This is a guest post from Camille Salas, a summer intern with the Library of Congress. If you want Camille to help you out with creating a Viewshare, let us know in the comments.
In early July I had the opportunity to work with reference librarian, Erika Spencer, who works in the European Division at the Library of Congress. Erika was interested in creating a Viewshare of Russian digital collections. We met several times to discuss the platform and how it might serve to display her collection. We also worked together to develop several iterations of a view prior to completing the current version that can be found here. What follows is an interview with Erika describing the process of creating a view and what we both learned from our experience. (Editor’s note: the Viewshare program was retired in 2018.)
Camille: How did you first hear about Viewshare?
Erika: I heard about Viewshare from Bert Lyons, a colleague at the Library who had been working with me in designing a database. Bert mentioned Viewshare as one of several other open source tools. Not long after our conversation, I saw that Trevor Owens was giving a presentation on Viewshare. I attended the presentation and spoke with Trevor about my Russian collection and decided to give it a try.
Camille: Please tell us a little bit about the collection and how it relates to your work at the Library.
Erika: What I created is really just an inventory that lists collections of Russian material that has been digitized and is free and open for public viewing. Most of the collections are self-contained and housed in other libraries and cultural institutions. It could be seen as a glorified finding aid that has as many digitized collections of Russian material as I could find (starting with North American repositories).
Erika: I did this as a service to our researchers of course, but also in the hopes that the field of Slavic librarianship would use it as a type of clearinghouse – informing librarians as to what is being digitized and generally, what is freely available on the web without spending an afternoon searching. In this capacity, it might decrease duplicate initiatives to scan certain material. This is also a way to publicize smaller collections of valuable and often unusual material. The collections I’ve gathered are often small, generally more subject-focused and I see them as getting potentially lost in the fold. I hope to make them easier to find by putting them together like this.
Camille: How were you were organizing the collection prior to our first meeting and how you were planning on displaying it?
Erika: Initially, I compiled all my data in a spreadsheet. Then I got the idea to try to create my own database, which is where Bert became instrumental in helping me to reorganize my data so it would function well. We built a relational database that provided faceted browsing, search capabilities, and the capacity to update and insert data iteratively or in batches. But because of system security restrictions, we were unable to open the database to the public for access. That’s when I turned to Viewshare because it was something I could do on my own and could serve the basic purpose of getting information on the web.
Camille: During our first meeting, we looked at some Viewshare examples and we also looked at the CSV file that contained information from the database you were using. We discussed the metadata from the collection and the type of information you hoped users would access from it. Based on your description and the CSV file, I observed that the data you wanted to display was only a portion of what was in the file. As a result, I edited the file into a simpler spreadsheet and created an initial view that I showed you in a subsequent meeting. Upon review, it seemed as though you had a better sense of Viewshare’s capabilities and potential. Can you describe your first impressions of Viewshare and how that might have changed throughout the process?
Erika: Viewshare stands out primarily as much more visual than most of the tools I’ve worked with as a librarian. I’m not sure librarians in my field will be used to such a visual way of relaying information, but I do think that we are moving toward that, in the world of technology at least, so I was open to it. I found Viewshare augmented my data in a way that I didn’t really foresee but was definitely positive. It became more intuitive once I had gone over a couple different views with you and the process of rebuilding and getting the hang of how you want the data to look “going in” to achieve the desired end result. You need to play around with it, but that can be a good mental exercise and help to clarify what you think your users will really find helpful.
Camille: After creating the current version of the collection, you mentioned that you are hoping to update it as needed. Do you feel that Viewshare will be an easy way for you to accomplish the updates or do you have any concerns about updating the spreadsheet or your view?
Erika: I have no concerns about the technical process and since my collection is pretty small, it uploads quickly. But to be honest, the fact that I have to recreate the views all over again after uploading will probably cause me to wait until I have a sizable number of updates so I can do them all at once. That is not ideal as I was hoping I could just add data as a new entry to the existing view. But on the plus side, at least I can do it myself, which is sometimes the biggest barrier to getting things done in a large institution.
Camille: Do you have any future ideas and/or plans for views of other collections?
Erika: I will probably see how this one is received before I experiment more because the bottom line for me is how much people use it and that remains to be seen. If it becomes a useful tool for my colleagues, I will definitely turn to Viewshare for future projects-perhaps with other librarians. For me, it’s all about the critical mass. In other words it is only as good as the number of people who know about and utilize it.
Camille: I really enjoyed the opportunity to work with you on this, Erika! As a former IT consultant, it reminded me of how important it is to ensure that the client is happy with the end result. The experience demonstrated how each user has different needs, and Viewshare can be a flexible tool that serves as a simple solution for a seemingly complex problem. Given your experience, do you have any thoughts on what kind of additional features you would like to see in Viewshare that might help other users?
Erika: Likewise, Camille. I thoroughly enjoyed working on this with you and felt enormously fortunate to have such a knowledgeable and helpful guide! As to features down the road, obviously, an easier way to update would be nice. I would like to see a more intuitive way for people to search for your Viewshare collection, even if it is just an interactive list of projects or users. Currently I have to give a specific URL that leads to my collection, which is not as easy as just saying you can find it from the Viewshare homepage. Still, I think at the very least Viewshare is an easy, visually pleasing way to share data online. From a fairly pragmatic standpoint, it had the effect of challenging how I thought about displaying my information (or information in general). Although this was not in the forefront of my mind when I turned to Viewshare, I feel it is something worth considering because ideally, new technologies and web applications will not just give us easier access to information, but also different ways of presenting that information to our users.