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Rearranging: Redesigning a Reading Room and Creating New Electronic Spaces

(The following is a post by Nick Argueta, Data Visualization Intern, Hispanic Division)

Before January 13, 2020, I had never visited the Library of Congress, even though I live only ten miles away. For me, it was an elusive or abstract idea, not a physical place I might actually go to. Perhaps it was movies such as “National Treasure” that gave the Library a top-secret allure and made it seem unavailable to the public. In reality, the Library of Congress is the complete opposite. After receiving a tour of the gorgeous marble architecture and mosaics of the Jefferson Building, I met my incredible supervisor, Dani Thurber, who gave me her tour of the true Library of Congress. By this I mean the Library behind the scenes, which she presented as a mecca or temple of learning and knowledge—the place where researchers, professors, students, and anyone else can access 168 million items.

View of Hispanic Reading Room, Library of Congress. Photo courtesy of Dani Thurber.

Later, Dani introduced me to my space. To my surprise, it was not a distant corner cubicle, but rather a desk right in the middle of the Hispanic Reading Room. My desk created a sort of divider between the office cubicles behind me and the public space in front of me. I loved it. Every morning I would sit down, turn on my computer, and as I waited to log on, I would look up at the charming beauty of the Hispanic Reading Room. I admired the complex murals of Cândido Portinari, the delicate and rustic blue Puebla tiles that line the bottom half of the walls, the deep and elegant arches along with the large windows—all filling the room with life. Sitting in the middle of the reading room, I was exposed to the full essence of the space and I had a front row seat to the daily workings of the Hispanic Division. All the staff members seemed to love their roles in carrying out the Library’s mission. They inspired me to try to do the same with my role as an intern.

View from Nick’s desk in the Hispanic Reading Room. Photo courtesy of Nick Argueta.

Discovery of Gold” mural painting by Cândido Portinari, 1941. Shawn Miller, photographer, 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I came into the Hispanic Division as a visualization intern because of my interest in design and studies in computer science. For my first project, Dani tasked me with creating images of prospective redesigns for the Hispanic Reading Room. I decided to use a 3-D modeling software to create interactive designs. First, I had to build a scale model of the room, which proved difficult because the reading room is not a square room with flat walls. It has many curves, arches, and alcoves. The original blueprints with measurements were not easily available when I began, so I did a lot of measuring and estimating to build the model. First, I needed the height and width of the alcoves so I could estimate the diameter of the arches and the height of the ceiling. Using those estimations, I built a model, but it was disproportionate and not an entirely accurate representation of the room. I went back to the drawing board: I re-measured and re-evaluated my estimations to settle on results that offered a more accurate model, but it was still somewhat disproportionate. Luckily, we were able to secure a blueprint from the Architect of the Capitol. Although the blueprint lacked numerical measurements, it was extremely helpful. I used the blueprint to calculate a ratio that allowed me to build an accurate model.

Then came the task of composing the floor layouts. I met with members of the Division to get their ideas and to translate their minds’ images into a 3-D model. In the end, I had six complete models, including two of my own based on observations I made from my desk. I presented the models in a staff meeting and the staff seemed to like my designs. Although the project had its frustrating moments, I enjoyed it every step of the way because I was helping redesign the Hispanic Reading Room in the Library of Congress. It was an awesome task and I loved being a part of it.

3-D Model of new design for the Hispanic Reading Room, Image courtesy of Nick Argueta.

This exercise in physical design based on information I gathered through observation and interviews complemented my second project. My supervisor asked me to build computer architecture to track the number of times certain phrases pertaining to the Hispanic Division appeared in social media. The idea was brilliant! Since I am a computer science major, I was happy to throw my hat into the ring of building a web page from scratch to track such statistics, and this project made my eyes light up. In a heartbeat, I excitedly said yes.

Starting with the concept of a mention tracker, I began to brainstorm all the ideas that I could incorporate into the design. On pieces of paper, I sketched out a few possible designs until I had one that satisfied my standards for appearance and that had all the features I imagined. Having never built a web page before, I decided to start on the front-end, with its appearance. I settled on using the Django framework because I intended on building the back-end in Python. I had no clue how to use html, so I requested five books from the Library’s catalog and started reading. After a few hours of research, I began to understand basic html structure and began building the web page. Despite many frustrations, I finished the html and moved on to CSS, later JavaScript, and lastly Python. I followed the same procedures as learning html: requested books, read and researched, and then started building. Throughout this project, I could see myself growing, learning, and honing my skills. I was excited to build the web page and to help the Hispanic Division. It truly felt like I was doing meaningful work while learning something new, in this case building a web page from scratch.

Although the internship came to an abrupt end because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the experience was priceless. I met incredible people, who worked with me supportively—pushing me to be my best self and to apply my interest and skills for design to real-life problems. I am forever grateful to the Hispanic Division for welcoming me with open arms, and for being matched with the best possible supervisor.

 

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