Category Archives: Duke Digital Repository

Announcing New Features in the Duke Digital Repository

Last week the Duke University Libraries (DUL) development team released a new version of the Duke Digital Repository (DDR), which is the preservation and access platform for digitized, born digital, and purchased library collections. DDR is developed and maintained by DUL staff and it is built using Samvera, Valkyrie and Blacklight components (read all about our migration to Valkyrie which concluded in early 2020).

Look at that beautiful technical metadata!

The primary goal of our new repository features are to provide better support for and access to born digital records. The planning for this work began more than 2 years ago, when the Rubenstein Libraries’ Digital Records Archivist joined the Digital Collections Implementation Team (DCIT) to help us envision how DDR and our workflows could better support born digital collections. Conversations on this topic began between the Rubenstein Library and Digital Strategies and Technology well before that.

Back in 2018, DCIT developed a list of user stories to address born digital records as well as some other longstanding needs. At the time we evaluated each need based on its difficult and impact and then developed a list of high, medium and low priority features.  Fast forward to late 2019, and we designated 3 folks from DCIT to act as product owners during development.  Those folks are our Metadata Architect (Maggie Dickson), Digital Records Archivist ([Matthew] farrell), and me (Head of Digital Collections and Curation Services). Development work began in earnest in Jan/February and now after many meetings, user story refinements, more meetings, and actual development work here we are!

Notable new features include:

  • Metadata only view of objects: restrict the object but allow the public to search and discover its metadata
  • Expose technical metadata for components in the public interface
  • Better access to full text search in CONTENTdm from DDR

As you can see above we were able to fit in a few non-born digital records related features. This is because one of our big priorities is finishing the migration from our legacy Tripod 2 platform to DDR in 2020. One of the impediments to doing so (in addition migrating the actual content) is that Tripod 2 connects with our CONTENTdm instance, which is where we provide access to digitized primary sources that require full text search (newspapers and publications primarily). The new DDR features therefor include enhanced links to our collections in CONTENTdm.

We hope these new features provide a better experience for our users as well as a safe and happy home for our born digital records!

Search full text link on a collection landing page.
Example of the search within an item interface

 

 

ArcLight Migration: A Status Update After Three Months of Work

On January 20, 2020, we kicked off our first development sprint for implementing ArcLight at Duke as our new finding aids / collection guides platform. We thought our project charter was solid: thorough, well-vetted, with a reasonable set of goals. In the plan was a roadmap identifying a July 1, 2020 launch date and a list of nineteen high-level requirements. There was nary a hint of an impending global pandemic that could upend absolutely everything.

The work wasn’t supposed to look like this, carried out by zooming virtually into each other’s living rooms every day. Code sessions and meetings now require navigating around child supervision shifts and schooling-from-home responsibilities. Our new young office-mates occasionally dance into view or within earshot during our calls. Still, we acknowledge and are grateful for the privilege afforded by this profession to continue to do our work remotely from safe distance.

So, a major shoutout is due to my colleagues in the trenches of this work overcoming the new unforeseen constraints around it, especially Noah Huffman, David Chandek-Stark, and Michael Daul. Our progress to date has only been possible through resilience, collaboration, and willingness to keep pushing ahead together.

Three months after we started the project, we remain on track for a summer 2020 launch.

As a reminder, we began with the core open-source ArcLight platform (demo available) and have been building extensions and modifications in our local application in order to accommodate Duke needs and preferences. With the caveat that there’ll be more changes coming over the next couple months before launch, I want to provide a summary of what we have been able to accomplish so far and some issues we have encountered along the way. Duke staff may access our demo app (IP-restricted) for an up-to-date look at our work in progress.

Homepage

Homepage design for Duke’s ArcLight finding aids site.
  • Duke Branding. Aimed to make an inviting front door to the finding aids consistent with other modern Duke interfaces, similar to–yet distinguished enough from–other resources like the catalog, digital collections, or Rubenstein Library website.
  • Featured Items. Built a configurable set of featured items from the collections (with captions), to be displayed randomly (actual selections still in progress).
  • Dynamic Content. Provided a live count of collections; we might add more indicators for types/counts of materials represented.

Layout

A collection homepage with a sidebar for context navigation.
  • Sidebar. Replaced the single-column tabbed layout with a sidebar + main content area.
  • Persistent Collection Info. Made collection & component views more consistent; kept collection links (Summary, Background, etc.) visible/available from component pages.
  • Width. Widened the largest breakpoint. We wanted to make full use of the screen real estate, especially to make room for potentially lengthy sidebar text.

Navigation

Component pages contextualized through a sidebar navigator and breadcrumb above the main title.
  • Hierarchical Navigation. Restyled & moved the hierarchical tree navigation into the sidebar. This worked well functionally in ArcLight core, but we felt it would be more effective as a navigational aid when presented beside rather than below the content.
  • Tooltips & Popovers. Provided some additional context on mouseovers for some navigational elements.

    Mouseover context in navigation.
  • List Child Components. Added a direct-child list in the main content for any series or other component. This makes for a clear navigable table of what’s in the current series / folder / etc. Paginating it helps with performance in cases where we might have 1,000+ sibling components to load.
  • Breadcrumb Refactor. Emphasized the collection title. Kept some indentation, but aimed for page alignment/legibility plus a balance of emphasis between current component title and collection title.

    Breadcrumb trail to show the current component’s nesting.

Search Results

Search results grouped by collection, with keyword highlighting.
  • “Group by Collection” as the default. Our stakeholders were confused by atomized components as search results outside of the context of their collections, so we tried to emphasize that context in the default search.
  • Revised search result display. Added keyword highlighting within result titles in Grouped or All view. Made Grouped results display checkboxes for bookmarking & digitized content indicators.
  • Advanced Search. Kept the global search box simple but added a modal Advanced search option that adds fielded search and some additional filters.

Digital Objects Integration

Digital objects from the Duke Digital Repository are presented inline in the finding aid component page.
  • DAO Roles. Indexed the @role attribute for <dao> elements; we used that to call templates for different kinds of digital content
  • Embedded Object Viewers. Used the Duke Digital Repository’s embed feature, which renders <iframe>s for images and AV.

Indexing

  • Whitespace compression. Added a step to the pipeline to remove extra whitespace before indexing. This seems to have slightly accelerated our time-to-index rather than slow it down.
  • More text, fewer strings. We encountered cases where note-like fields indexed as strings by ArcLight core (e.g., <scopecontent>) needed to be converted to text because we had more than 32,766 bytes of data (limit for strings) to put in them. In those cases, finding aids were failing to index.
  • Underscores. For the IDs that end up in a URL for a component, we added an underscore between the finding aid slug and the component ID. We felt these URLs would look cleaner and be better for SEO (our slugs often contain names).
  • Dates. Changed the date normalization rules (some dates were being omitted from indexing/display)
  • Bibliographic ID. We succeeded in indexing our bibliographic IDs from our EADs to power a collection-level Request button that leads a user to our homegrown requests system.

Formatting

  • EAD -> HTML. We extended the EAD-to-HTML transformation rules for formatted elements to cover more cases (e.g., links like <extptr> & <extref> or other elements like <archref> & <indexentry>)

    Additional formatting and link render rules applied.
  • Formatting in Titles. We preserved bold or italic formatting in component titles.

ArcLight Core Contributions

  • We have been able to contribute some of our code back to the ArcLight core project to help out other adopters.

Setting the Stage

The behind-the-scenes foundational work deserves mention here — it represents some of the most complex and challenging aspects of the project.  It makes the application development driving the changes I’ve shared above possible.

  • Built separate code repositories for our Duke ArcLight application and our EAD data
  • Gathered a diverse set of 40 representative sample EADs for testing
  • Dockerized our Duke ArcLight app to simplify developer environment setup
  • Provisioned a development/demo server for sharing progress with stakeholders
  • Automated continuous integration and deployment to servers using GitLabCI
  • Performed targeted data cleanup
  • Successfully got all 4,000 of our finding aids indexed in Solr on our demo server

Our team has accomplished a lot in three months, in large part due to the solid foundation the ArcLight core software provides. We’re benefiting from some amazing work done by many, many developers who have contributed their expertise and their code to the Blacklight and ArcLight codebases over the years. It has been a real pleasure to be able to build upon an open source engine– a notable contrast to our previous practice of developing everything in-house for finding aids discovery and access.

Still, much remains to be addressed before we can launch this summer.

The Road Ahead

Here’s a list of big things we still plan to tackle by July (other minor revisions/bugfixes will continue as well)…

  • ASpace -> ArcLight. We need a smoother publication pipeline to regularly get data from ArchivesSpace indexed into ArcLight.
  • Access & Use Statements. We need to revise the existing inheritance rules and make sure these statements are presented clearly. It’s especially important when materials are indeed restricted.
  • Relevance Ranking. We know we need to improve the ranking algorithm to ensure the most relevant results for a query appear first.
  • Analytics. We’ll set up some anonymized tracking to help monitor usage patterns and guide future design decisions.
  • Sitemap/SEO. It remains important that Google and other crawlers index the finding aids so they are discoverable via the open web.
  • Accessibility Testing / Optimization. We aim to comply with WCAG2.0 AA guidelines.
  • Single-Page View. Many of our stakeholders are accustomed to a single-page view of finding aids. There’s no such functionality baked into ArcLight, as its component-by-component views prioritize performance. We might end up providing a downloadable PDF document to meet this need.
  • More Data Cleanup. ArcLight’s feature set (especially around search/browse) reveals more places where we have suboptimal or inconsistent data lurking in our EADs.
  • More Community Contributions. We plan to submit more of our enhancements and bugfixes for consideration to be merged into the core ArcLight software.

If you’re a member of the Duke community, we encourage you to explore our demo and provide feedback. To our fellow future ArcLight adopters, we would love to hear how your implementations or plans are shaping up, and identify any ways we might work together toward common goals.

Stay safe, everyone!

Beyond One Thousand Words

There is a particular fondness that I hold for digital photograph collections. If I had to pinpoint when this began, then I would have to say it started while digitizing material on a simple Epson flatbed scanner as an undergraduate student worker in the archives.

Witnessing the physical become digital is a wonder that never gets old.

Every day we are generating digital content. Pet pics. Food pics. Selfies. Gradually building a collection of experiences as we document our lives in images. Sporadic born digital collections stored on devices and in the cloud.

I do not remember the last time I printed a photograph.

My parents have photo albums that I love. Seeing images of them, then us. The tacky adhesive and the crinkle of thin plastic film as it is pulled back to lift out a photo. That perfect square imprint left behind from where the photo rested on the page.

Pretty sure that Polaroid camera is still around somewhere.

Time bound up in a book.

Beyond their visual appeal, I appreciate how photos capture time. Nine months have passed since I moved to North Carolina. I started 2019 in Chicago and ended it in Durham. These photos of my Winter in both places illustrate that change well.

Sometimes I want to pull down my photos from the cloud and just print everything. Make my own album. Have something with heft and weight to share and say, “Hey, hold and look at this.” That sensory experience is invaluable.

Yet, I also value the convenience of being able to view hundreds of photos with the touch of a button.

Duke University Libraries offers access to thousands of images through its Digital Collections.

Here’s a couple photo collections to get you started:

Duke Digital Repository Evolution and a new home page

After nearly a year of work, the libraries recently launched an updated version of the software stack that powers parts the Duke Digital Repository. This work primarily centered around migrating the underlying software in our Samvera implementation — which we use to power the DDR — from ActiveFedora to Valkyrie. Moving to Valkyrie gives us the benefits of improved stability along with the flexibility to use different storage solutions, which in turn provides us with options and some degree of future-proofing. Considerable effort was also spent on updating the public and administrative interfaces to use more recent versions of blacklight and supporting software.

ddr admin interface
Administrative interface for the DDR

We also used this opportunity to revise the repository landing page at repository.duke.edu and I was involved in building a new version of the home page. Our main goals were to make use of a header implementation that mirrored our design work in other recent library projects and that integrated our ‘unified’ navigation, while also maintaining the functionality required by the Samvera software.

Old DDR Homepage
DDR home page before the redesign

We also spent a lot of time thinking about how best to illustrate the components of the Duke Digital Repository while trying to keep the content simple and streamlined. In the end we went with a design that emphasizes the two branches of the repository; Library Collections and Duke Scholarship. Each branch in turn links to two destinations — Digitized Collections / Acquired Materials and the Research Data Repository / DukeSpace. The overall design is more compact than before and hopefully an improvement aesthetically as well.

new DDR homepage
Redesigned DDR home page

We also incorporated a feedback form that is persistent across the interface so that users can more readily report any difficulties they encounter while using the platform. And finally, we updated the content in the footer to help direct users to the content they are more than likely looking for.

Future plans include incorporating our header and footer content more consistently across the repository platforms along with bringing a more unified look and feel to interface components.

Check out the new design and let us know what you think!

Digital Collections 2019

‘Tis the time of year for top 10 lists. Here at Duke Digital Collections HQ, we cannot just pick 10, because all our digital collections are tops!  What follows is a list of all the digital collections we have launched for public access this calendar year.

Our newest collections include a range of formats and subject areas from 19th Century manuscripts to African American soldiers photograph albums to Duke Mens Basketball posters to our first Multispectral Images of papyrus to be ingested into the repository.  We also added new content to 4 existing digital collections.  Lastly, our platform migration is still ongoing, but we made some incredible progress this year as you will see below.  Our goal is to finish the migration by the end of 2020.

New Digital Collections

Additions to Existing Collections

Migrated Collections into the Duke Digital Repository

 

 

 

 

A Statement of Commitment

The featured image is from a mockup of a new repositories home page that we’re working on in the Libraries, planned for rollout in January of 2020.

Working at the Libraries, it can be dizzying to think about all of our commitments.

There’s what we owe our patrons, a body of so many distinct and overlapping communities, all seeking to learn and discover, that we could split the library along an infinite number of lines to meet them where they work and think.

There’s what we owe the future, in our efforts to preserve and share the artifacts of knowledge that we acquire on the market, that scholars create on our own campus, or that seem to form from history and find us somehow.

There’s what we owe the field, and the network of peer libraries that serve their own communities, each of them linked in a web of scholarship with our own. Within our professional network, we seek to support and complement one another, to compete sometimes in ways that move our field forward, and to share what we learn from our experiences.

The needs of information technology underlie nearly all of these activities, and to meet those needs, we have an IT staff that’s modest in size, but prodigious in its skill and its dedication to the mission of the Libraries. Within that group, the responsibility for creating new software, and maintaining what we have, falls to a small team of developers and devops engineers. We depend on them to enhance and support a wide range of platforms, including our web services, our discovery platforms, and our digital repositories.

This fall, we did some reflection on how we want to approach support for our repository platforms. The result of that reflection was a Statement of Commitment to Repositories Support and Development, a document of roughly a page that expresses what we consider to be our values in this area, and the context of priorities in which we do that work.

The committee that created the statement was our Digital Preservation and Publishing Program, or DP3 as call it in house. We summarized our values as “openness, community and peer engagement, and independence from vended platforms,” which have “guided us to build our repositories on open source software platforms.” We place that work within the context of very large, looming priorities like our transition to FOLIO as our Library Services Platform, and the project to renovate Lilly Library. There are others, not mentioned in the statement, that fill the pages of this blog.

The statement is explicit that we will not seek to find alternative platforms for our repository services in the next several years, and in particular while the FOLIO transition is underway. This decision is informed by our recognition that migration of content and services across platforms is complex and expensive. It’s also a recognition that we have invested a lot into these existing platforms, and we want to carve out as much space as we can for our talented staff to focus on maintaining and improving them, rather than locking ourselves into all-consuming cycles of content migration.

From a practical perspective, and speaking as the manager who oversees software development in the Libraries, I see this statement as part of an overall strategy to bring focus to our work. It’s a small but important symbolic measure that recognizes the drag that we create for our software team when give in to our urge to prioritize everything. 

The phrase “context switching” is one that we have borrowed from the parlance of operating systems to describe the effects on a developer of working on multiple projects at once. There are real costs to moving between development environments, code bases, and architectures on the same day, in the same week, during the same sprint, or within even an extended work cycle. We also call this problem “multi-tasking,” and the penalty it imposes of performance is well documented

Even more than performance, I think of it as a quality of life concern. People are generally happier and more invested when they’re able to do quality work. As a manager, I can work with scheduling and planning to try to mitigate those effects of multitasking on our team. But the responsibility really lies with the organization. We have our commitments, and they are vast in size and scope. We owe it to ourselves to do some introspection now and again, and ask what we can realistically do with what we have, or more accurately, who we are.

What we talk about when we talk about digital preservation

(Header image: Illustration by Jørgen Stamp digitalbevaring.dk CC BY 2.5 Denmark)

Here at Duke University Libraries, we often talk about digital preservation as though everyone is familiar with the various corners and implications of the phrase, but “digital preservation” is, in fact, a large and occasionally mystifying topic. What does it mean to “preserve” a digital resource for the long term? What does “the long term” even mean with regard to digital objects? How are libraries engaging in preserving our digital resources? And what are some of the best ways to ensure that your personal documents will be reusable in the future? While the answers to some of these questions are still emerging, the library can help you begin to think about good strategies for keeping your content available to other users over time by highlighting agreed-upon best practices, as well as some of the services we are able to provide to the Duke community.

File formats

Not all file formats have proven to be equally robust over time! Have you ever tried to open a document created using a Microsoft Office product from several years ago, only to be greeted with a page full of strangely encoded gibberish? Proprietary software like the products in the Office suite can be convenient and produce polished contemporary documents. But software changes, and there is often no guarantee that the beautifully formatted paper you’ve written using Word will be legible without the appropriate software 5 years down the line. One solution to this problem is to always have a version of that software available to you to use. Libraries are beginning to investigate this strategy (often using a technique called emulation) as an important piece of the digital preservation puzzle. The Emulation as a Service (EaaS) architecture is an emerging tool designed to simplify access to preserved digital assets by allowing end users to interact with the original environments running on different emulators.

An alternative to emulation as a solution is to save your files in a format that can be consumed by different, changing versions of software. Experts at cultural heritage institutions like the Library of Congress and the US National Archives and Records Administration have identified an array of file formats about which they feel some degree of confidence that the software of the future will be able to consume. Formats like plain text or PDFs for textual data, value separated files (like comma-separated values, or CSVs), MP3s and MP4s for audio and video data respectively, and JPEGs for still images have all proven to have some measure of durability as formats. What’s more, they will help to make your content or your data more easily accessible to folks who do not have access to particular kinds of software. It can be helpful to keep these format recommendations in mind when working with your own materials.

File format migration

The formats recommended by the LIbrary of Congress and others have been selected not only because they are interoperable with a wide variety of software applications, but also because they have proven to be relatively stable over time, resisting format obsolescence. The process of moving data from an obsolete format to one that is usable in the present day is known as file format migration or format conversion. Libraries generally have yet to establish scalable strategies for extensive migration of obsolete file formats, though it is generally a subject of some concern.

Here at DUL, we encourage the use of one of these recommended formats for content that is submitted to us for preservation, and will even go so far as to convert your files prior to preservation in one of our repository platforms where possible and when appropriate to do so. This helps us ensure that your data will be usable in the future. What we can’t necessarily promise is that, should you give us content in a file format that isn’t one we recommend, a user who is interested in your materials will be able to read or otherwise use your files ten years from now. For some widely used formats, like MP3 and MP4, staff at the Libraries anticipate developing a strategy for migrating our data from this format, in the event that the format becomes superseded. However, the Libraries do not currently have the staff to monitor and convert rarer, and especially proprietary formats to one that is immediately consumable by contemporary software. The best we can promise is that we are able to deliver to the end users of the future the same digital bits you initially gave to us.

Bit-level preservation

Which brings me to a final component of digital preservation: bit-level preservation. At DUL, we calculate a checksum for each of the files we ingest into any of our preservation repositories. Briefly, a checksum is an algorithmically derived alphanumeric hash that is intended to surface errors that may have been introduced to the file during its transmission or storage. A checksum acts somewhat like a digital fingerprint, and is periodically recalculated for each file in the repository environment by the repository software to ensure that nothing has disrupted the bits that compose each individual file. In the event that the re-calculated checksum does not match the one supplied when the file has been ingested into the repository, we can conclude with some level of certainty that something has gone wrong with the file, and it may be necessary to revert to an earlier version of the data. THe process of generating, regenerating, and cross-checking these checksums is a way to ensure the file fixity, or file integrity, of the digital assets that DUL stewards.

Resonance of a Moment

Resonance: the reinforcement or prolongation of sound by reflection from a surface or by the synchronous vibration of a neighboring object

(Lexico, 2019)

Nearly 4 months have passed since I moved to Durham from my hometown Chicago to join Duke’s Digital Collections & Curation Services team. With feelings of reflection and nostalgia, I have been thinking on the stories and memories that journeys create.

I have always believed a library the perfect place to discover another’s story. Libraries and digital collections are dynamic storytelling channels that connect people through narrative and memory. What are libraries if not places dedicated to memories? Memory made incarnate in the turn of page, the capturing of an image.

Memory is sensation.

In my mind memory is ethereal – wispy and nebulous. Like trying to grasp mist or fog only to be left with the shimmer of dew on your hands. Until one focuses on a detail, then the vision sharpens. Such as the soothing warmth of a pet’s fur. A trace of familiar perfume in the air as a stranger walks by. Hearing the lilt of an accent from your hometown. That heavy, sticky feeling on a muggy summer day.

Memories are made of moments.

I do not recall the first time I visited a library. However, one day my parents took me to the library and I checked out 11 books on dinosaurs. As a child I was fascinated by them. Due to watching so much of The Land Before Time and Jurassic Park no doubt. One of the books had beautiful full-length pullout diagrams. I remember this.

Experiences tether individuals together across time and place. Place, like the telling of a story is subjective. It holds a finite precision which is absent in the vagueness and vastness of space. This personal aspect is what captures a person when a tale is well told.  A corresponding chord is struck, and the story resounds as listeners see themselves reflected.

When a narrative reaches someone with whom it resonates, its impact can be amplified beyond any expectations.

There are many unique memories and moments held in the Duke University Libraries digital collections. Come take a journey and explore a new story.

My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together. ~Desmond Tutu

Celebrating a New Duke Digital Collections Milestone with Section A

Duke Digital Collections recently passed 100,000 items!

 

Last week, it was brought to our attention that Duke Digital Collections recently passed 100,000 individual items found in the Duke Digital Repository! To celebrate, I want to highlight some of the most recent materials digitized and uploaded from our Section A project. In the past, Bitstreams has blogged about what Section A is and what it means, but it’s been a couple of years since that post, and a little refresher couldn’t hurt.

What is Section A?

In 2016, the staff of Rubenstein Research Services proposed a mass digitization project of Section A. This is the umbrella term for 175 boxes of different historic materials that users often request – manuscripts, correspondence, receipts, diaries, drawings, and more. These boxes contain around 3,900 small collections that all had their own workflows. Every box needs consultations from Rubenstein Research Services, review by Library Conservation Department staff, review by Technical Services, metadata updates, and more, all to make sure that the collections could be launched and hosted within the Duke Digital Repository. 

In the 2 years since that blog post, so much has happened! The first 2 Section A collections had gone live as a sort of proof-of-concept, and as a way to define what the digitization project would be and what it would look like. We’ve added over 500 more collections from Section A since then. This somehow barely even scratches the surface of the entire project! We’re digitizing the collections in alphabetical order, and even after all the collections that have gone online, we are currently still only on the letter “C”! 

Nonetheless, there is already plenty of materials to check out and enjoy. I was a student of history in college, so in this blog post, I want to particularly highlight some of the historic materials from the latter half of the 19th century.

Showing off some of Section A

Clara Barton’s description of the Grand Hotel de la Paix in Lyon, France.

In 1869, after her work as a nurse in the Civil War, Clara Barton traveled around Europe to Geneva, Switzerland and Corsica, France. Included in the Duke Digital Collections is her diary and calling cards from her time there. These pages detail where she visited and stayed throughout the year. She also wrote about her views on the different European countries, how Americans and Europeans compare, and more. Despite her storied career and her many travels that year, Miss Barton felt that “I have accomplished very little in a year”, and hoped that in 1870, she “may be accounted worthy once more to take my place among the workers of the world, either in my own country or in some other”.

Back in America, around 1900, the Rev. John Malachi Bowden began dictating and documenting his experiences as a Confederate soldier during the Civil War, one of many that a nurse like Miss Barton may have treated. Although Bowden says he was not necessarily a secessionist at the beginning of the Civil War, he joined the 2nd Georgia Regiment in August 1861 after Georgia had seceded. During his time in the regiment, he fought in the Battles of Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania Court House, and more. In 1864, Union forced captured and held Bowden as a prisoner at Maryland’s Point Lookout Prison, where he describes in great detail what life was like as a POW before his eventual release. He writes that he was “so indignant at being in a Federal prison” that he refused to cut his hair. His hair eventually grew to be shoulder-length, “somewhat like Buffalo Bill’s.”

Speaking of whom, Duke Digital Collections also has some material from Buffalo Bill (William Frederick Cody), courtesy of the Section A initiative. A showman and entertainer who performed in cowboy shows throughout the latter half of the 19th century, Buffalo Bill was enormously popular wherever he went. In this collection, he writes to a Brother Miner about how he invited seventy-five of his “old Brothers” from Bedford, VA to visit him in Roanoke. There is also a brief itinerary of future shows throughout North Carolina and South Carolina. This includes a stop here in Durham, NC a few weeks after Bill wrote this letter.

Buffalo Bill’s letter to his “Brother Miner”, dated October 17, 1916.

Around this time, Walter Clark, associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, began writing his own histories of North Carolina throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Three of Clark’s articles prepared for the University Magazine of the University of North Carolina have been digitized as part of Section A. This includes an article entitled “North Carolina in War”, where he made note of the Generals from North Carolina engaged in every war up to that point. It’s possible that John Malachi Bowden was once on the battlefield alongside some of these generals mentioned in Clark’s writings. This type of synergy in our collection is what makes Section A so exciting to dive into.

As the new Still Image Digitization Specialist at the Duke Digital Production Center, seeing projects like this take off in such a spectacular way is near and dear to my heart. Even just the four collections I’ve highlighted here have been so informative. We still have so many more Section A boxes to digitize and host online. It’s so exciting to think of what we might find and what we’ll digitize for all the world to see. Our work never stops, so remember to stay updated on Duke Digital Collections to see some of these newly digitized collections as they become available. 

Web Accessibility: Values and Vigilance

The Duke Libraries are committed to providing outstanding service based on respect and empathy for the diverse backgrounds and needs in our community. Our guiding principles make clear how critically important diversity and inclusion are to the library, and the extent to which we strive to break down barriers to scholarship.

One of the biggest and most important barriers for us to tackle is the accessibility of our web content. Duke University’s Web Accessibility site sums it up well:

Duke believes web content needs to be accessible to people with a wide range of abilities, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological abilities.

Screenshot of Duke Web Accessibility homepage
The Duke Web Accessibility website is a tremendous resource for the Duke community.

This belief is also consistent with the core values expressed by the American Library Association (ALA). A library’s website and online resources should be available in formats accessible to people of all ages and abilities.

Web Content

As one of the largest research libraries in the U.S., we have a whole lot of content on the web to consider.

Our website alone comprises over a thousand pages with more than fifty staff contributors. The library catalog interface displays records for over 13 million items at Duke and partner libraries. Our various digital repositories and digital exhibits platforms host hundreds of thousands of interactive digital objects of different types, including images, A/V, documents, datasets, and more. The list goes on.

Any attempt to take a full inventory of the library’s digital content reveals potentially several million web pages under the library’s purview, and all that content is managed and rendered via a dizzying array of technology platforms. We have upwards of a hundred web applications with public-facing interfaces. We built some of these ourselves, some are community-developed (with local customizations), and others we have licensed from vendors. Some interfaces are new, some are old. And some are really old, dating all the way back to the mid-90s.

Ensuring that this content is equally accessible to everyone is important, and it is indeed a significant undertaking. We must also be vigilant to ensure that it stays accessible over time.

With that as our context, I’d like to highlight a few recent efforts in the library to improve the accessibility of our digital resources.

Style Guide With Color Contrast Checks

In January 2019, we launched a new catalog, replacing a decade-old platform and its outdated interface. As we began developing the front-end, we knew we wanted to be consistent, constrained, and intentional in how we styled elements of the interface. We were especially focused on ensuring that any text in the UI had sufficient contrast with its background to be accessible to users with low vision or color-blindness.

We tried out a few existing “living style guide” frameworks. But none of them proved to be a good fit, particularly for color contrast management. So we ended up taking a DIY approach and developed our own living style guide using Javascript and Ruby.

Screenshot of the library catalog style guide showing a color palette.
The library catalog’s living style guide dynamically checks for color contrast accessibility.

Here’s how it works. In our templates we specify the array of color variable names for each category. Then we use client-side Javascript to dynamically measure the hex & RGB values and the luminance of each color in the guide. From those figures, we return score labels for black and white contrast ratios, color-coded for WCAG 2.0 compliance.

This style guide is “living” in that it’s a real-time up-to-date reflection of how elements of the UI will appear when using particular color variable names and CSS classes. It helps to guide developers and other project team members to make good decisions about colors from our palette to stay in compliance with accessibility guidelines.

Audiovisual Captions & Interactive Transcripts

In fall 2017, I wrote about an innovative, custom-developed feature in our Digital Repository that renders interactive caption text for A/V within and below our media player. At that time, however, none of our A/V items making use of that feature were available to the public.  In the months since then, we have debuted several captioned items for public access.

We extended these features in 2018, including: 1) exporting captions on-the-fly as Text, PDF, or original WebVTT files, and 2) accommodating transcript files that originated as documents (PDF, Word)

Screenshot of an interactive transcript with export options
WebVTT caption files for A/V are rendered as interactive HTML transcripts and can be exported into text or PDF.

Two of my talented colleagues have shared more about our A/V accessibility efforts at conferences over the past year. Noah Huffman presented at ARCHIVES*RECORDS (Joint Annual Meeting of CoSA, NAGARA, and SAA) in Aug 2018. And Molly Bragg presented at Digital Library Federation (DLF) Forum (slides) in Nov 2018.

Institutional Repository Accessibility

We have documented our work over 2018 revitalizing DSpace at Duke, and then subsequently developing a new set of innovative features that highlight Duke researchers and the impact of their work. This spring, we took a closer look at our new UI’s accessibility following Duke’s helpful guide.
In the course of this assessment, we were able to identify (and then fix!) several accessibility issues in DukeSpace. I’ll share two strategies in particular from the guide that proved to be really effective. I highly recommend using them frequently.

The Keyboard Test

How easy is it to navigate your site using only your keyboard? Can you get where you want to go using TAB, ENTER, SPACE, UP, and DOWN?  Is it clear which element of the page current has the focus?
Screenshot of DukeSpace homepage showing skip to content link
A “Skip to main content” feature in DukeSpace improves navigation via keyboard or assistive devices.
This test illuminated several problems. But with a few modest tweaks to our UI markup, we were able to add semantic markers to designate page sections and a skip to main content link, making the content much more navigable for users with keyboards and assistive devices alike.

A Browser Extension

If you’re a developer like me, chances are you already spend a lot of time using your browser’s Developer Tools pane to look under the hood of web pages, reverse-engineer UIs, mess with styles and markup, or troubleshoot problems.
The Deque Systems aXe Chrome Extension (also available for Firefox) integrates seamlessly into existing Dev Tools. It’s a remarkably useful tool to have in your toolset to help quickly find and fix accessibility issues. Its interface is clear and easy to understand. It finds and succinctly describes accessibility problems, and even tells you how to fix them in your code.
An image from the Deque aXe Chrome extension site showing the tool in action.
With aXe testing, we quickly learned we had some major issues to fix. The biggest problems revealed were missing form labels and page landmarks, and low contrast on color pairings. Again, these were not hard to fix since the tool explained what to do, and where.
Turning away from DSpace for a moment, see this example article published on a popular academic journal’s website. Note how it fares with an automated aXe accessibility test (197 violations of various types found).  And if you were using a keyboard, you’d have to press Tab over 100 times in order to download a PDF of the article.
Screenshot of aXe Chrome extension running on a journal website.
UI for a published journal article in a publisher’s website after running the aXe accessibility test. Violations found: 197.

Now, let’s look at the open access copy of that same article that resides in our DukeSpace site. With our spring 2019 DukeSpace accessibility revisions in place, when we run an aXe test, we see zero accessibility violations. Our interface is also now easily navigated without a mouse.

Screenshot or DukeSpace UI showing no violations found by aXe accessibility checker
Open access copy of an article in DukeSpace: No accessibility violations found.

Here’s another example of an open access article in DukeSpace vs. its published counterpart in the website of a popular journal (PNAS).  While the publisher’s site markup addresses many common accessibility issues, it still shows seven violations in aXe. And perhaps most concerning is that it’s completely unnavigable via a keyboard: the stylesheets have removed all focus styles from displaying.

Concluding Thoughts

Libraries are increasingly becoming champions for open access to scholarly research. The overlap in aims between the open access movement and web accessibility in general is quite striking. It all boils down to removing barriers and making access to information as inclusive as possible.

Our open access repository UIs may never be able to match all the feature-rich bells and whistles present in many academic journal websites. But accessibility, well, that’s right up our alley. We can and should do better. It’s all about being true to our values, collaborating with our community of peers, and being vigilant in prioritizing the work.

Look for many more accessibility improvements throughout many of the library’s digital resources as the year progresses.


Brief explanatory note about the A11Y++ image in this post: A11Y is a numeronym — shorthand for the word “accessibility” and conveniently also visually resembling the word “ally.” The “++” is an increment operator in many programming languages, adding one to a variable.