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Making the Most of Collections Queries

by Jennifer Toelle, Registrar, Smoky Hill Museum, Salina, Kansas on

One of the newer (and upward trending) tasks I’ve acquired is the use of collections through social media. Queries are ranging from weather, throwbacks of local events and reminiscent objects, as well as national and fun holidays such as National Pancake Day. What I have encountered in completing this task, is that sometimes these searches require a heightened level of creativity and thought than I have done in the past when preparing for a typical exhibit. Let’s be honest, regardless of what you might be searching for queries can often end in frustration.

I had a very therapeutic laugh after reading Ron Kley’s blog post “I Remember When Part – 8.” If you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend that you read it. It serves as a great reminder that collections information data can only produce what the end user directs it to do and “the thinking has to be done by the user!”

Courtesy of Smoky Hill Museum, Salina, Kansas

Courtesy of Smoky Hill Museum, Salina, Kansas

I’ve recently encountered similar scenarios when keying in my search parameters. I had my mind set on searching for anything related to jam jars that were not specifically Pot, Jam. I had already utilized Nomenclature by locating objects assigned with terms such as Pot, Jam; Jar, Preserving; and more generally speaking the term Jar listed under Containers. My hope was to find everything from merchandising objects, signs, photographs and other archival material related to jam.

My first query was largely unsuccessful, because I forgot to select “contains exact match” and left the setting on “contains text” of the word jam. As I scrolled through the list of results, I found a King James Bible, a container with Jamaica ginger, a pair of pink pajamas and not to mention the countless objects related to people with the first names of James and Benjamin. Luckily, I was able to find a pamphlet on “How to Make Jellies, Jams and Preserves at Home.”

Courtesy of Smoky Hill Museum, Salina, Kansas

Courtesy of Smoky Hill Museum, Salina, Kansas

I followed up this query with the word preserve, but this time I was going to remember to select “contains exact match” so that I would get a better result. Though my results yielded objects such as a patches and banners containing images of life preservers as well as the actual life saving preservers. I found a merchandise receipt that noted on the side “Please preserve this Bill, as a none other will be made.” I also came across a record where the description noted the condition of a book was “well preserved.”

Often times, the reality sets in that sometimes despite our best efforts, the information we are seeking may simply not be there. Either the object is not in the collection, or — if the object is in the museum’s collection, depending on how it was cataloged the record may be lacking the descriptor keyword(s) or the subjects that have not been tagged. It is important to remember that each individual cataloger thinks differently. For instance, the descriptive word floral might be used rather than flowers or vice versa when referring to a design on a plate.

So, here are a few tips that I use to save time and lessen frustration when preparing for my queries:
Make a List. Ask yourself what is it you are specifically trying to find. Take a few minutes to brainstorm everything associated with the object’s subject. Remember to think outside the box, because not every cataloger thinks the same way. If there is another staff member or intern in your office, ask them to make a list. Compare lists, chances are the lists may have overlapping similarities, but will be differ. Combined the lists may make query searches more productive.
Start with Nomenclature. Utilize tools such as controlled vocabularies to find the object terms by searching by term, class, sub-class, etc. These tools can help narrow down specific objects that are grouped by classifications and function. For instance, you may be looking for something to share on social media to align with the National Nutrition Month. You may start by looking at the objects in the collection classified under Food Processing & Preparation T & E.
Selecting Search Parameters. Remember the computer program will do what it is you ask it to do. Setting the search parameters is vital to the outcome of the search. Identify the fields and areas such as subjects that need to be searched by also remembering that searching singular or multiple fields will either narrow or widen search results. For instance, you may want to specifically search the description and inscription fields for words like “natural,” “health,” or “food.”

If you have additional ideas on how to make the best use of searching for information in your collection, please share them. Connecting with colleagues through AASLH and other associations is a great way to share resources and learn new ideas!

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