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Better Know a Viewshare: Exploring Texas Funeral Records

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In working on the Viewshare project, our free and open tool for creating interfaces for digital cultural heritage collections, I am always excited to see all the interesting views that users are creating. A few weeks ago, Jennifer Brancato digital archivist at East Texas Research Center, Stephen F. Austin State University, created a fascinating view of a set of funeral records which is now directly embedded in the collection landing page. I was curious to learn more about the collection and to chat with her a bit about her experience using Viewshare. I thought others might be interested to so we decided to make our conversation into a blog post. (Editor’s note: the Viewshare program was retired in 2018.)

Trevor: How did you hear about Viewshare? Beyond that, what is it about the software that you thought sounded useful for your work at ETRC?

Jennifer: I first heard about Viewshare in early January from a Facebook post. Since I was working on ways to enhance our digital collections I followed the link. After browsing the site, I knew this was what we needed. I was particularly interested in the map and timeline views but happy to see a tool that provided so many options. I immediately requested an account and was excited at how quickly I received my login info.

Trevor: Can you tell us about the collection and the view you created? Just some background on acquiring the collection, what you think is particularly interesting about the collection, what kind of work you had done on the collection and how you have made it available online.

Jennifer: The records in this digital collection are owned by Cason Monk-Metcalf Funeral Directors. A number of years ago we consulted with the funeral home director concerning their historic records. We found the books well cared for and in good shape. The records, dating from 1900 through the 1980s, held detailed information about the deceased that many different audiences would find interesting. There were fields for name, age, race, birth and death date, occupation, religion, marital status, parents’ name, cause of death, certifying physician, presiding clergyman, costs associated with funeral, burial location, etc. We knew researchers needed access to these records but the funeral home was not ready to donate them. They also did not want a funeral home crowded with researchers so we opted for digitization. Currently, records through 1952 are scanned and accessible online.

Trevor: Could you tell us a bit about the process of working with Viewshare? How did you approach getting the data together? How much time did it take you to create your view?

Jennifer: Working with Viewshare is pretty straightforward. We use CONTENTdm so I knew I had a couple of options for importing data. First I tried using the OAI harvester. I had trouble with the harvester, so I exported a TXT file from CONTENTdm, saved it as CSV and then directly imported the CSV file into Viewshare. Within 30 minutes I had my first view. Admittedly it was not pretty. The student and volunteer workers transcribed the data exactly as it was. Therefore we found many inconsistencies because different undertakers recorded the information. So I spent a weekend cleaning up some of the data. I fixed typos, standardized terms for race and religion, verified cities and counties, and found latitude and longitude for each cemetery. While cleaning up the data was not a necessity, for me it was worth the extra effort.

Embeded View on the Collection Homepage

Trevor: I noticed that you embedded your view into the collection’s homepage. Have you received much reaction to the interface?

Jennifer: Yes! And all good. Sometimes it takes awhile to load but I don’t see that as a huge issue. It is a lot of data to load. Also if it does not load users do not even realize something is missing. However, a link is provided for them to “See the original Exhibit” at the Viewshare site.

Trevor: Are there any future plans for this particular view? It strikes me that there is some real potential to incorporate some more numerical data driven views, like scatterplots and widgets, like histograms. The data was so fascinating that I took a few minutes exploring what one could do with it in this exploratory view. Do you think some of these more numerical views would be valuable? Or, are there other things you are thinking about doing with the collection?

Jennifer: There is a lot of potential for views based on numerical data and I love the views you created. Honestly I am not a numbers person so I did not see that potential at first. Fortunately my aversion to numbers does not limit researchers because anyone can download the data set and manipulate it for their needs.

As for other things with the collection, I would like to see occupation and cause of death as pie chart options. I would also like to do something with cost of funeral. Seeing the change in costs and purchases over time would be interesting. However that information was not originally transcribed so it will take a little longer to complete.

Exploratory Data Visualization Collection View

Trevor: Do you have any future ideas and plans for views of other collections?

Jennifer: A common question from students is, “I’m researching [fill in the blank] during the [fill in time period]. What collections should I look at?” So I put our finding aids on a timeline. While it is technically not a digital collection I felt a timeline would make it easier to see which physical collections fall within a particular time frame. I recently completed a view based on the Tyler Museum of Art digital collection. Currently I am working on creating views of digitized letters from collections housed at the East Texas Research Center. I am also hoping to introduce the software to history professors for their classes and our partners so they can create views and projects of their own.

Trevor: Now that you have used Viewshare from start to finish (imported data, built a view and embedded the view on an external site) what do you think about the software? What kind of role does it fit into in your system? What kind of need is it filling?

Jennifer: I love Viewshare! It is free and easy to use. No programming skills are required and there is no need to involve your IT staff. I think this tool is something any institution – small, large, museum, library, archive – could easily and quickly put into action. Viewshare made it possible to accomplish our goal of presenting our digital collections in a more dynamic and visual way.

Trevor: We are always working on improving the software. Do you have any thoughts on what kind of additional features you would like to see?

Jennifer: At this time I can only think of two major improvements. I would like the ability to make changes to metadata without having to re-import. Importing a large data set can take a while so making changes directly would save time. Also it would be great to have the option to import a TXT file and/or a Dublin Core XML file. But other than that I can’t think of anything else. I think Viewshare is a wonderful tool that does exactly what it claims and any improvements would only be icing on the cake!

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