From the History and the Digital Image Forum of the October 2012 issue of Perspectives on History
Viewshare: Digital Interfaces as Scholarly Activity
Trevor Owens and Jefferson Bailey, October 2012
The Google-style search box has, through its ubiquity and ease of use, become our default interface to digital content, and has codified a style of interaction with digital collections. We have become conditioned to thinking about searches as a simple process of queries that create long lists of results. But historians, archivists, and curators also know that search and browse are imperfect tools for illuminating change over time, connections between different sets of categorical information, or the spatial relationships between objects. The search box is only one of a range of ways to interact with digital collections. Search can enhance resource discovery, but it does not always enhance intellectual discovery.
Digital objects and data are endlessly multifaceted. They can have attached to them metadata regarding their location in space and time, provenance, use, ownership, and their relationship to other objects. When accessed through the right interface, they can be displayed on maps, plotted on timelines, and viewed through an ever-growing array of interactive visual interfaces. Visualizations quite literally offer a perspective—an interpretation of how one can think about and understand a collection of materials. As David Staley suggested (nearly 10 years ago), the visualizations made possible by new technology can thoroughly change our understanding of the past. The process of creating visualizations is not merely a means to provide access, but is in itself a mode of scholarly inquiry. Visualization can be thought of as part of a hermeneutic research process: "generative and iterative, capable of producing new knowledge through the aesthetic provocation."1 In short, the development of an interface to a collection is itself an interpretive act that brings to light particular vectors for further exploration and interpretation.
With these ideas in mind, the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program at the Library of Congress created Viewshare, a free, easy-to-use web application for creating dynamic visual interfaces to cultural heritage collections (viewshare.org). Through Viewshare, an archivist, curator, scholar, or student can create visualizations that allow her to explore a collection in ways not possible via a simple text search. Viewshare empowers users to uncover collection-wide relations not always evident through traditional item-by-item browsing or searching.
This is best illustrated through a Viewshare of the Fulton Street Trade Card Collection, a set of 245 late 19th- and early 20th-century merchant trade cards housed at the Brooklyn Public Library. The cards are a rich source of material for work on the history of Brooklyn, advertising, and a range of other topics. The physical collection generated sufficient patron interest to prompt the library to digitize it and make freely available online—from the Library's website, one can browse the lists of cards alphabetically by address, business, or creator, or search through the collection's metadata. Like many digital collections, those who know what they are looking for can find it, but no tools are provided for precise comparison or a broader exploration of the collection. The metadata reveals little about aggregate patterns and relationships between cards. When accessed through Viewshare, however, new connections and relationships emerge.
For example the map display of the Fulton Street trade cards draws our attention to the spatial relationship between the producers of these cards. Without seeing these cards displayed on a map it would have been very hard to have a sense of how they were distributed, but once we plot them on a map it is instantly clear that the collection is much more dense on the western side of Fulton Street than the eastern.
There are a number of platforms available for hosting and display of images and data; what makes Viewshare unique is how it allows users to create their own multifaceted exhibits through a simple web-based interface, without writing a line of code. A user simply has to upload a spreadsheet of the collection's data, including links to web-accessible image files. She can then begin building new, interactive views. The entire process uses a simple drag-and-drop interface. If the uploaded data includes place names, Viewshare can convert them to points of latitude and longitude. This allows users to add maps with clickable pins at the relevant location. Each pin can provide thumbnail images and selected metadata elements. Other elements, for example a category, person, or topic, can be added as "facets." By adding a facet to the view, a user can click on any facet element—such as subject heading "flowers" in the above example—and the map will update to show only the location of "flower" trade cards. Adding other facets, such as date or business type, enables the user to further narrow the geographic display.
The system currently allows users to create a range of other views, including charts, galleries of images, more detailed list views, sortable tables, and timelines. It also enables them to add a number of facets, including sliders to shift date ranges, and weighted tag clouds to display text values for a given element based on frequency of appearance. Each of these components—multiple visualization methods, faceting features—can be quickly assembled to create an interface that builds on and illuminates the qualities of a given set of items. The resulting views become rich ways to interact with and explore the relationships between items in a collection.
Although the web has transformed our ability to access digital and digitized source material, scholars have only begun to explore ways to connect those sources for new understanding. Viewshare provides new ways to visualize and analyze archival collections as easily as possible. By providing these new levels of interactivity, the project also hopes to accomplish the larger goal of encouraging both users and collection managers to see their collections as not merely composed of discreet items, but as coherent data sets which can be explored and interpreted to form new knowledge. In this sense, Viewshare supports ongoing and widespread efforts to involve existing cultural heritage assets in the growing use of information visualization in digital humanities research, and provides cultural stewards a free, intuitive tool for the display and use of digital collections. We are delighted to invite historians, archivists, curators, and students associated with libraries, archives, museums, and universities to make use of this free and open tool.
Trevor Owens is a digital archivist with the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program at the Library of Congress.
Jefferson Bailey is the strategic initiatives manager at Metropolitan New York Library Council.
1. Martyn Jessop offers a substantive argument for the interpretive value of visualization in "Digital visualization as a scholarly activity." Literary and Linguistic Computing 23:3 (2008): 281–293. The quotation is from Johanna Drucker's argument for visualizations, "Graphesis:Visual Knowledge Production and Representation." Poetess Archive Journal 2:1 (December 10, 2010). Online at http://paj.muohio.edu/paj/index.php/paj/article/view/4.