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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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fireworks

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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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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The 1978 version of the MERL Classification was published in hard copy.

The 1978 version of the MERL Classification was published in hard copy.

Apologies for the recent lack of blogging – Felicity and I have been spending quite a lot of time at Reading Museum recently as part of the new joint project between MERL and Reading Museum, Reading Connections. I promised a long time ago to write about a post about the MERL Classification, which we’re reviewing and updating as part of Countryside21, and which we hope will be a starting point for developing new ways in which to keyword our collections.

Until the start of Countryside21 I had never paid much attention to the Classification and how, or why, it was used. As part of the review process, I have been looking into the history of the Classification to understand how it came about and how it has evolved over time.

Classification systems are used by museums to organise data about their collections. The MERL Classification was devised by John Higgs, the first Keeper at MERL, specifically for the circumstances at MERL and was determined by the nature and content of the object collections. It was informed by existing classifications at the time, such as those used by the National Museum of Denmark, the Welsh Folk Museum and the Royal Anthropological Institute. The Classification was based on the idea that MERL is a folk museum and deals primarily with people and their lives, rather than with objects. As a result the classification of an object is driven by its sphere of use. It was initially used for the Object Collections, and later expanded to the Photographic Collections (photos of objects are classified according to their sphere of use; other photos are classified according to their subject content).

The MERL Classification was built on the premise that a classification should be as simple as possible, with the caveats that it must be workable and must bring material together in the right groups.  It originally had 24 primary headings, which could be sub-divided into secondary, tertiary and quaternary headings, each with a numerical notation. The Classification was intended to grow and develop with the expansion of the collection, with new divisions being created only when an accumulation of similar items made it clear what the heading should be. By 1978 the Classification had expanded to 33 primary headings. A review in the 1990s reduced this down to 31, and today the Classification is only used for objects – it is no longer used for photographs.

The review work on the Classification is nearly complete. This has involved consulting the wider rural museums sector to see if there are any institutions still using the MERL Classification (it has always been publicly available); considering how it compares with the Social History and Industrial Classification (SHIC) used by many other rural museums; and looking at how we can streamline the primary headings. Hopefully, we will be making some final decisions tomorrow, and will be publishing the revised Classification in due course.

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