Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Gleaning from an archaic database

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, research, collections, photographs, indexes

For the past couple of weeks I have set aside the inventory I was doing so I could gather data from the museum's original "database", the ledger books that were used in the 1970's and 1980's. They are the original records for the first 160,000 lots that were added to the collection, or Accessioned, to use a curator's term. As it happens, the other records of Accessions are incomplete: Using them we had been able to assign an Accession Code to less than a quarter of the computerized data records I've been working with. So we decided to "slay the dragon". I am going through these books:

I took this picture just after putting away the two books I was using today (I just noticed that I shelved one of them upside-down). Each book seen here contains about 400 pages. With 40 lines per page, and a full ledger being a two-page spread (equal to one 2-sided sheet), each book can hold about 16,000 records. Six smaller books used the first year or two have about 250 pages and hold up to 10,000 records each.

The books are heavy so if I'm rounding up more then two I bring a rolling cart. The rolling cart, waist-high, is just right for me to use at a standing desk. While doing this data gathering I have been putting my keyboard and mouse on a box atop my desk so I can stand and work. It is a refreshing change.

This is a portion of the right page of a ledger spread. The leftmost column of the spread, located way off the image, holds the catalog numbers for the specimen lots. I am gathering the donor records, and assigning Accession ID's to each group of lots from a donor.

A page like this is slow going. The names of seven donors are visible. I am assuming that the fourth line, referring to G. M. MacCoy, goes with the lines below for the "G. M. MacCoy Collection". I also recognize the names of John E. du Pont, the founder of the museum, and Dan Steger, who donated all his shells at once. Mr. du Pont tended to bring in shells in ones and twos and sometimes hundreds throughout the year. We decided to gather all donations by any particular entity (person, group or organization like another museum), for a particular year, into one Accession. Thus these two items can be gathered with Accession records that I'd already started. But the other names will need new Accession records created for them. The goal is that every lot is associated with an Accession ID.

A page like this, or better yet, several such pages in a row, makes the work go much faster. I can record the first and last catalog number for this set of records, and go to the next Accession. One thing that makes the data gathering tricky is that the people filling out the books tended to do a few pages of a large donation, then one or a few single lot donations, and then return to the big one they were doing. We may use pre-assignment of catalog numbers in the future, but these past records are as they are.

I suppose most people would be very bored doing this kind of work, but I have an odd kind of mind. I am interested in learning about the people whose collections built the museum's collection, and I also pay attention to the collector names. The more familiar we are with all these people the easier other tasks will be, including the inventory work I hope to return to in another week or so.

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