News

General news and updates from the project as it progresses.

63_473

MERL 63/473.

Things have been a bit quiet on the Countryside21 front over the past month, so we’ve kept ourselves busy by ploughing on with cataloguing and satsifyingly reached yet another milestone on Friday – 11,000 records have now been enhanced!!!

The 11,000th record enhanced was part of the Bushell Brothers Collection. The Bushell Brothers ran a canal boat building and repair firm at Gannel in New Mill, Tring, on the Wendover Arm Canal, until their retirement in 1952. The lamp above (MERL 63/473) was painted by Charlie Bushell.

That still leaves another 7,600 which still need to be enhanced – I’m hoping that we’ll be able to plod our way through those when we have other quiet moments on Countryside21.

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CDs

The initial phase of a new project is always a bit fuzzy, and seems to involve what can feel like endless circular discussions and feelings of not really knowing what you’re supposed to be doing or how best to go about doing something.  Thankfully, we’re beginning to emerge from that phase with our new project, Countryside21 (although we’re not quite there yet!).

It originally felt like it was quite difficult to translate the three main strands of Countryside21 – collating and structuring digital content, improving keywording of digital content, and developing the MERL image bank (see my introductory post to the project) – into actual day to day tasks for Felicity and me to do. However, we haven’t been idle….

Our first step was to get to grips with the MERL Classification, which will be the starting point for developing how we keyword our collections. (Until now I’ve never paid much attention to the Classification and how, or why, it has been used.) This has involved looking at how the Classification has evolved over time – from its conception in the 1950s, to a more detailed version in the 1970s, and a simplified version in the 2000s. We’ve also been trying to find out about how it’s been used externally by other museums and institutions, and to consider how it compares with the Social History and Industrial Classification (SHIC) used by many other rural museums.

We’ve also been trying to get our heads around what terms we currently have in our ‘subject keyword’ thesaurus and the best way to go about tidying them up, as we know from our cataloguing for A Sense of Place that this is basically chaos (we’ve been ignoring it for the past year). We know that some terms shouldn’t be ‘subjects’ but should instead be categorised as ‘geographical keywords’ or ‘person and institutions’, and we also know that some ‘subjects’ appear multiple times in various forms and with various spellings, e.g. harvest, harvests, harvvest, harvesting etc.

Continuing with the idea of developing our keywording, we’ve been looking at how big commercial image banks such as Getty Images and i-stock keyword their images. We want to develop more emotive keywording based on the idea of ‘aboutness’, i.e. so not just what is actually depicted in an image, but also what the image is ‘about’ – ideas, emotions, concepts etc.

We’ve also started trying to collate all of MERL’s digital content and store it in one place, and to think about how to name image files in a standardised way which also relates to the object number or archival reference code. From next week, we’ll have a new volunteer project running to help us copy 500 CDs’ worth of images digitised as part of a 2002 New Opportunities Fund (NOF) project onto the server. In preparation for this, Felicity’s been trying automatic ways of renaming large numbers of files – otherwise it could take a long time!

I think it will take a few weeks before we feel like we’re fully underway with Countryside21, and for us to fully understand what we’re doing, but it feels good to be making progress.

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Today's teaching session in the MERL stores.

Today’s teaching session in the MERL stores.

We had a visit this morning, led by Prof. Martin Bell, from some Coastal and Maritime Archaeology students who had come to look at a selection of fishing-related objects. We got out a selection of basketwork eel traps of different shapes (63/171, 63/173, 63/606), some simple willow ties (63/75, 64/152), a selection of eel and fish spears of different designs (51/7, 51/1198, 53/258), a Welsh coracle with paddle and club (56/187/1, 56/187/2. 60/641), and a replica ard (a rudimentary plough) (63/610). The students also looked at some salmon traps (64/22, 64/23) in the gallery. You can find out more about these objects by searching the online catalogue.

It was really good to see MERL’s collections being used as a teaching resource – it would be great to have more of these visits! I hope everyone found it as interesting as I did – I really enjoyed listening and finding out about comparable objects found in the archaeological record. It’s visits like these which highlight the different ways which museum collections can be used, and which help us to understand and interpret our collections in new ways. And it makes for a good break from cataloguing!

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MERL P DX289 PH1_967

MERL P DX289 PH1_967

As the Sense of Place project draws to a close (although it’s not over yet!), Felicity and I are making a start on our next project, Countryside21. The project is funded by Arts Council England’s (ACE) Designation development fund and will run until October 2013. It’s quite a technical project and it’s taken a while for us to get our heads around it. It’s not a very exciting project to explain (although the outcomes will make life a lot easier), but I’ll give it a go!

The project has three main strands. The first is about collating and managing MERL’s digital content. Over the years the Museum has run various digitisation projects which have created about 50,000 digital copies (known technically as ‘virtual surrogates’) of items within the collections, such as scans of old photos and paper records, images of objects and documents, and copies of films and sound recordings. These have built up rather chaotically, so Countryside21 aims to locate them all in a single, structured system to help us better manage our digital content and give users better access to it. To do this, we’re going to integrate the MERL catalogue (Adlib) with the University of Reading’s existing ‘digital asset management’ system (AssetBank).

The second strand is about increasing the accessibility of the collections by making it easier for users (and us) to search them. We’re going to be doing this by improving the range and quality of the keywords we use when cataloguing things on Adlib. This will be a combination of reworking old keywords based on the MERL Classification (a blog post on this topic will follow shortly) and the current subject thesaurus, and adding new, more emotive keywords to describe content in new ways based on the idea of ‘aboutness’ (look out for a blog post on this in the near future too).

The final strand is about developing MERL’s existing image bank service.

Ultimately, Countryside21 is about ensuring that users, both inside and outside the Museum, have the greatest possible chance of identifying what they’re looking for in the collections.

You can read a slightly more detailed overview of Countryside21 on the project page. We’ll hopefully start blogging on a more regular basis again over the coming weeks – so please keep following the blog!

 

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You may have noticed over the past couple of months that our blog posts and updates have slowed down as we approach the end of the Sense of Place project.  But don’t despair!  We’ve all enjoyed contributing to the blog so much that we’ve decided to keep it going, in its new role as a MERL Projects blog!

We hope that you’ve enjoyed following the progress of the Sense of Place project, and we’ve really valued the comments and feedback we’ve received so far.  We’ve still got quite a bit more to tell you about the final stages of the project, but we’ll also be telling you about other projects that are happening at MERL.  In the very near future, Greta will be writing a post to introduce the new project that we have both started working on, Countryside21.

So keep reading, and keep commenting!

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10000

Our cataloguing log – we enhanced our 10,000th record today (15 February 2013)

We’ve done it, we’ve finally done it. We have just catalogued our 10,000th record! That’s right – TEN THOUSAND records enhanced! This is the target that Felicity and I have had in our heads since we started the project and, although there were times when we didn’t think we’d get there, we’ve finally done it! And 10,000 records is over half of the total number of object records at MERL. I only hope that once the Sense of Place project is completed there’ll still be the opportunity to do bits of cataloguing every now and then to chip away at the remaining records. It really does feel great to have reached 10,000!!!

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As you will have read from Greta’s post Crowdsourcing with the Bucklebury History Group, we’ve been doing a lot of work over the past couple of weeks on our MERL Historypin channel.  A large number of the Collier photographs of Bucklebury have been re-pinned to more precise locations, and some of them are even pinned to street-view, where possible.  The next stage for us was to start to make proper use of some of the other features of Historypin, so Danielle and I spent an afternoon this week experimenting with ‘Tours’ and ‘Collections’.

Bucklebury ford

A Collier photograph of Bucklebury ford, recently re-pinned to street-view.

Tours and Collections are essentially features that enable users to group together and highlight particular sets of ‘pins’, according to whatever theme they choose.  The Collections feature is particularly suited to grouping pins by theme.  A Collection could be created to show a set of photographs taken by a particular photographer, or a set of similar objects.  The user can add some introductory text to explain the rationale of the collection and any other information they want to include.  The selected pins can then be viewed either in list-form or as a slideshow.

The ‘Tour’ feature initially appears to be similar, but its potential lies in the use of pins that are pinned to street-view.  Where relevant, the pins appear in the slideshow automatically in street-view, with a small map showing their location and a small space for extra text to its left.   If all the pins are on street-view, then, a tour can enable the user to virtually ‘walk’ down a street, fading pins in and out of view and following their progress on a map.

Describing the features doesn’t quite convey their potential to enhance a Historypin channel, so the best thing to do would be to take a look at some of the tours and collections Danielle and I created this week, on the MERL and Bucklebury History Group channels.  Simply go to the channels and select the ‘Collections’ or ‘Tours’ tabs.

MERL Channel collection

The ‘George Lailey, Bucklebury Craftsman’ collection, on the MERL Historypin channel.

The ‘History Walk around Bucklebury’ tour on the Bucklebury History Group channel is a particularly good example of what these features can do.  You’ll see that the tour includes photographs and objects pinned by MERL as well as those pinned by the History Group.  In this way, users are not confined to their own content, but can make use of any photographs and objects pinned on the website.

Bucklebury History Walk Tour

A Collier photograph of Bucklebury pinned to street-view, as seen in the ‘Bucklebury History Walk’ tour.

And there are a lot of pins to choose from.  According to the counter on the homepage, there are, to date, over 210,000 pins and comments on Historypin, and this can sometimes make the website (and individual channels) a victim of its own success.  The more that is pinned the better, but this makes it harder to sift through the content to find particular images.  If you look at the main list of pins on the MERL channel, for example, you will have to trawl through a lot of pages of object pins before you reach the Collier photo pins, which were added at an earlier date.  A major benefit of the tours and collections features is that they provide solutions to this problem.  They can highlight particular sub-sets of pins and make it much easier for their users to find what they might be looking for.  We think they also make the channel more interactive, informative and enjoyable to browse.

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Bulk upload

Since February last year we’ve had a team of volunteers working on digitising our old black and white negatives. This was initially part of the JISC project, but we’ve been carrying on the project as it’s a great way to get images for the catalogue without having to take new photographs (which are very expensive and time consuming). We’ve now scanned about 7100 negatives, of which 6100 have been uploaded to the catalogue this week! There are still another 10 boxes of negatives to scan (23 in total), but we’re past the halfway mark.

In addition to the negatives, we also scanned the documentation in the accession files for 150 objects as part of the JISC project. This totalled nearly 2100 scans, and these too have now been uploaded to the catalogue.

And all of the scanning I did for the basketry collection, which included Dorothy Wright’s ‘Catalogue of baskets’ forms and transcripts of an interview with Jack Rowsell, the last Devon splint basketmaker, and slides of Jack making the baskets, have also been uploaded.

So do take a look at our online catalogue and let us know what you think!

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photo(3)

Crowdsourcing in the Cottage Inn, Upper Bucklebury

On Tuesday the Sense of Place team had another visit to the Berkshire village of Bucklebury to meet the local history group. This time we were joined by Rebekkah, MERL’s ‘Historypinner in Residence’, who has been helping us upload our content to Historypin and develop a Historypin App for Bucklebury which draws on the content from our Historypin channel and from the Bucklebury History Group’s channel.

We met up with the Bucklebury History Group in a cosy pub in Upper Bucklebury and set ourselves up for an afternoon of ‘crowdsourcing’. Crowdsourcing is a form of distributed problem solving, which basically means putting a problem into the public domain for anyone to solve. In our case, we were using crowdsourcing to find out more about our Bucklebury photographs from the History Group.

We selected about 20 Bucklebury images – some taken by Philip Osborne Collier, a Reading photographer who was active 1905–1960s, and some taken by a former resident of Bucklebury in the 1950s. We chose these images for several reasons, e.g. because we wanted to know where they were taken, because we wanted to know who was in them, because we thought they were nice photographs, because we thought they might spark off interesting discussions etc. We were particularly keen to get more detailed information on where the photos were taken so that we could pin them more accurately to Historypin, and thus paving the way for making use of some of Historypin’s other functions, such as taking repeat photos which allow you to fade between historic and contemporary photos of the same view.

One of the Collier photos we crowdsourced, showing the houses near Turner's Green and George Lailey's hut.

One of the Collier photos we crowdsourced, showing the houses near Turner’s Green and George Lailey’s hut in the distance.

The session was a great success! We had been planning to work in two smaller groups to try a couple of different ways of looking at the photos and recording the information, e.g. looking at the photos on laptops and on print outs, and recording the information on blank pieces of paper and on prepared forms. However, we ended up working together, gathered around a big screen onto which we projected the images. I acted as a scribe, scribbling down as much as I could about what was being said; Felicity sat with a map next to a very knowledgeable Bucklebury resident and recorded the location of each photo; and we had a dictaphone running to record any information we missed. The great thing about this was that everyone could pool their knowledge together and looking at digital images meant we could zoom in on particular areas of the photos (which were very high resolution) which we wouldn’t have been able to do had we been using printed photos.

This photo was given to the History Group by Rod Bisset, who grew up in Bucklebury. Felicity has managed to pin this to Historypin - the small tree by the bench is now a very large tree!

This photo was given to the History Group by Rod Bisset, who grew up in Bucklebury. Felicity has managed to pin this to Historypin – the small tree by the bench is now a very large tree!

As a result of the crowdsourcing session, we now have much more accurate information on where the photos were taken and Felicity has been spending the day re-pinning the photos to the correct places. We’ve also generated some more contextual information about the photos, which Rebekkah is going to work on uploading as stories. We’ve also learnt how a crowdsourcing session actually works. Crowdsourcing is something Rebekkah does quite frequently for Historypin, but none of us had ever tried it before, so it was really good to give it a go and get some ideas on what worked well and what didn’t work so well, which can feed into other crowdsourcing sessions. I think that was probably the most positive outcome – that the Bucklebury History Group would like to do another session, so that’s hopefully something we’ll do in the spring. We’re also hoping to use what we’ve learnt to run a crowdsourcing session to look at some of the other photographic material we have at MERL – in particular, holding an intergenerational session with Young Farmers (and older farmers) to look at photographs from Farmers’ Weekly.

We had also been hoping to trial the Bucklebury App while we were there, but unfortunately I couldn’t get enough 3G signal for it to work reliably. I did manage a quick go using the pub’s wifi and was really pleased with what I saw. We’ve still got some more work to do on the App before we’re ready to make it public – including making use of the more accurately pinned photographs, and developing collections – but we’ll keep you posted on that.

Finally, I’d like to say a big thank you to Helen Relf of the Bucklebury History Group for making the arrangements for the session, and to Rebekkah for coming along and showing us how to crowdsource! And, to end on a positive note, one of the photos from the History Group’s channel is Historypin’s ‘Pin of the Day’ for today (17 January) so be sure to take a look.

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2012 is drawing to a close and so is the Sense of Place project, with just a few more weeks when we come back in 2013.

We’re frantically trying to reach 9000 records before the end of the year – we have about six hours of work left and 30 records to go. I think we can do it! As well has finishing all the cataloguing from the 1950s, we’ve now also finished cataloguing everything that’s been accessioned in the 2000s. So that just leaves 40 years’ worth of objects which need their records enhancing – unfortunately, it’s beyond the scope of the project! But hopefully someone will get a chance to work on the catalogue once A Sense of Place finishes.

The new year will see us winding up A Sense of Place. We still have a little bit more cataloguing we’d like to do before we finish (I’d like to finish the British Council traditional craft collection) and then there’s all the other things to be done – user testing of the enhanced catalogue records, evaluation of the project, launching the Bucklebury App, updating the cataloguing manuals we put together at the start of the project, tidying up object names, going back to records we’ve only partially enhanced because of ‘issues’, and writing our final blog posts.

Until then, we wish everyone a very happy Christmas and New Year!

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