Backstage Library Works
The papers stacked waiting to be copied with a copier machine.

How To Make Cataloging Surrogates, Why They Can Help

Photographing digital “facsimiles” of materials – or as we colloquially say at Backstage, “surrogates” – can be a useful workflow for a variety of situations faced in the technical library setting. The process varies, but the goal is to have a technician create brief scans of books, maps, and other materials in order to enable a cataloger to create or enhance a bibliographic record without the item in hand.

The Backstage Metadata team has incorporated this workflow for years, and libraries have occasionally opted to have a project completed solely from PDF or photocopied surrogates. During the 2020 COVID-19 quarantine, our experience with this method allowed us to continue working on certain projects while most of our staff worked from home.

We’re going to explore Backstage’s suggested best-practices for this process and, to start off, let’s answer the first question that comes to mind:

What are some of the use-cases for creating surrogates?

  • Cataloging of fragile materials: Sometimes, what you’re cataloging is just a little too brittle to move from where it’s being housed, and undergoing the repetitive handling that can be required for cataloging will put the item under unnecessary stress. By photographing the material, you should only have to go through the relevant pages of the material once. Then, it can safely be rehoused and reshelved, and you will have a working copy for cataloging, editing, review, and finalization of your bibliographic record.
  • Cataloging of rare, valuable, or high-use materials: For all of the same reasons why surrogates can assist in cataloging fragile materials, so too can they keep rare and valuable materials safe in their original locations. Surrogates can also keep materials that have a frequent rate of circulation in the hands of your patrons, even while you perform maintenance on the record.
  • Cataloging of oversized materials: Sanborn maps – they’re excellent resources but, yikes, they can be big and unwieldy! It might make the most sense to snap some photos, collect the extent information, and leave some materials where they are so that your space doesn’t become overly cluttered.
  • Offsite cataloging, including work-from-home: If you’re considering going with a cataloging vendor like Backstage, you might prefer to send surrogates instead of the materials themselves. As long as enough information is recorded, the records cataloged from surrogates should be indistinguishable to those cataloged with the item in hand. This is true, too, if you’re trying to find solutions to accommodate staff members working from home due to distancing or health concerns.

It’s important to keep the concept of cataloging surrogates separate from that of scans made for digital lending. Where the scanning for digital lending is focused on comprehensive digitization, the scanning required for surrogates is allowed to be lower quality, and rather than digitizing the entire book, you should only need to only include the pages necessary to create or enhance a bibliographic record. The scanning you do for cataloging surrogates will likely not be sufficient for lending, and trying to make your scans multi-purpose to both ends will complicate the process for both goals.

Another distinction that needs to be made is that these scans are not intended for facsimile use. Were the scans to be retained and circulated as an electronic or photocopied version of the original resource, you would likely (local policy statements withstanding) need to create a new record for the new manifestation, or leave a note in the record indicating that the record was not generated from the original source material. Because the scans are operating as an accessibility solution, a different way of accessing the original material, and because the original material is the item being cataloged, no additional notes should be required in the record. Essentially, surrogates are not intended to function as facsimiles.

How much should I scan?

Simply stated – think like a cataloger! The cataloger will need to trust that you’ve captured all of the elements necessary for cataloging. Exclusion of information will be interpreted as absence of that information. While your cataloger may have follow up questions, creating a workflow and process that is intuitive, reliable, and consistent will minimize the chance for confusion and the need for multiple consultations of the source material.

If you are trying to create a workflow document for student interns or other staff members to follow quickly, easily, and perhaps with only a slight background in cataloging, we recommend sitting down to catalog a small stack of different items and take note of where you’re routinely looking in those materials. When partners ask us for our recommendations, we share our own surrogacy guide that we’ve developed through personal experience of sending cataloging surrogates to some of our overseas non-English language experts.

Here are the things to consider including in your procedural documentation for scanning, focusing on monographic materials for this example:

  • Cover, spine, and back of the book: rather than taking the time to determine if they could require additional title access points, save time in the decision-making by just capturing them and letting the cataloger decide if information from those photographs are needed in the record.
  • Title page
  • Title page verso
  • Series title page, if applicable
  • Colophon (if on a different page than the TP verso)
  • Table of contents
  • Introduction or a portion of the first chapter
  • Individual scans of different illustrative types: for example, if a book contains five maps and a single genealogical table, and if your library records different illustrative types in its leader and extent statement, then take a photo of a map, and a photo of the genealogical table. Make sure your cataloger understands what your process is so that they can rest assured no other illustrative content needs to be noted.
  • Any pages that might be pertinent to cataloging the item, such as annotations if your library makes note of these, or gift inscriptions. 
  • Depending on what your process for delivering surrogates will be, it can be helpful to take a blank photo between items. This helps indicate to a cataloger very clearly that they’ve seen all of the relevant images for a given item and will help them not confuse photos that are intended for a different book. This becomes especially important when you photograph multi-volume sets, in which case the blank photo is taken after all books in the multi-volume set have been photographed.

Manual notation of extent: Taking a photo of the last numbered page can work, but it may be clearer for the end cataloger if you write out the extent instead. At Backstage, we sometimes report an extent statement to our contract catalogs by writing the pagination statement and size of the book in centimeters on a white board that we then photograph. Other times, we’ve scanned materials and updated an inventory spreadsheet of titles with their accompanying extent statements. Writing out the extent is helpful particularly when pagination is “3, 5, 56 pages, 6 pages of plates” rather than a simple-to-photograph “200 pages.”

Index, Bibliographical references, and appendices: Not every library is concerned with including these elements in their records, or you may prefer to record these as well as the range of pages upon which they are applicable. If your library is one of the latter, then consider manual notation as explained in the paragraph above.  

Customize your surrogacy documentation to align with your library’s cataloging expectations. Once you start testing the workflow, you’ll likely notice what the easiest and fastest way is for collecting the information required. At Backstage, we typically work from cover to back, with the final image being a note on extent and other special notes that need to be made, and lastly, a blank photo to indicate the item has been fully represented.

How should I scan?

Something as simple as your smart phone or as complex as a self-service digitization kiosk can do the job well depending on what you have available to you. Some libraries like to take photocopies of books and send those physical surrogates to Backstage for cataloging. A downside to flatbed scanners is frequently the quality of the print version and the difficulty of getting a clear photo of text in gutters. While the quality of the scan hardly needs to adhere to FADGI guidelines and can be off-kilter or lower resolution, you do need to make sure text is readable and that the content is clear.

At Backstage, we have the most luck (and the fastest processing) with a hand-held digital camera, a book cradle, and photographing in a room with plenty of natural light. Copy stands are good investments towards keeping photographs steady and reducing the time spent picking up and putting down the camera to flip pages. Copy-stands can also take some of the strain off of the photographer’s back and legs.

When photographing free-handed, stand away from the page so that relevant text can be captured at its maximum resolution and try to keep the camera parallel to the page for a straight-on perspective. To keep the photos file sizes from being massive, experiment with different resolution settings on your camera. What’s the minimum resolution needed to keep text readable?

Once the process has been established, tested, and after someone has had experience with the workflow, it will be easy to get the photos you need from, say, a single monographic title in just 60 seconds.

How do I get the files to the cataloger that needs them?

If you’ve created photocopies: Staple all of the relevant pages of a given item together making sure that any additional information required for cataloging, such as a printout of the existing item record for the material or a separate list of extents for the photocopied collection, is included. These can then be mailed or handed off to a cataloger.

If you’ve taken photos: You will have a neatly-numbered memory card of files to work with. As long as you’ve been able to photograph consistently, and especially if you’ve taken blank photos between books, then a cataloger should be able to receive the memory card itself or the files therein on a cloud storage service and work from there. This would save the most time. However, you can also make PDFs of each item’s scans, or separate out the photos into separate folders on a drive for added clarity. If you have multiple off-site catalogers working from a single drive, consider implementing a shared document or spreadsheet where catalogers can “sign out” folders to work on.

Takeaways regarding creating digital surrogates?

Despite the gains of creating cataloging surrogates, the time involved does need to be considered. If a staff member is working at a good rate to photograph or scan materials, it should take about an hour to get through 45-60 books.

What are the trade-offs? If your library has a lot of volunteers or the time here and there to support scanning materials for offsite or fragile-materials cataloging, then you will end up saving the time that shipping normally takes (perhaps a week or more), and you will also save on shipping costs. There is likely a happy medium for your library between time and expense, and each library will have a different bandwidth for this process. Your top priority may be ensuring the safety of your collection by keeping it in-house – in which case, creating surrogates is a great idea for your next out-sourced cataloging project.

Contact Us

Do you have a special collection you need cataloged, but you haven’t felt comfortable about shipping the materials? Whether it’s coming onsite to catalog/create cataloging surrogates, or receiving the scans your team process themselves, we’re able to help. To learn more about where Backstage can fit into your project, you can call us at 1.800.288.1265, send us an email at, or fill out our Contact Us form.

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