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.

January 2013 Update

Renewal Contracts
Today is the renewal contract deadline, and I'm sorry to say that we have not received all of the contracts & cheques yet. Thank you to everyone who took care of this promptly. If you have not returned your contract & cheque yet, it is imperative that you do so. Remember that we cannot deliver services until we have a contract & payment in hand.

Funding Applications
The deadline for YCW applications is tomorrow, and other deadlines are quickly approaching. Don't forget to refer to my post on writing funding applications for some basic tips that will help your application stand out. Remember to tie in with community events, anniversaries, commemorations, and province-wide initiatives like NovaMuse.
Participating Sites

Fleming College Partnership
We'll be launching our latest project with Fleming College next week, where 29 students will get in and do a bit of database work for 10 sites. We've streamlined the process and think we've got it down to a science. I'm really pleased with the mix of sites and records this year - I think we've got a great group and that the students and museums will learn a lot during the project. I can't wait to hear what the students dig up, especially one a couple "unknown tool" items. What a great learning opportunity.

IMAC Meeting & Marketing Tips
Your peer advisory committee had a meeting on January 25th to talk about project work. Being museum geeks, we figured it was time to call in a proper biz kid who could school us in the world of marketing, so for the first hour we had a special guest from the NS Sport Hall of Fame. While we all understand the significance of NovaMuse, being the 2nd province in the country to have a collections website for multiple museums, and the first such site that is interactive. We have been nominated for a national award, and yet the local news coverage has been underwhelming to say the least. So we now have a list of things to do on your behalf, and also a nice little list of things that you can do at a community level. This is a fantastic and innovative service that we are offering the public and it deserves a bit of fanfare. So without further ado, some marketing tips:

1. On your museum/society website, put the logo & a link to your NovaMuse profile page. I sent this to you in September, but if you need the file again just let me know.

2. Call your local newspaper, radio station, and/or other media outlets and let them know that you're part of this innovative project. Offer to give them a behind-the-scenes look at all the work that has gone into it, what you hope to gain from it, and how the public can engage with the site. Take advantage of the Tillman case and the "treasure hoard". Tell the world how you are caring for your collection, how you document each and every item, and how your database records of missing items have been offered to the RCMP to aid in the reconciliation process.
Please send us copies or links to any news items so that we can include them in our NovaMuse files.

3. Have some fun with the site. Issue scavenger hunt-style challenges to your online and offline audiences, with simple prizes for the winners (like a free pass to the museum or special event). Turn it into a game. Ask them to help you tag images or identify people. Give them a specific mission - look for all the photos of royalty and tag them with "Royalty".

Database Info
The great data upgrade project has started. I'm almost finished with the first site, and am looking forward to starting the second. I'm updating info to follow the Nomenclature 3.0 standards, which is a vast improvement over the old Revised Nomenclature system. If you haven't yet purchased Nom 3.0, it's a great investment. You can see part of it on Google Books if you want to see what's changed. My second task is to add dates to any records without. This obviously requires a bit of research to be super specific, so right now I'm quickly making educated guesses and applying a broad date range. If nothing else, you know that the item was made before it entered the museum, so you can enter "before 2013". The third task is to map any items that contain geographical data - where a photo was taken, a town's annual reports, where an object was manufactured, etc. Again this should be viewed as a process. If you know the item relates to a building in town but aren't sure where that building was located, put a pin into the town for now. Then you can do more research to determine exactly where the building was located. It's all about starting to narrow down this info rather than skipping these fields when we lack exact data. Our NovaMuse audience will be able to help us with this as well, but we have to take the first steps.
As I've been working on these tasks, I've been making note of any trends and will be sharing those in a series of posts about data standards. Think of them as tips & tricks to improving your records. I don't know how many posts will be in this series, but I hope that it will be helpful to you.

Ok, so where do we sit this month with our database stats? Things picked up a bit from December. 974 records and 932 images were added, giving us new totals of 191,252 records and 72,171 images.
By region:
Southwest: 98,616 artifacts, 32,280 images
Central: 36,231 artifacts, 13,630 images
Northeast: 30,652 artifacts, 17,572 images
Cape Breton: 25,753 artifacts, 8,689 images

Things were really neck and neck this month, but congrats to the Central region for adding the most records, and to Cape Breton for adding the most images!

Fultz House
Your image of the month is a fun bicorn from Fultz House in Lower Sackville. Now that's a hat! The reason I chose this is to talk about the colours. I always say to use a contrasting backdrop when photographing your object, but what if you have something like this that is both dark and light? Which backdrop do you use? Well, you want to make sure that the object doesn't get 'lost' in the backdrop. If we had used the dark backdrop, it would have been hard to distinguish between the edges of the hat and the black fabric. And the feathers have enough shadow and texture to stand out from the light backdrop. Remember to trust your eye, and feel free to test out both backdrops to figure out which is best.

Happy databasing!