Wednesday, June 20, 2012

We made this cool thing!

One of the fun parts of having this blog is being able to show off and brag a bit.  And this is one of those times.

My colleague Joy Perrin and I went to the Texas Conference on Digital Libraries this past May to show off our new baby, the KnowWiki.

It came about through a number of factors:

  • Our digital collections weren't getting much use, and we couldn't determine if it was because they were hard to find, or if they were hard to find because they went unused.
  • Projects for the digitization lab came in unevenly because there was no real policy on what should and shouldn't be online (and that didn't even include copyright headaches).
  • Putting something in digital format is only the beginning.  As Joy will be pointing out in her upcoming book, there's a lot more to "digitization" than just scanning.
  • After my work on intranets, shared drives, and SharePoint sites, I'd come to the firm conclusion that "things" online can't just exist, they need to live or operate.
    • And what I mean by that is that people need to interact with your stuff, not just "ooh", "ahh", and "Save As".  I'll explore that in another post.

So we first tinkered with digital collections as a whole.  We sent the Six Administrative Questions around to staff and asked how they'd answer it.  We got the academic equivalent of blank stares.  It was an unanswerable question for the most part, because we'd digitized things without thinking about what would happen once they got there.  We could promote a collection through marketing, and that would bump interest some, but then usage would fall off.

Evil Plans

Now both Joy and I had what I called at the time "secret agendas".  Joy wanted to find a way to get us into the Semantic Web.  I wanted to make the collections come to life, as in have people participate somehow in the gathering of knowledge about the objects (a.k.a. metadata), as well as contribute information about the knowledge from the objects - what I call knowledge representation(1)(2).

Trouble was, we had no way to do that with the software we had at hand, so we had to go looking for something else.

Questions and Answers

At this point, I had the Ten Questions, and since we'd gotten nowhere trying to answer them for all of our digitized material, we chose to focus on one collection.  We got those answered and started looking for a platform.

This is the essential thing: If you don't have clear, simple answers to the Questions, you won't get anywhere. You'll be so bogged down in "what if's" and "yeah buts" that you'll never get past the review process.  Once you know what you're doing and why, the questions of how and what are very much simplified.(3)

The Contenders

DSpace is the platform that is used at the Texas Digital Library.  It's got what Librarians consider to be good metadata handling, and it can take any sort of content you want to throw at it.  The "bitstreams" can be .PDF files, video files, music files, whatever.  It's also indexable by search engines, although the contents of the bitstreams are not.  

ContentDM was another platform we'd used that also had ways to handle images and documents, but that had too many parts that needed attention, and customizing it was a major undertaking.  Its other major disadvantage was its inability to be indexed by search engines without a lot of work.

Fedora Commons came to our notice about this time. It had social media hooks and possible links to blogs, where we thought we might be able to capture audience feedback.  It also had hooks to DuraSpace/Cloud (As did DSpace), where we could store the preservation-quality materials)

The Test

We eliminated ContentDM because it failed most of our requirements.  DSpace also failed, but since we're committed to the Texas Digital Library, we can't simply abandon the platform.  There's nothing stopping us, however, from using a combination of platforms.

Fedora Commons was fairly simple to install, but the interface was user-indifferent, and seemed to be about as care-intensive as some aspects of DSpace, and we didn't have the resources to fully explore what it would take to customize it.  The proposed link to Drupal never seemed to come to be, either.


Joy emailed me one day and asked if we could use a wiki.  I blinked a few times and ran it through the crucible of our evil plans and the ten questions.  Except for security, some cosmetics, and the fact that nobody else had done it that way, it was a perfect fit.

The rest, as they say, is history.  We've got a few more hurdles to jump before we make it completely live, but we're optimistic, and looking forward to doing more experiments on what we can do with collections and audiences and living sites.

The PowerPoint file of our presentation can be found here. 

(1) Yes, I know, Knowledge Representation is already a Thing in Computer Science.  It's a way to teach a computer context.  I contend that the knowledge contained within the object is represented by the object, and the words used to explain that are aids to human understanding.  Making a computer understand it isn't my problem.

(2) We had other agendas/evil plans that I'll explore in still other posts.

(3) I'm afraid I can't share the specific answers for lots of reasons.  I won't be able to email them, either.

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