Friday, 4 August 2017

Documenting artefacts - the methodology

Yesterday, while working at the documentation project that I’ve volunteered for I had a couple of interesting conversations, one with a lady from a local history society in New Zealand, and the other with a post graduate history researcher about what I was doing and what I’d found so far.

The New Zealand lady was particularly interested in the how, and thinking about it, while the final destination of the information is an InMagic artefact catalogue, you could use the methodology for just about anything  - I have for example thought about extracting the more interesting items and building a little exhibition with Omeka.

The data is entered into an excel spreadsheet in a semi structured manner so an entry will look something like this:

clear glass bottle ~200mm: glass stopper: printed label wintergreen: contents (liquid) present, 20170803_105032.jpg, label 20170803_105131.jpg

so the structure is basically

description, image, comments

with the three components separated by commas. Inside each section sub components are delimited by colons to make it easy to split up the text. The description section always follows the same structure, and uses a tacit controlled vocabulary (a folksonomy) of standard terms, so the label can be no label, handwritten, printed, typewritten, to make parsing easy. The description is always followed by the name of a jpeg file, which also give you the date of the description - purely accidental, I’m using my Samsung Galaxy to photograph the objects as I go - the camera being good enough for documentation purposes, and that’s just how it does it, a useful accident.

The comments section is basically a ragbag, extra images, text embossed on a bottle, and so on, but where possible standard terms are used and everything is always colon delimited.

Rather than go for a complex entry form I though it better to go for a simple bare bones approach and structure it so that the information could be post processed and fixed up later with a bit of perl and regex.

Much the same applies to using a folksonomy - as at the start I didn’t know what terms to use, it struck me a simpler to make one up and let it evolve, most times the terms are standard but if a new one is needed so be it.

Of course this all needs to be documented, so in parallel to the spreadsheet I have a markdown file which records progress and any changes. I chose markdown as it lends itself to structured documentation and can be easily converted to other formats.

In addition, working notes, background information on various suppliers and the like is stored in OneNote, for the simple reason that I’m using a windows machine that came with OneNote, and I’m not supposed to install additional software, otherwise Evernote would be an obvious alternative.

Data is backed up to a USB stick and then to a OneDrive account. While I do have access to the internet on the project, the connection has quite limited bandwidth - enough for email and web searches, but not enough for backup. Even a OneDrive sync can be tedious.

In the ideal world, I would have access to some secondary local filestore, but I don’t have that, so I back up the data at home, where I have a reasonably fast connection, to my personal OneDrive store, purely because I have storage to burn at the moment as our ISP gave us a fairly generous chunk of online storage as part of our package, and it’s stupid not to backup the data.

However, while it’s not ideal, it shows that the methodology is adaptable, and while it would be preferable to have an internet connection, it can be used for documentation work offline, something possibly important for onsite documentation in remote locations

The same goes for the software used. I’m using a windows machine with office, onenote and the windows markdown editor. I could equally well use libre calc, evernote, or typora on  either windows or a mac. I could even use an old repurposed machine with ubuntu installed. The only crucial parts of the methodology is bluetooth to transfer pictures from my phone and support for some sort of external storage device. Otherwise, it’s a spreadsheet, a text editor and some sort of note taking tool such as Laverna, Simplenote or Cherrytree.

Due to the lack of dependence on paid for software, the access cost is fairly minimal. It’s possible to pick up a refurbished thinkpad, admittedly with Windows 8, but with a decent warranty, for around three hundred dollars, and if Windows 8 isn’t your thing, Ubuntu is a simple and pretty automatic install.

As I said, now that smartphone cameras are as good as point and shoot there’s no need to invest in a separate camera, but if required, small end of range point and shoot cameras from manufacturers you’ve heard of are fairly easy to find at an affordable price.

So, the methodology is straightforward and has few prerequisites. how do I use it?

Well the artefacts are documented one by one, initially by longhand in a notebook, which has turned out easier when transcribing faded labels and embossed inscriptions using the Leiden conventions than directly typing them in, then photographing them.

The images are then transferred to the laptop via bluetooth and the image names recorded in the notebook. And then the record is added to the spreadsheet. Every half hour or so I save copies of the spreadsheet, markdown documentation file and the images to the usb stick for later transfer and backup to OneDrive using my home laptop.

Anything interesting, such as an unfamiliar manufacturers name is googled and a note added to OneNote. Bottles are highly collectable, so besides standard resources such as Collections Victoria, collectors personal sites can be a useful resource as can ebay as often collectors have greater detailed knowledge of particular bottles than museum curators.

So, in essence, keep it simple, use formats that can be easily read and document everything ....

No comments: