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Teaching Digital Libraries with Viewshare: An Interview with Dr. Erik Mitchell

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This is a guest post by Camille Salas, the coordinator for the Library of Congress. 

This past December, I shared a lesson plan that uses the Library’s Viewshare platform to create digital libraries. Dr. Erik Mitchell, who teaches the Organization of Information class at the University of Maryland’s iSchool, created the lesson plan. After a pilot test in Spring 2012, he expanded the lesson plan to make the design and implementation of Viewshare a multi-week capstone project in his Fall 2012 course. (Editor’s note: the Viewshare program was retired in 2018.)

Erik Mitchell
Dr. Erik Mitchell is an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies.

The project involved students working in groups to create a digital library with Viewshare and to present their project using a pre-recorded video that served as a showcase for their work.  Dr. Mitchell was kind enough to invite me to the last class to hear students’ presentations and their project experiences with using Viewshare. In total, his students created nine views that showcased a variety of themes for specific audiences. Views focused on subjects as diverse as Baltimore art murals, chili recipes by region, cultural tourist attractions, photographs from World War II and Renaissance art works.

Collectively, the targeted users included: art students, business owners, cooks, educators, historic preservationists and tourists. Following the presentations, I had an opportunity to speak with Dr. Mitchell about the presentations and how Viewshare aids in the professional development of future information professionals.

CS: This is the second time you used Viewshare in your Organization of Information class, and I noticed that you revised the original assignment a bit. What kinds of things have you discovered about using the tool as a way to teach cataloging?

EM:The student feedback on Viewshare from the Spring 2012 semester was so positive I decided to not only keep the tool as part of the class but also expand its use to give students a platform and enough time to design and implement a fully-functional information service. Viewshare works well in courses about Information Organization because it helps bring together all of the concepts that we talk about during the semester – from metadata and information design to information use and community outreach. In addition, Viewshare makes it easy to catalog and deploy a digital library but it also gets more powerful as you put better metadata into it. I thought one of the greatest examples of this was seeing students use the timeline and map features to show off some really sophisticated metadata creation work.

I think that a Viewshare assignment is a good substitute for a research paper because it unifies the content of course and encourages some in-depth exploration of these ideas. The students responded well to the opportunity to do group work and I think they liked recording the video to showcase their product. You could really see the production work that went into these videos and, while my first motivation was to use videos because I had in-person and online students, I think it added a nice dimension to the course that would have been missed. I have to say that the students pushed back at first but I think that they ultimately enjoyed it and got something out of the process.

Another outcome that I really did not think about until I saw some of the projects was the fact that Viewshare helped students interested in public service and School Media settings get an idea of how the concepts we studied in the Information Organization course can have an impact across the profession.

CS: As a former student, I noticed that you emphasize learning a diverse set of technological skills throughout the semester, which I did not expect in an Organization of Information course. I’m interested in how this fits into the vision of training future information professionals.

EM: I like to start off the course by exploring HTML because I feel like we all need a refresher and I also think that HTML is a great hybrid technology that includes document structure and context (metadata) information design, and user interfaces. We use that as a jumping off point to learn about XML while we also learn about metadata schemas and eventually make our way around to tools and technologies that help us understand what kind of uses metadata has on the web (like HTTP, OAI/PMH and other metadata rich services). It can be tough to fit all of this in while also talking about the core concepts of classification and document representations but I think we do a fair job of it. This is also a reason why Viewshare fits well with this particular course. Although we spend a lot of time learning the technical nuts and bolts of information organization work in the class, Viewshare brings all of the concepts together without putting too much burden on having to master the technical parts. And yes, while technology can be unexpected in a course like this I think that a gentle introduction to the building blocks of our field yields great benefits.

With respect to the group projects, I noticed that the majority of groups developed their own metadata schema, why do you think it was difficult for the students to strictly adhere to one?

For example, one of the views created is about Renaissance Royalty Portraits. The group used publicly available data and images of 21 royalty portraits to create views including but not limited to: a gallery of portraits, maps of portrait repositories and home countries of subjects, timelines of portrait creation and royalty reign, and a scatter plot of portrait sizes. When it came to selecting a schema for their metadata, the group used the Categories for the Description of Works of Art and other resources from the Getty Research Institute as guidance. Ultimately, they did not strictly adhere to any one schema, which seemed to be a shared experience for all the groups.

List Display of Royalty Portraits
List Display of Royalty Portraits

EM: In the fall semester we had a long discussion about this.  Initially I really wanted students to pick a standard we had looked at so that they had to work with the standard and get to know it in detail. Interestingly, as students branched out to all of these incredible content areas the standards we had talked about like MARC, Dublin Core and EAD and the vocabularies used in them really did not adequately fit the need. Rather than making the whole project center on metadata and fitting everything into pre-defined schemas, we decided to open things up. Students did have to talk about how they evaluated their metadata need and whether or not they were able to reuse any standards but then they were also free to create a new schema that pulled together standards. While there was a tradeoff in that situation, I think the quality of the projects shows that it yielded some great dividends, particularly in helping students to design digital libraries that were directed at specific user communities. As a result, I guess I decided that having students develop their own metadata schema does not really miss the point of a project in an Information Organization class because it helps them make decisions grounded in how the tool will be used.

CS: Do you have any suggestions for improving Viewshare?

EM: I really enjoyed watching students become experts in loading data, working with data formats, augmentation, and applying the data in different views. This involved quite a bit of trial and error as students had to catalog their objects using a spreadsheet, upload the data, publish the digital images and test the system. This led to quite a few comments about making that process easier and, it was not until you came to class and showed us the “refresh” button that we knew that we could have saved a few steps in this process. It was great to see all of the approaches to working with metadata in a group setting. We had students picking different collaborative platforms for creating metadata and image publishing environments and as a result we found out that not all cloud-based document sharing and publishing sites work the same way!

One neat part of the classroom discussion during the presentation of final projects was hearing ideas about other visualization tools and interest in some different approaches to topic or subject display. We had touched on a range of visualization tools including graph-based visualizations so that was mentioned a few times. There were some questions about how to make Viewshare self-sustaining as well. Towards the end of the semester we got into OAI/PMH and so we just had a bit of time to talk about how Viewshare implements that harvesting standard but I think that if the process of data ingest and normalization could be automated it would have been a great way to show to students how these systems are used in production environments.

Many students take the class in their first semester so they have never really worked with raw data. While I think a project like this is a great way to give them a soft introduction to working with and analyzing data, we definitely could have used some workshops, videos or other focused tutorials on working with advanced visualization tools.

Timeline of Subject’s Reign
Timeline of Subject’s Reign

CS: Do you have any recommendations for other teachers who are interested in using Viewshare?

I think that the use of Viewshare in my class has been pretty successful with just a bit of planning. Because it is so easy to use I think that it can either be a small or large piece of the curriculum. This means that it also lends itself to a lot of different use cases. The first class to use Viewshare only worked on it for a few weeks and as a result we were still figuring out the tool when the assignment was due. As a result of that experience, I would recommend thinking about weaving Viewshare throughout the course if you are going to use it in in-depth. For example, this past semester we had you visit the class in week 7 to provide an overview and then we touched on different parts of Viewshare throughout the semester to illustrate a specific concept or skill.  In fact, I think that we had a small part of the final project assignment due about every two weeks.

I know in talking with you about other uses of Viewshare we discussed humanities classes that were using the tool as well. While Viewshare works really well in Library and Information Science instruction I think it is a great tool for any discipline that wants to spend some time on data and data visualization. In this class we also look at Open Refine and get students acquainted with the idea of data cleanup and augmentation. From my perspective, Viewshare is the perfect companion tool for this tool.

CS:  Many thanks to Dr. Mitchell and the students in his class this past fall that did an impressive job. All of the teams successfully demonstrated the versatility with which information professionals could use Viewshare to manipulate data to better serve the information needs of different audiences. I would definitely like to hear how Viewshare is being used in other academic environments. If you would like to share your story with us, please submit comments.

If you will be in the Washington, DC, area next Tuesday, June 11th, please join us for a Viewshare presentation at the Pickford Theater in the Library of Congress James Madison Building at 11:00 am. The presentation will include examples of how users from across the country and within the Library of Congress are using the tool to explore, interpret, and present digital collections. The presentation is free and open to the public.

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