Describing Medium of Performance in the Edward B. Marks Music Co. Collection on George M. Cohan

Tuesday, November 6, 2018 by Lauren Robinson

George M. Cohan (1878-1942) and F. A. Mills (Firm). "Life's a Funny Proposition After All". 1904. MCNY 68.127.58

As announced previously here and here, the Museum received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize and catalog manuscripts, typescripts, actors’ sides, sheet music, and orchestrations from the Edward B. Marks Music Co. Collection on George M. Cohan. This work is well under way, with over 400 objects and nearly 15,000 images now available on the Collections Portal.

The Museum’s estimated 750,000 objects comprise an enormous variety of types, including books, costumes and costume accessories, currency, drawings, ephemera, furniture, maps, paintings, photographs, sculpture, silverwork, and toys, to name just a few. The Museum uses the Cataloging Cultural Objects metadata standard to describe the objects from its varied and vast collections, and employs controlled vocabulary primarily from the Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT) to express what the object is, and how it was made.

But Discovering the Yankee Doodle Boy: Digitization of the Edward B. Marks Music Company Collection on George M. Cohan offered the Museum a unique cataloging challenge that it had not encountered before: how to describe musical medium of performance, and where that information would be entered in the Museum’s collections management system.

George M. Cohan (1878-1942). Voice orchestration for "Little Johnny Jones". ca. 1904. MCNY 68.123.202

The Library of Congress defines musical mediums of performance as “the voices, instruments, and other entities needed to perform a piece of music, such as a children’s chorus, electronic organ ensemble, flute, orchestra, or a soprano voice.” The Music Library Association notes that “Medium of performance is an attribute uniquely important to music. It is an identifying element for known musical works, and users also regularly seek works and expressions for a particular medium of performance, without a particular work/expression in mind at the beginning of their search.”

The Museum knew that it needed to capture this critical information in the object record, but was uncertain where and how. AAT offers a rich vocabulary to describe instruments and voices, but the Museum already applies this to categorize the musical instruments in its collections. How would users differentiate between piano, an object, and piano, used to orchestrate Cohan’s score, “Fifty Miles from Boston”?

Music libraries have long dealt with the issue of describing medium of performance, particularly how it can be separable from other elements in a catalog record. In 2008, libraries were working toward the application of a new cataloging standard, Resource Description and Access, that would supplant Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, 2nd edition. RDA offered a unique opportunity for the music library community to develop a new vocabulary specific to medium of performance. Library of Congress Medium of Performance Thesaurus for Music (LCMPT) debuted in 2014 with 800 medium of performance terms. As of January 2018, LCMPT contains 851 terms.

The Museum implemented LCMPT to describe instrumentation, and decided that instrumentation would exist alongside other expressions of medium, such as material and technique. Users can now search 32 unique mediums of performance on the Collections Portal.

Object record for 68.123.199G. First cornet orchestration for "Little Johnny Jones". ca. 1904

Work on the Edward B. Marks Music Co. Collection on George M. Cohan continues – be sure to check back on Stories and the Collections Portal for more news and uploads. This project has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

By Lauren Robinson, Metadata and Rights and Reproductions Specialist

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