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Who is that guy, anyhow? Or: when documentation fails

Yesterday, while working on the blog entry about one of the reasons we don’t buy collections, I wanted to enter a link to the finding aid to the Eric A. Hegg photographs. Since we’re in the process of converting all of our finding aids from what they are to a standardized form, I decided to convert that one and move it to its new locale on the website so I wouldn’t have to remember to fix the link later.

But four lines into filling in the template, I ran into a problem. Specifically, the Creator field.

Well, we do try to standardize our description (cataloging) as much as possible and if there’s an official Library of Congress Name Authority for a specific person, we use it. And I bopped off to the LOC website to check and came up with this as the authorized form: Hegg, Eric A., 1867-1948.

I had just pasted that in when I glanced down at our biographical statement that said that Eric Hegg died in 1955. Oops. So I went off to look at the full LOC authority record thinking that perhaps there was more than one Eric Hegg out there, and I’d just grabbed the wrong one.

No, the 670 entries make it pretty clear I’ve got the right guy.

670 __ |a NUCMC data from U. of Washington Lib. for E.A. Becker. Papers, 1936-1967 |b (Eric A. Hegg, an Alaskan pioneer photographer)
670 __ |a Becker, E.A. Klondike ’98, 1967 |b (Eric A. Hegg, 1867-1948; lived in New Whatcom (Bellingham), Washington, Nome, Alaska, and Dawson, Yukon Territory)

So sometime way back when, the University of Washington, in a NUCMC entry (National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections: it used to be THE catalog for finding archival collections) provided that death date. And LOC adopted it.

It’s looking more and more like our information is wrong. And I checked our file on the collection, of which there is none. No help there as to where we obtained the 1955 date.  I shouted out to Megan–since she has a research interest in west coast photographers–and asked if she’d be willing to do some research. First thing she checked was David Mattison’s great online guide to photographers working in the BC, Yukon and Alaska. Which has a very specific death date of December 13, 1947 and a long discussion of the contradictory dates and a final decision on 1947.

On to Rootsweb (are you noticing I’m searching free sources only?), which turned up the 12/13/1947 death date for an Eric Hegg in San Diego (well, at least we had the city right.) But is that our Eric Hegg? Good question. So I thought: how many Eric Heggs might there be? And went off to Heritage Quest Online, available through the Digital Pipeline for free to all Alaskans through the Statewide Library Electronic Doorway (SLED) and took a look at the 1920 census. I chose 1920 because it was more completely indexed through that database than the 1930 version. Typed in Eric Hegg, received one hit: for Fresno, California. Merchant in an art store, so could be our guy, and age seems to agree with the universal 1867 birthdate, but birthplace: Wisconsin? Everybody else is saying a Swedish immigrant, but maybe the line was filled out by somebody other than Eric who didn’t know or was tired of being factual–that’s not all that unusual. But no other Eric listed that year. And nothing much that looks like an Eric, elsewhere in the 217 results for that last name. So apparently the name Eric Hegg isn’t that common. If no other Erics are running around, the 1947 date could be our guy since the birth date certainly agrees with everything else.

Next step was to go see if any of the San Diego papers from 1947, 1948, or 1955 might have online obituaries or death notices.  I wandered down to the library’s main reference desk and found Marsha Callaway, our government documents librarian, who was willing to help. She walked me through figuring out what NewsBank had available for California, but none of the San Diego papers went back that far. No real surprises there: digitizing old newspapers is starting to get popular, but many of those projects are in the very early stages. The newspapers and subscription databases are working from the present back, the library and archival projects are starting from the oldest forward (the CA project seems to have some up to 1922, but that’s about it.)

So short of a research trip to San Diego–and I’m thinking there’s no good way to sell that one to my Dean heading into an Alaskan winter–I think we’re stuck for the moment.

After all, how important is this fact? In terms of the collection itself, probably not so much. We don’t have anything from his later life which argues that maybe that piece of the biography isn’t very relevant to our collection and perhaps we don’t need to get so detailed in our biographical account. But what about the Creator field, which is where this whole thing started in the first place? We want to use the name authorities as much as possible, but not when we know them to be incorrect and/or misleading. The momentary solution for us–since we do have other projects that need to get done–is to follow the structure of the LC authority and just leave the dates off. Until the name authority file is corrected, or we hear back from our colleagues at UW with either a death certificate or an obituary, or if my Dean decides my going to San Diego on a fact-finding tour in November is important, we’ll stick with “Eric A. Hegg” as our creator note and close off our biographical description with a note describing the various dates.  I think people seeking his materials will still find the collection in the meantime. After all, if you search Eric Hegg photographs in Google or Yahoo, we’re in the top 10 listings. Still, unfortunately, pointing to the old collection description which I’ve now taken down, but it will be re-indexed and correct within a month or so.

And hopefully the next conversion I do won’t eat up four hours + of research time on one piece of information alone. Especially since it only took me about a half hour to do the rest of it, including the database entry and html conversion.

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