Detecting and Characterising Transmission from Legacy Collection Catalogues

Dominique Daniel's picture

Article of interest:

Baker J., Salway A. & Roman C. (2022). Detecting and Characterising Transmission from Legacy Collection Catalogues. Digital Humanities Quarterly 16(2) .

Catalogue records underpin the audit, curatorial, and public access functions of collecting institutions. And they are relied upon by many humanities researchers, and increasingly those looking to analyse collection holdings at scale. However, far from being a neutral record of collection holdings, catalogues are the products of cataloguing labour, often spanning many decades, and so are subject to various biases and inequities. Understanding how collection catalogues are shaped by their histories is then crucial for addressing many of the contemporary challenges faced by cataloguing professionals and for enhancing their use in humanities research, as well as for opening up new directions for historical research. This paper contributes a computationally-based approach for generating new and important knowledge about catalogues, in particular for investigating how a catalogue is shaped by an earlier one. We contend that understanding at scale the transmission of records and style from one catalogue to another requires the use of computational techniques to detect and analyse the various ways in which transmission manifests across a catalogue.

Our case study concerns the transmission of Mary Dorothy George’s voice through time, across space, and between mediums, from the 1930s to the late-twentieth century and beyond, from the British Museum in London to the Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut, from printed volumes to networked digital data. It aims to show how transmission happens, how it can be found, and how it can be characterised. Detecting and characterising transmission is important because cataloguers like George are the interlocuters between us and the pasts they described, legacy voices that refuse to stay in their historical place, and whose raced, sexed, and classed influence on the future should not go unchecked.

Our contributions are relevant both for historical research into catalogues and cataloguing, knowledge organisation and infrastructure, and cultural organisations, and for cataloguing practitioners seeking to rationalise/review their catalogues to improve user experience, address systemic inequalities in object representation, and develop best practice for future work. Furthermore, in broad terms, by contributing to the generation of new knowledge about the biases/inequities of catalogues our work will enable new and better research into the collections that catalogues describe.