Above: An example of a rollover for a single object in an installation photograph. Read below to see what I mean.
Not that anyone would suspect it, but the prolonged silence at this space hasn't been for lack of something to say. Okay, maybe a lack of something to say, but not a lack of activity. Much of my activity has been concentrated on local project planning -- offsite storage, WiFi, and a few stray efforts at improving reference tools.
One of the latter projects was an idea I came up with to use flickr! to assist in object-based reference questions. One of the most frequent questions asked at MPOW is: "Can you help me to find out more about an object in your galleries?" There are nearly 1,200 objects on display in our galleries. Keeping track of them in your head is impossible. In the best of all worlds our patrons would arrive with most of the information we needed to identify the object. Sadly and predictably, this is seldom the case. Absent that there has never been a practical way for us to match these often vague object references (“It’s in the case on the right as you come in, about halfway down, on a stand”) with the specific citation in the library's reference resources. Right now our only recourse is to send them back down to the galleries to copy down the pertinent information – an option I’ve never particularly liked: I worry that they’ll simply never come back again.
What if we had a way to share installation photos with our patrons to identify object they want to know about? And what if the photo had rudimentary information about the objects in the photo, enough to launch a fuller research effort?
While walking through the galleries one afternoon it struck me that I could tailor some of the existing features of flickr! to suit my needs. By using the ‘Add Note’ feature over an installation photo, I could create rollovers for each element in an installation photo, and presto!
I proposed a pilot project to the head of my department, who suggested that I start with objects I knew cropped up often with our walk-in patrons. She also informed me that our department’s segment of the museum-wide collection management database (TMS) already includes many installation shots, stored on the department’s shared drive, that are associated with specific objects.
For my initial effort I picked a wall of Benin brass plaques. I located the relevant installation photo in TMS, downloaded it to my PC and uploaded it to flickr! I created four sample rollover notes with only each object’s unique accession number and the object title. I created a mock flickr! set for it and future photos from the specific gallery in which it resides.
I tagged the photo with some boilerplate terms common to all the objects in the installation photo. I have my colleague Dan to thank for suggesting that I could tag the accession numbers as well as put them in the notes. As I subsequently discovered, tagging in flickr! is an imprecise art. Unlike our collection management system, there's no truncation, for one thing, making a search across accession numbers impossible.
I intend to use the 'Comments' section as a feedback mechanism to solicit suggestions and answer questions from the (for now) closed community with access to the project in vitro.
As is so often the case with projects employing museum photography, I’m waiting for the powers that be to determine if this use of the images complies with museum policies. I don’t know which of several real or imagined aspects of their use that might be giving our administration pause. Fortunately flickr!’s image options allow us to limit access as narrowly as library staff only if called upon. Naturally I’d prefer the resource was available to a much larger audience.
The project is still in development at this writing, pending approval from the administration and a lot more tinkering with the specific features of the tool. I had considered keeping this quick-and-easy DIY application of flickr! to myself until I could showcase a more finished project. But I'd rather put this out there now and see if it might have an application with other museum collections.