What does a haberdasher really do? Creating a controlled vocabulary for LCPO

One of the more interesting obstacles the team has faced so far in the process of transitioning to Omeka is settling on a controlled vocabulary for occupations. Early on, we decided to establish such a list as a separate field from occupations, which would allow us to narrow the range of terms describing poets’ jobs and thus make tagging and searching simpler. For example, all poets who did any kind of weaving would be called, simply, “weavers,” rather than defining them more specifically (e.g. handloom weaver, powerloom weaver).

But ultimately, creating such a list was an unfeasible task. Even eliminating more specific types of jobs would leave us with a very large list. And dropping such nuances risks ignoring significant historical and social details. Weaving on a handloom isn’t quite the same as weaving on a powerloom. A powerloom is a machine; a poet who operated one would have been active in the late eighteenth century at the earliest. Powerloom weavers likely worked in factories, and for this reason I would guess that there might be more women and children who were powerloom weavers than handloom weavers.

There is also a large group of Paisley weaver-poets (one of our collections on Laboring-Class Poets Online)—a distinct group from those who worked in factories in the nineteenth century!

In short, it is reductive and unhelpful to collapse all of this information into the single occupation “weaver.”

When it came to our controlled vocabulary, we also had to think about the end-user: What kind of searches might she conduct? How can we organize information about poets’ occupations in the most useful and sensible way in order to make searches simpler and more intuitive?

Rather than attempting to make a potentially reductive list of occupations, we decided instead to create a controlled vocabulary of “industries,” a broader categorization that groups together related occupations. And so all weavers fit into the “weaving” industry, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, and silversmiths are collected in “trades,” and so on. There are currently 22 industry categories, and each industry has a corresponding tag. This allows a user to search for all poets whose occupation fits within that particular group.

Now, if somebody is interested in all our powerloom-weaver poets, she can search “handloom weaver” in the occupation field. But she can also glance at the weaving industry tag and see the broader network of all those involved with that occupation. While it would be reductive to classify all weavers in the same way, having the option of searching for specific types of weavers as well as the larger category presents greater search opportunities for future users of the site.

The other day we came across a poet who worked as a milliner—is that classified under “shopkeeping” or “trade”? Does a milliner make hats or sell them (or both)? The OED reveals that the word first meant a seller of fancy accessories and articles of clothing, typically women’s, but that it came also to refer to a designer, maker, or seller of women’s hats. (Fun fact: The word Milliner, with the initial capital, originally referred to a native or inhabitant of Milan.) The same question applies to a haberdasher—is that a dealer or a maker of hats? And how does haberdashery differ from millinery?

As it turns out, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference. Haberdasher can refer to a dealer in a range of clothing articles, including caps and hats, or a dealer in or maker of caps and hats. It appears that millinery more specifically deals with articles of women’s apparel, but, then again, none of us is sufficiently well-versed in the history of those occupations to say with certainty.

This example is illustrative of the difficulties of creating a controlled vocabulary of occupations that exist outside of our historical context.  Using “industries” instead, while not perfect, results in a smoother and more practical tagging system and, we think, a more useful experience overall for the end-user.

Now, off to research the differences between cobblers and cordwainers!