Mitch Fraas, Scholar in Residence at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania and Acting Director, Penn Digital Humanities Forum, writes about using Viewshare for mapping library book markings. We’re always excited to see the clever and interesting ways our tools are used to expose digital collections, and Mitch was gracious enough to talk about his experience with Viewshare in the following interview. (Editor’s note: the Viewshare program was retired in 2018.)
Erin: I really enjoyed reading about your project to map library book markings of looted books in Western Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. Could you tell us a bit about your work at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries with this collection?
Mitch: One of the joys of working in a research library is being exposed to all sorts of different researchers and projects. The Kislak Center at Penn is home to the Penn Provenance Project, which makes available photographs of provenance markings from several thousand of our rare books. That project got me thinking about other digitized collections of provenance markings. I’ve been interested in WWII book history for a while and I was fortunate to meet Kathy Peiss, a historian at Penn working in the field, and so hit upon the idea of this project. After the war, officials at the Offenbach collecting point for looted books took a number of photographs of book stamps and plates and made binders for reference. Copies of the binders can be found at the National Archives and Records Administration and the Center for Jewish History. For the set on Viewshare, I used the digitized NARA microfilm of the binders.
Erin: I was particularly excited to see that you used Viewshare as the tool to map the collection. What prompted your use of Viewshare and why did you think it would be a good fit for your project?
Mitch: Viewshare really made this project simple and easy to do. I first heard about it through the library grapevine maybe a year and half ago and started experimenting with it for some of Penn’s manuscript illuminations. I like the ease of importing metadata from delimited files like spreadsheets into Viewshare and the built-in mapping and visualization features. Essentially it allowed me to focus on the data and worry less about formatting and web display.
Erin: You mentioned that these photographs of the book markings are available through NARA’s catalog and that CJH has digitized copies of albums containing photos of the markings. Could you talk a little about the process of organizing the content and data for your view. For example, what kinds of decisions did you make with respect to the data you wanted to include in the view?
Mitch: This is always a difficult issue when dealing with visualizations. Displaying data visually is so powerful that it can obscure the choices made in its production and overdetermine viewer response. There are several thousand book markings from looted books held by NARA and the CJH but I chose just those identified in the 1940s as originating from “Germany.” Especially when mapping, I worried that providing a smattering of data from throughout the collection could be extremely misleading and wanted as tight a focus as possible. Even with this of course there are still many holes and elisions in the data. For example, my map includes book stamps from today’s Russia, Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. These were of course part of the Third Reich at the time but book markings from those countries are found in many different parts of the albums as the officers at the Offenbach depot sorted book markings had separate “Eastern” albums largely based on language – so for these areas the map definitely shows only an extremely fragmentary picture.
Erin: We’ve found that users of Viewshare often learn things about their collections through the different views they build – maps, timelines, galleries, facets, etc. What was the most surprising aspect of the collection you learned through Viewshare?
Mitch: I have to admit to being surprised at the geographic distribution of these pre-war libraries. Though obviously there are heavy concentrations in large cities like Berlin, there are also an enormous variety of small community libraries spread throughout Germany represented in the looted books. I didn’t get a real sense for this distribution until I saw the Viewshare map for the first time.
Erin: Your project is an interesting example of using digitized data to do cross-border humanities research. Could you talk about some of the possibilities and challenges of using a visualization and access tool like Viewshare for exchanging data and collaborating with scholars around the world?
Mitch: Thanks to what I was able to do with Viewshare I got in touch with Melanie Meyers, a librarian at the CJH, and am happy to say that the library there is working on mapping all of the albums from the Offenbach collection. The easy data structure for Viewshare has allowed me to share my data with them and I hope that it can be helpful in providing a more complete picture of pre-war libraries and book culture.
Erin: Do you have any suggestions for how Viewshare could be enhanced to meet the diverse needs of scholars?
Mitch: Though easier said than done, the greatest need for improvement I see in Viewshare is in creating a larger user and viewer base. The images I use for my Viewshare collection are hosted via Flickr which has much less structured data functionality but has a built-in user community and search engine visibility. In short, I’d love to see Viewshare get all the publicity it can!