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As you will have read from Greta’s post Crowdsourcing with the Bucklebury History Group, we’ve been doing a lot of work over the past couple of weeks on our MERL Historypin channel.  A large number of the Collier photographs of Bucklebury have been re-pinned to more precise locations, and some of them are even pinned to street-view, where possible.  The next stage for us was to start to make proper use of some of the other features of Historypin, so Danielle and I spent an afternoon this week experimenting with ‘Tours’ and ‘Collections’.

Bucklebury ford

A Collier photograph of Bucklebury ford, recently re-pinned to street-view.

Tours and Collections are essentially features that enable users to group together and highlight particular sets of ‘pins’, according to whatever theme they choose.  The Collections feature is particularly suited to grouping pins by theme.  A Collection could be created to show a set of photographs taken by a particular photographer, or a set of similar objects.  The user can add some introductory text to explain the rationale of the collection and any other information they want to include.  The selected pins can then be viewed either in list-form or as a slideshow.

The ‘Tour’ feature initially appears to be similar, but its potential lies in the use of pins that are pinned to street-view.  Where relevant, the pins appear in the slideshow automatically in street-view, with a small map showing their location and a small space for extra text to its left.   If all the pins are on street-view, then, a tour can enable the user to virtually ‘walk’ down a street, fading pins in and out of view and following their progress on a map.

Describing the features doesn’t quite convey their potential to enhance a Historypin channel, so the best thing to do would be to take a look at some of the tours and collections Danielle and I created this week, on the MERL and Bucklebury History Group channels.  Simply go to the channels and select the ‘Collections’ or ‘Tours’ tabs.

MERL Channel collection

The ‘George Lailey, Bucklebury Craftsman’ collection, on the MERL Historypin channel.

The ‘History Walk around Bucklebury’ tour on the Bucklebury History Group channel is a particularly good example of what these features can do.  You’ll see that the tour includes photographs and objects pinned by MERL as well as those pinned by the History Group.  In this way, users are not confined to their own content, but can make use of any photographs and objects pinned on the website.

Bucklebury History Walk Tour

A Collier photograph of Bucklebury pinned to street-view, as seen in the ‘Bucklebury History Walk’ tour.

And there are a lot of pins to choose from.  According to the counter on the homepage, there are, to date, over 210,000 pins and comments on Historypin, and this can sometimes make the website (and individual channels) a victim of its own success.  The more that is pinned the better, but this makes it harder to sift through the content to find particular images.  If you look at the main list of pins on the MERL channel, for example, you will have to trawl through a lot of pages of object pins before you reach the Collier photo pins, which were added at an earlier date.  A major benefit of the tours and collections features is that they provide solutions to this problem.  They can highlight particular sub-sets of pins and make it much easier for their users to find what they might be looking for.  We think they also make the channel more interactive, informative and enjoyable to browse.

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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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2012 is drawing to a close and so is the Sense of Place project, with just a few more weeks when we come back in 2013.

We’re frantically trying to reach 9000 records before the end of the year – we have about six hours of work left and 30 records to go. I think we can do it! As well has finishing all the cataloguing from the 1950s, we’ve now also finished cataloguing everything that’s been accessioned in the 2000s. So that just leaves 40 years’ worth of objects which need their records enhancing – unfortunately, it’s beyond the scope of the project! But hopefully someone will get a chance to work on the catalogue once A Sense of Place finishes.

The new year will see us winding up A Sense of Place. We still have a little bit more cataloguing we’d like to do before we finish (I’d like to finish the British Council traditional craft collection) and then there’s all the other things to be done – user testing of the enhanced catalogue records, evaluation of the project, launching the Bucklebury App, updating the cataloguing manuals we put together at the start of the project, tidying up object names, going back to records we’ve only partially enhanced because of ‘issues’, and writing our final blog posts.

Until then, we wish everyone a very happy Christmas and New Year!

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Next week, the Sense of Place team will have another chance to tell people about the work we have been doing as part of the project.  We will be giving an informal lecture, ‘A Sense of Place: putting MERL’s objects on the map’, as part of the Museum’s popular Lunchtime Talk series.  We will give guests an introduction to the project, an update of our progress so far through interesting case studies, and a demonstration of some of the resources that we have created.

The talk will take place at the Museum on Wednesday 5th December, from 1-2pm.  It is an informal event, so do feel free to bring your lunch with you.  You can book in advance from the Museum website but don’t worry if you haven’t had chance to book – come along on the day anyway.

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Last night Felicity and I actually had an opportunity to share news of the Sense of Place project via an ‘old fashioned’ presentation, as opposed to virtually though our blog and other online media. It’s important to mention here that it was Greta who arranged this talk and had spent time planning it but was unfortunately unable to attend.

We presented a summary of the project and progress made so far to the University of Reading’s Women’s Club.  The Women’s Club was established in 1948 and membership is open to all women who have a connection with the University. The aim of the Club is to provide opportunities for social interaction, with particular emphasis on supporting those who are combining a career and family life and on welcoming newcomers and their families to the University.

They hold various events throughout the year and have a range of interest visiting speakers, talking about a range of topics.

Felicity and I were able to show some examples of the object record files that we have been using to enhance the database with and explain more about how reliant we are on the details which are recorded at the time of acquisition, as well as through research over the years.

We then moved on to demonstrate the applications of our work on Historypin where we have begun to plot some of our collections, alongside photographs.  As previously mentioned, we’ve focused on the area of Bucklebury initially so have therefore been able to make use of the ‘collection’ tool on Historypin, by pulling together some information about George Lailey.  Have a look and you can try it out for yourself!

The talk went well and it was really enjoyable to present our work to a non-museum audience and see that it really is of interest to those who may not be so familiar with accessing this kind of information through the internet and mobile devices.

Apparently, many members of the Club were keen to get online and explore these developments for themselves.  Success!

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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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As we’re approaching the end of the week, and I’m trying to stop myself from getting distracted by news of all the Olympic medals that are being won today, I think it’s probably time for another short blog post to update you on one of the things I’ve been working on over the past couple of weeks.

We’ve currently got an intern working with us on Wednesday afternoons, George, who is helping us with some new object photography.  We’ve talked in some previous posts about our work with Historypin, and this object photography is a part of that.  Every object we pin to the Historypin map needs to have a photograph, and we’ve started by making sure that we have one for each of the roughly 300 objects we have from Bucklebury in the collection.  We already have some digital photographs, and we are filling in many of the gaps by scanning old photographic negatives.  We’re now in the process of taking new photographs of the 55 remaining objects for which we currently have no photograph or negative.

 

Wooden pattern from Bucklebury Foundry

2006/47/5, a wooden pattern from Bucklebury Foundry.

To start with, we have focused on photographing the objects which are easily accessible on the mezzanine object store.  With a lot of help from MERL’s Conservator, Fred, who set up a rather snazzy mini-studio for us, we’ve taken photographs of roughly 50 objects from Bucklebury.  Largely, this set of objects consists of wooden patterns from Hedges Foundry and some wooden bowls turned by George Lailey.  Next on the ‘to-do’ list are the remaining Bucklebury objects which are on display, and shortly we will also start photographing some of the objects donated to the Museum in the early 1950s with another intern, Matthew, who will be helping from tomorrow.

 

Our 'pop-up' photography studio

The photography set-up.

 

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Anyone who has followed the Sense of Place blog since day 1 back in February will recall that I mentioned working with Historypin, a website which encourages communities to share images of their locality by ‘pinning’ them to virtual maps.

I also explained that one of the aims of the Sense of Place project is to work with Historypin in finding a method of also pinning MERL object collection data onto these maps, to provide them with an enhanced geographical context.

Although it appears that we have gone a little quiet on this front, we have been making steady progress behind the scenes and are pleased to announce that we now have our very own ‘History pinner in Residence,’ Rebekkah Abraham.  Rebekkah is the Historypin Content Manager for We Are What We Do and currently has the pleasure of travelling out to Reading every so often to work alongside the Sense of Place team at MERL.  We are very pleased to be working with her too.

She is now busily working away on the technicalities of exporting data from our object cataloguing system, Adlib, through to Historypin, to ensure that information from the relevant fields is transferred successfully providing as much information as possible for the user.  This will include the object name, a brief description and history, the maker and production date where applicable.  These exports will mean that when updates or amendments are made to our records, they are automatically updated in Historypin.

This project presents a new challenge for Rebekkah and Historypin as the website is currently only designed to upload photographs and their related information, which means some development is required.  However, once this is achieved, there will hopefully be scope for many other museums from around the world to plot their collections geographically in a similar way.

A visible development of this work is now available to explore in the form of a MERL Historypin ‘channel’ which holds everything from the MERL collections which has been uploaded so far.  Do take a look as its far better to grasp what Historypin is capable of by trying it out, rather me rambling on about it in a blog post!

For a number of reasons, which have been mentioned in several previous blog posts, the village of Bucklebury in Berkshire has been identified as an ideal location to begin plotting photographic and object content to on Historypin via this channel.  This will then allow us to have a defined geographical area which we can try-out various Historypin functionality with.  These could be tours, collections, stories and potentially a mobile phone app, which will highlight the rich collections that the museum is lucky to own, originating from Bucklebury.

Bucklebury also has a thriving History Group and they now have their own channel too.  This means that they can begin to upload the many images which they have collected over the years, making them more accessible to anyone who is interested.  They already have some beautiful photographs from the 1953 Coronation celebrations which took place in the village.
Of course, there are some problems for us to iron out.  These things are never as straight forward as you might imagine. Many of the objects in the MERL collection have multiple places associated with them (where they are made, used, acquired etc) and representing this complex biography is one of the objectives of the project.  We still need to work out how this will work in practice when they are plotted to a map, ensuring we do not end up confusing researchers and other interested parties further.

Historypin also currently works by plotting photographs in a location and at a specific historic date.  Many of the objects in the collection have no or very little information regarding the date they were made or used and it would be difficult to add this data to such a large selection of objects accurately, within the constraints of this project.

Nevertheless, it feels exciting to be able to share some progress with you, which you can actually have a look at and explore further!

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Since we’ve gone a bit quiet about our progress on the cataloguing front recently, I thought I would let you know how we’ve been getting on over the past month or so.  We have slowed down somewhat as other aspects of the project start to pick up pace, but our current total sits at just above 4,500 records.  Initially progressing chronologically, we have worked through the records from 1951, when the Museum was founded, to 1954 in full, and have also completed parts of 1955 and 1956.  More recently, though, our focus has shifted to other areas of the collection.  Greta has been working her way through the Museum’s collection of baskets (about which I think she is planning a separate post), whilst Danielle and I have been completing the objects in the collection from the Berkshire village of Bucklebury, in preparation for our work with Historypin.

There are between 300 and 350 objects from Bucklebury in the collection.  It is hard to give a more precise figure, because more information becomes available as we work our way through the records.  We have just one object record file for objects from the Hedges Foundry, for example, but this actually relates to 26 individual wooden patterns.  In addition to the objects from the Hedges Foundry, which was situated in Bucklebury Village, much of the rest of the material comes from the bowl turner George Lailey and the handle maker Harry Wells.

I spoke in a previous post, Cataloguing ‘place’, about our geographical hierarchy, which is largely based on the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names, with a few alterations and additions.  In the case of the Bucklebury material, we have decided to add still further levels of detail into our hierarchy.  This reflects the fact that we are in a sense using Bucklebury as a trial area, exploring some of the ways in which this approach can be implemented in collaboration with local communities, and we want to make our hierarchy as relevant as possible to their understanding of ‘place’ in Bucklebury.  Of course, in order to do this, we had to get a good grip on how ‘Bucklebury’ works, which was one of the main reasons for our visit a few weeks ago.

The church gate lantern in Bucklebury Village, made at the Foundry

When we first met the Bucklebury History Group, I naïvely asked ‘So, how exactly is Bucklebury laid out?’  My question was met with knowing smiles.  We had a look at a huge map of the parish, and immediately saw part of the problem, which Danielle also described in her earlier post, The Bucklebury Experience.  Bucklebury Village itself, situated on the banks of the River Pang, is actually quite small.  Upper Bucklebury, where many of the more modern houses are situated, is up to two miles away down narrow country lanes, in the middle of the Common.  A further hamlet, Chapel Row, sits to the eastern edge of the Lower Common.  A smaller hamlet, The Slade, sits on the western edge of the Upper Common.  And then, dotted in between, are other clusters of houses, each with distinct names and identities, but all considered to be a part of ‘Bucklebury’.  These include Turner’s Green, where Lailey’s workshop was situated, Byles Green, Miles’s Green, Workhouse Green, and the grandly named hamlet of ‘Scotland’.

Knowing this, it seemed insufficient to give ‘Bucklebury’ just one listing in the hierarchy.  Besides, the given latitude and longitude on the Getty Thesaurus was situated in a somewhat obscure spot in a field in the parish, which hardly seemed to reflect the complexity of the village’s geography.  Our tour of Bucklebury was incredibly useful.  Physically walking and driving around and between the places in Bucklebury gave us a far better understanding of the place than simply looking at a map.  Obviously this approach is impossible on a larger scale, but for the purposes of our work with the Bucklebury History Group and Historypin, it was invaluable.  The hierarchy we have come up with will hopefully enable the collections to be pinned to the map with as much accuracy as possible, reflecting the level of information we have about places in Bucklebury. 

One of two ancient fish ponds on the Lower Common

The broadest ‘Bucklebury’ thesaurus term in our hierarchy relates to everything within the parish boundary.  At a lower level, we list the larger distinct places: ‘Bucklebury Village [Bucklebury]’, ‘Chapel Row [Bucklebury]’, ‘Bucklebury Common [Bucklebury]’ and ‘Upper Bucklebury [Bucklebury]’.  Some hamlets, such as ‘Bushnells Green [Bucklebury]’ are also listed at this level because they are isolated within the parish, but other hamlets, such as Turner’s Green are first linked to bigger places with which they are associated.  For example, Turner’s Green is situated on the Common, so is listed as ‘Turner’s Green [Bucklebury Common [Bucklebury]]’.  The essence of our approach is to include as much detail as possible, so that we can find the precise latitude and longitude for distinct villages, hamlets, and even houses, which will ultimately enable the collections to be mapped as accurately as possible to the places with which they are associated.  It does feel as though we might have picked the most complicated village in England to use as a case study, but perhaps I am just expecting (or even hoping for) a logical simplicity that simply doesn’t reflect the realities of place.

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Although we are only part-way through, we have already begun to disseminate ideas generated through this project and activity that the team have undertaken to date. Last Thursday I spoke briefly about the Sense of Place project at the AGM of the Rural Museums Network (RMN), which was held at Acton Scott Historic Working Farm.

Presentation slide - Sense of Place

Opening slide from Sense of Place presentation

This was an ideal opportunity to guage wider interest in the project and to get an idea of what other approaches were circulating with regards digital approaches to rural collections. I was asked about how successful our experiments with QR codes had been as, perhaps unsurprisingly, other institutions have also begun to dabble in using this technology. I’m afraid to say I didn’t yet have much to report but ‘watch this space’ as they say. As our partnership with iMuse moves forward and our own experiments with Qr codes and other forms of access kick into action, we’ll be able to offer more practical pointers and ideas.

In many respects this was the perfect forum in which to talk about the wider aims of the project and to raise the important question of how best to approach the mapping of rural material culture. Thankfully, nobody voiced concern with our basic approach and the consensus seemed to be that this was an interesting and useful departure for MERL, as well as something that the wider sector might buy-into in the future. The project will certainly have an airing at future RMN events but I was left with the feeling that perhaps this idea might well have legs beyond the lifetime of this project and that maybe our partnership with HistoryPin will generate a portal through which more members of this Subject Specialist Network wiull be able to promote and raise the profile of their own rich collections.

I was suprised how few members had heard of HistoryPin but perhaps this is not so surprising. The ‘street view’ driven aspects of the experience of this resource do arguably preference urban users and, as I’ve noted elsewhere, it can be a little frustrating trying to ‘pin’ items to a rural spot. If anyone in the RMN who heard my presentation was left in the dark about what HistoryPin is and how it works, why not check out this nifty little explanatory video, or this talk by its founder and CEO, Nick Stanhope. The latter film actually reveals the inspiration behind the whole HistoryPin idea which, interestingly enough, actually pertains to a very rural narrative.

In a timely fashion, we actually have a meeting with Nick and his colleagues tomorrow to discuss the direction that we’d like to take our partnership with them in. So keep an eye out here for future developments on this front. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a nice photograph that I took at Acton Scott, and with a small note to myself that I must remember to ask Nick if he is in any way related to Lord Stanhope, inventor of an obscure photographic device known as a Stanhope Peep – I’ve been meaning to ask him this since I first heard his name mentioned. It would seem strangely appropriate if he were linked by more than name to this historical photographic device.

Members of the RMN on the site visit at Acton Scott Working Farm

Members of the RMN on the site visit at Acton Scott Working Farm

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