Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Made in Nova Scotia

I realized I've been mentioning our "manufacturers database" a fair bit lately, but have never really gone into detail about the work. So I thought it might be time to do that.

When this research project started in the early 1990s I was far too busy playing with Barbies to wonder what was going on in museums. Unbeknownst to me and Skipper, people across Nova Scotia were working very hard to gain a better picture of our industrial heritage. Fast forward to 2006 and we started gathering these research materials about people and companies that were creating material goods in Nova Scotia. "Industry binders" for 6 counties were uncovered: Annapolis, Cape Breton, Cumberland, Hants, Kings and Yarmouth. Another one for the city of Dartmouth was found and added to the mix. The largest body of information came from the Nova Scotia Museum of Industry, the instigator of the 1990s research project, and included information on businesses across the province. The earliest entries date back to the 17th century. I can't speak to the decisions around including some businesses and not others. Given the scope of the work, I can only imagine the headaches and tedium of reviewing trade directories, phone books, maps, artifacts...it seems a never-ending task. It is extremely difficult to gather all the necessary resources for a comprehensive body of knowledge, and this difficulty would have been multiplied in the 1990s, before such online resources as the important Canadian Directories: Who Was Where.

So, once we got our hands on all those paper files we started the data entry. It was a long process since most of the records were photocopies of handwritten files. There is a reason your mother always said to write clearly (or was that just my mom?). Anyway, we deciphered and entered these thousands of records into a very basic MS Access database that my predecessor built for the job. When we switched over to CollectiveAccess, our new friend Seth migrated this as well. And there it sat for awhile. I'd get random requests for info since our members have known about the resource, but they still couldn't access it themselves. Then we launched NovaMuse.ca and realized that it was the perfect host for the industrial information. Not only could people learn about these businesses, but we could link them to museum collections across the province. Perfect! I'll skip the details of how we made this happen, but it took about a year to finesse everything.

Just prior to its launch, we realized that we had to address the name issue. Sometimes we'd been calling this the industries database, other times the manufacturers database, but we always had to tag on a disclaimer that this name was a misnomer due to the variety of businesses and companies included, local artisans to large factories etc etc. We needed a quick term to use for the browse button that said this without sounding neurotic. So we settled on "Made in Nova Scotia". This shouldn't have been such a debate, especially since we spent a number of years researching locally made items.
This new browse basically adds another layer to NovaMuse. When you click on it, you get some more options to help you find who or what you're looking for. Interested in your town? Operations from a certain time period? Or maybe you want to check and see if great great grandpa Bob's cooperage is listed. If one of the museums has something related to Bob's cooperage, you can easily navigate from the business profile to the object.

As we've worked through the reconciliation of collections databases with the 7300+ business profiles, we have found that there are a lot of holes. On the one hand we've been finding a lot of physical evidence of people and companies that aren't included in the resource - newspaper advertisements, objects that are stamped with the name of their manufacturer, photographs of factories, etc. As you can imagine, it is very frustrating to not be able to link these items. On the other hand, there are currently 7000 businesses that have no physical evidence in museum collections. Granted we still have a lot of artifact & archival records to review, but it's pretty clear that we won't ever match up 100% of the businesses.

This speaks to the larger issue of collections development. As we continue to develop NovaMuse, we are gaining a better and better picture of Nova Scotia's material culture. We can see what we have preserved well, and what we are missing in museum collections. We all have limited space and limited resources. We have to be more cautious than ever in our collecting habits, and what better way to do that than by thinking local?

So check it out. Share it with your friends. If you see someone you know, if we've missed a detail about a company or if you have information you'd like to add, let us know! And check back regularly because this is an active work in progress.

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