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I’ve spent the past nine weeks enhancing the catalogue records for the basketry collection at MERL in preparation for trialling an online exhibition using the ‘exhibitions tool’ on our database, Adlib. Our basketry collection, comprising 637 baskets and basketmaking tools, is, like all of the collections at MERL, Designated as being of national importance. They are also national in scope, with baskets from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The basketry collection is one of our most popular and most visited collections at MERL. While we hold quite a lot of information about the collection, very little of it was available on Adlib… until now! In the 1960s Dorothy Wright, author of ‘The Complete Book of Baskets and Basketry’ and an authority on all things basket-related, studied the collection and completed detailed ‘Catalogue of baskets’ forms. She also played an important role in acquiring baskets for the Museum.

Key subsets of the baskets include:

  • Emily Mullins Collection – Emily Mullins was a Reading basketmaker who gave about 200 baskets and tools to the Museum, making baskets specifically for MERL and donating the contents of her workshop.
  • British Council Collection – these baskets toured Australia and New Zealand in the early 1950s as examples of traditional British craftsmanship.
  • Pilcher Collection of Victorian Baskets
  • Dorothy Wright Collection

A MERL 'Catalogue of baskets' form completed by Dorothy Wright.

My task has been to put all that information into the catalogue, taking into account the different needs of the basket specialist and non-specialist. This is what I have been putting in:

  • Production: who made it, where, when
  • Usage: who used it, where, when
  • Acquisition: who gave it to MERL, from where, when
  • Description: information for the non-specialist – a description of the shape of the basket, what it is made from, what it was used for, who used it, dialect names etc.
  • Scan of the MERL ‘Catalogue of baskets’ form: information for the specialist – this includes additional information about material, construction technique, dimensions, distribution, sources of reference. It also shows numerous crossings out and amendments which may be of interest to the specialist.
  • Transcription of the MERL ‘Catalogue of baskets’ form: information for the specialist – a transcription of the form in the ‘Object History Note’ field enables the information in the form to be searched
  • Photograph

The photograph and scans of the form are still waiting to be uploaded, but this is what the records should now all look like:

The 'Rapid Object Entry' screen for a fully enhanced basket record.

I spent a very long time thinking about how to name the baskets and tools in a simple and searchable way. I think Felicity must be fed up of hearing me talk about object names for baskets! In fact, we could easily write a long post on the trials of naming objects!  We consulted SPECTRUM, the standard for museum cataloguing, for guidance on object names, confirming that an object can have multiple names, and for guidance on the use of titles.  In terms of searchability, we had to consider what ways and terms people will use to search the catalogue and whether the object name will bring up the desired results. In terms of simplicity, we had to consider the variety of object names used and whether we wanted an infinite number or a restricted number (as Ollie envisages eventually having a drop down list of object names for the whole Museum).

Tools were fairly easy to name and each was given two names – the name of the tool (e.g. Bodkin; Needle; Chisel; Shave; Cleave) and the name ‘Tool, basketry’. The baskets themselves were more challenging. We looked at various ways of naming them – the detailed names given by Dorothy Wright, names based on the content (e.g. Basket, herring), the process they were used in (e.g. Basket, fishing), the accepted name (e.g. Basket, herring cran) etc. Eventually we opted mainly for a simplified content-based approach (e.g. Basket, fish; Basket, animal; Basket, fruit) with some exceptions (e.g. Basket, shopping; Basket, bicycle; Basket, gardening). For objects that aren’t specifically ‘baskets’ (as in vessels for containing things) they were given two object names (e.g. Basket, chair and Basketwork; Trap, eel and Basketwork). Commonly accepted names such as ‘Devon splint basket’, ‘trug’ and ‘kishie’ were added as Titles. Hopefully, any further information is captured in the description.

If you’re a basketmaker reading this, please have a look at our online catalogue, Enterprise, and let me know what you think! (Although we have been experiencing problems with Adlib re-naming objects of its own accord, so there might be a few anomalies until we get that sorted.)

But my work with the baskets isn’t over yet – there are still some baskets which need accessioning and then I need to experiment with the exhibitions tool and look at putting together an online exhibition.

Top left: 63/602 'Basket, fish' - Quarter cran herring basket. Top right: 65/205 'Basket, fruit' - Kentish kibsey. Bottom left: 77/321 'Basket, gardening' - Trug. Bottom right: 91/38 'Basket, potato' 'Basket, feeding' - Devon splint.

 

 

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Apologies for the Wizard of Oz reference in the title – I couldn’t help myself.  To finish the week, I thought I’d post an update on what I have been working on over the past couple of weeks.  We recently asked some of our MERL tour guides for feedback about what sort of objects visitors seem to be most interested in, with a particular interest in place.  The answer that came back was “wagons and ploughs”.  This didn’t really surprise me, as I remember on my own first visit to the museum I immediately wanted to find a wagon from Worcestershire, the county in which I grew up.  As it turns out, we don’t actually have a wagon from Worcestershire, but we do have plenty from many other counties.  I spent a few days enhancing the catalogue records for all the wagons in MERL’s collection, and after than moved on to the ploughs.

Cataloguing in this way does have certain advantages.  Spending a number of days immersed in information about a particular type of object gives you a much better chance of getting to understand those objects, and what is most relevant and important to record about them.  This is particularly useful when trying to tidy up the object name thesaurus for such objects.  In contrast, if you only catalogue one wagon in every 300 records it is much harder to get an overall picture of wagons and their variations.  Of course, it does help when you are interested in the objects you are spending up to week cataloguing exclusively.  On the other hand, cataloguing chronologically gives a really good insight into the history of the collection and how it developed over time, as well as being a logical and consistent way to progress towards our goal of 10,000 records by the end of the year.  It is interesting to consider how the order in which we catalogue objects might be influencing the way in which we are cataloguing them.

As well as the wagons and ploughs, I have also catalogued the objects in one particular gallery location: the saddlery case in the ‘Leather’ section of the Museum.  This is part of a small part of the project I am working on, where we’re trying to think of ways of making the enhanced catalogue records more accessible to visitors who are actually standing in the Museum, looking at the objects.  One of the ways we are thinking of doing this is using QR codes.  This is one outcome of our work with iMuse (see Working with iMuse and Historypin), and we have been able to think a lot about the benefits and practicalities of using QR code technology in a museum context.  Now that all of the objects in the saddlery case have been enhanced, we will be able to generate a QR code which, when scanned using a smartphone, will direct the visitor to the enhanced database entries for those objects.  As a starting point, this should enable them to access far more information about the objects than would be possible with in-gallery text labels.  Of course, QR codes aren’t perfect: not all of our visitors will have smartphones, for a start.  As an initial idea to trial, though, we hope that it will give us some useful feedback with which to move forward.

Saddlery Case

One of the displays in the Saddlery Case, one area of the gallery in which we will be trialling the use of QR codes.

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In the absence of a ‘Blue Peter’ style counter, I am confined to a mere blog post to let you know that we have now catalogued over 5000 records!  Next target: 6000.

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Leaving my own thoughts on what a ‘sense of place’ means to another time, I’m going to talk a little bit about the practical issues we have encountered when putting geographic context about objects onto our database.

Having plenty of geographical context in the paper accession files, we had to decide how to put that information onto the database, and how to make it searchable.  We decided to create a hierarchy of places so that any specific place would, ideally, be linked to a county, region and country. Adlib, the database we’re working with, has a hierarchical capacity which enables us to do this. So, the geographical keyword (i.e. place) ‘Reading’ could be linked to ‘Berkshire’, for example.  This brought up the issue, however, of deciding what form our hierarchy should take.  Should we use a current list of contemporary administrative units, which include ‘unitary authorities’?  Or should we use the still commonly used ceremonial counties?  Long discussions threw up more and more ‘but what if…’ problems.  How would we put ‘the Cotswolds’ into a hierarchy, for example?  What about an object which arrived in the 1950s from Middlesex, a county which completely ceased to exist in the 1960s?

Throughout the course of these discussions, I discovered that my own understanding of the county system in the United Kingdom was woefully inaccurate.  In my defence, it really is quite confusing.  The ‘County of Herefordshire’, for example, is also a unitary authority, and the ‘City of London’ is apparently also a ceremonial county.  Aside from showing up my own lack of geographical understanding though, our discussions did raise an important point – how do our visitors, who will hopefully be using ‘place’ as a way to search and access the collections, understand ‘place’?

Eventually, we decided that the only way to achieve any sort of consistency in our cataloguing was to use a hierarchy based on contemporary administrative boundaries, and we have based ours on the hierarchy used in the online ‘Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names’.  Bearing in mind some of the ‘problem places’ mentioned above, though, we have added in a number of other hierarchy levels.  These will hopefully enable us to both more accurately represent the level of contextual detail contained in the accession records, and make the hierarchy fit with as many understandings of ‘place’ as possible.

Places are therefore linked first to their ‘administrative unit’, but then also to their ceremonial county (if relevant) and region.  So ‘Reading’ is linked up to ‘Reading [unitary authority]’, which is linked to ‘Berkshire’, which is linked to ‘South East England’, and so on.  A lower level may also be added, that of ‘specific locale’, such as farm names, estate names and, where relevant, street names.  The problem places such as now non-existent counties and vague areas such as the ‘Cotswolds’ are still entered, but link straight to the country/countries they are in.  They are listed as ‘non-preferred terms’, showing that they should only be used when no other information is available, and also have a note which defines the area that they refer to.

It’s certainly not a perfect system, and we still regularly encounter new ‘but what if…’ problems, but we hope that eventually it will enable visitors to access information about ‘place’ in our collections in a way that is both consistent and logical, but also meaningful to them.

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