Digital scholarship blog

08 April 2020

Legacies of Catalogue Descriptions and Curatorial Voice: a new AHRC project

This guest post is by James Baker, Senior Lecturer in Digital History and Archives at the School of History, Art History and Philosophy, University of Sussex. James has a background in the history of the printed image, archival theory, art history, and computational analysis. He is author of The Business of Satirical Prints in Late-Georgian England (2017), the first monograph on the infrastructure of the satirical print trade circa 1770-1830, and a member of the Programming Historian team.

I love a good catalogue. Whether describing historic books, personal papers, scientific objects, or works of art, catalogue entries are the stuff of historical research, brief insights into a many possible avenues of discovery. As a historian, I am trained to think critically about catalogues and the entries they contain, to remember that they are always crafted by people, institutions, and temporally specific ways of working, and to consider what that reality might do to my understanding of the past those catalogues and entries represent. Recently, I've started to make these catalogues my objects of historical study, to research what they contain, the labour that produced them, and the socio-cultural forces that shaped that labour, with a particular focus on the anglophone printed catalogue circa 1930-1990. One motivation for this is purely historical, to elucidate what I see as an important historical phenomenon. But another is about now, about how those catalogues are used and reused in the digital age. Browse the shelves of a university library and you'll quickly see that circumstances of production are encoded into the architecture of the printed catalogue: title pages, prefaces, fonts, spines, and the quality of paper are all signals of their historical nature. But when their entries - as many have been over the last 30 years - are moved into a database and online, these cues become detached, and their replacement – a bibliographic citation – is insufficient to evoke their historical specificity, does little to help alert the user to the myriad of texts they are navigating each time they search an online catalogue.

It is these interests and concerns that underpin "Legacies of Catalogue Descriptions and Curatorial Voice: Opportunities for Digital Scholarship", a collaboration between the Sussex Humanities Lab, the British Library, and Yale University Library. This 12-month project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council aims to open up new and important directions for computational, critical, and curatorial analysis of collection catalogues. Our pilot research will investigate the temporal and spatial legacy of a catalogue I know well - the landmark ‘Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum’, produced by Mary Dorothy George between 1930 and 1954, 1.1 million words of text to which all scholars of the long-eighteenth century printed image are indebted, and which forms the basis of many catalogue entries at other institutions, not least those of our partners at the Lewis Walpole Library. We are particularly interested in tracing the temporal and spatial legacies of this catalogue, and plan to repurpose corpus linguistic methods developed in our "Curatorial Voice" project (generously funded by the British Academy) to examine the enduring legacies of Dorothy George's "voice" beyond her printed volumes.

Participants at the Curatorial Voices workshop, working in small groups and drawing images on paper.
Some things we got up to at our February 2019 Curatorial Voice workshop. What a difference a year makes!

But we also want to demonstrate the value of these methods to cultural institutions. Alongside their collections, catalogues are central to the identities and legacies of these institutions. And so we posit that being better able to examine their catalogue data can help cultural institutions get on with important catalogue related work: to target precious cataloguing and curatorial labour towards the records that need the most attention, to produce empirically-grounded guides to best practice, and to enable more critical user engagement with 'legacy' catalogue records (for more info, see our paper ‘Investigating Curatorial Voice with Corpus Linguistic Techniques: the case of Dorothy George and applications in museological practice’, Museum & Society, 2020).

A table with boxes of black and red lines which visualise the representation of spacial and non-spacial sentence parts in the descriptions of the satirical prints.
An analysis of our BM Satire Descriptions corpus (see doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3245037 for how we made it and doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3245017 for our methods). In this visualization - a snapshot of a bigger interactive - one box represents a single description, red lines are sentence parts marked ‘spatial’, and black lines are sentence parts marked as ‘non-spatial’. This output was based on iterative machine learning analysis with Method52. The data used is published by ResearchSpace under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Over the course of the "Legacies" project, we had hoped to run two capability building workshops aimed at library, archives, and museum professionals. The first of these was due to take place at the British Library this May, and the aim of the workshop was to test our still very much work-in-progress training module on the computational analysis of catalogue data. Then Covid-19 hit and, like most things in life, the plan had to be dropped.

The new plan is still in development, but the project team know that we need input from the community to make the training module of greatest benefit to that community. The current plan is that in late summer we will run some ad hoc virtual training sessions on computational analysis of catalogue data. And so we are looking for library, archives, and museum professionals who produce or work with catalogue data to be our crash test dummies, to run through parts of the module, to tell us what works, what doesn't, and what is missing. If you'd be interested in taking part in one of these training sessions, please email James Baker and tell me why. We look forward to hearing from you.

"Legacies of Catalogue Descriptions and Curatorial Voice: Opportunities for Digital Scholarship" is funded under the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) “UK-US Collaboration for Digital Scholarship in Cultural Institutions: Partnership Development Grants” scheme. Project Reference AH/T013036/1.

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