Digital scholarship blog

14 July 2020

Legacies of Catalogue Descriptions and Curatorial Voice: Training Sessions

This guest post is by James Baker, Senior Lecturer in Digital History and Archives at the University of Sussex.

This month the team behind "Legacies of Catalogue Descriptions and Curatorial Voice: Opportunities for Digital Scholarship" ran two training sessions as part of our Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project. Each standalone session provided instruction in using the software tool AntConc and approaches from computational linguistics for the purposes of examining catalogue data. The objectives of the sessions were twofold: to test our in-development training materials, and to seek feedback from the community in order to better understand their needs and to develop our training offer.

Rather than host open public training, we decided to foster existing partnerships by inviting a small number of individuals drawn from attendees at events hosted as part of our previous Curatorial Voice project (funded by the British Academy). In total thirteen individuals from the UK and US took part across the two sessions, with representatives from libraries, archives, museums, and galleries.

Screenshot of the website for the lesson entitled Computational Analysis of Catalogue Data

Screenshot of the content page and timetable for the lesson
Carpentries-style lesson about analysing catalogue data in Antconc


The training was delivered in the style of a Software Carpentry workshop, drawing on their wonderful lesson templatepedagogical principles, and rapid response to moving coding and data science instruction online in light of the Covid-19 crisis (see ‘Recommendations for Teaching Carpentries Workshops Online’ and ‘Tips for Teaching Online from The Carpentries Community’). In terms of content, we started with the basics: how to get data into AntConc, the layout of AntConc, and settings in AntConc. After that we worked through two substantial modules. The first focused on how to generate, interact with, and interpret a word list, and this was followed by a module on searching, adapting, and reading concordances. The tasks and content of both modules avoided generic software instruction and instead focused on the analysis of free text catalogue fields, with attendees asked to consider what they might infer about a catalogue from its use of tense, what a high volume of capitalised words might tell us about cataloguing style, and how adverb use might be a useful proxy for the presence of controlled vocabulary.

Screenshot of three tasks and solutions in the Searching Concordances section
Tasks in the Searching Concordances section

Running Carpentries-style training over Zoom was new to me, and was - frankly - very odd. During live coding I missed hearing the clack of keyboards as people followed along in response. I missed seeing the sticky notes go up as people completed the task at hand. During exercises I missed hearing the hubbub that accompanies pair programming. And more generally, without seeing the micro-gestures of concentration, relief, frustration, and joy on the faces of learners, I felt somehow isolated as an instructor from the process of learning.

But from the feedback we received the attendees appear to have been happy. It seems we got the pace right (we assumed teaching online would be slower than face-to-face, and it was). The attendees enjoyed using AntConc and were surprised, to quote one attendees, "to see just how quickly you could draw some conclusions". The breakout rooms we used for exercises were a hit. And importantly we have a clear steer on next steps: that we should pivot to a dataset that better reflects the diversity of catalogue data (for this exercise we used a catalogue of printed images that I know very well), that learners would benefit having a list of suggested readings and resources on corpus linguistics, and that we might - to quote one attendee - provide "more examples up front of the kinds of finished research that has leveraged this style of analysis".

These comments and more will feed into the development of our training materials, which we hope to complete by the end of 2020 and - in line with the open values of the project - is happening in public. In the meantime, the materials are there for the community to use, adapt and build on (more or less) as they wish. Should you take a look and have any thoughts on what we might change or include for the final version, we always appreciate an email or a note on our issue tracker.

"Legacies of Catalogue Descriptions and Curatorial Voice: Opportunities for Digital Scholarship" is a collaboration between the Sussex Humanities Lab, the British Library, and Yale University Library that 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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