During June 2013 I participated in an internship within the Research Computing service within IT Services, working on the Trajan’s Column project on behalf of the School of Classics. Essentially, my work involved cataloguing academic data and images related to the column into a searchable online database. A more in-depth explanation of the project, the column and the implementation process is available in another blog post. In contrast, this blog post offers a more personal reflection on my role within the project, the challenges that I encountered and other projects that are on-going within the remit of the Research Computing team.
Trajan’s Column: The Challenges
One of the initial hurdles to overcome at the project’s outset was entering and becoming familiar with two worlds which I was previously unfamiliar: that of Classics and that of digital cataloguing. Whilst a high degree of academic knowledge of Roman history was not necessary in my role I nevertheless had to engage to a certain extent with the subject matter that I was cataloguing.
Sometimes I found that scene diagrams had been uploaded incorrectly so that they referred to a different scene altogether and sometimes the photos were labelled with the wrong scene or figure number. The occasions on which I was able to spot errors such as these helped the project achieve a higher degree of accuracy. Similarly, I had to learn how to operate the university’s image database. I already had some previous experience with using a different form of software but it was nevertheless necessary to get to grips with the image database’s format and layout. Fortunately, this was not a difficult task.
Once I had gravitated myself within these new worlds I was faced with the challenges involved in actually completing the work. These were compounded by the importance of the project, which had been selected by the School of Classics to be connected to a case study for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014. The REF initiative is an exercise that assesses the quality of research in higher education institutions and, amongst other things, has implications for the levels of funding that these institutions receive. The completed part of the Trajan’s Column project is also envisaged to be a pilot for potential future funding. Given the inherent value attached to the project the need for accuracy and efficiency in my work was key. Much of my role involved moving data from one digital location (for example, a word processing document) to another (the image database). The repetitiveness of this process meant that there was the possibility of errors entering into the data as it was transferred across. A close eye for detail was required to spot mistakes as and when they occurred and to guard against their inclusion in the finished website. Emma Lewsley, an intern working on a Biographical Register project with the Library, gave a great deal of assistance in this area in checking the work that I had uploaded to the image database. The final pressure was the pressure of time, given that my internship lasted only four weeks and that it was preferable for the project to be completed in that time.
The Biographical Register
A secondary responsibility of my role was to check the work done on a Biographical Register. The Biographical Register contains data referring to University of St Andrews alumni and the work on this project was undertaken by Emma Lewsley. I was responsible for checking Emma’s work for any errors or inconsistencies and similarly she proofread my own work. The Register was compiled by Robert N. Smart and in its revised format features a variety of sections. There is a name section, a qualifications section (although members of staff are also included), a birth/baptism section, a careers section, a death section and references section. Each section is not necessarily present in every entry and some entries contain no data except the name! An editorial decision was made to break the data up into the various sections and this mark-up was achieved by a programme. Nevertheless, human input was required to confirm that the entries had been marked up correctly. In addition, data such as names, dates and occupations were tagged within each section in order to make the database searchable.
The challenges of the Trajan’s Column project were in many ways applicable to my work on the Biographical Register as well. There was a need for accuracy and a close eye for detail in order to spot mistakes in the database. Balancing my time between my own project and the Biographical Register was also important. Since the first part of the Register contains the records of 11,744 people the magnitude of the task (which was not ultimately completed) facing Emma and myself was significant!
Other Projects Within IT Services
In the course of my internship I gained a certain degree of insight into the workings of IT Services within the University. I worked closely with Swithun Crowe, the Applications Developer in the Research Computing team. He served as a useful source of council on the more technical aspects of the project but also introduced me to some of the previous and contemporary projects which he has worked on. The ‘Records of the Scottish Parliament to 1707’ project is a complex one which enables users to search the manuscripts of the Scottish parliament in both the original languages (such as Latin) and in English. This project stretched over more than a decade after its genesis with the School of History in 1996 and involved an extensive period of transcription of the original documents into a digital format. Swithun was heavily involved in creating the online database for the website. Other projects included a corpus of Scottish medieval parish churches and a website devoted to Arabic semantics. It was apparent that the work undertaken by the Research Computing team is diverse and intriguing.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be involved professionally with digital cataloguing and the challenges that it contains. It was particularly satisfying to be able to witness the Trajan’s Column project progress from partially completed concept to the finished website as it currently appears.