digitisation

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Negatives blog

It’s taken 2 years and 4 months, but we have finally finished scanning all of the black and white 60-series negatives of objects in the collection. I say ‘we’, but Felicity and I probably only did about 5% of the scanning – the other 95% was done by a brilliant and extremely dedicated team of volunteers. In total, we’ve worked our way through 23 boxes of negatives to do a whopping 10265 scans!

The project started back in February 2012 as a short project funded by JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee), with the aim of digitising 3500 negatives. Working on the principle that a black and white image is infinitely better than no image, we rapidly realised that this was a brilliant way of adding images to the catalogue (as taking new photographs is very time-consuming and expensive). So we decided to just carry on, with the aid of our volunteers, until we’d done all of the negatives of objects.

Not only have we finished all of the scanning, we have also added all of these negatives to Adlib, our catalogue, and they are all available to view online (either through Adlib or Enterprise). This is thanks to one tireless volunteer, Carl, who has spent week after week after tedious week copying and pasting links. This project has made a huge difference to the percentage of our object records which now have an image attached.

So I’d like to say an enormous thank you to Alex, Anna, Anne, Anne, Becca, Beth, Carl, Charlotte, Christina, David, Diana, Doug, Emily, Emma, George, Josh, Juliet, Megan, Nina, Pablo, Phoebe, Rebecca, Steve, Stuart and Tom. THANK YOU!!!!!

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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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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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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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Volunteers have been making the headlines over the past six weeks at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, with everyone saying that it was the volunteers who made London 2012 such a success. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to celebrate some of the volunteers at MERL who have been helping us on the A Sense of Place project, and say thank you for their help.

Like many museums, MERL relies heavily on volunteers to help us get everything done. We have a wide range of volunteers at MERL – from students at the University, to special interest groups and local residents – and the University of Reading Museums and Special Collections Service (which includes MERL) was recently awarded the Investing in Volunteers Standard from Volunteer England. Click here to find out more about volunteering at MERL.

Our project office is always bustling with volunteers. As well as regular volunteers who come in once or twice a week for an extended period of time, we also have interns who work with us more intensely for a shorter period of time, and work experience students who are with us for just a day or two. Different volunteers help us on different parts of the project.

Team Latitude/Longitude

Ron and Carl are our longitude-and-latitude-looker-uppers. When we add a new place to our thesaurus, we also have to add the latitude and longitude so that it can be pinned to a map. At the start of the project we were taking our lats/longs from the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names but, as well as not listing many smaller places, we discovered that Getty wasn’t always very accurate with its coordinates. Since that discovery, Ron and Carl have dedicated a few hours a week to looking up places in GoogleMaps to find their coordinates. Carl also helps us track down the lats/longs of more specific places, like historic farms.

Team Polehead

Christina heads up ‘Team Polehead’.

Christina has been volunteering at MERL for over a year and she is at the heart of Team Polehead. Following on from cataloguing the Shickle Collection, we’ve been trying to catalogue the rest of the poleheads (we have over 900 in total). Christina has taken on this task and is fast becoming an expert in all things polehead – she’s already done 280 out of 380 in the Allen Collection. She’s also been training up other volunteers to help her, which is a big help to me.

Team Negatives

As well as being a tour guide and doing volunteering in other parts of the Museum, David helps us with scanning one morning a week.

The majority of our volunteers have been working away since February on digitising our old black and white negatives. This was initially for the JISC project but, having met the target of 3750 scans, they’ve carried on. They’ve now done over 4800 scans of the 60 series negatives and 775 of the 35 series negatives. We’re hoping that they won’t mind carrying on, as it’s a great way to get images for Adlib without having to take new photographs (which are very expensive and time consuming). Team Negatives includes Stuart, Emma, Steve, Anna, Nina, David and Josh.

Interns

Matthew, one of the interns who has been helping us for two days a week for the past six weeks.

Over the past six weeks we’ve had two interns from the archives working with us part time. Matthew and George have done various things to help us – a bit of negative scanning, some new photography, some transcribing, some polehead cataloguing etc. Matthew has also been scanning two folders of correspondence from the 1930s between Harold John Massingham and Mr Greening, a master carpenter from Winchcombe in Gloucestershire.

 

Thank you volunteers!!! We really do appreciate your hard work!

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Things have come a long way since my first blog post back in February about what we do in our work at MERL. No longer do we spend our days solidly cataloguing! In fact, it sometimes feels that a week goes by with hardly any cataloguing at all. So I thought I’d write a bit about some of the other things that we’ve been doing.

JISC Project

We’re working on a joint digitisation project with University College London, funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), as part of Object Based Learning 4 Higher Education (OBL4HE). We’re digitising two things – 60mm negatives of objects in the collection, and documentation relating to 150 selected objects. This involves scanning and some basic editing in Photoshop. Our target is to digitise about 3500 negatives, and we’ve already done 3150, but we’re hoping to carry on and see how far we get – there are 23 boxes of these negatives in the archives, and we’re only on Number 7! We have a wonderful team of volunteers who have done most of the work on the negatives – Felicity and I only spend two or three hours each a week on it. If you’d like to get involved, take a look at our Volunteering page. Felicity and I started scanning the documentation last week and have already scanned 370 documents for 47 objects (there’s often a big chunk of letters and forms in each object file). Have a look at the OBL4HE blog to find out more about.

Me posing for my scanning negatives shot. It's actually quite a relaxing task.

Tour Guiding

MERL offers guided tours to visitors on Wednesday afternoons and weekends, so we’ve taken up the opportunity to be trained as tour guides. As well as practising the general museum tour we’ve also developed a project-focussed ‘Sense of Place’ tour which draws out connections between the displays and the work that we’re doing. We’ve already given our tour twice, but still need a bit more practise.

Felicity posing for her tour guide training shot. Here she's highlighting the regional differences in wagon design.

Bucklebury

As mentioned in earlier posts, we’re working with the Bucklebury History Group on various aspects of the project. Danielle has been enhancing the catalogue records for objects from Bucklebury, concentrating at the moment on the Wells Collection. Harry Wells was a handle maker working in Bucklebury for about forty years until 1950, and we have lots of his tools. I’ve been scanning the Collier Collection of glass plate negatives of Bucklebury. Phillip Osborne Collier was a commercial photographer and postcard publisher working in Reading from 1905. We have around 6000 glass plate negatives of photographs he took in Berkshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire. The Bucklebury photographs were taken 1905–1960s – they’re beautiful and we’re hoping that the members of the History Group can help us pinpoint more exactly where they were taken. The History Group visited MERL a couple of weeks ago and we’re off to Bucklebury tomorrow for a guided tour to help us get to grips with its geography – there’s  Bucklebury, Upper Bucklebury, Bucklebury Common, Chapel Row, The Slade and numerous other places – and we need to understand how they fit together in order to catalogue them properly. Bucklebury History Group will be at the MERL Village Fete on Saturday 9 June, and Felicity, Danielle and I will be scanning photos of Bucklebury which could be uploaded to Historypin, so do bring any along if you have them. We’ll also be scanning your royal photographs to add to Historypin’s ‘Pinning the Queen’s History‘ page so bring those along too.

General work

We’re also getting to have a go at other curatorial tasks. This includes editing label text for our new exhibition, Our Sporting Life, which runs until 16 September, responding to enquiries, looking into possible acquisitions for the Museum, and supervising visits from researchers and interested groups. Felicity has signed up for various technical training courses as she’s rapidly becoming our technical whizzkid.

And finally…

And finally, we are still doing a bit of cataloguing, although at a considerably reduced rate. Danielle is focussing on Bucklebury objects, Felicity is cataloguing objects from particular cases which can be linked to QR codes and I’m happily cataloguing baskets.

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