Digital Preservation Pioneer: Gary Marchionini

Gary Marchionini

Gary Marchionini. Photo by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 1971, Gary Marchionini had an epiphany about educational technology when he found himself competing with teletype machines for his students’ attention.

Marchionini was teaching mathematics at a suburban Detroit junior high school the year that the school acquired four new teletype machines. The machines were networked to a computer, so a user could type something into a teletype and the teletype would transmit it to the computer for processing.

The school teletypes accessed “drill and practice” programs. The paper-based teletype would print a math problem, a student would type in the answer, wait patiently for the response over the slow, primitive network and eventually the teletype would print out, “Good” (if it was correct).

“The thing was noisy,” said Marchionini. “But the kids still wanted to leave my math classroom to go do this in the closet. There was something about this clickety clackety paper-based terminal that attracted them.

“Eventually I realized that there were two things going on. One was personalization; each kid was getting his own special attention. The other thing was interactivity; it was back and forth, back and forth with the kids. It was engaging.

“That’s what sparked my interest in computer interaction as a line of research.”

That interest became a lifelong mission for Marchionini. He went on to get his Masters and Doctorate in Math Education and Educational Computing from Wayne State University, he quit teaching public school in 1978, joined the faculty at Wayne State and trained teachers in computer literacy.

In 1983, Marchionini joined the faculty at the University of Maryland College of Library and Information Services; he also joined the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory.

“It was easy to make the transition from education to library and information services because I always thought of information retrieval as a learning function,” said Marchionini. “The goal of my work was always to enhance learning. And information seeking, from a library perspective… well, people are learning. It could be casual or it could be critical but they are trying to learn something new.”

Marchionini’s research encompassed information science, library science, information retrieval, information architecture and human/computer interaction…interface research. He was especially keen on the power of graphics to help people visualize and conceptualize information, and to help people interact with computers to find that information. In fact, as early as 1979, before the explosion of graphic interfaces on personal computers, Marchionini was coding rudimentary graphic representations on his own.

“One of my projects [in 1979] involved addition ‘grouping’ and subtraction ‘regrouping’ – borrowing and carrying and all that stuff,” said Marchionini. “I wrote a computer program that graphically showed that process as a bundling and unbundling of little white dots on a Radio Shack screen.”

Marchionini is quick to point out that graphics were only a part of his interface research, and there is a time and a place for graphics and for declarative text in human/computer interaction. He said that the challenge for researchers was to determine the appropriate function of each.

One interface project that he worked on at UMd also marked his first involvement with the Library of Congress: working with UMd’s Nancy Anderson, professor of psychology (now retired), and Ben Shneiderman, professor of computer science, to add touch screens to the Scorpio and MUMS online catalog interfaces. UMd’s collaborative relationship with the Library continued on into the American Memory project.

“They contracted with us at Maryland to do a series of training events on the user-interface side of American Memory,” said Marchionini. “We did a lot of prototypes. This is some of the early dynamic-query work that Ben Shneiderman and his crew and those of us in the Human Computer Interaction lab were inventing. We worked on several of the sub-collections.”

Marchionini’s expertise is in creating the underlying data architecture and determining how the user will interact with the data; he leaves the interface design — the pretty page — to those with graphic arts talent.

A lot of analysis, thought, research and testing goes into developing appropriate visual cues and prompts to stimulate interactivity with the user. How can people navigate dense quantities of information to quickly find what they’re searching for? What kind of visual shorthand communicates effectively and what doesn’t?

When an interface is well-designed, it doesn’t call attention to itself and the user experience is smooth and seamless. Above all, a well-designed interface always answers the two questions “Where am I?” and “What are my options?”.

Regarding his work on cues and prompts, Marchionini cites another early UMd/Library of Congress online project, the Coolidge-Consumerism collection.

“We wanted to give people ‘look aheads’ and clues about what might happen and what they were getting themselves into if they click on something,” said Marchionini. “The idea was to see if we can show samples of what’s down deep in the collection right up front, either on the search page or on what was in those days the early search-and-results page. It was a lot of fun to work with Catherine Plaisant and UMd students on that. We made some good contributions to interface design.” Marchionini and Paisant delivered a paper at the Computer-Human Interaction group’s CHI 97 conference titled, “Bringing Treasures to the Surface: Iterative Design for the Library of Congress National Digital Library Program,” which details UMd’s interface design process.

Marchionini has long had an interest in video as a unique means of conveying information. Indeed, he may have recognized video’s potential long before many of his peers did.

In 1994, he and colleagues from the UMd School of Education worked on a project called the Baltimore Learning Community that created a digital library of social studies and science materials for teachers in Baltimore middle schools.

Apple donated about 50 computers. The Discovery Channel offered 100 hours of video, which Marchionini and his colleagues planned to digitize, segment, index and map to the instructional objectives of the state of Maryland. It was an ambitious project and Marchionini said that he learned a lot about interactive video, emerging video formats, video copyrights and the programming challenges for online interactivity.

“We built some pretty neat interfaces,” said Marchionini. “At the time, Java was just coming out and we were developing dynamic query interfaces in the earliest version of Java. We were moving toward web-based applets. And we were building resources for the teachers to save their lesson plans, including comments on how they used the digital assets and wrote comments on them and shared them with other teachers. Basically we were building a Facebook of those days — getting these materials shared with one another and people making comments and adding to other people’s lesson plans so they could re-use them.”

Marchionini adds that the Baltimore Learning Community project is a good example of the need for digital preservation. Today, nothing remains from the project except for some printouts of screen displays of the user interfaces and website, and a few videotapes that show the dynamics.

“Today’s funding agencies’ data-management plan requirements are a step in the right direction of ensuring preservation,” said Marchionini.

In 1998, Marchionini joined the faculty at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he continued his video research along with his other projects. In 2000, he and Barbara Wildemuth and their students launched Open Video, a repository of rights-free videos that people could download for education and research purposes. Open Video acquired about 500 videos from NASA, which Open Video segmented and indexed. Archivist and filmmaker Rick Prelinger donated many films from his library to Open Video before he allied with the Internet Archive. Open Video even donated hundreds of videos to Google Video before Google acquired YouTube.

In 2000, around the time that NDIIPP was formed, Marchionini started discussing video preservation with his colleague Helen Tibbo and others. He concluded that one of the intriguing aspects of preserving video from online would be to also capture the context in which the video existed.

Marchionini said, “What kind of context would you need, say in 2250, if you see a video of some kids putting Mentos in Coke bottles and squirting stuff up in the air? You would understand the chemistry of it and all that but you would never understand why half a million people watched that stupid video at one time in history.”

“That’s where you need the context of knowing that this was the time when YouTube was happening and people were discovering ways to make their own videos without having to have a million dollar production lab or a few thousand dollars worth of equipment. The importance of it is that the video is associated with what was going on in the world at the time.”

With NDIIPP grant money, by way of the National Science Foundation, Marchionini and his colleagues created a tool  called ContextMiner, a sort of tightly focused, specialized web harvester that is driven by queries rather than link following. A user gives ContextMiner a query or URL to direct to YouTube, Flickr, Twitter or other services. In the case of YouTube, ContextMiner then regularly downloads not only the video files returned from the search but whatever data on the page is associated with that video. A typical YouTube page will have comments, ratings and links to related videos. For awhile, ContextMiner even harvested incoming links, which placed the video in a sort of contextual constellation of related topics.

The inherent educational value of video is that it can show a process. You can either read about how to juggle or how to tie your shoe laces, or you can watch a demonstration. Modelling communicates processes more effectively than written descriptions of processes.

Marchionini also sees video as a means of recording a process for research purposes. As an example, he described a situation where he wanted to capture and review the actions of users as they conducted queries and negotiated the search process.

He said, “I wanted to see a movie of a thousand people’s searches going through these states, from query specification to results examination and back to queries. Video is a way to preserve some things that have dynamics and interactions involved, things that you just can’t preserve in words. This is critical for showing processes, such as interaction dynamics, in a rapidly changing web environment. Because old code and old websites may no longer work, video is an important tool to capture those dynamics. That’s the only way I have of going back and saying, ‘Ten years ago, here were these interfaces we were designing and here’s why they worked the way they did.’ And I show a video.”

Today Marchionini is dean of the UNC School of Information and Library Science and he heads its Interaction Design Laboratory. The results of Marchionini’s research over the years have influenced our daily human/computer interaction in ways that we’ll never know.  Interfaces will continue to evolve and get refined but it is important to remember the work of people like Marchionini who did the early research and testing, labored on the prototypes and laid the foundation of effective human-computer interface design, making it possible for modern users to interact effortlessly with their devices.

Professors may not get the glory and attention that their work deserves but that’s not the point of being a teacher. Teachers teach. They pass their knowledge along to their students and often inspire them to create the Next Big Thing.

“University professors create ideas and prototypes and then the people who get paid to build real systems do that last difficult 10% of making something work at scale,” said Marchionini. “We train students. And it’s the students that we inspire, hopefully, who go on to industry or government work or libraries. And they put these ideas into place.

“My job is ideas and directions. Some stick and others do not. I hope they all get preserved so we can learn from both the good ones and the not-so-good ones.”

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