WINCHCOMBE RAILWAY MUSEUM TRUST
Data Entry Project
CAPTURING A CATALOGUE
This is an edited extract from an article by Michael Quinion which appeared in the October 2017 issue of the Vale of Berkeley Railway News. It is reproduced by kind courtesy of the Railway Trust.
Our partner organisation, the Winchcombe Railway Museum, contains one of the most significant collections of railway-related material in the British Isles. Nowhere else can you find such a comprehensive assembly of objects that illuminates both the history of the working lives of railway staff and the historical experiences of rail passengers.
Every aspect of working on a railway is represented, from signals to uniforms, from locomotive cab fittings and nameplates to porters’ barrows, from pay tins to fire buckets, from wagon labels to office inkwells. Passengers’ journeys are equally thoroughly illustrated: timetables and tickets, platform signs and seats, guards’ whistles and flags, pictures on compartment walls, restaurant crockery and cutlery, even lavatory fittings. Its archive of historical documentary materials is a researchers’ delight.
It would be a crime for it to be broken up, which might have been its fate had The Vale of Berkeley Railway not offered it a home.
When Howard Parker [Chairman of the Railway Trust] mentioned in the Spring issue that I’d taken on the job of cataloguing the collection, he suggested I might have to live to be 130 to finish the job. Thankfully, it’s nothing like that bad. I’m not actually cataloguing the 8000+ items in the collection — that has been comprehensively done by Tim Petchey of the Museum over the past half century. The project is to accurately convert roughly 2500 A4 sheets of handwritten descriptions into a searchable database, together with each record’s unique number and information such as how and when and from whom it was obtained.
For us to stand any hope of successfully bidding for public money to create a new home for the collection, we have to show we are managing and documenting it to national professional standards. At a bare minimum, we must be able to demonstrate that we know precisely what we’re caring for and where everything is. Whilst the objects have already been expertly catalogued on paper, that’s only part of the battle. We have to acquire and record a lot more detail.
To allow us to move the collection without losing or damaging anything (or anybody), every item will have to be inspected for hazards and checked whether it’s in a suitable condition to travel, with the results documented. Beyond that, we have to plan for transport capacity and storage and display space, which means we also have to record the dimensions and weight of every item. It’s impossible to do all this with the paper catalogue, which is in a single copy with no room for additions.
Also, few of the exhibits are currently labelled, another big job that has to be done before the move — necessitating a substantial volunteer project of its own, by the bye — so we can at once link each object to its record. That step has its own issues: think of the effort involved in picking up a random unlabelled object and finding its record in 2500 sheets of paper. Having a database makes it much simpler to search.
All these reasons are why I’ve argued from the beginning that we couldn’t delay starting work on digitising the catalogue. It’s why I took the job on as a labour of love, and agreed to pay for it myself because no funds are available from the Railway or the Museum.
Once I had designed the database structure, set up a website, built the input forms and wrote the documentation, I had to find volunteers to undertake the transcription. Alas, no reader of this magazine followed up Howard’s invitation to come forward. So I turned to the Thornbury Volunteer Centre, whose Development Coordinator, Kim Webb, assured me she would have no trouble finding me people. She was right. In the first month 14 people showed interest and six of them became volunteers.
Since that article was written, more volunteers have come forward and we have been making excellent progress. We are now well over halfway through the job and expect to finish early in 2018. We still need more volunteers, though!