Tag Archives: rubenstein_fugitivesheets

FY15: A Year in Digital Projects

We experience a number of different cycles in the Digital Projects and Production Services Department (DPPS). There is of course the project lifecycle, that mysterious abstraction by which we try to find commonalities in work processes that can seem unique for every case. We follow the academic calendar, learn our fate through the annual budget cycle, and attend weekly, monthly, and quarterly meetings.

The annual reporting cycle at Duke University Libraries usually falls to departments in August, with those reports informing a master library report completed later. Because of the activities and commitments around the opening of the Rubenstein Library, the departments were let off the hook for their individual reports this year. Nevertheless, I thought I would use my turn in the Bitstreams rotation to review some highlights from our 2014-15 cycle.

Loads of accomplishments after the jump …

Continue reading FY15: A Year in Digital Projects

Fugitive Sheets Wrapup at TRLN 2015

Rachel Ingold (Curator for the History of Medicine Collections at the Rubenstein Library) and I co-presented yesterday at the TRLN Annual Conference 2015 in Chapel Hill, NC:

Raising the Bar for Lifting the Flaps: An Inside Look at the Anatomical Fugitive Sheets Digital Collection at Duke

Sean Aery, Digital Projects Developer, Duke
Rachel Ingold, Curator for the History of Medicine Collections, Duke

Duke’s Digital Collections program recently published a remarkable set of 16th-17th century anatomical fugitive sheets from The Rubenstein Library’s History of Medicine Collections. These illustrated sheets are similar to broadsides, but feature several layers of delicate flaps that lift to show inside the human body. The presenters will discuss the unique challenges posed by the source material including conservation, digitization, description, data modeling, and UI design. They will also demonstrate the resulting digital collection, which has already earned several accolades for its innovative yet elegant solutions for a project with a high degree of complexity.

Here are our slides from the session:

For more information on the project, see Rachel’s post introducing the collection and mine explaining how it works. Finally, Ethan Butler at Cuberis also posted a great in-depth look at the technology powering the interface.

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


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.


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.

The History of Medicine’s Anatomical Fugitive Sheet Digital Collection

As Curator for the History of Medicine Collections in the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, I have the opportunity to work with incredible items, including Renaissance era amputation saws, physician case books from the nineteenth century, and anatomical illustrations with moveable parts, just to name a few.

One of the Anatomical Fugitive Sheets with flap down.
Same image as the previous one, but with top flap up.

In my opinion, our holdings of anatomical fugitive sheets are some of the most remarkable and rare items one can find in historical medical collections. Our collection includes ten of these sheets, and each one is fascinating for its own reasons.

These anatomical fugitive sheets, which date from the early sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries, are single sheets, similar to broadsides, that are unique in that they contain overlays or flaps that lift to reveal the inside of the human body.

I have read arguments that such items would have been used by barber surgeons or medical students, but others say these were hung in apothecary shops or purchased and kept by individuals with an interest in knowing what was inside their body. After almost 500 years, it is amazing that these anatomical fugitive sheets still exist. While we do have a few sheets that have lost some or all of their flaps, I think it’s fascinating to examine where flaps are broken. Somehow these broken and missing parts make these sheets more real to me – a reminder that each one has a story to tell. How and when did the flap get torn? How would this have really been used in 1539?

After the success of our Animated Anatomies exhibit, many of my colleagues and I have been discussing how to make our materials that contain flaps available online. I can tell you, it’s no easy task, but I am thrilled that we now have a digital version of our collection of anatomical fugitive sheets. With funding from the Elon Clark Endowment, a local custom web design firm, Cuberis, was outsourced to create the code, making these items interactive. Our own amazing Digital Collections Team not only photographed each overlay, but also took the code and applied it to DUL’s digital collection site, making it all work freely to a public audience.

There are so many people involved in making something like this happen. Thanks to Mark Olson, Cordelia and William Laverack Family Assistant Professor of Art, Art History & Visual Studies here at Duke University, for his role in getting this project started. And here in the DUL – a huge thanks to Erin Hammeke (Conservation), Mike Adamo and Molly Bragg (Digital Production Center), Noah Huffman and Lauren Reno (Rubenstein Library Technical Services), Will Sexton, Cory Lown, and especially Sean Aery (Digital Projects Department). They are an incredible team that makes beautiful things happen. Obviously.

Post contributed by Rachel Ingold