Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Family Stuff - Part Two: Order Out of Chaos

In my last post, I suggested that family historians, especially those with lots of “family stuff”, needed to consider the fact that many of our heirs will have only a passing interest in the things that consume our personal time and resources.  

 In fact, for many of the things in our collections that we KNOW are important, such as photos, documents, and family artifacts, there’s a very thin line between the treasure and the trash.

After all, a lot of our “stuff” doesn’t look like much.  More important, hardly any of it is identified in any meaningful way.

I know, I know… YOU know what it all is.  YOU can identify all the folks in that old photo…well, most of ‘em, anyway.  YOU know why that old deed’s important and who made that old quilt. YOU know that your grandpa made that magazine rack in his workshop after he retired in in 1947. 

Problem is, nobody else knows any of that.   And even if you wrote “Aunt Jane and Uncle Bill.  Sally’s birthday.  1956” on the back of a picture, that just doesn’t cut it for future researchers.

Only YOU have what they call “intellectual control” and it’s all in your head.  In the world of archives, somebody (an archivist) has to figure out what stuff is, then write down some kind of meaningful description of it all so that it can be used.  Plus, it has to have some kind of consistent and coherent format, so that researchers can search for information about the stuff in some kind of systematic way. Or at very least, know what’s in all those boxes.

This is what creating “metadata” is all about.   “Metadata” is simply a term used to describe “data about data”, or information about information. And writing good metadata is the first step to establishing “intellectual control” over your stuff.

Archivists create metadata and finding aids for their collections and in the process, establish “intellectual control” over them.  In a nutshell, first they figure out what they have and where it came from. Who created it? Why is it important? And so on.  Once they know what they have, then they write it all down so that other people can know, too.  This makes their “stuff” useable.

That’s something we all should consider.  Metadata.

Of course, there are lots of off-the-shelf resources for the professional librarian and/or archivist when it comes to cataloging and describing things. There are theories, graduate courses, software, and even whole companies that produce gee-gaws and resources for professionals in the information and records management professions.

For the family historian who takes on the multiple roles of archivist - librarian – curator – records manager – preservationist simultaneously, there’s not a lot out there.  That’s why we tend to build our own systems, based largely on the kinds of “stuff” we have in our collections.

I use a relatively simple system, designed to capture the essential information and work with a simple spreadsheet program (for ease of sorting and categorizing “like” things) and also with a word processing program (for ease of cataloging and for printing descriptive sheets for “The Inventory Book”, more about which much later.)

It’s both labor-intensive and time-consuming, but, in the end, I think it’s worth it.  The goal here is to create “metadata”, which is, as I said above, simply data about data, or information about information.  

In other words, I want my heirs (or future researchers) to know what the stuff is, where it came from and why it’s important. 

So, for today, here are a few words about how my own system works, followed by an example:

First off, the system is based upon being able to describe/capture up to 10 key data elements for each “thing.”

One of those data elements is a unique inventory control number that is assigned on the day the item is processed. I use an eight-digit date-based code, with the first two digits being the current year, the next two, the current month, the third two, the day the cataloguing’s being done and the last two, the order in which the “thing” was catalogued on that day. 

Next, that unique item number also gets added to the item itself in a non-harmful and unobtrusive way.  For example, it’s written lightly in soft pencil on the back of a snapshot or document.  Items stored in folders or envelopes get their numbers on the folder or envelope.  Artifacts more often than not get tagged in some way.

Then, using my word-processing program, I write up the short description, noting the content and condition, then write about the significance, origin and current storage location, etc.  You'll see the template for all that after the photo below.  Finally, since I’m working in word processing mode, I add a scan or photo of the item to top of the description page.   

 In the end, I have a single page for each item that looks something like this:

1.            ITEM:   Photograph, black and white, showing Catherine Scott, sister of Peter M. Scott, in large feathered hat.
2.            DESCRIPTION (size, color, etc.):  about 4” X 6”, trimmed, with small center crease
3.            CONTENT (if image, identify):  Catherine M. Scott (10 Feb 1895 – 24 Dec 1925) was the daughter of Albert Scott and Catherine Cramer.  Born in Bath, NY, she died in Buffalo, NY at Roswell Park Hospital where she was being treated for cancer.
4.            CONDITION: Good
5.            CREATOR: (by whom, when and where created?) Studio photograph, unknown photographer, probably Albany NY, circa 1920.
6.            SIGNIFICANCE: (Significance of item, including intended purpose and historical significance) family photo
7.            PROVENANCE:  From the collection Peter M. Scott, then to MJW3 in 1976.
8.            ORIGINAL ITEM:  (if digital image or photocopy, does original still exist?)  Yes
9.            LOCATION: (where is the original stored?)  Box 2, folder 10
10.         NUMBER: 11070603

Once the description is written, I can “cut and paste” the data elements text into my spreadsheet program, where I can easily sort, search and print as necessary.

Note that the data elements (in BOLD above) always stay the same; it's the content that changes from item to item.  That way (by using a template), you're forced to actually think about what the item is in some meaningful, consistent way. By the way, that "actually thinking" part is a key step.

Here’s a screenshot, showing what that looks like in an Excel spreadsheet:

(HINT: if you click on the image, it gets bigger)

As a "curatorial plus records management" system, it’s not particularly high-tech, but it works for me.

There’s more, of course, but that will have to wait for another day.  

It's Mrs. W's birthday, and almost time for our annual night out on the town, in search of the perfect hot-fudge sundae.


  1. Thank you for your very helpful and informative comments on cataloguing data. I am about to start to scan and catalogue a large number of family photos going back to around 1880. I was wondering though re the numbering system; would you suggest using the same number for a hard copy eg photo as for it's scanned image, or produce 2 individual numbers? Have been mulling this over as we want to produce scanned copies of the originals as back up. I also have a lot of scans from other family members photos. Thanks for your help.

  2. What works for me is using the same number, but the adding a letter modifier at the end, like - in the example above - using "11070603" for the actual photo and "11070603-S" for the scan. That way, when searching, it's obvious at a glance just what you're looking at.

  3. Thanks for the advice, that makes a lot of sense.