Libraries Week takes place between 7th – 12th October 2019. This year’s campaign is focused on celebrating the role of libraries in the digital world. Over the course of the week we’ll be introducing you to different teams within the Library and explore how they use technology to support our community.
Today’s post comes from our Archives team, who have been involved in a large-scale digitisation project – so this year’s Libraries Week theme offered a perfect opportunity to provide an update! Click here for previous posts from our Archives.
Opening Up the Body: Digitising, cataloguing and visualising post mortem case books
Opening Up the Body is a project to conserve the Post Mortem Examinations and Case Books of St George’s Hospital, 1841-1946, and to catalogue and digitise those dating from 1841-1917 – that’s about 27,132 cases across 76 volumes. The catalogue data and digitised images will be made available on the St George’s, University of London website.
The volumes contain manuscript case notes and detailed reports of the patients’ medical history, including details of treatments and medicines administered to patients. They also contain comprehensive reports of the pathological findings made during the detailed examination of the body after death. These rich and detailed post mortem records are a unique resource, which will contribute to our understanding of medical education, death practices, and the history of London’s hospitals and infectious diseases, amongst other things. Moreover, the volumes feature notable physicians and surgeons, including Henry Gray, who compiled his influential ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ whilst performing post mortems at St George’s.
Meet the team
Two Project Archivists have now started to catalogue the post mortem volumes and the project team consists of the University Archivist, Carly Manson, and two Project Archivists, Juulia Ahvensalmi and Natasha Shillingford.
How do we use technology to support our users?
AtoM (Access to Memory)
AtoM (Access to Memory) is a web-based, open source, standards-based application for archival description and access. AtoM was originally built with support from the International Council on Archives to encourage broader adoption of international standards for archival description across institutions. AtoM is a dynamic open source application with a broad user base who work together to continually improve and enhance the software to the benefit of the whole community.
Our catalogue is made available via the St George’s Archives & Special Collections website: https://archives.sgul.ac.uk/. AtoM allows users to type keywords into the search box located at the top of the banner, or they can explore the collections by browsing via collection, people and organisations, archival institutions, functions, subjects, places or digital objects. The catalogue homepage also displays the most popular items that have been searched for that week, which provides a glimpse into the interests of our researchers.
Each individual post mortem is being catalogued according to international standards and a summary of each will be produced, providing searchable keyword access. The information being captured in the catalogue includes the name of the patient, occupation, gender, date of admission, date of death, the physicians and surgeons who attended the case, a transcription of the diseases affecting the patient, and notes from the medical and post mortem examinations.
The catalogue data from the Opening Up the Body project will be imported from spreadsheets into AtoM. The digitised images will be linked to the individual catalogue entry, allowing researchers to access the collection remotely and therefore increase access to the collection and also preserve the physical volumes.
Subject access points are being identified using the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) database (https://meshb.nlm.nih.gov/search), which will allow researchers to search and identify cases by disease and anatomy group. For example, at the click of a button a researcher will be able to identify post mortems that were related to diseases of the respiratory system, or patients that were admitted to the hospital following an injury.
Name access points are also being created for every surgeon and physician of St George’s Hospital who treated the patients or undertook the post mortem examinations, and will be linked to their authority record in the catalogue. The authority record will list information such as dates of existence and a biographical history of the key figures in the history of St George’s.
Visualising the post-mortems
As we catalogue the material, we are collecting a large amount of data. In order to be able to get the most out of this incredibly rich source, we’ve modified our cataloguing templates to structure the data so that we can both export it into AtoM in the required and easily readable format, and to make it easier to properly explore that data and gain new insights into the material.
This also requires standardising the data, especially when it comes to the names of diseases. These can change over time: tuberculosis, for instance, may be called tuberculosis or phthisis, and we want to make sure we can track these conditions, regardless of what they’re called (this of course is not always that simple, but that may be a subject for another blog post!).
There are plenty of free, open-source tools available, many developed specifically for digital humanities. Visualisation tools are great for immediate visual effect, for telling stories and for drawing attention to details that might otherwise be missed, or might be worth more in-depth exploration – why does the word ‘India’ appear so frequently in the word cloud above, for instance? Why did so many people die of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases? Visualisations are nothing new, of course – John Snow (who at one time worked at St George’s) managed to figure out the cause of the 1854 cholera outbreak by mapping the cases.
As we continue cataloguing and collecting more data, we can begin to explore changes over time and ask more questions – did people live longer? How do their occupations change? How do medical advances affect the kind of diseases featured in the post mortems? How do the post mortems themselves change? Presenting the material like this not only allows our readers insights into the contents of the post mortem records, but it also gives us a chance to reflect on the details of our work, and on the ways in which we are dealing with the data as we go along. More importantly, though, we can use these visualisations to bring the material to life – so to say!
We are only just starting, so look out for more exciting visualisations as we delve deeper into the post mortems! And feel free to get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org – we’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have about the project and accessing the material.
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