News and updates about the Countryside21 project.


The day has finally come when I have to say goodbye to MERL. I’ve been here for nearly three years and have loved absolutely every minute of it – it really has been a dream job!!! And, in all honesty, I think I can say that there’s only been one day when I wasn’t looking forward to going in – which is pretty good going! MERL has been wonderful place to work (largely thanks to my amazing colleagues and volunteers, and the fantastic Felicity in particular) and I’ve loved all of the different things I’ve been involved in – the various projects, the events, meeting visiting researchers, and trying to convince everyone that baskets are the Best Thing Ever!

The thought of leaving MERL and all my beloved craft collections (especially the baskets) is absolutely heart-breaking, but at the same time I’m really looking forward to my new adventures at the Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. But my departure from MERL certainly isn’t an end to my love affair with craft – I’ll be carrying on as a trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association and will hopefully continue to try my hand at lots of crafts.

Thanks everyone!

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It’s been a long time coming but last week I finally finished re-classifying all 18900 records in the objects database on Adlib as part of Countryside 21!!! I’ve been working on this on and off since mid-December so it’s great to have finally completed it – especially as actually completing anything is somewhat of a rarity of at MERL. The project target was to re-classify and add associated keywords to 10,000 records. However, it seemed to me that the process would only be worth it if all the records were re-classified – so that’s what I did!

Until this work to review the MERL Classification began, all objects had a single classification based on an object’s sphere of use – they can now have multiple classifications, all of which are process-driven (see previous posts on the Classification). The new classifications have been added in numerical form (as were the old classifications – which have been retained in Adlib), and have also been added textually as associated subject keywords (a new step). All of the existing associated subject keywords have been deleted from all of the object records – they were a jumbled mess and had not been applied in a consistent or logical manner so weren’t much help when searching. The associated subject keywords now consist of the following types:

  • Activity: textual versions of the Classification, plus additional activities (e.g. farriery and particular craft specialisms)
  • Animal: animals to which the objects relate or, in the case of paintings/photographs, depict
  • Geography: associated places
  • Object name: generally objects depicted in paintings and photographs
  • Plant: plants (crops, fruit, vegetables etc.) to which the objects relate or, in the case of paintings/photographs, depict
  • Subject: materials, products, and some useful subject groupings (e.g. shooting – which brings together all objects relating to shooting, whether they relate to hunting, sport, regulation and control, personal use etc.)

The actual process of applying the revised Classification to the object collections has revealed some flaws in the new Classification. For example, there is nowhere to put objects which relate to agriculture generally rather than specifically to Cultivating (3.00) or Harvesting (9.00) – this was also true of the old Classification. Lighting that isn’t for domestic purposes is now a bit of a problem – previously lighting was a primary heading of its own, but it now falls under the primary heading Domestic and family life (4.00). However, these are all things that can be reviewed in due course.  

My application of the Classification and keywords may not be perfect but it’s about 95% consistent and logical – which should make an enormous difference to anyone searching the collection. The revised Classification and other associated activity keywords have been published on the MERL website and are available here.

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Way back in May last year I posted about one of the many challenges we’ve faced in the Countryside21 project – conducting a survey of the time-based media (TBM) in the MERL Archives. There were three stages to the survey: 1) identifying what TBM there is, 2) finding it, and 3) developing an action plan for its conservation.

It felt like we spent a good part of the summer rummaging around in the Archives, moving boxes, opening tins and doing an awful lot of counting, but we eventually got there and have, fingers crossed, found all the TBM. Having not fully understood how the Archives work in terms of duplicates (films have master copies, viewing copies and preservation copies – all of which are kept in different locations and not always obviously labelled) we opted for keeping really detailed notes of what we found, in the hope that someone else would know what it all means, and this has proved a sensible plan!

We have now come up with totals for all of the different types of media – e.g. audio cassette tapes, reel to reel tapes, CDs, DVDs, film (8mm, 16mm etc.), floppy disks, gramophone records, videos (VHS, betacam, umatic etc.), hard drives etc. – and are working out what to do next. Some things we can transfer to a digital format in-house. I’ve managed to dig out an external floppy disk drive from home and have been converting those. I was quite surprised that a Windows7 computer was able to read a floppy disk from the 1990s. Other things will need specialist equipment to transfer and will have to be done externally. But obviously we have to prioritise as these things are very costly.

To help us in this process, several of us (Felicity and me, and two of the University archivists) went on a digital preservation training course, run by the Digital Preservation Coalition. Digital preservation was described as ‘the series of managed activities necessary to ensure that digital materials remain accessible beyond the limits of obsolescence’. The course focused on the preservation of born-digital material (material that has only ever existed in digital format) rather than digital surrogates (hard copy things which have been digitised). The vast majority of the digital material at MERL is digital surrogates, but there were still many useful points for us.

These included the need to think about what it is you want to achieve through preservation, and the need to think in terms of who will use the data, rather than in terms of preserving data itself. Another point was that you need to maintain software, hardware and people, all of which change, in order to preserve digital material. We were introduced to different approaches to digital preservation (migration, emulation, hardware preservation, etc.) and different tools for doing it, and also to methodologies for conducting risk assessments and developing preservation plans. And a really key point was that OK is sometimes good enough, i.e. don’t wait for perfection in digital preservation, just get started!

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One word I’d never heard until I started working on the Countryside21 project is ‘aboutness’. It may sound a bit like it’s not really a word but it is actually a very useful concept. We’re using it to help us better keyword the photographs that will be made accessible on the new Digital Asset Management system. The idea is to make the photographic collections much more easily searchable to picture researchers, which means that we have to put a lot more thought into what sorts of terms people might use to search for images.

Boy feeding a lamb.

A photograph of a young boy feeding a lamb.

The essence of ‘aboutness’ is that there is often a difference between what a photograph is ‘of’ and what it is ‘about’. As an example, take this image. We can say that it is ‘of’ a young boy feeding a lamb under a blossoming tree, watched by an adult standing in the background. How many picture researchers will specifically look for an image of a child feeding a lamb? Perhaps a few. But there is more to the image. We might suggest that it is also ‘about’: nurturing, innocence, confidence, learning, supervision, safety and childhood. Tagging an image with keywords based on emotions and concepts as well as physical things will, we hope, widen up its potential appeal and vastly increase its searchability.

The main aim of this part of the project is to keyword three-thousand images from the collection (including a number of photographs of museum objects) with such ‘aboutness’ keywords. So far, we’ve run an initial focus group with volunteers to help us test the concept and work out how best to organise the process of ‘tagging’ each image with the appropriate keywords. Another focus group will be run in the next few weeks, after which we’ll be ready to get started with the main set of images. In the meantime, here’s a few of the selected images – do comment and let us know what you think they’re ‘about’!

dx289_0011a, dx289_0344 and dx289_0626

What are these images ‘about’?





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P TAR PH3/2/13/3/24. John Tarlton Collection. Black and white photograph entitled Great Frost - as the sun breaks through on New Year's day the ice glistens on every blade and branch, Exmoor.

P TAR PH3/2/13/3/24. John Tarlton Collection. Black and white photograph entitled Great Frost – as the sun breaks through on New Year’s day the ice glistens on every blade and branch, Exmoor.

Happy 2014 to all of you MERL Projects Blog readers!

I can’t believe how quickly 2013 went (or how long it is since I last did a blog post). The start of a new year is always a good time to look back at what you’ve achieved over the past 12 months, and to look ahead to what you want to achieve in the coming months. Yesterday was my first day back in the office after a lovely break, so I took the opportunity to write a January-February 2014 To Do list – and there’s an awful lot on it!

A Sense of Place: We just managed to enhance 9000 records at the end of 2012, and our current total at the end of 2013 stands at 15805 records. This progress is largely thanks to Laura, who was working on the project for several months over the summer while Felicity and I moved on to other projects (although we did manage to fit in some cataloguing too). This means that there’s only another 3000 records to go until every record has been enhanced – something I’d really like to see done! I’ve also been starting to tidy up (and hopefully massively reduce) the list of object names (and their numerous variants) when I have a spare moment or two.

Countryside21: This has been a bit of a stop-and-start project, and we’ve made really good progress on some elements and virtually none on others. The positives include nearly finishing the Time Based Media survey (I’m aiming to have it signed off by the end of January), renaming thousands upon thousands of files and restructuring the way they’re organised (all Felicity’s work), revising the MERL Classification, rationalising our use of subject keywords in Adlib, and finally beginning to implement the new Classification and the associated keywords (I’ve already managed to do this for 3400 records in the space of two weeks). We’ve also updated the ‘Geographical Keywords Manual’ and will be putting together guidelines on how to use other types of keywords in the coming weeks.  The ‘To Do’ list includes selecting and keywording images for commercial purposes, and arranging the technical side of the project such as the Digital Asset Management software and the e-commerce.

Reading Connections: While we don’t blog about the Reading Connections project here (it has a separate blog) this has been occupying a lot of mine and Felicity’s time throughout 2013. We spent the summer photographing 600 of Reading Museum’s Historic World Objects, and since then Felicity has been spending several days a week at Reading Museum researching and writing detailed descriptions of these objects. Meanwhile I’ve been working on cataloguing craft here at MERL and have enhanced/tidied/cross-referenced all of the records for clay, leather, metal, stone, straw and textile crafts, leaving just wood crafts to go in 2014.

Stakeholders: We had a hugely successful two day study visit from ten basketmakers at the start of December to kick the project off. We’ll be photographing all of the baskets we studied in a couple of weeks, and then it’s a case of adding all the new information that we gathered to Adlib, commissioning pieces from the participating makers, and putting together some banners for a pop-up exhibition in the future.

Our Country Lives: While not officially one of Felicity’s and my projects, we’ve both been involved in the plans for the re-development of MERL over the last couple of months of 2013. It’s been a really eye-opening experience and we’re very much looking forward to how it progresses.

Miscellaneous: And as ever, we’ve been working on lots of other bits and pieces too. Our volunteers have continued to scan the 60-series negatives and add them to Adlib. 3000 negatives were scanned in 2013, leaving only another 5 boxes (out of a total of 23) left to do. I’ve been adding any existing colour photos to Adlib which for some reason weren’t already on there – I’ve done the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, leaving just the 1950s and 1960s to go.

So, all in all, a very busy year just gone (with much more than I’ve managed to mention), and another busy year to come (again, with much more than I’ve managed to mention)! But, at least I can say that I’m really looking forward to 2014 here at MERL and all there is to do. Wishing everyone all the best for 2014!

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Just some of the work I've been doing on the MERL Classification...

Just some of the work I’ve been doing on the MERL Classification…

After a bit of a hiatus over the summer, Countryside21 has started picking up again and I’m finally getting ready to implement the changes we made to the MERL Classification back in July (see previous posts). As with every aspect of this project, there’s quite a lot to think about before you can make any changes, and it’s not always apparent what you need to consider until you get started. Be warned – this is a rather dense and technical post!!!

To re-cap, all objects in the collection have a MERL Classification based on the object’s sphere of use. The existing Classification contained a mixture of processes and products. We have now revised the Classification to separate out the two, making the Classification purely process-driven and with separate term lists for the products. In the course of this, the Classification has been reduced from 31 to 19 primary terms.

Each term in the Classification has a numerical code, and this is what has been recorded in Adlib until now. We want to change this so that the Classification appears in both numbers (as a code) and text (as a subject keyword). So how do we go about implementing all of these changes?

Step 1 – Creating thesaurus records for the Classification

A thesaurus record has been created for each primary and secondary term in the Classification, with a scope note which states that they are part of the MERL Classification and which details the Classification Code, how the new term corresponds to the old Classification, definition/explanations about what the term covers, and whether the term should be used in conjunction with a plant/animal/product term list.

When you create a thesaurus record you have to assign the record a ‘term type’ – this is dependent not only on what the term relates to, but where you want the term to appear in Adlib. We want the Classification to appear as an ‘associated subject’, of which there are several types – we have opted to make the Classification terms an ‘activity’.

We have also started to create thesaurus records for the plant/animal/product term lists – as ‘plant’, ‘animal’ and ‘subject’ term types respectively. However, this is still a work in progress as we haven’t come up with any definitive lists for these terms yet and there will be quite a bit of cross-over with other term types (e.g. ‘stone’ might have the term types ‘subject’ and ‘object name’). However we end up going about it, we need to give these records a scope note which states that they can be part of the MERL List of Plants (for example), that they can be used in conjunction with the MERL Classification, and that they can be used as stand-alone terms.

This whole process has been complicated by the fact that other UMASCS collections have recently been added to Adlib, which means that the thesaurus terms don’t just apply to the MERL objects collections and MERL archives – they also apply to zoology collections (Cole Museum), archaeology collections (Ure Museum), typography collections, art collections, geology collections etc.

Step 2 – Putting the new Classification into Adlib

We believe it’s important to retain the existing Classification Code in Adlib, as this is how everything has been classified until now. Therefore, to differentiate between the old and new codes, I have globally edited all of the records so that any code currently in Adlib is defined as the ‘pre-2013 MERL Classification’. When I start adding the new codes, these will be defined simply as ‘MERL Classification’.

Another challenging part of this process is going to be assigning new Classifications to the objects. In some cases, the old and new classifications correspond very clearly (e.g. crafts), whereas there are others which are much more complicated and each object will have to be appraised individually. This is further complicated by the need to add terms from the plant/animal/product term lists where appropriate, and by the decision to give objects multiple classifications where appropriate (previously each object had only one).

Then there are the actual practicalities of how to go about adding the new codes and keywords into Adlib – I think I’m going to be busy for quite a while!

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MERL Class 2013

For those of you who have been following my posts (here, here and here) on revising the MERL Classification, you’ll be pleased to hear that yesterday afternoon I finally finished the hard work on it!!! It’s now ready for a final round of consultation before I begin building it properly in Lexaurus, our vocabulary software. I’ve circulated the revised Classification to the Rural Museums Network mailing list, but if you’re not on the list and would like to see it, please send me an email.

As well as putting together the final Classification, and providing scope notes to help define the primary and secondary headings, I have also mapped each of the primary and secondary headings in the existing version to the new version, so that the changes can be implemented easily when everything has been finalised.

Having been immersed in the Classification for so long, it’s quite hard to take a step back so consultation will be really useful in ensuring that everything is clear and makes sense. For example, is it obvious what the primary and secondary headings mean and what falls under them? Are the scope notes clear and accurate, or do we need to add to the definitions and examples? Does the mapping between the existing and the new versions work? Are there any further mappings to be made between the MERL Classification and SHIC (Social History and Industrial Classification).

Despite being rather wary of the Classification at first, I’ve really enjoyed this process and I am really looking forward to seeing it when it’s done. And it will be great to hear what the rest of the rural museums sector thinks – from both those who use the MERL Classification (either in its current or previous form), and those who don’t.

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This morning was Round 2 of ‘Decision Time’ on revising the MERL Classification (see my previous post on Round 1) – referred to by those working on it as ClassFest2013 (we were trying to make it sound a bit more exciting). We worked through all of the ‘easy’ categories in Round 1, so we were all slightly dreading Round 2 and the more challenging categories. However, it was a surprisingly successful meeting – largely because we were feeling ruthless! We’ve confirmed the 19 primary headings, and all of the sub-headings. There’s still some work left to do – we need to work on the wording of the headings and sub-headings, define the headings and sub-headings, map the old MERL Classification to the revised version, map to SHIC where possible, and finalise the separate thesauri/vocabulary – but we’re definitely over the worst of it and are looking forward to sharing it with the wider rural museums sector.

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Countryside21 is a project full of challenges – mostly conceptual ones, in that it we’re largely working in unfamiliar territory and it takes us quite a while to get our heads around each of the things we’re supposed to be doing. As mentioned in previous posts, the project has numerous strands of activity involving a variety of tasks. One of those is to carry out a survey of the time-based media in the MERL archives. Before we started the project, I had never heard of time-based media (TBM). The Tate, which has a really interesting page on its website about the conservation of TBM art, defines it as media which ‘depends on technology and has duration as a dimension’, although this definition could be extended to include anything which is vulnerable to deterioration. TBM includes film, video, audio, slides, transparencies, discs, and computer-based technologies such as digital files.

The world of technology is constantly changing, with many TBM formats and the equipment needed to view them becoming obsolete. For this reason, it is desirable to transfer the TBM to newer formats. The aim of the survey is to find out exactly what TBM we have and develop an action plan for its conservation. There are three stages to the survey:

Step 1 – Identify the TBM.  After several days of solid work I have just finished this stage, which has involved looking through the hard copy accessions registers for any mention of TBM and then conducting endless searches on Adlib for any term which might bring up TBM. Hopefully this has captured most of it, but there will inevitably be some that have slipped through – either because it wasn’t mentioned in the register, hasn’t been catalogued in detail on Adlib, or because I don’t fully understand how things on the archives side of MERL work!

Step 2 – Conduct the survey. This will involve finding out exactly what we have by looking through box after box of archive material to see what type of media, what format, how much of it there is, its age, and its condition. This is going to require some research into old media formats – I only go back as far as the cassette and the VHS! It’s also going to require some research into understanding where things are kept in the archives.

Step 3 – Develop an action plan for conserving the TBM. I don’t really know what this will involve, but I think it will be up to the archivists rather than Felicity and me.

As with almost everything we’ve done so far relating to Countryside21, this strand of activity has taken quite a bit of time for me to get my head round. Hopefully I’m starting to get to grips with it but I think conducting the survey will prove quite a challenge!

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MERL Class

Following on from my post last week about the MERL Classification and its history, I thought I would explain some of the work that we’ve been doing on it. We held Round 1 of ‘Decision Time’ (making final decisions on how to update the Classification) last week, but were a bit optimistic on how long we would need (we got about two thirds of the way through) so will have to hold Round 2 soon.

We had done quite a lot of work in preparation for ‘Decision Time’. The main issue we have with the Classification as it stands is that it contains a mixture of processes and products (things to which the processes are done). We’ve decided to separate the two out, making the Classification purely process-driven, and to have separate thesauri/vocabularies for the products, e.g. plants, animals, materials etc. This should help us apply the Classification in a more consistent and systematic way as the basis of a new subject keyword index.

The first step was to remove all the products from the Classification. Rather than coming up with our own hit-and-miss list of products, we’ve been looking for existing thesauri/vocabularies which we can draw on, such as lists of crops, trees and other plants from the MAFF Classification (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food), Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and the Forestry Commission. We’ll hopefully be re-visiting these lists in Round 2.

The next step was to reduce the number of primary headings, making sure that they are all process-driven. Having removed the products it was then possible to start grouping existing primary headings together. For example, Drainage, Fencing and Landscape are now grouped together under a new category of Land Management; Employment, Marketing and Science & Research are now grouped together under a category relating to economics.  We’re now down to 19 categories from 31.

The next step, and this is what we were concentrating on in ‘Decision Time’, was to agree on which secondary terms to include, again ensuring that they are all process-driven. This has involved moving some of the secondary headings about, grouping some of them together, re-naming some of them so that they have more of an emphasis on process, checking how many objects we have under each of them and removing those that aren’t actually being used, and thinking of other terms that we might want to add etc.

There was a lot to get through in three hours – no wonder we didn’t finish. But I have to say that ‘Decision Time’ was a lot more enjoyable than any of us had anticipated and we’re actually all looking forward to Round 2! We’ll keep you updated with how we get on.

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