Back in November 2011, the Library of Congress blogged about a new online service called Viewshare, a web domain where cultural heritage institutions can show off their digital treasures free of charge. It garnered some modest attention in the blogosphere. Now the Library and the developer of the Viewshare software, Zepheira Inc., have announced the formal launch and added some new features, so perhaps this is the moment to take a look at what this tool actually does.
To repeat: It’s free. How about that adage, you get what you pay for?
In the Library-Zepheira partnership, you get quite a lot. Viewshare enables libraries, archives, museums, and others broadly categorized in the “cultural heritage space” to access and showcase their digital collections in a relatively streamlined way. It also offers innovative viewing options usually reserved for more full-featured (and certainly not free) platforms.
Viewshare grew out of the Library’s 10-year National Digital Information Infrastructure Preservation Program (NDIIPP, pronounced N-dip), which wrapped up in 2010. While NDIIPP identified and preserved at-risk digital collections at 185 public and private-sector organizations, making the newly preserved collections visible and accessible was an ongoing challenge.
In 2008, the Library partnered with Reston, Va.-based Zepheira to create a platform where NDIIPP partners could present and share their work. After 3 years of further research and development, the same solution is now available to a broad range of institutions, allowing smaller, under-resourced participants to put their materials online, manage them according to current best practices, and create a variety of interactive interfaces, without the usual steep learning curve or expense.
NDIIPP’s preservation antecedents also give Viewshare users a stake in the ongoing national effort to preserve historic materials in at-risk digital form. “Viewshare is the result of applying the power of the web to help address the preservation needs of the digital cultural heritage community,” said Zepheira president Eric Miller in the Feb. 19, 2012 announcement.
Viewshare is available to anyone in the cultural heritage community, and at this stage, the Library of Congress is taking a fairly broad view of qualified users—including educators and individuals with collections of interest. To sign up, a user needs to complete a short online statement of intent and wait for approval, which happens quickly.
Institutions with images or other digital assets to share must already have them stored on a web-accessible platform with persistent URLs, their own or in a public space like the Internet Archive or Wikimedia Commons. For material that users don’t want publicly displayed, there are settings to limit or hide access.
To create the metadata for Viewshare, users populate a simple Excel spreadsheet with descriptive information and the images’ URLs. When the Excel file is uploaded to Viewshare, metadata is extracted, indexed, and displayed in a basic interface on the Viewshare site. Users can take advantage of their own existing metadata, or adapt one of Viewshare’s sample spreadsheets. The idea is to make the process simple, and as users gain experience, to help them move toward a supported standard like MODs or Dublin Core.
“The whole point is, you can’t expect everyone will have all their information in tidy little packets according to some unrealistic standard,” said Uche Ogbuji, a founding partner at Zepheira and one of the major implementers of the software. “If they’re trying to showcase data, we can show them what can happen. When it’s attractive, you can encourage users to move toward a standard,” because it allows them to take advantage of the features offered by Viewshare. For example, MODS—a standard that enables libraries to port certain bibliographic data to other systems—enables interactive geographic mapping, collection timelines, and the creation of tag clouds.
Even if users opt to create their own metadata sets, the standards “live under the hood,” Ogbuji said. As users become more accustomed to working with Viewshare, its metadata options, and their own collections, they’ll discover that incorporating the MODS or Dublin Core standards will support time-saving features. But, in the meantime, “we don’t have to chase them away,” Ogbuji said.
Zepheira’s 2008 pilot with the Library allowed NDIIPP participants in locations across the country to share their work using an open-source platform code-named Recollection. About 1,400 collections ended up in Recollection, now rebranded as Viewshare.
Recollection/Viewshare is an implementation of Zepheira’s Freemix platform, a visualization and discovery tool that uses semantic web and social media technology. After the success of the Recollection pilot, the Library of Congress decided to offer the platform free to cultural heritage institutions and other users. In August 2011, the Library released the Recollection source code with instructions for local setup. With the rebranding of Recollection to Viewshare.org, the interface is now fully web-based.
Systems for displaying cultural heritage objects on the web have been around for several years, ranging from the pop-technology site Flickr.com (hosting the Library of Congress’ own stream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/collections/) to OCLC’s popular CONTENTdm, in use by more than 2,000 institutions. But Flickr, while extremely simple and offering social media features, has only limited tools for the kind of management necessary for sustainable, preservation-oriented collections. CONTENTdm, while a much more full-featured and robust platform, doesn’t offer the geomapping, cloud tagging, and social-media features of Viewshare. Some repositories, in fact, have embedded their Viewshare interface within their CONTENTdm pages to allow more “big picture” viewing options across a collection. (For an example, see the historic funeral directors collection at Stephen F. Austin State University.)
For smaller repositories that may not have the technology infrastructure to implement a large system like CONTENTdm, Viewshare may provide them with a sophisticated platform with minimal investment in time and resources.
It is this suite of interactive displays that gives Viewshare users some interesting options to look at collections in new and different ways. Trevor Owens, digital archivist for the Library of Congress and Viewshare’s chief blogger and evangelist, listed some of these in his guest post in November for The Signal, the Library’s digital preservation blog.
The ability to plot geographic data from a set of objects and view the mapped results, for example, can suggest patterns that may shed new light on the origins and development of the collection that users wouldn’t spot object by object. Viewshare allows users to explore other kinds of relationships among records that would be hard to render in a traditional repository interface.
From a collection manager’s standpoint, faceted views will quickly reveal inconsistencies in individual records, something that is difficult and time-consuming when one has to view hundreds of records individually.
And perhaps most important is the digital preservation attributes of the system, although they take a bit of explanation to understand.
The entire process of developing and working with the Viewshare interface and exploring its capabilities lets managers become much more intimately involved in their collections, setting up a kind of “data feedback loop” that enhances the collection—especially the metadata—over time.
“The act of building an interface is often far more important than the final interface,” Owens explained in an email. “That is, as you start to work with the data in Viewshare, you come to understand it.” It often means cleaning up the data and rethinking the description, he added, and as users become more involved in the results, the process repeats. Furthermore, since Viewshare offers a “snip” tool, data can be reused and reimagined in new ways by different users.
This continual improvement and enhancement, sometimes described as data curation, is increasingly viewed as the mechanism that will ensure data viability into the future.
In digital preservation, many people tend to think in terms of media assets and still images. But Viewshare also offers some incentives for organizations to showcase physical assets. As an example, Owens pointed to the Desegregation of Virginia Education (DOVE) collection, http://viewshare.org/views/DOVE/nov/ and http://viewshare.org/about/community/dove-user-story/; both leverage collection-level data to reveal in one easy-to-use interface a database of topical physical collections from a comprehensive list of archives. Besides descriptions of their holdings, users can view a map of the repositories and timelines of their collections.
Both LC’s Owens and Zepheira’s Ogbuji pointed out that Viewshare will continue to evolve and improve as more institutions sign on, start working with it, and offering feedback.
At the same time, the preservation community’s requirements will continue to evolve. The ever-blurring lines among e-records, content and digital asset management systems, and institutional repositories cause a fair amount of confusion these days in libraries and archives, both public and private. The evolution of Viewshare will be interesting to watch as the Library and Zepheira continue to adapt Viewshare to emerging needs.