Documenting the collections – what is that exactly? At its simplest it just means recording all the information we have about each object we have in the museums collection. It is this information – from the name and type of the object, its size and the material it’s made from to the stories, the people and the places associated with it – which is essential in undertanding the object; in relating the stories we can tell with it; and in making the connections between our own objects, things elsewhere and the lives and interests of our visitors (both physical and online). Without the documentation the objects are mute – they do not speak for themselves (except to those experts who already carry some of this information around in their heads anyway). So I’m pleased that we have been awarded a grant from the Scottish Museums Council to support the establishment of a Collections Officer post to work on the documentation and conservation of our collections.
But (there’s always a ‘but’) what sort of information is this? It often tends to be technical, and to use obscure professional terms whose meaning would not be obvious to the non-expert. Since we are planning to put our collections information online (and to connect information about collections with the Site and Monuments Record and the records of the East Lothian Archives) the question is: will visitor be able to find stuff that they are looking for, that is in our collections, if they don’t know the terms we have used to describe them? Probably not, unless by complete chance. If that’s the case, what can we do about it?
Yesterday I went to a really interesting presentation yesterday on tagging as a means of facilitating resource discovery (or, in English, helping searchers find stuff). Tagging means adding individual words or short phrases that describe, or relate to the record being tagged. For example, you might tag a photograph of a fishing boat with the tags ‘boat’, ‘photograph’ and ‘fishing’. But you might also use other terms (perhaps the boat’s name, or names of crew or owners, or other terms relating to fishing). In the end you have a list of words and phrases that relate to the photograph. The fun bit for visitors searching for stuff on your site comes when they can search on one of these tags (maybe by clicking on it in a list on screen) and bring up all the other items tagged with the same word or phrase. Searching (and finding) becomes simpler – once you’ve found one item, you can easily find more items of the same sort, or related to the thing you’ve found.
But the really fun thing is when you allow visitors to the site to add their own tags to collection items that they find while searching. This helps future visitors find what they are looking for more easily. It got me thinking about how we might do this for our own collections, both adding in our own tags and allowing visitors to contribute – helping searchers, and helping us to understand how our visitors categorise and think about our collections. It turns the documentation of the collections from an internal professional process into a wide scale ongoing collaborative process. The ‘our’ in ‘our collections’ is no longer just us curators, but expands to potentially include all of us.
So if anyone reading this ends up applying for our Collections Officer post, you now know why you’ve got a little extra job to do…