How to catalogue complex (and occasionally baffling!) scientific records…

Is this feature post, New Professional Archivist Emma Anthony talks about cataloguing records with an unfamiliar subject.

After working as an archivist for 3 years, I’m rapidly getting used to cataloguing collections dealing with topics I haven’t the faintest idea about! Particularly scientific records – since graduating I have worked on hospital records, ultrasound records, railway records, and chemical records.

My most recent project at Edinburgh University Library Special Collections involves cataloguing the papers of psychologist and statistician, Professor Sir Godfrey Thomson, a pioneer in the understanding of human intelligence. I have also found myself working mathematician Walter Ledermann’s records. Considering I failed maths (twice, if you must know!) you would be forgiven for thinking I wasn’t quite the woman for the job!


Professor Sir Godfrey Thomson (1881-1955), the current subject of my cataloguing endevours!

Professor Sir Godfrey Thomson (1881-1955), the current subject of my cataloguing endevours!

But, you would be wrong. As archivists, we are not expected to be experts in the topics the collections in our care cover- on the contrary, sometimes being a layman can actually work in our favour. If our catalogues are to be democratic, not being experts allows us to create descriptions which can be understood by users from all backgrounds (OK, most users from most backgrounds!).

But this doesn’t simply mean we should dive in and get on with it. It may sound obvious, but along with preliminary secondary reading, we should also strive to establish relationships with creators, experts, users, and potential users. This is essential when working with scientific papers. Doing so can help you both appraise and catalogue.

Establishing a relationship with the creator is not always possible – the creators are, not to put too fine a point on it, often very dead! However, if they or their contemporaries are alive, make the effort to seek them out and talk to them. While it may not be possible for them to go through the whole collection, ask them about items that are particularly baffling and seem to belong nowhere, ask them about their methodology, and ask them about how their work was received at the time (brace yourself for the inevitable bias here!).

The people they worked with can also give you valuable contextual information (read: gossip!) about the professional and personal relationships in a particular field or department – something my colleague Clare Button who is currently working on the Towards Dolly project knows only too well! This may seem vapid, but it is in fact the stuff of human nature that will put flesh on the bones of scientific records (and also tells you vital information about who was working with who, and more salaciously who was venomously disagreeing with who!).


Testing blocks used for intelligence testing, circa mid 20th century

Testing blocks used for intelligence testing, circa mid 20th century

I was fortunate to work with John Fleming for a day while cataloguing parts of the British Medical Ultrasound Society at Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS archives. John is an engineer who created ultrasound equipment under the instructions and specifications of Ian Donald, who pioneered ultrasound techniques in Glasgow. Working with John was wonderful- he was able to give me contextual information regarding equipment plans and documentation, and to tell me about his working relationship with Donald. Despite having a real passion for his work, he was also remarkably non-biased. He did not expect us to keep all the material, for example. Furthermore, he was fascinating to talk to, and brought the collection to life for me.


The Northumberland Test, and the Moray House Aptitude test, designed by Thomson

The Northumberland Test, and the Moray House Aptitude test, designed by Thomson

In my current project, I have had the unusual and happy situation of working with a researcher, Caroline Brett, who is already familiar with Thomson’s work. Caroline is working alongside Professor Ian Deary at the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology using Thomson’s data sets in unique scientific studies examining cognitive ageing. Both Ian and Caroline come from scientific backgrounds, but they have also undertaken historical research into Thomson’s life and work.

Working with Ian and Caroline has allowed me to capture vital contextual information in the catalogue, and to grasp a good layman’s understanding of Thomson’s complex work. It has also enabled me to get an idea of what researchers need from a catalogue – a question that despite the best of our intentions, archivists don’t always ask.

If you are faced with the mammoth task of appraising scientific data, establishing whether a potential audience exists – whether that be an historical audience looking to explore the context and implications of the research, or a scientific audience who may re-exploit the data – is essential. But again, you must be aware that bias is a factor – ultimately the decision lies with you, but in building relationships and creating awareness of data sets in the archives possession, you will be able to make a far more informed decision.

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