GLAM cataloguing, object description, interpretation practices: a Zotero Library …yet another (really useful) resource list…

I put together a Zotero Library (which is basically a medium-sized list) as part of the TaNC funded Provisional Semantics project (2020-22). The intention was to collate the guidance and research available to support galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAM), and the wider UK heritage sector to engage critically in professional practices that involve recording, writing, and generating knowledge about art and artefacts. The specific focus here, as in the project itelf, is on addressing structural racism and the still prevalent hegemony of traditional, western, colonial forms of knowledge production.

It’s up and live here: Provisional Semantics – GLAM cataloguing resources and guidance and also accessible via the Tate web page for the Provisional Semantics project (2020-22) should you prefer a little context.

The organisation of the folders (what Zotero calls ‘collections’ and ‘sub collections’) needs a bit of explaining as the 5 numbered folders it refer to the (still flawed) framing I have been working on to draw together the myriad issues involved in attempting to catalogue equitably and ethically. (An early version in previous post here: Documentation and Decolonisation and more worked up version here in the final report of the project: Provisional Semantics Final Report, pp.42-43)

To save you a click it goes like this :

The framework identifies five key areas and suggests issues to consider before embarking on cataloguing, object description or interpretation. The references in the Zotero folders are organised to refelect these reccomendations

  1. The first area is language: the words we use and how we write. Consideration of the language should address more than offensive words. It also includes tone, intent, authority and accessibility. Additionally, decisions need to be made around how racist and pejorative terms are dealt with when describing or interpreting source material without denying the historical or even contemporary use. Simply changing words or erasing the problematic ones is not the solution and measure such as content warnings are potentially more useful than deleting and erasure. Language also needs to be considered in terms of accessibility and retrievability. Recording the original, traditional or colloquial name of an artefact in the language of origin can help avoid or expose mistranslation or misinterpretation and works to counter the false equivalency that recentres western or colonial understandings of another culture.
  2. The second area is the consideration of subject and content; what, and who we choose to write about, what topics are privileged in terms of publication, expertise and resources and used as representative of the collection. Attempting to surface art and artefacts from racialised and minoritised groups through research and cataloguing should be prioritised within core collections management work.
  3. The third area is knowledge creation and production; who is involved in description and interpretation work, who is listened to and whose knowledge is valued and recorded. Reflection on ethical and equitable future access, use and ownership of knowledge around collections, art and artefacts should involve scrutiny of the uneven power dynamics between GLAM holding institutions and individuals and communities.
  4. The fourth area is critically examining cataloguing practice and systems. These are not objective or neutral, and we need to interrogate the tools that we use (be they databases or card indexes). How we organise and structure data, what people, objects, groups and ideas we chose to privilege in analogue and digital systems, data structures and online publications directly affects the cultural and historical record.
  5. Lastly it is important that those generating new interpretation, cataloguing and descriptive texts understand the context and history of the information they use. Before and during cataloguing and/or interpretation, we should consider institutional histories and infrastructure, social and political agendas, hierarchies of value, worth and deficit thinking, and personal position and recognise that these shape the material we produce.

I have also attempted to organise the material into Library, Archive and Museums & Galleries, with a folder called GLAM Silos, and while there are some really specific libary and archive resources, the practice guidance is usually applicable across all sectors.

There is also a folder called Projects and case studies – which contains, erm, projects and case studies, but it’s far from complete, so I welcome any suggestions that focus specifically on cataloguing, description and interpretation work within UK collections.

The folder called Resources is basically a list of lists of lists and may well replicate the content of this list too.

And now for the caveats…

The main span of the material included is from 2005 to 2022, starting with Revisiting Collections and ending with Provisional Semantics. There is work before, and then a gap and work now. It is not designed to address broader issues which are often lumped together under terms such as inclusion, diversity or community. While all those elements play a part, the specific focus is on how we write and organise information about things.

Also, there is a huge amount of work that has been done by and with indigenous communities and heritage organisations across the world, only a tiny part of that thinking is recognised here. This is in part because while labour is being done in one area (in what might cringely be called ethnographic collections – meaning material culture from not-Europeans), the same work is needed across all collections be they described as social history, fine art, folk life, natural history, industrial, or whatever else.

The majority of resources are from the global North, and written by anglophone white people. There is little excuse for this other than the limitations of my own language skills, networks and reading, and the primary focus on UK applicable work. I will keep adding.

Lastly I am well aware how much important research is still published behind paywalls in academic journals and this is a particular issue for GLAM professionals who often do not have academic library access. I have given open(er) access links where possible, but I would encourage you to dig around, contact authors and beg for books (I don’t mean ask the authors, I mean argue for aquiring for the material that will support your work).

Also it’s not finished, and I am working on it still. And yes I need to write this up properly.

Please do add any suggestions or amendments in the comments.

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