The importance of objects

Well, with another semester over with and the next about to begin on Monday, it must be time for another update. It’s been a busy few months as usual!

In the Networking module I learned about the importance of networked or linked data, and even managed to build my own Wiki and demonstrate its usefulness. I had some previous experience of editing pages on Wikipedia, so this wasn’t entirely new to me, but it was great to see it ‘from the inside’ and to really have to think about how the users were going to interact with it. I used Dokuwiki as my basic application, which I could then customise to my requirements. This proved to be a good choice as it was very quick and easy to get to grips with, and came with lots of documentation to help me along. Alongside this, the Records Management module dealt with ways of organising the working records of an institution or department. There was a lot to think about here, including the legal implications of collecting and storing certain types of information, and it was a real juggling act to try to deal with all the disparate forms of records in the scenario.

It was one part of the Records Management assignment, however, which has prompted me to talk about the importance of objects. We were required in the scenario to deal not only with electronic records, but also with a large volume of legacy physical files dating back several decades. This posed an interesting challenge, which I only wish I had had more time to contemplate in the assignment! With all my talk of wikis and databases and metadata, you might be forgiven for thinking that information management is only about electronic data. This is certainly somewhat more the case nowadays, as clearly much of the data with which we all interact is held electronically. However, there are still many varied areas where physical objects are still the primary sources; perhaps where they are even the reason for the existence of the institution, or if not then a major contributor to its work and reputation. These places all use electronic information management systems, of course, but it is still the physical objects which are the foundations of all the information held in those systems.

A recipe for artichokes (photo courtesy of Shakespeare’s World)

Strangely enough, two projects which I have recently discovered and followed online exemplify this idea of the object as the primary source. The first is the Shakespeare’s World project, which is a collaboration between Zooniverse, The Folger Shakespeare Library, Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) and The Oxford English Dictionary. This is an interactive project where people are invited to transcribe text from scans of English 16th and 17th Century documents (around the time of Shakespeare). It requires a basic grounding in paleography before you can really get going, but once you get the hang of it, it’s very interesting and even addictive! There are personal letters, recipes, notes and even diplomatic correspondence. The idea is to create a searchable electronic text of each document for researchers, build up a picture of what was happening at the time these texts were written, and also to document any new spelling variations which are discovered in the process. It’s a great example of amalgamating primary sources into an electronic or virtual system. They also have a great blog where some interesting aspects of the project are explored in more depth.

Davy lamp (photo courtesy of The Royal Society)

The second project, Objectivity, is a series of videos made by filmmaker Brady Haran. Each video looks at an object or group of objects selected from the archives of The Royal Society in London. The objects can vary from death masks to Davy lamps, portraits to penguin eggs, and meteorites to mysterious boxes. Both Brady and Keith Moore, the head of the collections service at The Royal Society, are obviously really enthusiastic about the history of the objects, and that enthusiasm rubs off on the viewer. These videos are a beautifully simple and engaging way of bringing the objects to life and telling their unique story to people all over the world, and I hope that the project continues for some time to come.

One could argue that this explains perfectly the true purpose of information management – so that things can be found; whether for research, everyday personal activities, historical interest or for business. Where physical objects are concerned, however, there’s something special about this act of discovery. I’ve always been interested in the original objects held by museums and galleries, thinking about where they have been, who has handled them and what events they may have witnessed through their long life. The range of objects on display in a museum, for example, is usually just a small fraction of what the institution holds in its archives, and there is always the possibility that there is something exciting just waiting to be found and revealed to the world.

So, in amongst all the electronic information storage, organisation and retrieval, I think it’s crucial to remember that physical objects are just as much an integral part of knowledge dissemination. Where projects like Shakespeare’s World and Objectivity exist, they remind us that we are working alongside these objects, not separated from them. This is a good thing for knowledge preservation and cultural heritage, two topics which interest me very much. I’ll certainly be keeping my eye out for more of these projects in the future.


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