About Sheila

I work as the Associate Director of Public Projects, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. I currently work on the Omeka project that gives institutions and individuals the opportunity to display cultural heritage materials in different ways. And, I use digital collections in my own research on collecting (stamps, in particular) and ways that history museums use the web.

I Want to Use Your Collections!

I love Joan’s post, because it gets at many issues I have been working through both professionally with the Omeka project and also through my own research that relies on access to cultural heritage collections for analysis.

During the WebWise unconference, “WiseCamp,” I led a session called, “What Do You Want Me to do with your Collections?” I proposed this from the perspectives of both a historian and material culturist researcher and as a digital historian who helps cultural heritage institutions build and publish collections online. Although the tables were overflowing with participants, very few of the had experience tracking visitor use or asking visitors how they would use those digital collections. This was primarily the case, because so few of them had digital collections. The Balboa Park Online Collaborative and the Walker Art Center were the two organizations in our session that very carefully consider their users’ needs and usage of their digital content. Many other participants wanted to hear from me, and I wanted to get them to talk about engaging in different audiences through their collections in an online environment.

This was a relatively small sampling, mostly from IMLS grant-funded projects. But, from my experience and research on how history museums use the web, I would say it is not atypical.

As Joan mentioned, I have proposed that making more material culture collections available in online formats may help to better integrate those types of sources and approaches to interpreting the past into history and humanities scholarship. And that the longer museum collections are missing from the digital world, their collections and these approaches could be marginalized again.

When I look to test out new digital tools, some that can help to visualize large collections of data, I find it hard to use it with many of my sources about stamp collecting processes, collecting cultures, and the stamps themselves.

So, for the working group, I thought I would tackle the task and test a new-to-me tool for creating a visualization of US commemorative stamps (1892-1940) using the Image Plot software created by Lev Manovich and the Software Studies Initiative at San Diego State University. They have created one of the few pieces of software for working with images to investigate entire collections together. I had some stamp images already and a list of commemoratives, so I thought it wouldn’t take too much time to complete. I’m still not done although there is a chance that I might finish.

As I’ve mentioned before, getting the data in a useable format is often the hardest part. Still, I pushed forward and installed the software, which runs on PCs and Macs. I started to make a CSV file that listed the name, issue, year, and file name of each commemorative stamp from 1892-1940 thinking I had all of that information. I did, sort of, in a table in a Word doc, so the data needed some cleaning and some additions. Then, I found that I needed many more stamp images than I had in my own files. I ended up grabbing low-res images from a philatelic site, because it was more accessible for copying than the Postal Museum’s Arago site, which prevents users from downloading their beautifully-photographed stamp images because of copyright restrictions. (I’m still lost on this one since those are federally-printed publications.) The next step entails processing the images through the software.

We all want our research to be easier in a variety of ways. This is one area, where I would like more access to cultural heritage collections so I can play around with it, and then I’d like to share that newly-created thing back with the institution(s) whose objects I’m incorporating. Europeana, DigitalNZ, Digital Library of Australia, and the Library of Congress’s Chronicling Americaproject are standing as good models for openness and sharing of cultural heritage data. In the case of the Digital Library of Australia and the LC, these collections remain mostly documents and text–still privileging those types of sources.

I look forward to discussing these challenges and opportunities to enrich and enhance uses of digital heritage collections from both the institutional side and from the perspective of different researchers who want to use those collections for their own purposes.

Challenges of Representing and Finding Collections Online

When thinking about our session on ways to visualize the past through cultural heritage collections, I found that my ideas fell into two broad categories: how institutions might visualize individual objects and collections; and how researchers might want to use those objects and data for their own research. What follows in this post are some of my initial thoughts about what museums and individuals are doing now and challenges facing them.

Institutions often represent individual digital objects with a visual, like a photo with a caption and some metadata. Still, very few museums, libraries, or archives are doing much else to communicate visual details and meaning of physical objects online.

    Visualizing for Individual Objects:

  • Scale: One of the biggest challenges in representing artifacts with digital images online is to illustrate scale. ArtsConnectEd is one of the few sites I know of that deals with scale by including dimensions and by using a visualization of a hand, elephant, building, to communicate scale: http://www.artsconnected.org/resource/21248/12/8.
  • Movement: Two-dimensional images of 3D objects are generally all that is available, while dimensions, depth, and full examination of an object can be difficult to visualize as a user. QTVR is not used very often, even though this type of software that sews together multiple images of an object to create a 3D representation has been available for nearly 10 years. While possible, this process can be time consuming. Few history museums incorporate an inexpensive option of using short videos to can create a similar effect.
    Visualizing Object Networks

  • Pieces of a Whole: Most history objects are related to other objects and embedded in stories about their production, exchanges, owners, uses, significance. Some of these things are part of a set, one of many related pieces–think of pieces of the USS Maine spread out across US—or panels from the Migration series, a factory whose pieces have gone in many directions. Though it is possible to re-connect disparate pieces online, this practice often is not done. One example is the King’s Kunstkammer, a partial reconstruction of the Royal Danish Kunstkammer (a large cabinet of curiosities) that currently exists in several physical collections held in several different museums. http://www.kunstkammer.dk/GBindex.shtml The design tried to mimic a cabinet and the idea of rooms, which actually is useful in visualizing the cabinet as assembled by the King.
  • Geographical Movement: Representing the geographic life of an object, visually, is extremely challenging since most mapping software only allows an item to contain one location. Are there ways to store lat-long data that can be mapped to show how an object is created and migrates, such as the life of a t-shirt (field-to-factory analogy)? A researcher could create their own visualization of an object using their own map, but it would be nice if an institution could represent its objects connecting multiple data points on the same map.

As a researcher, I may want to use and interact with online collections to create some of these networks, for instance, but am often foiled by step one: finding collections and data online! I’ve found in my survey of US history museums that only 17 percent of those museums provide a searchable databases for users (level of data available varies by institution), while 37 percent offer no collections information at all (not even a finding aid or a summary). If you are interested in objects, there just isn’t much there.

Once I locate relevant collection objects online, often there is no way to harvest data, other than by copying and pasting into a database that I create. For example, the Arago site contains a huge online database of postal history resources, but I can’t get any of it out of Argo easily. A small number of museums offer APIs, and finding public OAI-PMH sets is challenging.

Once I, or an institution, create a database of object data, there are tools like ViewShare that then offers options for visualizing this object data that can then be shared. But, the task of formatting, entering/creating, normalizing data requires a lot of labor ahead of time, and even more so if a museum works at the object level or is creating unique networks for objects (recording individual videos, adding icons that symbolize scale, geolocating).

One option for institutions would to make their collections available and the data harvestable in some way. LAMs might find that researchers are more than willing to share their “curated” data back with the institution for others to see/use/learn.

Most of what I outlined above probably seems extremely obvious. The reason for sharing these thoughts was to keep in mind that while there are different ways to represent collections and to use collections data to formulate new scholarly questions, a lot of work is involved just getting to the stage of creating a visualization.

I am most interested in working with the group to see if we can figure out ways to visualize movement/migration of items (could apply to people too), and to represent networks of objects or an object’s network.