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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

SELGEM: The Logical Structure

This is the second of a three-part-series on SELGEM, a pioneering computer system used to manage museum collections in the United States. Read the first post here.

A SELGEM (an acronym for: SELf GEnerating Master) computer record was what we all define as a typical record, all the information about: one object, one specimen, one work of art, one publication, or, one person, etc. It included all the related fields or data elements. The SELGEM logical record was composed of one or more physical records. A logical record was all the “physical records” with identical Serial Numbers.

Because SELGEM was a general purpose data management system it was used for a wide range of applications at the Smithsonian Institution. Computer applications (using SELGEM) in the 1970s included: museum objects from National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), National Museum of American History (NMAH), National Air and Space Museum (NASM), art museums, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Volcanoes of the World, bibliographic applications, systematic checklists, type-specimen catalogs, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery (NPG), Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture, and a list of threatened and endangered plants in the United States. Many of these pioneer applications continue today, having evolved into modern databases and web-based applications.

SELGEM master file, directory record
Ayensu, Edward S. and Robert A. DeFilipps. 1978.  Endangered and threatened plants of the United States.  xv, 403 pages.  Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. 
Typically a SELGEM logical record was composed of from about 5 to 50 physical records (individual lines); maybe an occasional application included as many as a hundred. The Category Numbers could be any number between “001” and “999”. Each Category Number represented a data element. The first Category Number for a logical record was not required to begin with “001” and application owners generally provided gaps when assigning Category Numbers to create a more flexible design. However a Master List of records displayed Category Numbers, and the associated data, in numerical sequence.

The first line of a category always began with Line Number “01”. If the amount of data exceeded 64 characters, then continuation lines were created, and numbered sequentially “02”, “03”, etc. The theoretical maximum amount of data for one data element (or Category) was 99 lines x 64 characters or a maximum of 6,336 characters.
Sample SELGEM record, page III
Creighton, Reginald A., Penelope Packard, and Holley Linn.  1971.  SELGEM Retrieval:  a general description.  Smithsonian Institution Procedures in Computer Sciences, 1(1):(6 pages) + 1-38.Dated July 1972.
The theoretical maximum amount of data for one logical record was: 999 Category Numbers x 6,336 characters, for a total of 6,329,664 (or 6.3 megabytes). No application reached this size, let alone an individual record. In addition, individual SELGEM computer programs also had memory limits; which also limited the maximum size of a record that could be processed. Remember, even mainframe computers had some limitations.

Some advantages of this design:
  • Easy to add new data elements to any SELGEM record by creating new catalog numbers (Either due to lack of planning or the development of data elements, such as DNA information.)
  • Empty, missing, or blank data elements were not stored in the SELGEM record
  • Flexibility to respond to changing and evolving user requirements
  • The data structure was under the control and responsibility of the end user and less restricted by the application, and
  • With limited technical support staff, a general purpose system supported more applications across the organization than if custom-design systems were developed for each application.
A sample page of a master list showing six logical records
Wilson, Don E., Beth Ann Sabo, and Gregory Blair.  1987.  Automated Data Processing Procedures at the U.S. National Museum of Natural History, pages 111-119.  In:  Genoways, Hugh H., Clyde Jones, and Olga L. Rossolimo (editors).  Mammal Collection Management.  Texas Tech University Press
All the stored data was character data; there was no ability to store binary data, special numerical data types, image data, memo fields, currency or “date formatted” information, as are typically supported in many current database programs. Most application owners in NMNH maintained a detailed data standards document external to SELGEM; defining the data definition, data format, controlled vocabulary lists, and rules for recording the data, etc.

David Bridge, Volunteer

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

SELGEM: The Data Structure

This is the first of a three-part-series on SELGEM, a pioneering computer system used to manage museum collections in the United States

The first publication about the Smithsonian’s
SELGEM system, August 1971. 
SELGEM was an information management computer system invented, developed, and distributed at the Smithsonian Institution and used for more than 30 years.  The exact invention date for SELGEM has been lost to antiquity, perhaps very late 1969; however Reginald A. Creighton and James J. Crockett, two of the men who developed and created SELGEM, state that it “has been in operation … since spring 1970”.*  SELGEM has been called a “records management system”, rather than a true database, at least in the modern senses of the word.  In an era pre-dating relational databases, when commercial software tools were almost nonexistent, SELGEM was used to organize and manage data in a wide variety of applications at the Smithsonian and also many other institutions.  The name is an acronym derived from the system’s full name:  SELf GEnerating Master.  It was “self-generating” because of its general purpose format and because no initial computer programming was required to create a new data file or application.

The SELGEM data structure was simple.
User documentation illustrating the relationship between SELGEM transactions records and SELGEM master records.  Undated, ca. 1971-1972, MNH.
The physical record was a single fixed length record of 77 characters in length. There were only four components to the record:
Serial Number, 8 characters, required, no spaces, an alphanumeric value. Frequently it was a number, however, it could be an arbitrary number, but it could also be a data element**, such as a museum catalog number, a sample number, or a photo image number.
Category Number, three digit numeric, required.  Any three digit number could be used, between “001” and “999”.  The Category Number was a code number for a data element* or data field name.
Line Number, two digits numeric, in the range of “01” to “99”, required.  The first Line Number for a Category Number should begin with “01” and continuation lines should be numbered sequentially.
Data:  the good stuff, up to 64 characters of data could be stored in a single SELGEM line or a physical record.
A single physical record frequently represented a single data element if the data were less than 64 characters in length, or one line of multi-line textual data element, such as:  remarks, description, or an abstract. As an example, suppose that data element “Country” has been assigned to Category Number “100”, the data fits into one line, and the record would look like this:
1234567810001United States

The computer records were created by the SELGEM update program (SELUPD) from a sorted SELGEM transaction record file.  SELGEM transaction records were 80 characters in size (see flowchart at right).  The transaction code controlled the action to be performed by the update program, such as add, change, or delete.

SELGEM transaction records could be prepared using any data entry technology available.

Forms used to create data entry programs on the key-to-disk systems 

The 80-character IBM card format could be produced directly or indirectly.  The following technologies were used for data entry at the Smithsonian at various times:  paper type typewriters, teletype machines, IBM keypunches, key-to-disk data entry systems (such as ENTREX and NIXDORF systems), optical characters recognition (OCR), optical mark sense (OMR) forms, and personal computers.

This was the SELGEM physical record description; in the next blog the story will continue with the Logical Record structure.  A Logical Record was all the “physical records” with identical Serial Numbers (the first eight characters).

David Bridge, Volunteer
Smithsonian Institution Archives

*Creighton, Reginald A. and James J. Crockett.  1971.  SELGEM:  A system for collection management.  Smithsonian Institution Information Systems Innovations 2(3):1.

**The term data element is used as defined in  “the term data element is an atomic unit of data that has precise meaning or precise semantics.” SELGEM only the 3-digit code number was stored in the computer file; the definition, data standards, rules, and attributes were defined externally to SELGEM.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

In the Pink with the Peony

The herbaceous peony dies back to the ground in the winter.
The Smithsonian’s Material Culture Forum this past May had an intriguing and wide-ranging theme: “Home Grown Healing: Smithsonian Collections Relating to Plants and Healing, Wellness, Ceremony, and Ritual.” As a prelude, attendees were invited to the Cullman Library in the National Museum of Natural History to peruse herbals, medicinal botanies, travel narratives, and other natural history books assembled by curator Leslie Overstreet.

As we viewed the illustrated volumes there was talk of how some plants, once known almost exclusively for medicinal uses, are now predominantly thought of as culinary or ornamental, such as rhubarb, rosemary, rose, dogwood, foxglove, Solomon’s seal, carrot, parsley. Then there is king basil, Ocimum basilicum, long prized for its healing properties, used in religious rituals, considered a source of erotic powers, and valued in the kitchen. Pier Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577), a medical doctor and botanist, born in Siena, provides the delightful contemporary observation that basil was found to be growing in every Italian household, often in a pot placed by a window. Today, it still rules as a favorite herb.

A pot in every kitchen: basil for the windowsill. Woodcut from Johann Prüss’ Ortus sanitatis (Strasbourg, not after 21 October 1497).
It was a cool, long spring in the Washington area this year. The peonies were spectacular and lasted a good while in their typically short season, blooming at the time of this Forum in May. The woodcut of this plant in the Cullman Library’s copy of Mattioli’s great herbal, Commentarii in Sex Libros Pedacii Dioscoridis (1565), got me wondering how this popular bloom, beloved for its beauty and fragrance and the go-to flower of the wedding industry (symbol of good fortune and a happy marriage), was once used. A little research and a scan of a selection of the early herbals in the Smithsonian Libraries found that the Paeonia once reigned as the medicinal plant, a cure-all from antiquity. Indeed, the genus name originates in Greek mythology: Paeon was physician to the Olympian gods.

The Cullman Library’s uncolored copy of the commentaries by Mattioli on the ancient Greek herbal of Dioscorides has been digitized by the Biodiversity Heritage Library (link here). The first illustrated edition appeared in 1554, with small woodcuts. It was soon reprinted many times in a variety of languages; there are several of these editions in the Smithsonian Libraries. This massive folio has large images where the artist filled the entire woodblock.
Antiquity is full of legends about gathering medicinal plants. The mandrake while being pulled out of the ground was said to give a piercing scream that caused death to the harvester so an animal was needed for the task. The sacred basil had to be cut by a person who had undergone purification rites. Peonies, too, presented risks. Theophrastus, in the 9th century BC in Enquiry into Plants (Greek: Περὶ φυτῶν ἱστορία, Peri phyton historia) notes: “We learn that he who would obtain peony root was advised to dig it up at night, because, if he did the deed in the day-time, and was observed by a woodpecker, he risked the loss of his eye-sight.” The author, however, ridiculed this belief. The perennially grumpy Mattioli was similarly dismissive of most folklore and superstitions.

I will venture to say that this hand-colored woodcut is the earliest representation of the peony in the Smithsonian Libraries (but may well be proven wrong). Gart der Gesundheit (Garden of Health) [Ulm?, 1487?]. This copy lacks several leaves, including any title and colophon. To identify it further research is needed but the text is certainly based on the 1484 Mainz herbal, printed by Peter Schöffer the Elder. Another version, this one in Latin, is below. The copying of illustrations and the re-use of woodblocks was common practice at this time.

The peony in Ortus sanitatis (Garden of Health), printed in Strasbourg in 1497. The Smithsonian Libraries’ copy has been digitized by the Biodiversity Heritage Library. The all-important roots of the peony are emphasized in this woodcut.  
The genus Paeonia has thirty-three species; with the exception of two from North America, all are native to Eurasia (Japan, China, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Turkey, Asia Minor, and Europe) except for two from the west coast of North America. One, Paeonia officinalis, has a long history in both Eastern and Western medicine, used for infantile epileptic seizure, jaundice, stomach-aches, and kidney and bladder problems. There are records of Paeonia officinalis in medieval monastic gardens, the supply precious and carefully preserved in monastery storerooms called “officina,” hence the name.

Inicipit Tractatus devirtutibus herbarum (Venice, 1499). This herbal is a practical, lively little medical book. Unlike the folios of Gerard’s Herbal and the various editions of Mattioli, it fits easily in one’s hands and, despite having been produced in the infancy of printing when books were expensive, appears to have been intended for ready reference. It shows evidence of this by manuscript markings, including a manicula or “little hand” to emphasize portions of the text. The names of the plants, of those commonly found in apothecaries or obtainable from merchants, are in a larger font. They provide the captions for the illustrations, for easy identification. Although the woodcuts are somewhat stylized, typical of early printed books, there is an attempt at naturalism with the depiction of the peony’s roots, represented in black. 
The red peony, native to southern Europe, arrived in England during the 16th century where it became known as the apothecaries’ peony. John Gerard’s Herball or the Generall Historie of Plants (1597) instructs “the blacke graines (that is the seede) to the number of 15. taken in wine or meade, helpeth the strangling and paines of the matrix or mother, and is a speciall remedie for those that are troubled in the night with the disease called Ephialtes, or the night Mare.” Further, “Syrupe made of the flowers of Peionie helpeth greatly the falling sicknes, likewise the extraction of the rootes doth the same.”

 Many of the woodblocks from a 1590 herbal, published in Frankfurt, were reused for Gerard's Herball. That publication, by Jacobus Theodorus Tabernaemontanus, relied itself on earlier illustrations, including those of Mattioli's. Link here for the Biodiversity Heritage's scan of entire volume in the Peter H. Raven Library of the Missouri Botanical Garden.
John Hill, in his The British herbal (1756), declared that for medicinal purposes the male peony roots were best and warned against fraud (substituting female roots) in the markets. “The best way of giving it is in the powder of the root, fresh dried: twelve grains is a dose, and will do great service in all nervous complaints, headaches, and convulsions.” Along with a range of other skills, Hill was trained as an apothecary and was head of the royal gardens at Kensington Palace.
The plates of Hill's volume are dense with illustrations of plants. The Biodiversity Heritage Library has digitized the Peter H. Raven Library of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s copy.

The allegorical frontispiece of Hill’s British herbal shows the Genius of Health receiving tributes. 
In modern medicine, there are at least 120 drugs derived from plants. Given this history of medicinal uses of the peony, I should not have been surprised that the roots and sometimes the seeds and petals of the herbaceous plant are still used in a long list of treatments, some proven, others unsupported. The peony as a supplement even warrants an entry in WebMD. Properties range from sedative, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anticoagulant, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory. It is used for hypertension, muscle cramps, fevers, female reproductive conditions, liver diseases, and skin care, much as it used to be.

It is fascinating to find what is old is new again and to glean recipes for sustenance and health from rare books. Natural remedies are of course desirable. I like ginger tea or cherry juice myself as a sleep aid and basil pesto is the elixir of life. And it’s fun to think of the peony as a drug along with the flower’s overwhelming popularity in the floral industry, the subject of countless Pinterest and Instagram posts and romantic association with ancient cottages and farmhouses. However, there may be considerable risks and side effects from using peonies for medical purposes, including seizures, hazardous interactions with other medications and the herb may be unsafe if taken during pregnancy. As some of the authors of the early herbals knew, great caution was needed in ascribing medicinal virtues to plants. Their power also includes poisonous qualities, threatening life.

To stay in very good health and spirits ˗ in the pink ˗ consult your health care provider before employing the peony in something other than a bouquet.

The author's gardens and photos
By Julia Blakely, Special Collections Cataloger, Smithsonian Libraries 
Leslie Overstreet and Diane Shaw helped with this post.

The tree peony arrived from China to Europe in 1787. The deciduous shrub, imported by Sir Joseph Banks, botanist and president of the Royal Society, was planted in Kew Gardens.