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Exploring and Sharing Community History Through Interface Design

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The following is a guest post by Abbey Potter, Program Officer, NDIIPP.  She is also Communications Officer for the IIPC.

Viewshare is a free platform for generating and customizing views (interactive maps, timelines, facets, tag clouds) that allow users to experience digital collections. It was launched a few months ago and it has been featured in this blog for it’s ability to help curators think about their collections as data and what can be learned by looking at collection data in new ways.

Holmes County - Tchula School - 5th Grade Classroom - 1955; U. of Mississippi Visual Collections John Elon Phay Collection
Holmes County - Tchula School - 5th Grade Classroom - 1955; U. of Mississippi Visual Collections John Elon Phay Collection

The John Elon Phay Collection at the University of Mississippi is a set of photographs and slides containing images of the segregated Mississippi public school system from the 1940s and 1950s.

A former intern with NDIIPP, Gloria Gonzalez, digitized the photos and captured metadata for the collection while she was a student at Ole Miss.

“I care about this collection deeply” says Gonzalez. “I worked around 600 hours over the last year scanning the photos and slides while making spreadsheet of the metadata at the same time.”  The collection is currently available on the University of Mississippi Library website.

Viewshare is a tool designed to provide enhanced access to digital collections like the Phay photos. Viewshare uses the data about the images to create custom interactive web interfaces that offer new ways to let users learn about the history captured in the collection. The photos document personal and local stories, but they also are part of an important national story of the history of education and racial segregation.

Pamela Williamson, Curator of Visual Collections at the University of Mississippi, and director of the digitization of the Phay Collection, explained how Viewshare supplements the existing online collection. “It really picks up where our digital collection management system leaves off.  It allows the information presented by the collection to be seen and manipulated in a way that builds and expands our online Phay Collection . . [Viewshare] allows patrons to get a better understanding of the collection by illustrating relationships between the items, like the spatial relation of the counties pictured in the map view and the dates of the items pictured on the timeline.”

About creating the new views, Gonzalez said “Using Viewshare taught me that creating an interface is an exploratory and interpretive act. Equally interesting is the fact that the resulting interfaces that are possible invite exploration and interpretation of the collections they present. Making views that users can manipulate to gather the information they need was really fun, and they’re a great addition to the existing online collection.”

Much of what Gonzalez learned about the collection is now on display in the interface to the collection she created. The interface invites the same kind of exploration and interpretation while still suggesting some of the ways that she felt were the most important was of seeing the collection. The following screenshots walk through some of examples of the view Gonzalez created and the way these views suggest exploring the collection from distinct perspectives.

Phay Collection Map View
Phay Collection Map View

Collection Map View

This map view draws attention to the geographic distribution of the photographs across the state. It also shows the frequency of the number of photographs taken in each county. In this sense, the view provides both a way to navigate this collection, and broader perspective of the collection as a whole. Further, clicking any of the facets on the left allows us to see how the various grade levels, and school types are represented geographically in the collection.

Phay Collection Timeline View
Phay Collection Timeline View

Collection Timeline View

The timeline presents the photos as part of the chronology of photographer John Phay’s work. It is easy to interpret this kind of collection as a static set of documentary evidence of these schools. However, a chronological interface to the collection that suggests considering the way the photographer’s approach to documenting the schools developed over time. It reminds users that while the photos do document a historical moment they are also the compositions of an individual.

Phay Collection Timeline View
Phay Collection Timeline View

Collection Chart View

The chart views, like this school type chart, allow us to see the distribution of the photographs of African-American and White schools in each county and by each grade taught. These views let us understand more about the composition of the collection of photographs, and the communities the photographs document. Importantly, like many archival collections, the coherence of this collection is of critical importance. The collection as a whole was created as part of surveys performed in the mid-1950s by the Bureau of Educational Research at the University of Mississippi. To this extent, the collection of photographs is also a collection of survey data collected by the Bureau of Educational Research. This interface exposes and focuses attention on how the aggregate information of the collection is in fact a historical data set.

These interfaces invite engagement and deeper exploration and understanding of the collection. Learn more about how you can use Viewshare to enhance access to you collections during a free online workshop.

Update: a misspelling has been corrected and a broken link fixed.

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