Effective Redundancy?: Using WordPress as an interface for CONTENTdm

In a partnership between the libraries of Vanderbilt University and Middle Tennessee State University, my colleagues and I produced a website entitled Shades of Gray and Blue: Reflections of Life in Civil War Tennessee. [www.civilwarshades.org] The website was done in WordPress, with themes and stories created as Pages, and objects added as Posts. It was designed by an interactive design company with the intention that we can manage it, tweak, continue to add posts, etc. in future. All good.

The original idea was to create a virtual thematic collection/exhibition of primary visual objects, with accompanying lesson plans, which would be valuable for teachers since it gathered usable images (72dpi) for teaching and presentations into one place, included curriculum standards in the lesson plans, and presented the conflict with easy entry points (as a series of human stories). For this, we hope the Shades of Gray and Blue  website will fulfill its purpose.

[More on our rationale for those who are interested: We want teachers and students to also use the digitized objects to create their own themes and stories, hope it might spark additional local research and also communicate on a meta level that: 1) history is composed from many stories and points of view, 2) history is written by a variety of scholars, and 3) previous narrative histories of Civil War Tennessee (particularly those written during the “Lost Cause” decades) did not convey the very random divisions of sympathy in all pockets of the state, the all out chaos and deprivations on the homefront, and the many ways of dealing with societal transitions during and after the war.]

BUT, because the creators were libraries who wanted to make certain that the site was eminently searchable and would function as a prominent “publication” on the world wide web, it was decided that we should also created a permanent digital collection in CONTENTdm as we gathered the digital images. CONTENTdm is recognizable as a valuable resource for scholars and we thought it would make many Tennessee objects “visible” for the first time. Shades of Gray and Blue, the CONTENTdm Collection, now accessible directly from the website on the Search/Research tab, will soon be accessed directly through MTSU’s Digital Collections home page.

While I had suggested we look into using Omeka since it seemed to be being developed for just this type of usage, the library folks felt strongly that we wanted to use this dual approach.
I wonder how effective or necessary this redundancy was? The two web locations serve somewhat different purposes and audiences and also function differently, but they are part of an essential whole. However, because the numbering, labeling systems differ for WordPress and CONTENTdm (not sure if there might have been a way to anticipate this and design a one-size-fits-all log of objects?) it has created some confusion and a little frustration among those of us who are working on the back end.

Has anyone worked with a similar situation and solved it differently?

eReaders as Content Delivery Systems

Last fall I was awarded an internal grant to experiment with using an iPad in the classroom.  For the most part, the iPad was superfluous.  I was leading a graduate level seminar, and as a group we lacked the imagination on how to use the technology to enhance discussion.  It became a running joke that the only time we used the iPad was to look up some arcane fact, often on wikipedia.

But for the last class we read Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum, and Nina made the full book available for download for free as a pdf or in any format for an eReader (iPad, Kindle, etc.). This suddenly raised some interesting questions about how we, as readers, were consuming texts.

For various reasons, my students often don’t buy their books, opting to use copies from the library.  (Keep thinking about printed books while recognizing that USC’s library allows students to rent iPads.) Nina’s generosity allowed students to experiment with different formats to read the text.  Despite being freely available in digital format, about half the class (6 students) still opted to buy the physical book, 2 students read the book online in pdf form, and 4 read it on eReaders.

The experiment made me think about how we visualize books, which may be a bit out of scope for this working group, but I would argue is a cantilever (not necessarily a full bridge) to visualizing other types of information.

I have a lousy memory for content, but I am great at remembering where I read something, and it is a very visual memory.  I can remember what side of a page the information was on and how the page was laid out (paragraph blocking, section breaks, etc.).  This makes it very easy for me to look things up.

The static page is now gone.  My 300-page book became a 900-page eBook, which could dynamically change depending on how big I wanted the font.  The flow of the digital page made it difficult for me to remember specific content.  The differences in formats made discussion with reference to the text more challenging.

I am curious how dynamic digital texts are changing our comprehension and retention of all types of information.  Does anyone know of anyone who is tracking this (in formal or informal settings)?

Out of the Vaults and into Your Hands

I have an idea for a project that I have been batting around for a few years, but so far have lacked the funding or institutional support to move forward with any great speed.  The concept is simple:  I would like to digitally reverse the diaspora of objects from museum vaults back to their original site of creation of use.

I would like to create an app that asserts the primacy of place in object-based learning.  Basically, I would like to be able to walk down the street and have my phone tell me what museums have saved stuff from the site.  In my ideal vision, the app would draw from all types of museums, so you could see artifacts from art museums or history museums, small museums or national institutions.  Perhaps I should settle for a working prototype of a few objects/repositories.

I have been working with a group of graduate students to develop an online exhibit based on the textile industry in Columbia, SC.  We are tracing the history of Olympia Mills, which was a grand structure when it was constructed in 1899.  (It is listed on the National Registry.)  The mill closed in 1996.  It has since been converted to apartments.

The National Museum of American History happens to have the original architectural drawings for the mill, as part of the Lockwood Greene collection.  I would like to georectify these drawings with the current interior design of the building, so that the apartment dwellers could visualize the history the space.  For example, show that their bed sits where a loom once was.  Then link to a stereoview from the South Caroliniana Library that shows a row of looms.

But right now this is mostly a dream, and I think I need to do some more groundwork in order to secure funding.  I am going to set a personal goal of trying to conduct some front-end evaluation of Olympia Mills residents before our working group convenes at NCPH.

Here are some initial thoughts for questions:

  • Did you know that the Smithsonian has the original drawings for Olympia Mills?
  • Why do you think the Smithsonian saved them?
  • What do you know about the history of this site?
  • Would you like to know what your apartment looked like when this building was a functioning mill?

What other types of questions do you think I should ask in a front-end evaluation?  Can anybody point me to other similar projects/resources?

How many types of visualizations?

I spend a lot of time reading blogs about data visualization (probably too much, which is why I haven’t been contributing any longer posts to this blog!). My favorite is Nathan Yau’s FlowingData. A few days ago he published a link to an article from ACM (the Association for Computing Machinery — a wonderfully anachronistic handle) called Interactive Dynamics for Visual Analysis. The authors write, “The goal of this article is to assist designers, researchers, professional analysts, procurement officers, educators, and students in evaluating and creating visual analysis tools. We present a taxonomy of interactive dynamics that contribute to successful analytic dialogues.” I don’t understand all of the technical details, but the taxonomy is certainly relevant to our discussion about visualizing the past. Plus, I like the idea of visualization as one mode of “data-wrangling” — i.e., another tool for historians to use to make sense of an incomplete historical record with too many data points.