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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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Laura joined A Sense of Place in April and finished her work on the project last month. Here’s a post from Laura summing up her time on the project:

 

75_16

MERL 75/16/1-2

So I’ve come to the end of my time working on the Sense of Place project. Having spent the last 4 months cataloguing I have managed to enhance 3126 records, bringing the grand total to 14703!! My records included 100 fire insurance plaques, 90 horse brasses and 272 plant labels.

During my time cataloguing I came across a number of interesting objects I didn’t even know we had. One of the most unusual items was the plaster-cast of Joseph Arch’s hands (MERL 75/16/1–2). Arch was a hedger and ditcher who went on to found the National Agricultural Labourers Union (1872–1892). It was the first successful union to be established, and at its peak in 1874 had 86,214 members. What is particularly interesting is that we hold no information as to how the hands were cast. You can find out more about the hands here.

I also enjoyed following up an enquiry around a set of various bottles found beneath the hearth of farrier’s workshop in Shelford, Cambridgeshire (MERL 66/8/1–48). The objects contents and location suggested magic and superstition were involved in their use – see my previous post.

I have also been able to get a grasp of our handy but sometimes temperamental database, Adlib. I have learned the importance of recording information, especially about provenance such as where the item was made and used. Having come across many records where even the most basic information is missing, it has made me realise how crucial information is in order for the object to resonate and engage with audiences.

I am now about to start my new role at MERL as the Operations and Administration Assistant. As part of this I will be able to continue cataloguing in my spare time, so hopefully I will be able to help the team reach their target of having a fully digitised catalogue.

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MERL 70/149. A 'malt skep', used at Warwick & Richardsons Brewery in Newark-upon-Trent for moving barley from the cistern to working floor and green malt from the floor to the kiln. The ropes are for dragging it across the malthouse floor.

MERL 70/149. A ‘malt skep’, used at Warwick & Richardsons Brewery in Newark-upon-Trent for moving barley from the cistern to the working floor and green malt from the floor to the kiln. The ropes are for dragging the skep across the malthouse floor.

This week I’ve started thinking about how best to record the information that we gather during the project. I’ve been exploring the functionality of Adlib, our collections database, to see what sort of things we can record and where. Adlib has specific fields for ‘materials’ and ‘techniques’ which we don’t currently use – these are something I want to experiment with during Stakeholders (which might also benefit other work, such as the craft cataloguing for another project I’m working on, Reading Connections). The advantage of these fields is that they are searchable and, because they are terminology-controlled, the terms used can be standardised.

I’ve also been thinking about how to record some of the more detailed information that we’ll hopefully gather. My current thoughts are to complete a detailed recording form for each basket which can then be attached to the database record, in a similar manner to Dorothy Wright’s ‘Catalogue of Baskets’ forms, but hopefully with slightly more detail. We could fill in everything we already know, add to it during the workshop visit, and circulate to participants afterwards for them to check and add any additional information. However, this wouldn’t be searchable as an attachment but it would mean that the information was there – I need to discuss this idea with Ollie and see what he thinks.

I’ll also need to think about how to record more general and perhaps tangential information that will inevitably emerge – things like memories and reminiscences, makers’ personal experiences, related photos and films etc.

I’ve also been taking advantage of the MERL Library to look for basket-related books and have started to compile a list of key terms – focusing on materials, techniques, and names for parts of a basket. So far, I’ve been through the Basketmakers’ Association’s list of terms, Mary Butcher’s Willow Work, and Sue Gabriel and Sally Goymer’s The Complete Book of Basketry Techniques. If anyone has any other recommendations, or knows of any good existing lists of terms, please let me know!

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8_mm_film_types

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 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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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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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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The 1960s.  Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.  The Chinese cultural revolution began.  The first series of Star Trek was aired.  MERL acquired object number 60/1/1-2, a pair of candle snuffers from Binfield.  I know this because we have just finished cataloguing every object accessioned to the Museum in the 1950s! 

Our first main motivational target (‘leave the 1950s’) has therefore been reached!  This leaves us with our main personal target remaining: finish 10,000 records by the end of the project.  We’re currently at 8570, so I’d better get started on those candle snuffers…

 

Candle snuffers

60/1/1-2: Candle snuffers from Binfield.

 

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 As you might have guessed from recent blog posts, the past couple of months have been incredibly busy.  Over the last few weeks, then, it has been a real relief to get back to some solid days of cataloguing again, and as a result we have finally reached another milestone – 8000 records enhanced!  Hopefully we’ll pick up pace again over the next couple of months, as we really want to reach that target of 10,000 records by the end of the project. 

 

54/45

To celebrate, I thought I’d share with you an object record that always makes me smile. Whenever I’m getting fed up of cataloguing yet another auger or chisel, I return to this sketch for a bit of cheering up.

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We’ve gone a bit quiet over recent months on the progress of our work with Historypin, so I thought it was perhaps time for an update on what we’ve been doing behind the scenes.  If you go to the MERL Historypin channel you will be able to see some of the first objects we have pinned to the map.  Most of these are from the Berkshire village of Bucklebury, but there are also some wagons and ploughs from a wider geographic area.

Inevitably, these first trial uploads have thrown up some technical issues that we hadn’t considered.  When we export data from our own Adlib database, we want to minimise the alterations made to that data before it is then uploaded to Historypin.  The fewer changes we make in that intermediate stage, the more manageable and future proof the whole process becomes.

Initially, we had exported our data into a CSV file (it stands for ‘comma separated values’, apparently).  When we looked at the resulting pins on Historypin, we realised the limitations of this approach.  Whilst most of our objects have only one known ‘place made’, ‘place used’ or ‘place acquired’ (if at all), there are some objects for which we have more complete object biographies, where we know perhaps two or three previous owners.  Similarly, there might be a composite object, with multiple parts made by different people.

Fork - 60/290

This fork (60/290) was made in multiple places. Its handle was made by Bucklebury handle-maker Harry Wells, whilst the metal head was made by a local blacksmith.

Because of the way they work (something to do with being ‘comma separated values’) CSV files can only export one occurrence of each database field.  We had to find a new method of exporting which would enable us to pin objects to all the places with which they are associated.  We are currently trialling the use of XML files as an alternative.  We’ve yet to try uploading to Historypin in this way, but our first tests show that we can at least export multiple occurrences using this type of file.  So, we’re making progress.

Another problem we’ve been working through is trying to find a way to export latitude and longitude data for associated places.  Focussing on place has already necessitated the addition of extra fields to the database – initially we recorded latitude and longitude in the notes field of the thesaurus records, but specific fields for grid references have since been added, and we now record the information there.  Due to the way the database works, though, we were initially unable to export the latitude and longitude for places added as ‘associated places’ (rather than as a ‘place made’, ‘place used’ or ‘place acquired’).  This problem has since been solved by extra changes to the databases, but it highlights how projects working with technology such as this require a significant amount of technical work behind the scenes to get museum data online.  It is not always just a case of looking at the accession files and then bunging it all on a computer.

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