. Check the exciting details about this finding in initial blog of the series: When Every Piece Counts: The Fragment Project.

This blog series will continue to tell some incredible stories of this exciting treasure hunt and the joy of making the matches. Up to date, nearly 900 fragments have been reviewed and 340 matches identified with the books completed. This is critical both for the security of the collection as the records will be updated to reflect the accurate item, as well as to provide access of these fragmented materials to patrons now and in the future.

As Jan recently wrote to me, “to have been able to work on the Fragment Project was a wonderment. Each fragment and each discovery of its source brings a sense of joy and accomplishment. Like everyone who love books and especially those who work at the Library and have had the privilege of walking in the stacks, one recalls with fondness a poem by Emily Dickinson (There is no Frigate like a Book to Take us Lands Away Nor any Coursers like a Page of Prancing Poetry….) . The Fragment Project and its matching books have been like Frigates to take me Lands Away.”

And I definitely second her! Stay tuned for future stories of the Fragment Project.

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3 Comments

  1. Irene
    May 27, 2022 at 11:39 am

    Seeing the photos of the Disaster boxes, I wonder what previous archivist were thinking placing all the fragments in just one box. The amount of time and dedication to organize, rehouse, and to reunite fragments is impressive. Do you have specific people dedicated to identifying and reuniting fragments or is that part of the cataloging process? Thanks for sharing!

    • Beatriz Haspo
      May 27, 2022 at 11:50 am

      Thank you for your comment, Irene. Identifying and reuniting fragments is very time consuming indeed. For the P4 collection fragments, Jan Lancaster did an incredible work. It is not part of the cataloguing process; but the cataloguing record is updated once the book is complete.

  2. Amparo
    May 28, 2022 at 7:28 pm

    Beatriz what an amazing project, a combination of mistery, detective work, librarianship! And very well described and written. Congratulations!

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