All posts by Will Sexton

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, 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.



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

Jennifer Rumer and Roger C. Schonfeld, “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians: Final Report from ITHAKA S+R,” (2012), /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

Holiday Notes from the Homefront and Abroad

The following is a series of loosely linked stories, loosely based on our digital collections, and loosely related to the holidays, where even the word “loosely” is applied with some looseness.


War ration book one. Ration order no. 3.

An American looking forward to baking delicious treats for the holidays in 1942 would have been intimately familiar with War Ration Book One. The Office of Price Administration issued Ration Order No. 3 in April of that year, and distributed the ration books via elementary schools in the first week of May. Holders could purchase one pound of sugar every two weeks between May 5 and June 27. By the end of the year, butter, coffee, and other foods joined the list of regulated goods.

As the holidays approached, the newspapers ran articles advising homemakers how to cope with the unavailability of key ingredients. Vegetable shortening could help stretch butter, molasses made cookies prone to burning, and fruit juice was a natural sweetener. The New Orleans Times-Picayune’s “Round Table Talk About Food” exhorted homemakers to make the best of it:

There is something stimulating this approaching holiday time in planning Christmas meals and gift packages or baskets with those substitute items we are permitted to use, rather than with the usual abundance of foods to suit every whim of the appetite.

"YMCA Christmas, Children" (1917-1919)
“YMCA Christmas, Children” (1917-1919)

I wrote before about how YMCA missionaries took basketball overseas after its invention, including to Japan. Did they also take Santa beards to China?

“Certificate of registration to buy, sell, and transfer men’s rubber boots and rubber work shoes.” Ration order no. 6, September 29, 1942.

The Office of Price Administration provided Duke Law alum Richard Nixon with his first job in Washington, beginning in January of 1942. Rubber was his area of focus. He was industrious and diligent in his work, and by March, had been promoted to “acting chief of interpretations in the Rubber Branch.

But the life of a government regulator was not to be for Dick Nixon. He joined the Navy in August, and by year’s end found himself serving at an airfield in Ottumwa, Iowa.

– Summarized from Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, by Conrad Black.

True story. Terry Sanford spent December 21 and 22 of 1944 riding in a convoy that took the 1st Battalion of the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team from Soissons, France to the town of Soy in Belgium. His unit fought Germans for the next few days, losing more than a hundred men, in the conflagration that became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

They were able to sleep on Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning, there was roasted turkey, but at noon orders came to take a hill, which they did. The next day, they held it, repelling a German counterattack.

In the action, Sanford tackled a German officer, disarmed him, and drove him off for interrogation. Years later, he speculated that the man was probably shot before being processed as a POW, as retaliation against a recent massacre of American troops.

Sanford would write home that “things are going well in this country,” and they had “[m]ore food than elsewhere,” without explaining why there was more to go around.

While riding with his commander, Lt. Colonel “Wild Bill” Boyle, shortly after the New Year, he was wounded. He later received the Purple Heart.

– Summarized from Terry Sanford: Politics, Progress, and Outrageous Ambitions, Howard E. Covington and Marion A. Ellis.

December 24, 1940 entry from Mary McMillan’s journal.

Mary McMillan’s 1940 journal tells of her experiences as a missionary in Japan. Her entry for Christmas Eve of 1940 reads:

To doctor’s for sinus treatment, then down on Ginza shopping for Christmas presents: perfume for Umeko, a dog purse for Eiko, cookies for Mrs. Natsuzoe, toys for Mineko san and Masao chan. Lunch of fried oysters and fresh strawberries in Olympic Grille.

Brought Eiko home for her first Christmas. Tried to tell her the Christmas Story, but my limited knowledge of Japanese and her excitement made direct teaching impossible. Was up wrapping presents till almost mid-night.

A month later she wrote of talks with “Bishop Abe, and Ambassador Grew:”

They advised us to begin making preparations to leave Japan – as is we were certain that war were coming and we were sure to be called home by our Board.”

Her next entry, dated “Feb. 29, ‘41,” is headed “Homeward Bound.”

Hanukah Variant spellings for hanukkah occur three times in the OCR text of our 1960s Duke Chronicle collection. (Due to the imprecision of OCR, the actual occurrences may be more).

A photograph on the front page of the December 17, 1968, issue depicts a Star of David hanging on the side of a building. The caption reads, “It is now Hanukah, ‘the festival of lights.’”

At the top of that page, the lead story of the issue is headlined, “X-Mas amnesty asked for draft dodgers.” It reports that the “cabinet of the YMCA” at Duke had resolved to write to President Johnson on the matter. Of course, Johnson was a lame duck by then. That same day, the New York Times reported that he had spent an hour conferring with John Mitchell, Nixon’s incoming Attorney General.

Wind Song Haldeman J. Walter Thompson Company News, November 30, 1960, the two lead articles:



Eight years later, the newsletter noted the appointments of Haldeman and his subordinate, Ron Ziegler, to the White House staff. Haldeman would serve as Nixon’s Chief of Staff, and later did 18 months in prison for his role in the Watergate coverup. Ziegler became White House Press Secretary.

Sit in
Sit in, Allen Building. December, 1967.

On November 17, 1967 – the Friday before Thanksgiving – the Chronicle ran a story about Terry Sanford and his newly published book, Storm over the States. He started writing Storm soon after leaving the NC governor’s office in 1965. Supported by the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, he holed up in an office at Duke, hired a staff, and wrote about a model for state government that is federalist but proactive and constructive. Sanford’s point of view stood in stark, if unmentioned, contrast to the doctrines of “nullification” and states’ rights that segregationists like George Wallace wielded in their opposition to Civil Rights.

That Friday ended a tumultuous week at Duke. The lead story that same day was headlined “Knight bans use of segregated facilities by student groups.” The school’s president, Douglas Knight, had “re-interpreted” a university policy statement prohibiting the use of off-campus facilities that discriminated on the basis of race. Knight extended the policy, purported to apply to staff and faculty organizations, to include student organizations as well.

The previous week, the student body had defeated a referendum that would have had the same effect. Black students reacted by staging a sit in at Knight’s office (one holding a sign that read “Students Await An Overdue Talk With Our WHITE KNIGHT”), demanding that he take action. Knight acceded, complaining in his statement that “the application of this practice would have been made in the normal course of events,” but “we were confronted with an ultimatum, which carried with it a threat of disruption of the ordinary processes of the University.”

Confrontations between the administration and black students continued to escalate, leading to the Allen Building takeover in 1969, Knight’s resignation, and his succession by Terry Sanford.

First Days Back in Japan Mary McMillan’s journals stretch from 1939 to 1991. Her “1939” journal actually contains entries from the 1940s, though there are significant gaps. In October of 1942 she wrote of traveling to Delta, Utah. She didn’t mention her purpose, and no other entries appear from that period, but she was heading to Utah to teach in the Topaz Relocation Center, an internment camp for Japanese Americans. En route, she wrote:

Those nice Marine recruits who got on our train in St. Louis shouldn’t be required to go so far from home to fight for objectives that seem to me not to be in keeping with United Nations Aims, as given in the Atlantic Charter.  Why should Japan “be crushed”? The military mind there – and elsewhere – must be forced from power; but are we on the right track towards achieving that objective? I fear most of us have become too material-minded. By following methods resulting from our materialistic thinking, we only create atmospheres for other hostile “spiritual” forces – like Naziism.

Then, the week of Christmas in 1947 she traveled to Seattle, and embarked on a return to Japan. She arrived in Hiroshima in January, the first Christian missionary to return after the war. She lived there for more than thirty years before retiring.

On page 4 of the December 17, 1967 issue of the Chronicle – just below the article about Terry Sanford’s Storm Over the States – this ad ran: RoadGoesEverOn I have to believe at least a few students and faculty got the book or the record as stocking stuffers that year.

Can we make an Age of Engagement?

Screen capture of the American Memory home page, January 1988. From the Wayback Machine.
Screen capture of the American Memory home page, January 1988. From the Wayback Machine.

An era ended with an email that I got a few weeks ago from the Library of Congress.

Maybe I’m being a bit dramatic, but the LoC informed us that its venerable American Memory site would no longer include records and links to Historic American Sheet Music and Emergence of Advertising in America, the two digital collections that Duke University Libraries built with grants from the LoC and Ameritech ca. 1996-1998. Since then, the email explained,

[T]he Internet has changed significantly. Search engines have dramatically improved; users have come to expect that the most relevant content to their search query will be found regardless of its location on the web. Users no longer rely on browsing through aggregated directories of content but instead find discrete pages via searching and following related links. In the environment dominated by search engines, duplication can detract from an item’s findability, rather than enhance it.

While we’ll miss the juicy web stats that we got from American Memory referrals, it’s hard to argue with the message’s logic, its summary of user expectations, and the desire of the LoC to simplify its architecture and remove dependencies on the bit-rotting sites of the original Ameritech grant recipients. Still, the end of a long-term relationship tends to make one reflective. It got me thinking about the history of digital collections in libraries, and how we in the field have passed through two distinct ages, roughly a decade each, and now enter a third which, to some extent, is ours to make.

Continue reading Can we make an Age of Engagement?

Digital collections places I have and have not been

The era in which libraries have digitized their collections and published them on the Internet is less than two decades old. As an observer and participant during this time, I’ve seen some great projects come online. For me, one stands out for its impact and importance – the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives, which is Library of Congress’ collection of 175,000 photographs taken by employees of the US government in the 1930s and 40s.

The FSA photographers produced some of the most iconic images of the past century. In the decades following the program, they became known via those who journeyed to D.C. to select, reproduce, and publish in monographs, or display in exhibits. But the entire collection, funded by the federal government, was as public as public domain gets. When the LoC took on the digitization of the collection, it became available in mass. All those years, it had been waiting for the Internet.

"Shopping and visiting on main street of Pittsboro, North Carolina. Saturday afternoon." Photo by Dorothea Lange. A few blocks from the author's home.
“Shopping and visiting on main street of Pittsboro, North Carolina. Saturday afternoon.” Photo by Dorothea Lange. A few blocks from the author’s home.

The FSA photographers covered the US. This wonderful site built by a team from Yale can help you determine whether they passed through your hometown. Between 1939 and 1940, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, and Jack Delano traveled through the town and the county where I live, and some 73 of their photos are now online. I’ve studied them, and also witnessed the wonderment of my friends and neighbors when they happen upon the pictures. The director of the FSA program, Roy Stryker, was one of the visionaries of the Twentieth Century, but it took the digital collection to make the scope and reach of his vision apparent.

Photography has been an emphasis of our own digital collections program over the years. At the same time that the FSA traveled to rural Chatham County on their mission of “introducing America to Americans,” anonymous photographers employed by the RC Maxwell Company shot their outdoor advertising installations in places like Atlantic City, New Jersey and Richmond, Virginia. Maybe they were merely “introducing advertising to advertisers,” but I like to think of them as our own mini-Langes and mini-Wolcotts, freezing scenes that others cruised past in their Studebakers.

The author at Kamakura, half a lifetime ago. Careful coordination of knock-off NBA cap with wrinkled windbreaker was a serious concern among fashion-conscious young men of that era.
The author at Kamakura.

Certainly the most important traveling photographer we’ve published has been Sidney Gamble, an American who visited Asia, particularly China, on four occasions between 1908 and 1932. As with the FSA photos, I’ve spent time studying the scenes of places known to me. I’ve never been to China or Siberia, but I did live in Japan for a while some years ago, and come back to photos of a few places I visited – or maybe didn’t – while I was there.

The first place is the Great Buddha at Kamakura. It’s a popular tourist site south of Tokyo; I visited with some friends in 1990. Our collection has four photographs by Gamble of the Daibutsu. I don’t find anything particular of interest in Gamble’s shots, just the unmistakable calm and grandeur of the same scene I saw 60+ years later.

More intriguing for me, however, is the photo that Gamble took of the YMCA* in Yokohama, probably in 1917. For a while during my stay in Japan, I lived a few train stops from Yokohama, and got involved in a weekly game of pickup basketball at the Y there. I don’t remember much about the exterior of the building, but I recall the interior as somewhat funky, with lots of polished wood and a sweet wooden court. It was very distinctive for Tokyo and environs – a city where most of the architecture is best described as transient and flimsy, designed to have minimum impact when flattened by massive forces like earthquakes or bombers. I’ve always wondered if the building in Gamble’s photo was the same that I visited.

* According to his biography on Wikipedia, Gamble was very active in the YMCA both at home and in his travels. 

YMCA, Yokohama — 横滨的基督教青年会. Taken by Sidney Gamble, possibly 1917.
YMCA, Yokohama — 横滨的基督教青年会. Taken by Sidney Gamble, possibly 1917.

So I began to construct a response to this question based entirely on my own fading memories, some superficial research, and a fractional comprehension of a series of youtube videos on the history of the YMCA in Yokohama. To begin with, a screenshot of Google street view of the Yokohama YMCA in 2011 shows a building quite different from the original.

Google street view of the YMCA in Yokohama, 2011.
Google street view of the YMCA in Yokohama, 2011.

The youtube video includes a photograph of a building, clearly the same as the one in Gamble’s photograph, that was built in 1884. There are shots of people playing basketball and table tennis, and the few details of the interior look a lot like the place I remember. Could it be the same?

Screen shot of the Yokohama YMCA building from video, "Yokohama YMCA History 1."
Screen shot of the Yokohama YMCA building from video, “Yokohama YMCA History 1.”
The YMCA building in Yokohama, showing damage from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.
The YMCA building in Yokohama, showing damage from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

But then we see the building damaged from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. That the structure was standing at all would have been remarkable. You can easily search and find images of the astonishing devastation of that event, but I’ll let these harrowing words from a correspondent of The Atlantic convey the scale of it.

Yokohama, the city of almost half a million souls, had become a vast plain of fire, of red, devouring sheets of flame which played and flickered. Here and there a remnant of a building, a few shattered walls, stood up like rocks above the expanse of flame, unrecognizable. There seemed to be nothing left to burn. It was as if the very earth were now burning.

Henry W. Kinney, “Earthquake Days.”The Atlantic, January 1, 1924.

According to my understanding of the video, the YMCA moved into another building in 1926. Based on the photos of the interior, my guess is that it was the same building where I visited in the early 1990s. The shots of basketball and table tennis from earlier might have been taken inside this building, even if the members of the Y engaged in those activities in the original.

Still, I couldn’t help but ask – would the Japanese have played basketball in the original building, between the game’s invention in 1891 and the earthquake in 1923? It seemed anachronistic to me, until I looked into it a little further.

We’ve all heard that the inventor of basketball, James Naismith, was on the faculty at Springfield College in Massachusetts, but the name of the place has changed since 1891, when it was known as the YMCA International Training School .** The 18 men who played in the first game became known in basketball lore as the First Team. Some of them served as apostles for the game, spreading it around the world under the banner of the YMCA. One of them, a man named Genzabaro Ishikawa, took it to Japan.

** The organization proudly claims the game as its own invention.

It’s not hard to imagine Ishikawa making a beeline from the ship when it docked at Yokohama to the YMCA. If so, it makes the building that Gamble shot one of the sanctified sites of the sport, like many shrines since ruined but replaced. Sure it was impressive to gaze up at a Giant Buddha cast in bronze some 800 years prior, but what I really like to think about is how that sweet court I played on in Yokohama bears a direct line of descent from the origins of the game.

A Sketch for Digital Projects at DUL

What happens when an IT manager suffering from administrivia-induced ennui gets ahold of dia and starts browsing The Noun Project.
The inevitable result, when an IT manager suffering from Acute Administrivia-Induced Ennui gets ahold of dia and starts browsing The Noun Project.

We have all these plans and do all this work with the digital collections and the projects and what have you. Plan-plan-plan, work-work-work, and plan and work some more. Some things get done, others don’t, as we journey for that distant horizon, just on the other side of which lies, “Hooray, we finally got it!”

I started to draw a map for the next phases of that journey a few days ago, and it was going to be really serious. All these plans – repository migration, exhibit platform, workflow management, ArchivesSpace – would be represented in this exacting diagram of our content types and platforms and their interrelations. It might even have multiple sheets, which would layer atop one another like transparencies, to show the evolution of our stuff over time. UML books more than ten years old would be dusted off in the production of this diagram.

Almanac-Detail1Then my brain started to hurt, and I found myself doodling in response. I started having fun with it. You might even say I completely dorked out on it. Thus you have the “Sketch for an almanac of digital projects at Duke University Libraries” above.

Placing whimsical sea monster icons on a field of faux design elements took a lot of my time this week, so I’m afraid I’m not able to write any more about the diagram right now. However, provided it doesn’t prove a source of embarrassment and regret, I might revisit it in the near future.

About “Digital Collections”

When users see the phrase “Digital Collections” how are they to know it’s where they’ll find these photos of Fidel Castro looking in his fridge for leftovers?
We have a problem with “Digital Collections.” It’s a phrase that’s exclusive to libraries and librarians, mysterious to patrons and web site users, and inadequate for its purpose. It describes what it references with about the same precision that “athletic endeavor” describes a Duke-UNC basketball game.

Yet it seems a given that libraries use the phrase to refer to their online installations of digitized primary sources from unique or rare collections. I remember talking about “digital collections” when I was a graduate student in Information and Library Science in the 1990s; the phrase just seemed to stick in our field, despite having almost no meaning outside of it.

We use it at Duke, and our usability studies show  time and again that it’s one of the least understood things on our web site. People tend to be excited when they find our collections and understand what they are. We just seem to have a problem providing the context they need to get there.

I don’t  have the answer to the problem today, but I’ve begun to do some thinking on how libraries cue web site users on their digitized collections, how we describe the resources, and how we might better convey what we’re doing for our audience. At Duke, we’re preparing to update our design for our “Digital Collections,” and my hope is that when we’ve finished, we’re calling it something entirely different.