Beacon Street Diary blog
From Boylston, Massachusetts, to Ebenezer Morse: How Quartex and metadata clarify description and improve discoverability.
by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist
Much has been said of how Quartex will change, and make better, the ways in which we present our digital resources to our users. And most of that, at least from me, has been related to the flexibility Quartex offers in terms of the creation, display, and link-ability of metadata. But it is one thing to talk about how this will work in theory. It is another to show how this works with real world examples. Fortunately, I have been busy migrating digital resources into Quartex (already 7 collections, encompassing 58 individual resources and 2,590 image files have been successfully migrated) and already I have found a New England’s Hidden Histories (NEHH) collection which demonstrates just how useful Quartex’s metadata controls will be to us from both descriptive and user-experience perspectives.
Within NEHH there is a collection titled “Boylston, Mass. First Church”. While not an inaccurate title, technically, it is deceptive in its simplicity and hides quite a bit about what the record within it is about. To explain why this statement is true requires going into a bit of history with how NEHH is currently organized. To make browsing somewhat easier, NEHH collections are divided into three overarching series (an archival term basically meaning a group of related “stuff”): Church records, Personal papers, and Conference/Association records. Seems simple enough, but not all records fall easily into these three series. For example, this “Boylston, Mass. First Church” collection should technically be a part of the Personal papers series, rather than the Church records series it was placed into.
See, the single record book in this collection was created by a single individual, Ebenezer Morse, who was the pastor of the First Church in Boylston. So why was the collection placed in the Church records series if the only item in it was created by a single person? Well, the records maintained by Morse are technically church records and include everything from meeting minutes to vital records. So, at the time that this collection was intellectually “created” (scare quotes since creation here is an abstract archival concept), probably in 2017, it was decided that classifying this collection as church records would likely help people discover the collection better than if they were classified as personal papers. In other words, it was a decision intended to help discoverability, but at the cost of precision in description.
The title, “Boylston, Mass. First Church” is not entirely accurate even if we ignore the issue of Ebenezer Moses’s authorship. That is because the First Church in Boylston was, at the beginning of the record book, the Second Parish Church in Shrewsbury. As with many of the early churches in Massachusetts, the Second Parish Church in Shrewsbury changed its name when the Second Parish itself was incorporated as the town of Boylston, separating itself from Shrewsbury. By both internal policies, as well as external best archival practices, we name collections based on the latest legal name of a church found within the records. And while the name Second Parish Church in Shrewsbury is found in a sub-title beneath the collection title on the series page, it does not really help describe what exactly the collection contains or the complex history that led to these two names describing the same church.
Quartex, as I have said before, solves many of the issues brought up by this single collection. For one, Quartex allows us to describe individual items, rather than collections. There is no need to create these artificial series, or even collection titles, because every bit of description appears at the individual item level. Where once we had a collection titled “Boylston, Mass. First Church” which contained a single item, titled “Account book, 1718-1859”, we now have an item in Quartex titled “Account book of Ebenezer Morse, 1718-1859”. This is already a much more descriptive, and accurate, title that clearly indicates who the creator of the item is, as well as what the item itself is. It is also significantly closer to the title provided to the physical item by its owner the New England Historic Genealogical Society. But things gets even better!
Even from the browse page, and certainly within the record itself, we are presented with a wealth of information. Including, in the Names field, the controlled vocabulary terms, First Congregational Church (Boylston, Mass.) and Second Parish Church (Shrewsbury, Mass.). Instead of one term taking precedent due to its later user, both terms are equally presented side-by-side. Other metadata also becomes front and center, such as a list of subject terms which helps the user to understand what types of records might be present in the volume. Better yet, any of these terms can be clicked to bring up a search result for all other items that include these terms. And since all these terms are attached to the item-level record, no matter how someone searches, whether for churches in Shrewsbury, or for works by Ebenezer Morse, or even just by searching for Marriage records, this item will always appear within the list of results.
In the past, we had to sometimes bend the rules governing description to make an already imperfect system of browsing work best for our users at the cost of precision in description. While these decisions were made in good faith and internally consistent with policies, depending on peoples searches or expectations, this method of organizing and titling collections could easily obfuscate records from those who needed them. Quartex, with its ability to create true and complex item-level descriptions, largely solves this problem, by making all the metadata, complex and confusing as it might be, front and center.