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A biannual publication offering insights into the use of digital historical collections

Serial Set, Breakfast of Champions: Setting the Table for Librarians

Susan Kendall

Government Publications Coordinator/Reference Librarian, San Jose State University

Although the "U.S. Congressional Serial Set" is an extensive collection of documents that makes the history of the United States come alive, many librarians have been reluctant to highlight this resource at the reference desk or in their library instruction classes. Until a few years ago, the Serial Set had been available only in often-fragile printed volumes and in microfiche with limited indexing, which made identifying and then finding relevant materials challenging, even for experienced librarians. In this article, I will describe how a new Web-based edition of these historical U.S. government publications became available at San Jose State's King Library.

Formed by a unique collaboration between the public library of San Jose and San Jose State University, King Library serves the diverse research needs of students, faculty, staff and the community. Prior to this merger, the San Jose State University Library was the designated federal depository for San Jose. However, most inquiries for federal resources came from the University's faculty and students. For example, history and political science students were often required to analyze the evolution of U.S. legislation and policy.

Since the merger, our academic librarians have become aware of the public community's research interests. For example, the California Department of Education has provided social studies teachers with a new set of frameworks that incorporate the use of primary sources to develop historical literacy concepts (California, 1997). As a result, students from local high schools have started to visit our library to find primary resources for their social studies assignments, many of which could effectively utilize the Serial Set.

Through demonstrations at several Federal Depository Library conferences, I began to explore the Readex digital edition of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, 1817-1980, investigating how this resource could be used at my library. I learned more about the ways in which Readex has enhanced the Serial Set, including its many illustrations, maps and tables, and provided multiple bibliographic access points.

Before committing to purchase the Readex digital Serial Set, at least two questions needed to be addressed. The first focused on the fact that our library held scattered print volumes of the Serial Set but a relatively full microfiche edition. Would the Readex edition be perceived as a duplicate purchase? Also there were the tacit questions of several library staff members: what is the Serial Set and what does it contain?

At the King Library, use of the Serial Set in microfiche had been relatively low, because of not only its inadequate indexing but also its second-floor location in the reference department, which has only a fiche reader to view the images. To acquaint our librarians and staff with the depth of the Serial Set and to demonstrate its value to students and other researchers, I developed a workshop. My plan was to use only our microfiche version to show some thought-provoking examples for different subject disciplines.

Because my Serial Set workshop was scheduled near the end of our spring semester, when librarians were finishing classes and busy with fiscal year-end projects, my first step was to make the title and publicity of the workshop stand out. Deriving my idea for a title from a box of Wheaties™, I entitled the workshop, "Serial Set: Breakfast of Champions™." One of our student workers, a graphics design major, took the idea and created a flyer that was similar to the original cereal box. Near the title, "Serial Set: Breakfast of Champions," the student replaced the photograph of a star baseball pitcher with a graphic of George Washington as the ace pitcher for our team. For publicity, an announcement of the workshop was sent out on the library's email system, and printed flyers were placed in staff work rooms and librarians' mailboxes.

The next step was to gather examples of Serial Set documents that would be of wide-ranging interest. While I was sure that our history librarians would be in favor of the digital edition, I wanted librarians in other disciplines to recognize its multidisciplinary value. I consulted with August A. Imholtz, Jr., Vice President of Government Publications at Readex, about publications in various scientific areas and concerning women's suffrage. He graciously sent several Serial Set citations that appeared to be perfect.

However, I soon learned that retrieving the documents from the microfiche set was not an easy endeavor. Using the paper index, I discovered that in the case of women's suffrage, several citations were only retrievable by proper name. An example of this type of search was the material concerning Victoria C. Woodhull, a prominent suffragist of the 19th century. One of the documents was the "Memorial of Victoria C. Woodhull" to Congress, which asked for legislation to be enacted to allow voting, regardless of gender (Memorial, 1870). While the Readex digital Serial Set contains multiple access points to this document, the paper index has very few access points for individual documents. In the case of the Woodhull Memorial, only one heading was located in the paper index and that was under her name. What had been relatively easy to locate in the digital edition took several hours in the microfiche version.

To make copies of the microfiche for the presentation, I scanned the microfiche selections and soon discovered that this was another daunting task. To produce clear images, several attempts to copy the microfiche were required, making it apparent why so few students and researchers used the Serial Set in this format.

At the presentation, there was lively discussion about my science and suffrage examples, and many attendees asked what other topics could be found in the Serial Set. One question was about the baseball theme for our flyer. Of course, George Washington was not a pitcher, but a few librarians recalled the legend about him throwing a coin across the Potomac, and I noted that the Serial Set, in fact, does include publications that cite baseball and other sports.

During the presentation, several librarians remarked that the Serial Set was truly a fantastic tool for use at the reference desk and in library instruction. However, they realized the frustrations students would encounter in finding documents in the microfiche edition and were concerned about the many steps needed to view and copy items. The conclusion reached by many at the workshop was that the digital Serial Set edition should be investigated and that more presentations on its riches would be welcome.

Early in the past academic year, our collection development officer asked our librarians to rank a list of most-desired databases. Although prior to the workshop the digital U.S. Congressional Serial Set hadn't score highly, we serendipitously received word a few weeks after the workshop that year-end funds were available for database acquisition. In a new survey, the digital Serial Set moved high up on the list, and in June the King Library acquired the Readex edition. While this is delightful news, we must continue to demonstrate to our library staff the treasures of this resource and its relevancy to the information needs of our students, faculty, staff and community. I am already planning my first workshop using the digital edition.

California State Dept. of Education, Sacramento. (1997). History-social science framework for California public schools, kindergarten through grade twelve. California: Bureau of Publications: 22, 27.

Memorial of Victoria C. Woodhull, 41st Cong. 3rd Session (1870)

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