Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Five thousand un-findable objects (a librarian's whinge)

The BBC/British Museum series 'A History of the World in 100 Objects' (AHOW) came to an end recently. A significant part of the project was the public submission to the series website of objects with personal historical significance. Some of the these objects were showcased in short 'audience stories' features on the radio in the final weeks of the series. One of these features described a family story very similar to my own family story - a story that I've rarely, if ever, before heard mentioned in the media. It was surprisingly affecting to hear this tale one morning in the middle of the Today Programme, and I was moved to go an investigate the AHOW website to find out more about the object at the centre of the story.

There are lots of excellent features on the website - it was very easy to locate the page for the object in question as it was one of the week's featured items, and alongside a picture and some text was the recording that I'd heard on the radio. Website users can also log in and leave comments on each object, and some seem to be doing so.
Picture of the Flash-powered spiralling objects timeline

So far, so good. I found the object, and found out a bit about it. Then I got adventurous and thought I might look for other objects with similar stories. The 'Explore' section of the website comes in two flavours: a flash-powered spiralling timeline version, and a list version. I'll be linking to the basic list version because I'm not sure if everyone will be able to view the flash, and the lists are easier to work with anyway.

There are several things I don't like about these 'Explore' pages, and I like to think that this reaction is born from annoyance that a good website isn't more useful, and not just some boring librarianly desire for catalogues to be complex. My complaints are as follows:
These restrictions make it difficult to retrieve an object that you know is there, and they also make it very difficult to search for objects of a specific type (to see if there are any more from country x, for example). If you're interested in a single country, town, or region, you have to wade through tens or hundreds of results to find what you're looking for. There seem to be over 5,000 objects on the site (100+ pages in this list, each with 50 results on them), and that's quite a lot of wading.  This makes me sad. There's a treasure trove in there, but I just can't work out how anyone could investigate it well.


  1. Yes it does look like they haven't made the most of it, which is a shame.

    However I must admit that I have found the whole History of the World in 100 objects series to be absolutely brilliant overall.

    I'm lucky too in that working right next to the British Museum I can download the radio show onto my iPhone (i suppose i'm lucky to have one of these too) and then visit the object in my lunchbreak.

    I then have a blissful 15 mins where I contemplate the object while listening to Neil MacGregor describe it. Finally I take a picture of the object so that later that evening I can bore my girlfriend about it.

    Anyway nice blog post - keep 'em coming!

    Richard Hawkins

  2. Richard,

    I'm so jealous - nipping out to the British Museum, indeed. I guess it's at least partly because the series itself was so good that I feel let down by the website.