Malabar Farm Automation: Bromfield Legacy
Malabar Farm Automation
By Scott Savage, Arbor Hill Consulting
Malabar Farm State Park is the former home of Pulitzer Prize winning author and world-famous farmer Louis Bromfield. Bromfield died in the late 1950s and his 914 acre farm eventually was given to the State of Ohio to become the only state park in the country that is also a diversified working farm. He was an internationally celebrated man of letters and the book titles in his personal library read like a history of the first half of the Twentieth Century. Bromfield’s collection literally spans the age, from an early edition of Hitler's 1927 Mein Kampf all the way to Menachem Begin's 1951 narrative of Jewish resistance against British occupation in the Mandate of Palestine (with its lengthy, personal note penned by Begin to Bromfield on the flyleaf).
The task of the LSTA-funded “Bromfield Legacy” library automation project that began in October 2008 was to make the 5000-plus books located at Malabar Farm more available for study by scholars by putting descriptive records into the Ohio State University Libraries catalog, thereby providing access to OSU and OhioLINK academic libraries. The project is a joint effort between Ohio State University Special Collections department and the State Park’s contractor, Arbor Hill Consulting. But the Bromfield Legacy project ended up bringing a novel approach to cataloging this particular collection that may be useful for other special collections.
The books at Malabar are divided into two basic collections: the Sustainable Agriculture Library, located in the Malabar Farm Visitor Center, and the Bromfield family’s personal library, spread out among eleven rooms in the “Big House”, as the Bromfield mansion/farmhouse was nicknamed during its use as the family residence. The most interesting aspect of the automation project centers on these 4,000 or so volumes located in the Big House.
There has been a longstanding need for scholarly and student access to the collection, but the books located in the Big House fulfill another, somewhat contradictory role as realia—historical objects belonging in a house that is a museum frozen in time. Books and ideas were central to Bromfield’s life; he had bookcases built into every appropriate space in the house. Even some of the closets sport bookshelves crammed with volumes the family acquired in their many travels.
Project planning took the realia issue seriously, developing a “hands-off” methodology for processing the physical volumes to both make them accessible within a cataloging system and yet unchanged as objects in the Big House “diorama” of family life circa the late 1940s. In practice this meant no spine numbers, no re-coverings, no rearrangement, no tags, no RFIDs, no magnetic strips. Instead, Arbor Hill Consulting devised a novel digital finding aid by borrowing the “virtual tour” concept used by the real estate industry to allow online customers to “walk through” houses for sale, employing 360-degree digital photography.
The project makes possible the following scenario: A researcher in Cleveland looks at online holdings through OhioLINK and generates an email or telephone request for scans or photocopies or journeys to Malabar to peruse the OSU catalog at one of the two public access laptops and study actual books from the Big House first hand. A Malabar Farm staff member uses the cataloging/maintenance laptop to find the needed item's record from the OSU online catalog and copy-paste the author/title information to the “Virtual Big House” software indexing feature. On the screen, the VR tour opens and centers the picture on the physical location of the book to be accessed, zooming to a resolution level that shows the title on the spine. The staff member then goes to that location and retrieves the book for the patron's use in the Visitor Education Center library. This method, for all its digital enhancements, probably owes just as much to the ancient monastic Scriptorium in terms of its approach to the value and rarity of the physical volumes. Unlocking the Bromfield collection has been a trip backward in time by means of forward technology.
Scott Savage is a project management and grants consultant for Ohio libraries and nonprofits.
To view the Finding Aid: Bromfield Collection go to: