May 29th, 2012
|John Tenniel, c. 1864. Study for illustration to Alice’s adventures in wonderland. Harcourt Amory collection of Lewis Carroll, Houghton Library, Harvard University.|
We’ve just completed spring semester during which I taught a system design course jointly in Engineering Sciences and Computer Science. The aim of ES96/CS96 is to help the students learn about the process of solving complex, real-world problems — applying engineering and computational design skills — by undertaking an extended, focused effort directed toward an open-ended problem defined by an interested “client”.
The students work independently as a self-directed team. The instructional staff provides coaching, but the students do all of the organization and carrying out of the work, from fact-finding to design to development to presentation of their findings.
This term the problem to be addressed concerned the Harvard Library’s exceptional special collections, vast holdings of rare books, archives, manuscripts, personal documents, and other materials that the library stewards. Harvard’s special collections are unique and invaluable, but are useful only insofar as potential users of the material can find and gain access to them. Despite herculean efforts of an outstanding staff of archivists, the scope of the collections means that large portions are not catalogued, or catalogued in insufficient detail, making materials essentially unavailable for research. And this problem is growing as the cataloging backlog mounts. The students were asked to address core questions about this valuable resource: What accounts for this problem at its core? Can tools from computer science and technology help address the problems? Can they even qualitatively improve the utility of the special collections?
The students’ recommendations centered around the design, development, and prototyping of an “archivist’s workstation” and the unconventional “flipped” collections processing that the workstation enabled. Their process involves exhaustive but lightweight digitization of a collection as a precursor to highly efficient metadata acquisition on top of the digitized images, rather than the conventional approach of digitizing selectively only after all processing of the collection is performed. The “digitize first” approach means that documents need only be touched once, with all of the sorting, arrangement, and metadata application being performed virtually using optimized user interfaces that they designed for these purposes. The output is a dynamic finding aid with images of all documents, complete with search and faceted browsing of the collection, to supplement the static finding aid of traditional archival processing. The students estimate that processing in this way would be faster than current methods, while delivering a superior result. Their demo video (below) gives a nice overview of the idea.
The deliverables for the course are now available at the course web site, including the final report and a videotape of their final presentation before dozens of Harvard archivists, librarians, and other members of the community.
I hope others find the ideas that the students developed as provocative and exciting as I do. I’m continuing to work with some of them over the summer and perhaps beyond, so comments are greatly appreciated.