Thursday, 12 May 2011

What’s valuable?

In museum collections it can be taxing to assess the significance and value of objects. When it comes to information it seems to get even harder. When documenting information on an object or person how do you decipher which bits of information are worthy and which are merely incidental?

Simple answer – I don't think you can! From compiling databases of past residents for our region I’ve discovered that you can’t actually value information very easily. It is sometimes the most trivial incidental facts that carry the most worth for people.

Initially I overlooked certain details I deemed weren’t worth the time it took to type them. On one occasion I wasn’t sure whether to include something or not. It was a 2nd prize for broad beans at an agricultural show. It was something I’d normally leave out but I entered it in the man’s entry supposing it added something a bit different. A few months later I was excited to be put in touch with the man’s daughter. We had amassed a lot of information on him and much of it was unknown to her – but it was the 2nd prize for broad beans that she was ecstatic about.

So that changed things for us. Any rules about what to include or leave out were thrown aside, and we moved more towards recording “anything and everything” on people. It’s resulted in a massive change to our information. A lot of the trivial bits of information add context and depth to the larger picture.

I recently looked through an old Road Board Ledger. It was mostly lists of figures but towards the back there were a few pages of payments made to locals who’d killed foxes, dingoes or eagles. It’s the perfect example of how a random little piece of information can add that something else. To the database entry of all of those listed on those pages I was able to add a line along the lines of:
“Paid a 10/- Vermin Bonus by the Carnamah District Road Board in February 1934 for helping to control vermin by killing a fox.”

This does so many things. It reveals a completely different fact about the person, an alternative way they made a bit of money, gives an insight into one of the ways in which vermin was being controlled, and that the Road Board tried to control vermin. One trivial line but lots of value.

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