Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Museum Database Lessons - Part 3

Remember in a previous lesson post I talked about proper field usage? It's time for a serious talk about descriptions.
There never seems to be a happy medium with this field. It's either blank, or full of information. Unfortunately, all too often when it's full it includes information that should not be in it. This field is for the physical description of the item, as though you're telling someone over the phone what it looks like. That's it. It is not the catch-all field.
Don't include the location of the item, that goes in the location field.
Don't include information on condition and conservation treatments. That goes into the condition field. And while we're on that subject, whoever wrote down on the harmonica record that it was in good condition because it "still plays"?! Gross!!

One of the things that I keep seeing is internal, administrative info in this field. And since it's a public field, this means that people checking out NovaMuse are stumbling upon records that say "Catalogue worksheet is missing" or "Donor didn't sign gift agreement until 2007". Not only does the public not need to see this, but it makes the museum look sloppy. Do you really want to advertise that the museum lost some paperwork or didn't bother to get paperwork signed when they should have? No, you don't. This is why we set up CollectiveAccess with an administrative page. Whatever is on that page is internal use only and will not appear online. Take advantage of this. If dirty laundry needs documenting, make sure it is on the admin page.

I know, it seems ridiculous that people could mess up this field, but it happens more often than you'd think. First I'd like to say that various is not a colour. You will never buy a box of Crayola crayons and find that one is labelled "various". Enter a quick list of colours focusing on those most prominent, ie blue, red, yellow, orange. That's all you need to do. Don't explain which part is which colour. You just need to document that if you're looking for the item you're going into storage and looking for something purple instead of yellow.

from memecrunch.com
Spelling Counts
How have I not already mentioned this?! This is probably one of the biggest problems in data entry work.
While these sometimes bring some much-needed laughs to the office, sweather, gic=n, Hong Knog, and the many ways that people try to spell photograph are all incorrect and make the museum look bad.

Yup, back to the media files again. Maybe someone was just trying to be efficient, but every once in awhile I come across a group of records that all have the same image attached. Let's say the object is a book about the tide tables. The record clearly reflects the details of this one book. But the museum has a number of these books from different years and so laid them out together and took one photo. Then they attached this one photo to all 12 tide table book records. Wrong. Bad! Each book should have been scanned & attached to its particular record. They aren't all identical - condition, publication date, colour, style...totally different. If you need to find a particular one, having a group shot attached to your record is no help at all. So let's stop doing that shall we?

Subjective Language & Insider Info
We could also call this thinking community vs. worldwide. The NovaMuse audience spans the globe. Literally. So when someone in Rwanda is checking out the funny looking Canadian artifacts they might not understand some of the terms or nicknames we use. And at some point in the future your museum's staff or volunteers might not understand them either. We need to be thinking long-term about these things. Yes it might feel like you are over-explaining something, but statements like "this house is located where the Flynn family used to live" just won't make sense to everyone. So put yourself in your audience's shoes. Read through your documentation and ask yourself if someone on the other side of the planet will understand it, or even just if your successor will understand it.

Museum Immortality Syndrome
That brings me to another point. I can't tell you how many times I've visited museums and asked about an object, only to be given a wonderful and detailed explanation by the curator. "Wow!" says I, "that's so cool I want to share it online so other people can hear this story!" Then when I look up the object in the database, I'm disappointed to discover that none of those great details are in the database. Sigh. Okay folks, this is going to get morbid for a bit. I hate to break it to you, but you won't always be working at the museum. And you won't live forever. I'm not sure if keeping this info in your head seems like job security or you just don't see the point in writing stuff out that is safely tucked away in your brain, but it's time to stop thinking that way. When I joke that we need to download your curator's brain, what I'm really saying is that it's time for you to step up and improve your documentation practices.

Staff & Volunteer Training
The final point I'm going to make should have perhaps been my first. For some odd reason, a lot of museums hand over the keys to their databases when new volunteers or summer students show up. This might work out all right, except that all too often there is little or no training involved and these well-meaning new workers end up making mistakes that require fixing...ie creating more work rather than alleviating the burden on other staff/volunteers. I can't say how many times I've logged in to check one thing and ended up seeing information being added incorrectly...added by someone new who just didn't know they were making mistakes. They end up feeling frustrated that they need to go back and fix all their work; something they know could have been prevented with a bit more information up front. Nomenclature 3.0, CollectiveAccess tutorials, the basics of cataloguing...museum work requires specialized knowledge & training. We say that we are educational institutions, so why don't we focus some of that education internally? Let's all make a pact that new staff and volunteers will only start working on cataloguing and the database when they have been given real training and have proven their understanding and competency. After all, isn't that how it works with other jobs?

Well that's it for this series. I really hope that I don't have to revisit these lessons. If you want to go back and check out the earlier posts, here there are:
Database Lessons - Part 1
Database Lessons - Part 2

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