Thursday, January 31, 2013

Museum Database Lessons - part 1

In updating information to Nomenclature 3.0, assigning dates and adding georeference tags I've noticed some disappointing trends and issues that need to be addressed.

Field Usage
First up is a reminder about correct field usage. I've seen far too many records where someone just plugged everything into the description rather than the correct field, or they haven't bothered to include information that is easily extracted from the item. For example, a booklet of souvenir postcards has the manufacturer stamped clearly on the cover but the manufacturer field is blank. You may wonder what the big deal is if you can see in the image who made the postcards. Here's why it's a big deal - the database can't read the image. It doesn't know the Photogelatine Engraving Co. Ltd made the postcards because all it knows is there is a jpg file attached to this record. So this means when someone does a search on this company at NovaMuse, they won't get full or accurate results.
It is absolutely imperative that we shake off this bad habit. Fields exist for a reason. We want people to be able to navigate chronologically and that means we have to have dates in the begin/end date field. Feel free to mention the date elsewhere, but it has to be in this field for this feature to work.

Perhaps I haven't fully explained the potential of NovaMuse or why we're pushing for data entry improvements. Here's a link to another CA user website called Parrish East End Stories. This is what we want to do. We have the information; it just needs to be massaged a bit. We need to stop putting everything in one field, or ignoring crucial details during the data entry process, and recognize how the information is extracted and displayed for online visitors.

Don't Refer to File for more info
When dealing with photographs or other images of people, don't say "persons identified" or "see file for names". What good does that do you when a fire or flood wrecks your paper storage? What good does it do people looking at NovaMuse? Take the extra two minutes and type out the names.

Explain abbreviations
Abbreviations. Yup, we all use them and love them. Except, our worldwide audience and future museum workers may have no idea what we are talking about. So please, I beg you, stop putting them into your database record descriptions. No one knows what you mean by "Dom I, S blast". It ends up looking like incoherent gibberish or extreme typos.
Along the same lines, for goodness sake, please please please watch your spelling and grammar.

Accession Numbers are Sacred
Do not go altering your accession numbers! I've seen some very sketchy stuff in here, so let me be clear. This is not the field for you to make comments or add symbols that only you understand. Your accession number is the unique number that is labelled on the object. It doesn't matter what system was used in the past, you never, NEVER change this number unless you've encountered a duplicate and need to reconcile that. Renumbering the collection is making an insane amount of extra work for you. So don't do it. There's too much else on your to do list.
You also have to be consistent in your numbering. Two of the databases I've worked on this year have duplicate entries because someone entered the full numbers - 1997.3.5 - and then someone else came along and abbreviated - 97.3.5. Same item, same description, time wasted. The database will only alert you to a duplicate number if it is identical to one in the system. So if you're not consistent you can end up wasting a lot of time and resources and creating a mess for yourself in the process.

Identical Items
Let's say someone gave you a set of dishes. 6 dinner plates, 6 cup & saucer sets, 6 bowls...sounds like lots of data entry right? This is what the quantity field is for. Don't bother creating an entry for every single plate and every single bowl. Create one entry for the dinner plates and put 6 in the quantity field. Do the same for the cup & saucer sets and the bowls, and then link everything on the relationships page. Done and done.

Multiple Items (that are NOT identical)
For the love of my sanity, please please PLEASE give each item its own database entry (unless it falls under the identical items guidelines above). Yes it will take a bit more time to enter each item from the donation, but just because you received them in the same box does not mean they want to live together in your database. "Various" is not an acceptable object name. You can group items through various fields and database features, so let's make a pact. No more entering of groups of items in a single database record.

Begin & End Dates
I've talked about dating before, so I'll try not to repeat myself here. But I think it's important to assign this field a couple rules:
Rule 1 - never leave it empty. I know some museum people might want to fight me on this one, but here's why we need to have something in the date field. One of our planned updates for NovaMuse is to add a timeline feature. So if someone wants to research 1920s clothing, they can scroll through search results as a timeline and see the evolution of fashion. Fun right?
Rule 2 - if you have absolutely no idea when the object was made, look to the acquisition date for guidance. You at least know the object was made before it was acquired and accessioned by the museum, so can say "before YEAR". Then you've at least drawn a line in the sand, you've stopped the clock. So anyone searching for items made after that year date won't be bothered with a bunch of vague possibilities due to the date field being empty.

As we continue with the database work I'm sure some more tips and reminders will need to be shared, so stay tuned and happy databasing.

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