Behind the Scenes: The Cataloguing Forum and Erskine 100

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Photographs of soldiers from the Erskine Hospital archive.

Earlier this month the cataloguing team from the University’s Archives and Special Collections (ASC) got together for their monthly cataloguing forum. Cataloguing – while vital in making material available to users (and, most importantly, ensuring material can be found once it goes into the repository!) – is, by necessity, a time consuming activity. It can also be a very isolated activity, for which ASC have come up with a solution. The idea for a cataloguing forum was devised as a way for cataloguers to talk through any challenges they might come across, and reflect on any changes within the service or sector as a whole. With our cataloguers working on so many different projects, it also gives colleagues the opportunity to learn about one another’s collections.

Statement of Purpose

“The forum will offer us a space to reflect on issues and think about solutions to questions raised by senior management; brainstorm ASC cataloguing policies, procedures and ideas to pass on to senior management for their consideration, and highlight any problems encountered; share updates and training on new cataloguing software; and team build by sharing our combined knowledge and familiarising ourselves with the collections”.

Erskine

This month the focus was on the Erskine Archive Project, which is currently being worked on by Orla O’Brien. Having received funding from the Wellcome Trust, the Erskine Hospital archive is presently being catalogued, preserved, and made accessible for research purposes and outreach projects during its centenary year.

Orla began by discussing the things she had found relatively simple to catalogue, such as records intrinsically tied to the hospital, including minute books and patient magazines.

She then moved onto a series she called ‘personal papers’. This series included items which may have belonged to patients or staff of the hospital, but the original ownership cannot be traced or no obvious link to Erskine can be made. We speculated about the reasons for this – could the owner have been missed off the admissions register? Or had someone donated the items to Erskine (without them having had any specific link to the hospital)?

Some other material that had puzzled Orla in the course of her cataloguing were a selection of blank, silk embroidered postcards. These postcards were made by civilians in France and Belgium, and proved very popular with British soldiers throughout the course of the War. As an expensive souvenir, soldiers would sometimes refrain from writing on the postcards, and instead send them wrapped inside a separate letter to protect them.

blank-postcards

The souvenir postcards would often be sent blank – which makes cataloguing challenging.

This sparked a debate over how much time a cataloguer should dedicate to ‘researching’ a collection. Obviously a catalogue should be detailed and informative, but should also be without speculation. Orla noted that, in the case of Erskine, it was important to catalogue from the point of view of users being able to use the catalogue easily to support any research or outreach projects in the future.

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A photograph of a nurse who worked at the Hospital.

We then went on to discuss the challenges of photographs in a cataloguing project. The main issues raised were that acquisitions can often contain a number of loose, unrelated photos – many in black and white, and therefore can be hard to date. Sometimes those that are dated will actually be copy prints, and might therefore be unreliable. In the case of Erskine patients in particular, fashions did not change, so a date cannot be estimated this way. However, where the image is obviously depicting some kind of event, other records from the collection, such as minute books, may help to give the picture some context.

These sorts of considerations can make describing photographs complex, and even the use of sub-series can leave some images without full descriptions (for instance, Orla’s current categories  include: Visitors, Royal Visitors, Unknown Visitors). We then discussed the pros and cons of using crowdsourcing as a method of identifying and describing images. We decided this ultimately came down to a time vs reward situation – historians and researchers are often more interested in researching the data found in minute books and cash books, but images are important for engagement opportunities, so it is useful to have as much detail as possible for all aspects of the collection.

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Assorted photographs of soldiers who were treated at Erskine.

Looking forward, it is possible that some of these challenges could be met in the future – tagging the names of people on Facebook, cameras giving the precise times an image has been shot, and mobile phones being able to pinpoint locations where photos were taken may eliminate the issue of unknown information; the next problem will be how this information can be meaningfully collected and preserved.

We look forward to more thought-provoking discussion in the next Catalogue Forum.

The exhibition In War & Peace: The Erskine Story is now open to the public at The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

For further information on the Erskine Cataloguing Project please follow @Erskine100



Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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