MERL Classification

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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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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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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 initial phase of a new project is always a bit fuzzy, and seems to involve what can feel like endless circular discussions and feelings of not really knowing what you’re supposed to be doing or how best to go about doing something.  Thankfully, we’re beginning to emerge from that phase with our new project, Countryside21 (although we’re not quite there yet!).

It originally felt like it was quite difficult to translate the three main strands of Countryside21 – collating and structuring digital content, improving keywording of digital content, and developing the MERL image bank (see my introductory post to the project) – into actual day to day tasks for Felicity and me to do. However, we haven’t been idle….

Our first step was to get to grips with the MERL Classification, which will be the starting point for developing how we keyword our collections. (Until now I’ve never paid much attention to the Classification and how, or why, it has been used.) This has involved looking at how the Classification has evolved over time – from its conception in the 1950s, to a more detailed version in the 1970s, and a simplified version in the 2000s. We’ve also been trying to find out about how it’s been used externally by other museums and institutions, and to consider how it compares with the Social History and Industrial Classification (SHIC) used by many other rural museums.

We’ve also been trying to get our heads around what terms we currently have in our ‘subject keyword’ thesaurus and the best way to go about tidying them up, as we know from our cataloguing for A Sense of Place that this is basically chaos (we’ve been ignoring it for the past year). We know that some terms shouldn’t be ‘subjects’ but should instead be categorised as ‘geographical keywords’ or ‘person and institutions’, and we also know that some ‘subjects’ appear multiple times in various forms and with various spellings, e.g. harvest, harvests, harvvest, harvesting etc.

Continuing with the idea of developing our keywording, we’ve been looking at how big commercial image banks such as Getty Images and i-stock keyword their images. We want to develop more emotive keywording based on the idea of ‘aboutness’, i.e. so not just what is actually depicted in an image, but also what the image is ‘about’ – ideas, emotions, concepts etc.

We’ve also started trying to collate all of MERL’s digital content and store it in one place, and to think about how to name image files in a standardised way which also relates to the object number or archival reference code. From next week, we’ll have a new volunteer project running to help us copy 500 CDs’ worth of images digitised as part of a 2002 New Opportunities Fund (NOF) project onto the server. In preparation for this, Felicity’s been trying automatic ways of renaming large numbers of files – otherwise it could take a long time!

I think it will take a few weeks before we feel like we’re fully underway with Countryside21, and for us to fully understand what we’re doing, but it feels good to be making progress.

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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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