Advertising Culture

IMG_1367When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to do while visiting my grandparents was browsing through their collections of old National Geographic and Smithsonian magazines. I was more interested in the advertisements than the content of the articles. Most of the magazines were dated from the 1950s through the 1980s and they provided me with a glimpse into the world of my parents and grandparents from a time in the twentieth century I had missed.

IMG_1369I also had a fairly obsessive interest in air-cooled Volkswagen Beetles, which had ceased being sold in the US shortly before I was born. They were still a common sight in the 1980s and something about their odd shape and the distinct beat of their air-cooled boxer engine captured my young imagination. I was therefore delighted when an older cousin who had studied graphic design gave to me a collection of several hundred Volkswagen print advertisements that he had clipped from 1960s era Life magazines for a class project. Hinting at my future profession, I placed each sheet in a protective plastic sleeve, gave each one an accession number, and catalogued them in a spreadsheet.

I think that part of the reason I find old advertisements so interesting is what they can reveal about our cultural past. Because advertisements are designed specifically to sell things, they can reveal the collective desires, values, fears, and anxieties of a culture.

All of this to say, I love browsing the advertising collections at Duke Libraries. I’m especially fond of the outdoor advertising collections: the OAAA Archives, the OAAA Slide Library, and the John E. Brennan Outdoor Advertising Survey Reports. Because most of the items in these collections are photographs or slides of billboards they often capture candid street scenes, providing even more of a sense of the time and place where the advertisements were displayed.

I’ve picked out a few to share that I found interesting or funny for one reason or another. Some of the ads I’ve picked use language that sounds dated now, or display ideas or values that are out-moded. Others just show how things have changed. A few happen to have an old VW in them.

The Value of Metadata in Digital Collections Projects

Before you let your eyes glaze over at the thought of metadata, let me familiarize you with the term and its invaluable role in the creation of the library’s online Digital Collections.  Yes, metadata is a rather jargony word librarians and archivists find themselves using frequently in the digital age, but it’s not as complex as you may think.  In the most simplistic terms, the Society of American Archivists defines metadata as “data about data.”  Okay, what does that mean?  According to the good ol’ trusty Oxford English Dictionary, it is “data that describes and gives information about other data.”  In other words, if you have a digitized photographic image (data), you will also have words to describe the image (metadata).

Better yet, think of it this way.  If that image were of a large family gathering and grandma lovingly wrote the date and names of all the people on the backside, that is basic metadata.  Without that information those people and the image would suddenly have less meaning, especially if you have no clue who those faces are in that family photo.  It is the same with digital projects.  Without descriptive metadata, the items we digitize would hold less meaning and prove less valuable for researchers, or at least be less searchable.  The better and more thorough the metadata, the more it promotes discovery in search engines.  (Check out the metadata from this Cornett family photo from the William Gedney collection.)

The term metadata was first used in the late 1960s in computer programming language.  With the advent of computing technology and the overabundance of digital data, metadata became a key element to help describe and retrieve information in an automated way.  The use of the word metadata in literature over the last 45 years shows a steeper increase from 1995 to 2005, which makes sense.  The term became used more and more as technology grew more widespread.  This is reflected in the graph below from Google’s Ngram Viewer, which scours over 5 million Google Books to track the usage of words and phrases over time.

metadatangram_blog
Google Ngram Viewer for “metadata”

Because of its link with computer technology, metadata is widely used in a variety of fields that range from computer science to the music industry.  Even your music playlist is full of descriptive metadata that relates to each song, like the artist, album, song title, and length of audio recording.  So, libraries and archives are not alone in their reliance on metadata.  Generating metadata is an invaluable step in the process of preserving and documenting the library’s unique collections.  It is especially important here at the Digital Production Center (DPC) where the digitization of these collections happens.  To better understand exactly how important a role metadata plays in our job, let’s walk through the metadata life cycle of one of our digital projects, the Duke Chapel Recordings.

The Chapel Recordings project consists of digitizing over 1,000 cassette and VHS tapes of sermons and over 1,300 written sermons that were given at the Duke Chapel from the 1950s to 2000s.  These recordings and sermons will be added to the existing Duke Chapel Recordings collection online.  Funded by a grant from the Lilly Foundation, this digital collection will be a great asset to Duke’s Divinity School and those interested in hermeneutics worldwide.

Before the scanners and audio capture devices are even warmed up at the DPC, preliminary metadata is collected from the analog archival material.  Depending on the project, this metadata is created either by an outside collaborator or in-house at the DPC.  For example, the Duke Chronicle metadata is created in-house by pulling data from each issue, like the date, volume, and issue number.  I am currently working on compiling the pre-digitization metadata for the 1950s Chronicle, and the spreadsheet looks like this:

1950sChronicle_blog
1950s Duke Chronicle preliminary metadata

As for the Chapel Recordings project, the DPC received an inventory from the University Archives in the form of an Excel spreadsheet.  This inventory contained the preliminary metadata already generated for the collection, which is also used in Rubenstein Library‘s online collection guide.

inventorymetadata_blog
Chapel Recordings inventory metadata

The University Archives also supplied the DPC with an inventory of the sermon transcripts containing basic metadata compiled by a student.

inventorysermons_blog
Duke Chapel Records sermon metadata

Here at the DPC, we convert this preliminary metadata into a digitization guide, which is a fancy term for yet another Excel spreadsheet.  Each digital project receives its own digitization guide (we like to call them digguides) which keeps all the valuable information for each item in one place.  It acts as a central location for data entry, but also as a reference guide for the digitization process.  Depending on the format of the material being digitized (image, audio, video, etc.), the digitization guide will need different categories.  We then add these new categories as columns in the original inventory spreadsheet and it becomes a working document where we plug in our own metadata generated in the digitization process.   For the Chapel Recordings audio and video, the metadata created looks like this:

digitizationmetadata_blog
Chapel Recordings digitization metadata

Once we have digitized the items, we then run the recordings through several rounds of quality control.  This generates even more metadata which is, again, added to the digitization guide.  As the Chapel Recordings have not gone through quality control yet, here is a look at the quality control data for the 1980s Duke Chronicle:

qcmetadata_blog
1980s Duke Chronicle quality control metadata

Once the digitization and quality control is completed, the DPC then sends the digitization guide filled with metadata to the metadata archivist, Noah Huffman.  Noah then makes further adds, edits, and deletes to match the spreadsheet metadata fields to fields accepted by the management software, CONTENTdm.  During the process of ingesting all the content into the software, CONTENTdm links the digitized items to their corresponding metadata from the Excel spreadsheet.  This is in preparation for placing the material online. For even more metadata adventures, see Noah’s most recent Bitstreams post.

In the final stage of the process, the compiled metadata and digitized items are published online at our Digital Collections website.  You, the researcher, history fanatic, or Sunday browser, see the results of all this work on the page of each digital item online.  This metadata is what makes your search results productive, and if we’ve done our job right, the digitized items will be easily discovered.  The Chapel Recordings metadata looks like this once published online:

onlinemetadata_blog
Chapel Recordings metadata as viewed online

Further down the road, the Duke Divinity School wishes to enhance the current metadata to provide keyword searches within the Chapel Recordings audio and video.  This will allow researchers to jump to specific sections of the recordings and find the exact content they are looking for.  The additional metadata will greatly improve the user experience by making it easier to search within the content of the recordings, and will add value to the digital collection.

On this journey through the metadata life cycle, I hope you have been convinced that metadata is a key element in the digitization process.  From preliminary inventories, to digitization and quality control, to uploading the material online, metadata has a big job to do.  At each step, it forms the link between a digitized item and how we know what that item is.  The life cycle of metadata in our digital projects at the DPC is sometimes long and tiring.  But, each stage of the process  creates and utilizes the metadata in varied and important ways.  Ultimately, all this arduous work pays off when a researcher in our digital collections hits gold.

What’s in my tool chest

I recently, while perhaps inadvisably, updated my workstation to the latest version of OS X (Yosemite) and in doing so ended up needing to rebuild my setup from scratch. As such, I’ve been taking stock of the applications and tools that I use on a daily basis for my work and thought it might be interesting to share them. Keep in mind that most of the tools I use are mac-centric, but there are almost always alternatives for those that aren’t cross-platform compatible.

Communications

Our department uses Jabber for Instant Messaging. The client of choice for OS X is Adium. It works great — it’s light weight, the interface is intelligible, custom statuses are easy to set, and the notifications are readily apparent without being annoying.

My email and calendaring client of choice is Microsoft Outlook. I’m using version 15.9, which is functionally much more similar to Outlook Web Access (OWA) than the previous version (Outlook 2011). It seems to startup much more quickly and it’s notifications are somehow less annoying, even though they are very similar. Perhaps it’s just the change in color scheme. I had some difficulty initially with setting up shared mailboxes, but I eventually got that to work. [go to Tools > Accounts, add a new account using the shared email address, set access type to username and password, and then use your normal login info. The account will then show up under your main mailbox, and you can customize how it’s displayed, etc.]

outlook
Outlook 2015 — now in blue!

Another group that I work with in the library has been testing out Slack, which apparently is quite popular within development teams at lots of cool companies. It seems to me to be a mashup of Google Wave, Newsgroups, and Twitter. Its seems neat, but I worry it might just be another thing to keep up with. Maybe we can eventually use it to replace something else wholesale.

Project Management

We mostly use basecamp for shared planning on projects. I think it’s a great tool, but the UI is starting to feel dated — especially the skeuomorphic text documents. We’ve played around a bit with some other tools (Jira, Trello, Asana, etc) but basecamp has yet to be displaced.

Basecamp text document (I don’t think Steve Jobs would approve)

We also now have access to enterprise-level Box accounts at Duke. We use Box to store project files and assets that don’t make sense to store in something like basecamp or send via email. I think their web interface is great and I also use Box Sync to regularly back up all of my project files. It has built-in versioning which has helped me on a number of occasions with accessing older version of things. I’d been a dropbox user for more than five years, but I really prefer Box now. We also make heavy use of Google Drive. I think everything about it is great.

Another tool we use a lot is Git. We’ve got a library Github account and we also use a Duke-specific private instance of Gitorious. I much prefer Github, fwiw. I’m still learning the best way to use git workflows, but compared to other version management approaches from back in the day (SVN, Mercurial) Git is amazing IMHO.

Design & Production

I almost always start any design work with sketching things out. I tend to grab sheets of 11×17 paper and fold them in half and make little mini booklets. I guess I’m just too cheap to buy real moleskins (or even better, fieldnotes). But yeah, sketching is really important. After that, I tend jump right in to do as much design work in the browser as is possible. However Photoshop, Illustrator, and sometimes Indesign, are still indispensable. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t have at least one of them open.

Still use it everyday...
Photoshop — I still use it a lot!

With regards to media production, I’m a big fan of Sony’s software products. I find that Vegas is both the most flexible NLE platform out there and also the most easy to use. For smaller quicker audio-only tasks, I might fire up Audacity. Handbrake is really handy for quickly transcoding things. And I’ll also give a shout out to Davinci Resolve, which is now free and seems incredibly powerful, but I’ve not had much time to explore it yet.

Development

My code editor of choice right now is Atom — note that it’s mac only. When I work on a windows box, I tend to use notepad++. I’ve also played around a bit with more robust IDEs, like Eclipse and Aptana, but for most of the work I do a simple code editor is plenty.

The UI is easy on the eyes
The Atom UI is easy on the eyes

For local development, I’m a big fan of MAMP. It’s really easy to setup and works great. I’ve also started spinning up dedicated local VMs using Oracle’s Virtual Box. I like the idea of having a separate dedicated environment for a given project that can be moved around from one machine to another. I’m sure there are other better ways to do that though.

I also want to quickly list some Chome browser plugins that I use for dev work: ColorPick Eyedropper, Window Resizer, LiveReload (thanks Cory!), WhatFont, and for fun, Google Art Project.

Testing

I also make use of Virtual Box for doing browser testing. I’ve got several different versions of Windows setup so I can test for all flavors of Internet Explorer along with older incarnations of Firefox, Chrome, and Opera. I’ve yet to find a good way to test for older versions of Safari, aside from using something static like browsershots.

With regards to mobile devices, I think testing on as many real-world variations as possible is ideal. But for quick and dirty tests, I make use of the iOS Simulator and the Android SDK emulator. the iOS simulator comes setup with several different hardware configs while you have to set these up manually with the Android suite. In any case, both tools provide a great way to quickly see how a given project will function across many different mobile devices.

Conclusion

Hopefully this list will be helpful to someone out in the world. I’m also interested in learning about what other developers keep in their tool chest.

The Pros and Cons of FFV1

One of the greatest challenges to digitizing moving image content isn’t the actual digitization. It’s the enormous file sizes that result, and the high costs associated with storing and maintaining those files for long-term preservation. Most cultural heritage institutions consider 10-bit uncompressed to be the preservation standard for moving image content. 10-bit uncompressed uses no file compression, as the name states, and is considered the safest, and most reliable format for moving image preservation at this time. It delivers the highest image resolution, color quality, and sharpness, while avoiding motion compensation and compression artifacts.

Unfortunately, one hour of 10-bit uncompressed video can produce a 100 gigabyte file. That’s at least 50 times larger than an audio preservation file of the same duration, and about 1000 times larger than most still image preservation files. In physical media terms, it would take 21 DVDs, or 142 CDs, to store one hour of 10-bit uncompressed video. That’s a lot of data!

Recently, the FFV1 codec has gained in popularity as an alternative to 10-bit uncompressed. FFV1 uses lossless compression to store digitized moving image content at reduced file sizes, without data loss. FFV1 is part of the free, open-source FFmpeg project, and has been in existence since 2003. FFV1 uses entropy encoding to deliver mathematically lossless intra-frame compression, which produces substantially smaller file sizes when compared to uncompressed 10-bit moving image digitization.

ffv1_terminal
Because commercial video digitization hardware does not natively support the FFV1 codec, operation must be conducted via CPU terminal command-line prompts.

 

Testing in the Digital Production Center showed that files encoded with the FFV1 codec produced files almost 1/3 the size of their 10-bit uncompressed counterparts. Both formats can be carried in a variety of wrappers, or container files, such as AVI (Microsoft) or MOV (Apple), or MKV (open source). The encoded video and audio streams are wrapped together in the container with other data streams that include technical metadata. The type and variety of data that a container can hold are specific to that container format.

ffv1_visual
Within the terminal command line window, incoming video image and waveform readouts are displayed, while the content is compressed to FFV1.

 

The reduced file sizes produced via FFV1 are exciting, but there are some downsides. Although FFV1 is open-source, the files will not play using standard video software on Mac and Windows, nor can FFV1 be utilized within commercially-available digitization hardware and software (only via terminal command). This is because no major company (Apple, Microsoft, Adobe, Blackmagic, etc.) has adopted the codec, or announced plans to do so. Any file format that does not eventually achieve widespread adoption and universal playback capability within the broadcasting and filmmaking communities, has a higher risk of long-term obsolescence, and lack of engineering support.

The concept of “lossless compression” is mysterious, and seemingly a paradox. How can it make a file smaller, without eliminating or irreversibly altering any data? In testing, it is difficult to verify that a file converted (compressed) to FFV1 and then converted back (decompressed) is an identical file to its original state. Although the specs may be the same, the before and after file-sizes are not identical. So, “lossless” and “reversible” may not be synonymous, although ideally, they should be. In addition to the software and hardware compatibility issues of FFV1, it is challenging to accurately validate the integrity of a file that incorporates lossless compression.

Adventures in metadata hygiene: using Open Refine, XSLT, and Excel to dedup and reconcile name and subject headings in EAD

OpenRefine, formerly Google Refine, bills itself as “a free, open source, powerful tool for working with messy data.”  As someone who works with messy data almost every day, I can’t recommend it enough.  While Open Refine is a great tool for cleaning up “grid-shaped data” (spreadsheets), it’s a bit more challenging to use when your source data is in some other format, particularly XML.

Some corporate name terms from an EAD collection guide
Some corporate name terms from an EAD (XML) collection guide

As part of a recent project to migrate data from EAD (Encoded Archival Description) to ArchivesSpace, I needed to clean up about 27,000 name and subject headings spread across over 2,000 EAD records in XML.  Because the majority of these EAD XML files were encoded by hand using a basic text editor (don’t ask why), I knew there were likely to be variants of the same subject and name terms throughout the corpus–terms with extra white space, different punctuation and capitalization, etc.  I needed a quick way to analyze all these terms, dedup them, normalize them, and update the XML before importing it into ArchivesSpace.  I knew Open Refine was the tool for the job, but the process of getting the terms 1) out of the EAD, 2) into OpenRefine for munging, and 3) back into EAD wasn’t something I’d tackled before.

Below is a basic outline of the workflow I devised, combining XSLT, OpenRefine, and, yes, Excel.  I’ve provided links to some source files when available.  As with any major data cleanup project, I’m sure there are 100 better ways to do this, but hopefully somebody will find something useful here.

1. Use XSLT to extract names and subjects from EAD files into a spreadsheet

I’ve said it before, but sooner or later all metadata is a spreadsheet. Here is some XSLT that will extract all the subjects, names, places and genre terms from the <controlaccess> section in a directory full of EAD files and then dump those terms along with some other information into a tab-separated spreadsheet with four columns: original_term, cleaned_term (empty), term_type, and eadid_term_source.

controlaccess_extractor.xsl

 2. Import the spreadsheet into OpenRefine and clean the messy data!

Once you open the resulting tab delimited file in OpenRefine, you’ll see the four columns of data above, with “cleaned_term” column empty. Copy the values from the first column (original_term) to the second column (cleaned_term).  You’ll want to preserve the original terms in the first column and only edit the terms in the second column so you can have a way to match the old values in your EAD with any edited values later on.

OpenRefine offers several amazing tools for viewing and cleaning data.  For my project, I mostly used the “cluster and edit” feature, which applies several different matching algorithms to identify, cluster, and facilitate clean up of term variants. You can read more about clustering in Open Refine here: Clustering in Depth.

In my list of about 27,000 terms, I identified around 1200 term variants in about 2 hours using the “cluster and edit” feature, reducing the total number of unique values from about 18,000 to 16,800 (about 7%). Finding and replacing all 1200 of these variants manually in EAD or even in Excel would have taken days and lots of coffee.

refine_screeshot
Screenshot of “Cluster & Edit” tool in OpenRefine, showing variants that needed to be merged into a single heading.

 

In addition to “cluster and edit,” OpenRefine provides a really powerful way to reconcile your data against known vocabularies.  So, for example, you can configure OpenRefine to query the Library of Congress Subject Heading database and attempt to find LCSH values that match or come close to matching the subject terms in your spreadsheet.  I experimented with this feature a bit, but found the matching a bit unreliable for my needs.  I’d love to explore this feature again with a different data set.  To learn more about vocabulary reconciliation in OpenRefine, check out freeyourmetadata.org

 3. Export the cleaned spreadsheet from OpenRefine as an Excel file

Simple enough.

4. Open the Excel file and use Excel’s “XML Map” feature to export the spreadsheet as XML.

I admit that this is quite a hack, but one I’ve used several times to convert Excel spreadsheets to XML that I can then process with XSLT.  To get Excel to export your spreadsheet as XML, you’ll first need to create a new template XML file that follows the schema you want to output.  Excel refers to this as an “XML Map.”  For my project, I used this one: controlaccess_cleaner_xmlmap.xml

From the Developer tab, choose Source, and then add the sample XML file as the XML Map in the right hand window.  You can read more about using XML Maps in Excel here.

After loading your XML Map, drag the XML elements from the tree view in the right hand window to the top of the matching columns in the spreadsheet.  This will instruct Excel to map data in your columns to the proper XML elements when exporting the spreadsheet as XML.

Once you’ve mapped all your columns, select Export from the developer tab to export all of the spreadsheet data as XML.

Your XML file should look something like this: controlaccess_cleaner_dataset.xml

control_access_dataset_chunk
Sample chunk of exported XML, showing mappings from original terms to cleaned terms, type of term, and originating EAD identifier.

 

5. Use XSLT to batch process your source EAD files and find and replace the original terms with the cleaned terms.

For my project, I bundled the term cleanup as part of a larger XSLT “scrubber” script that fixed several other known issues with our EAD data all at once.  I typically use the Oxygen XML Editor to batch process XML with XSLT, but there are free tools available for this.

Below is a link to the entire XSLT scrubber file, with the templates controlling the <controlaccess> term cleanup on lines 412 to 493.  In order to access the XML file  you saved in step 4 that contains the mappings between old values and cleaned values, you’ll need to call that XML from within your XSLT script (see lines 17-19).

AT-import-fixer.xsl

What this script does, essentially, is process all of your source EAD files at once, finding and replacing all of the old name and subject terms with the ones you normalized and deduped in OpenRefine. To be more specific, for each term in EAD, the XSLT script will find the matching term in the <original_term>field of the XML file you produced in step 4 above.  If it finds a match, it will then replace that original term with the value of the <cleaned_term>.  Below is a sample XSLT template that controls the find and replace of <persname> terms.

XSLT template that find and replaces old values with cleaned ones.
XSLT template that find and replaces old values with cleaned ones.

 

Final Thoughts

Admittedly, cobbling together all these steps was quite an undertaking, but once you have the architecture in place, this workflow can be incredibly useful for normalizing, reconciling, and deduping metadata values in any flavor of XML with just a few tweaks to the files provided.  Give it a try and let me know how it goes, or better yet, tell me a better way…please.

More resources for working with OpenRefine:

“Using Google Refine to Clean Messy Data” (Propublica Blog)

freeyourmetadata.org

Getting to the Finish Line: Wrapping Up Digital Collections Projects

Part of my job as Digital Collections Program Manager is to manage our various projects from idea to proposal to implementation and finally to publication. It can be a long and complicated process with many different people taking part along the way.  When we (we being the Digital Collections Implementation Team or DCIT) launch a project online, there are special blog posts, announcements and media attention.  Everyone feels great about a successful project implementation, however as the excitement of the launch subsides the project team is not quite done. The last step in a digital collections project at Duke is the post project review.

Project post-mortems keeps the team from feeling like the men in this image!

Post project reviews are part of project management best practices for effectively closing and assessing the outcomes of projects.  There are a lot of resources for project management available online, but as usual Wikipedia provides a good summary of project post-mortems as well as the different types and phases of project management in general.   Also if you Google “project post-mortem,” you will get more links then you know what to do with.

Process

 As we finish up projects we conduct what we call a “post-mortem,” and it is essentially a post project review.   The name evokes autopsies, and what we do is not dissimilar but thankfully there are no bodies involved (except when we closed up the recent Anatomical Fugitive Sheets digital collection – eh? see what I did there? wink wink).  The goals of our post mortem process are for the project team to do the following:

  • Reflect on the project’s outcomes both positive and negative
  • Document any unique decisions or methods employed during the project
  • Document resources put into the project.

In practice, this means that I ask the project team to send me comments about what they thought went well and what was challenging about the project in question.   Sometimes we meet in person to do this, but often we send comments through email or our project management tool.  I also meet in person with each project champion as a project wraps up.  Project champions are the people that propose and conceive a project.  I ask everyone the same general questions: what worked about the project and what was challenging. With champions, this conversation is also an opportunity to discuss any future plans for promotion as well as think of any related projects that may come up in the future.

DCIT's Post-Mortem Template
DCIT’s Post-Mortem Template

Once I have all the comments from the team and champion I put these into my post-mortem template (see right – click to expand).  I also pull together project stats such as the number of items published, and the hours spent on the project.  Everyone in the core project team is asked to track and submit the hours they spend on projects, which makes pulling stats an easy process.  I designed the template I use as a word document.  Its structured enough to be organized but unstructured enough for me to add new categories on the fly as needed (for example, we worked with a design contractor on a recent project so I added a “working with contractor” section).

 Seems like a simple enough process right?  It is, assuming you can have two ingredients.  First, you need to have a high degree of trust in your core team and good relationships with project stakeholders.  The ability to speak honestly (really really honestly) about a project is a necessity for the information you gather to be useful.  Secondly, you do actually have to conduct the review.  My team gets pulled so quickly from project to project, its really easy to NOT make time for this process.  What helps my team, is that post mortems are a formal part of our project checklists.  Also, I worked with my team to set up our information gathering process, so we all own it and its relevant and easy for them.

DCIT is never to busy for project reviews!

Impacts

The impacts these documents have on our work are very positive. First there is short term benefit just by having the core team communicate what they thought worked and didn’t work. Since we instituted this in the last year, we have used these lessons learns to make small but important changes to our process.

This process also gives the project team direct feedback from our project champions.  This is something I get a lot through my informal interactions with various stakeholders in my role as project manager, however the core team doesn’t always get exposed to direct feedback both positive and negative.

The long term benefit is using the data in these reports to make predictions about resources needed for future projects, track project outcomes at a program level, and for other uses we haven’t considered yet.

Further Resources

 All in all, I cannot recommend a post project review process to anyone and everyone who is managing projects enough.  If you are not convinced by my template (which is very simple), there are lots of examples out there.  Google “project post-mortem templates” (or similar terminology) to see a huge variety.

There are also a few library and digital collections project related resources you may find useful as well:

Here is a blog post from California Digital Library on project post-mortems that was published in 2010, but remains relevant. 

UCLA’s Library recently published a “Library Special Collections Digital Project Toolkit” that includes an “Assessment and Evaluation” section and a “Closeout Questionnaire”

 

 

A Look Under the Hood—and the Flaps—of the Anatomical Fugitive Sheets Collection

We have digitized some fairly complex objects over the years that have challenged our Digital Collections team to push the boundaries of typical digital library solutions for digitization and publication. It happens often: objects we want to digitize are sort of like something we’ve done for a previous project, but not quite, so we can’t simply mimic whatever we did before to get the new project done. We’re frequently flexing our creative muscles.  In many cases, our most successful projects ended up that way because we didn’t concede to the temptation of representing items digitally in an oversimplified manner, or, worse still, as something they are not.

Working with so many rare and unique items from the Rubenstein Library through the years, we’ve become unfazed by these representation challenges and time and again have simply pulled together our team’s brainpower (and willpower) to make something work. Dare I say it, we’ve been unflappable. But this year, we met our match and surely needed some help.

In March, we published ten anatomical fugitive sheets from the 1500s to 1600s. They’re printed illustrations from the Rubenstein Library’s History of Medicine Collections, depicting the human body using layers of paper flaps that can be lifted to reveal internal organs. They’re amazing. They’re distinctive. And they’re really complicated.

Fugitive Sheet
Fugitive Sheet example, accessible online at http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/rubenstein_fgsms01003/ (Photo Credit: Les Todd)

The complexity of this project necessitated enlisting help from beyond the library’s walls. Early on, Prof. Mark Olson in Duke’s Art, Art History & Visual Studies department was instrumental in helping us identify modern technical approaches for capturing and modeling such objects. We contracted out development work through local web firm Cuberis, who programmed the bulk of the UI. In-house, we handled digitization, metadata, and integration with our discovery & access application with a lot of collaborative creativity between the digital collections team, the collection curator, conservators, and rare materials cataloger.

In a moment, I’ll discuss what modern technologies make the Fugitive Sheets interface hum. But first, here’s a look at what others have done with flap-based items.

Flaps in the Wind, Er… Wild

There are a few examples of anatomical flap objects represented on the Web, both at Duke and beyond. Common approaches include:

  1. A Sequence of Images. Capture one image of the full item for every state of the flaps possible, then let a user navigate them as if viewing a paginated document or photo sequence.
  2. Video. Either film someone lifting the flaps, or make an auto-playing video of the image sequence above.
  3. Flash. Develop a Flash application and put a SWF file on the web.

The third approach is actually what powers Duke’s Four Seasons project, which remains one of the best interactive historical anatomy interfaces available today. Developed way back in 2000 by Educational Media Services, Four Seasons began as a Java program distributed on CD-ROM (gasp!) and in subsequent years found a home as a Flash application embedded on the library website.

Flash-based flap interface for The Four Seasons, available at http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/history-of-medicine/four-seasons
Flash-based flap interface for The Four Seasons, available at http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/history-of-medicine/four-seasons

Flash has fallen out of favor over the last decade for many reasons, most notably: 1) it won’t work on iOS devices, 2) it’s bad for accessibility, 3) it’s invisible to search engines, and most importantly, 4) most of what Flash used to do exclusively can now be done just as well using HTML5.

Anatomy of a Modern Flap Interface

The Web has made giant leaps forward in the past five years due to advances in HTML, CSS, and Javascript and the evolution of web browsers. Key specs for HTML5 and CSS3 have been supported by all major browsers for several years now.  Below are the vital bits (so to speak) in use by the Anatomical Fugitive Sheets. Many of these things would not have worked (or worked well) on the Web five years ago.

HTML5 Parts

1. SVG (scalable vector graphics). An <svg> element in HTML contains shape data for each flap using a coordinates system. The <path> holds a string with line instructions using shorthand (M, L, c, etc.) for tracing the contour: MoveTo, Lineto, Curveto, Arcto. We duplicate the <path> with a transform attribute to render the shape of the back of the flap.

SVG for flap
SVG coordinates in a <path> element representing the back of a flap.

2. Cross-window messaging API. Each fugitive sheet is rendered within an <iframe> on a page and the clickable layer navigation lives in its parent page, so they’re essentially two separate web pages presented as if one. Having a click in one page do something in another is possible through the Javascript method postMessage, part of the HTML5 spec.

  • From parent page to iframe: frame.contentWindow.postMessage(message, '*');
  • From iframe to parent page: window.top.postMessage(message, '*');

CSS3 Parts

  1. transition Property. Here’s where the flap animation action happens.  The flap elements all have the style declaration transition:1s ease-in-out. That ensures that when a flap property like height changes, it animates over the course of one second, slower at the start and end and quicker in the middle.  Clicking to open a flap calls a Javascript function that simultaneously switches the height of the flap front to zero and the back to its full size.
  2. transform Property. This scales down the figure and all its interactive components for display in the iframe, e.g., body.framed .flip-up-wrapper { transform:scale(.5) }; This scaling doesn’t apply in the full-size and zoomed-in views and thus enables the flaps to work identically at full- or half-resolution.

Capture & Encoding

Capture

Because the fugitive sheets are large and extremely fragile, our Digital Production Center staff and conservators worked carefully together to untangle and prop open each flap to be photographed separately. It often required two or more people to steady and flatten the flaps while being careful not to cast shadows on the layer being shot. I wasn’t there, but in my mind I imagine a game of library Twister.

Staff captured images using an overhead reproduction camera using white paper below each flap to make it easier to later determine and crop the contours. Unlike most images we digitize, the flaps’ derivative images are stored and delivered in PNG format to preserve transparency.

Encoding

As we do for all digital collections, we encode in an XML document the structural, administrative, and descriptive data about the digital objects using accepted library standards so that 1) the data can be preserved and ported between applications, and 2) we can use it to power our discovery & access interface. We use METS, a flexible Library of Congress standard for describing all kinds of digital objects.

METS worked pretty well for representing the flap data (see example), and we tapped into a few parts of the standard that we’ve never or rarely used for other items. Specifically, we:

  • added the LC MIX namespace for technical image metadata
  • used an amdSec to store flap heights & widths
  • used file/@GROUPID to divide flap images between figure 1, figure 2, etc.
  • used fptr/area/@COORDS to hold the SVG path coordinates for each flap

The descriptive metadata for the fugitive sheets posed its own challenges outside the box for our usual projects. All the information about the sheets existed as MARC catalog records, and crosswalking from MARC to anything else is more of an art than a science.

Looking Ahead

We’ll try to build on the accomplishments from the Fugitive Sheets Collection as we tackle new complex digitization projects. The History of Medicine Collections in particular are brimming with items that will be far more challenging than these sheets to model, like paginated flap books with fold-out pages and flaps that open in different directions. Undaunted, we’ll keep flapping our wings to stay aloft.

When MiniDiscs Recorded the Earth

My last several posts have focused on endangered audio formats: open reel tape, compact cassette, and DAT. Each of these media types boasted some advantages over their predecessors, as well as disadvantages that ultimately led to them falling out of favor with most consumers. Whether entirely relegated to our growing tech graveyard or moving into niche and specialty markets, each of the above formats has seen its brightest days and now slowly fades into extinction.

This week, we turn to the MiniDisc, a strange species that arose from Sony Electronics in 1992 and was already well on its way to being no more than a forgotten layer in the technological record by the time its production was discontinued in 2013.

IMG_1783

The MiniDisc was a magneto-optical disc-based system that offered 74 minutes of high-quality digital audio per disc (up to 320 minutes in long-play mode). It utilized a psychoacoustic lossy compression scheme (known as ATRAC) that allowed for significant data compression with little perceptible effect on audio fidelity. This meant you could record near perfect digital copies of CDs, tapes, or records—a revolutionary feat before the rise of writable CDs and hard disc recording. The minidisc platform was also popular in broadcasting and field recording. It was extremely light and portable, had excellent battery life, and possessed a number of sophisticated file editing and naming functions.

Despite these advantages, the format never grabbed a strong foothold in the market for several reasons. The players were expensive, retailing at $750 on launch in December 1992. Even the smaller portable Minidisc “Walkman” never dropped into the low consumer price range.  As a result, relatively few music albums were commercially released on the format. Once affordable CD-Rs and then mp3 players came onto the scene, the Minidisc was all but obsolete without ever truly breaking through to the mainstream.

IMG_1787

I recently unearthed a box containing my first and only Minidisc player, probably purchased used on eBay sometime in the early 2000’s. It filled several needs for me: a field recorder (for capturing ambient sound to be used in audio art and music), a playback device for environmental sounds and backing tracks in performance situations, and a “Walkman” that was smaller, held more music, and skipped less than my clunky portable CD player.

While it was long ago superceded by other electronic tools in my kit, the gaudy metallic yellow still evokes nostalgia. I remember the house I lived in at the time, walks to town with headphones on, excursions into the woods to record birds and creeks and escape the omnipresent hum of traffic and the electrical grid. The handwritten labels on the discs provide clues to personal interests and obsessions of the time: “Circuit Bends,” “Recess – Musique Concrete Master,” “Field Recordings 2/28/04,” “PIL – Second Edition, Keith Hudson – Pick A Dub, Sonic Youth – Sister, Velvet Underground – White Light White Heat.” The sounds and voices of family, friends, and creative collaborators populate these discs as they inhabit the recesses of my memory.

IMG_1780

While some may look at old technology as supplanted and obsolete, I refrain from this kind of Darwinism. The current renaissance of the supposedly extinct vinyl LP has demonstrated that markets and tastes change, and that ancient audio formats can be resurrected and have vital second lives. Opto-magnetic ghosts still walk the earth, and I hear them calling. I’m keeping my Minidisc player.

You’re going to lose: The inherent complexity, and near impossibility, of developing for digital collections

 

“Nobody likes you. Everybody hates you. You’re going to lose. Smile, you f*#~.”

Joe Hallenbeck, The Last Boy Scout

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 12.17.56 PMWhile I’m glad not to be living in a Tony Scott movie, on occasion I feel like Bruce Willis’ character near the beginning of “The Last Boy Scout.” Just look at some of the things they say about us.

Current online interfaces to primary source materials do not fully meet the needs of even experienced researchers. (DeRidder and Matheny)

The criticism, it cuts deep. But at least they were trying to be gentle, unlike this author:

[I]n use, more often than not, digital library users and digital libraries are in an adversarial position. (Saracevic, p. 9)

That’s gonna leave a mark. Still, it’s the little shots they take, the sidelong jabs, that hurt the most:

The anxiety over “missing something” was quite common across interviews, and historians often attributed this to the lack of comprehensive search tools for primary sources. (Rumer and Schonfeld, p. 16)

Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 10.57.02 AM
Item types in Tripod2.

I’m fond of saying that the youtube developers have it easy. They support one content type – and until recently, it was Flash, for pete’s sake – minimal metadata, and then what? Comments? Links to some other videos? Wow, that’s complicated.

By contrast, we’ve developed for no less than fifteen different item types during the life of Tripod2, the platform that we’ve used to provide discovery and access for Duke Digital Collections since March 2011. You want a challenge? Try building an interface for flippable anatomical fugitive sheets.  It’s one thing to create a feature allowing users to embed videos from a flat web-site structure; it’s quite another to allow it from a site loaded with heterogeneous content types, then extend it to include items nested within multiple levels of description in finding aids (for an example, see the “Southwest Georgia Voters Project” item here).

I think the problem set of developing tools for digitized primary sources is one of the most interesting areas in the field of librarianship, and for the digital collections team, it’s one of our favorite areas of work. However, the quotes that open this post (the ones not delivered by Bruce Willis, anyway) are part of a literature that finds significant disparity between the needs of the researchers who form our primary audience and the tools that we – collectively speaking, in the field of digital libraries – have built.

Our team has just begun work on our next-generation platform for digital collections, which we call Tripod3. It will be built on the Fedora/Hydra framework that our Digital Repository Services team is using to develop the Duke Digital Repository. As the project manager, I’m trying to catch up on the recent literature of assessment for digital collections, and consider how we can improve on what we’ve done in the past. It’s one of the main ways  we can engage with researchers, as I wrote about in a previous post.

One of the issues we need to address is the problem of archival context. It’s something that the users of digitized primary sources cite again and again in the studies I’ve read. It manifests itself in a few ways, and could be the subject of a lengthier piece, but I think Chassanoff gives a good sense of it in her study (pp. 470-1):

Overall, findings suggest that historians seem to feel most comfortable using digitized sources when an online environment replicates essential attributes found in archives. Materials should be obtained from a reputable repository, and the online finding aid should provide detailed description. Historians want to be able to access the entire collection online and obtain any needed information about an item’s provenance. Indeed, the possibility that certain materials are omitted from an online collection appears to be more of a concern than it is in person at an archives.

The idea of archival context poses what I think is the central design problem of digital collections. It’s a particular challenge because, while it’s clear that researchers want and require the ability to see an object in its archival context, they also don’t want it. By which I mean, they also want to be able to find everything in the same flat context that everything assumes with a retrieval service like Google.

Archival context implies hierarchy, using the arrangement of the physical materials to order the digital. We were supposed to have broken away from the tyranny of physical arrangement years ago. David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous trumpeted this change in 2007, and while we had already internalized what he called the “third order of order” by then, it is the unambiguous way of the world now.

With our Tripod2 platform, we built both a shallow “digital collections miscellany” interface at http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/, but later started embedding items directly in finding aids.  Examples of the latter include the Jazz Loft Project Records and the Alexander Stephens Papers. What we never did was integrate these two modes of publication for digitized primary sources. Items from finding aids do not appear in search results for the main digital collections site, and items on the main site do not generally link back to the finding aid for their parent collection, and not to the series in which they’re arranged.

While I might give us a passing grade for the subject of “Providing archival context,” it wouldn’t be high enough to get us into, say, Duke. I expect this problem to be at the center of our work on the next-generation platform.


Sources

 

Alexandra Chassanoff, “Historians and the Use of Primary Materials in the Digital Age,” The American Archivist 76, no. 2, 458-480.

Jody L. DeRidder and Kathryn G. Matheny, “What Do Researchers Need? Feedback On Use of Online Primary Source Materials,” D-Lib Magazine 20, no. 7/8, available at http://www.dlib.org/dlib/july14/deridder/07deridder.html

Jennifer Rumer and Roger C. Schonfeld, “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians: Final Report from ITHAKA S+R,” (2012), http://www.sr.ithaka.org/sites/default/files /reports/supporting-the-changing-research-practices-of-historians.pdf.

Tefko Saracevic, “How Were Digital Libraries Evaluated?”, paper first presented at the DELOS WP7 Workshop on the Evaluation of Digital Libraries (2004), available at http://www.scils.rutgers. edu/~tefko/DL_evaluation_LIDA.pdf

Launching One Person, One Vote

Promotional postcard for One Person, One Vote site.
Promotional postcard for One Person, One Vote site.

On Monday, March 2nd, the new website, One Person, One Vote: The Legacy of SNCC and the Fight for Voting Rightswent live. The launch represented an unprecedented feat of collaboration between activists, scholars, archivists, digital specialists, and students. In a year and a half, this group went from wanting to tell a grassroots story of SNCC’s voting rights activism to bringing that idea to fruition in a documentary website.

So what did it take to get there? The short answer is a dedicated group of people who believed in a common goal, mobilized resources, put in the work, and trusted each other’s knowledge and expertise enough to bring the project to life. Here’s a brief look at the people behind-the-scenes:

Advisory Board: Made up of representatives of the SNCC Legacy Project, Duke Libraries, and the Center for Documentary Studies, the Advisory Board tackled the monumental task of raising funds, making a way, and ensuring the future of the project.

Editorial Board: One Person, One Vote site has content galore. It features 82 profiles, multimedia stories, an interactive timeline, and map that collectively tell a story of SNCC’s voting rights activism. The enormous task of prioritizing content fell to the Editorial Board. Three historians, three SNCC veterans, and three Duke Libraries staff spent long hours debating the details of who and what to include and how to do it.

OPOVlogo_mediumProject Team: Once the Editorial Board prioritized content, it was the Project Team’s job to carry out the work. Made up of six undergrads, two grad students, and one intern, the Project Team researched and wrote profiles and created the first drafts of the site’s content.

Visiting Activist Scholars: SNCC veterans and Editorial Board members, Charlie Cobb and Judy Richardson, came to Duke during the 2014 – 2015 academic year to advise the Project Team and work with the Project Manager in creating content for One Person, One Vote. As the students worked to write history from the perspective of the activists and local people, the Visiting Activist Scholars guided them, serving as the project’s “SNCC eyes.”

OPOV_logo_textDesign Contractors: The One Person, One Vote Project hired The Splinter Group to design and create a WordPress theme for the site with input from the Editorial Board.

Duke Libraries Digital Specialists: The amazing people in Duke Libraries’ Digital Production Center and Digital Projects turned One Person, One Vote into a reality. They digitized archival material, built new features, problem-solved, and did a thousand other essential tasks that made One Person, One Vote the functional, sleek, and beautiful site that it is.

Of course, this is only the short list. Many more people within the SNCC Legacy Project, the Center for Documentary Studies, and Duke Libraries arranged meetings and travel plans, designed postcards and wrote press releases, and gave their thoughts and ideas throughout the process. One Person, One Vote is unquestionably the work of many and represents a new way for activists, scholars, and librarians to partner in telling a people’s history.

Notes from the Duke University Libraries Digital Projects Team