The Miscellany Collection at Tisch Library: An Online Digital Project for Next Generation Web-Based Discovery
On February 2, 2010, a Canadian graduate student discovered Haiti's declaration of independence while flipping through a leather-bound binder at the British National Archives 1. For over 200 years the document had been assumed lost. The discovery of the document shortly after the devastating earthquake of January 12 has given hope to many Haitian scholars and intellectuals, providing them with the opportunity to review one of the few remaining primary source documents from this period. Although the eight-page pamphlet is now available for any scholar to review online, the troubling fact remains that it was fortuitous that this piece of cultural heritage was found at all. This is not the first time that seminal documents have gone missing from cultural heritage institutions. In March 2009, the Guardian broke the story of the British Library mislaying almost 9,000 books, some of which had not been seen for over 50 years. The books included several Renaissance treatises on theology, a medieval text on astronomy and quite a few first editions of nineteenth and twentieth century novels. The British Library did not believe that any of the items had been stolen, but rather misplaced somewhere within its 400 miles of shelves 2.
The failure to provide appropriate cataloging information about these materials is what contributed to their being misplaced. As we begin to provide online access to our collections, it is absolutely essential that libraries learn from these mistakes. After all, the British Library only has to cull its 400 miles of shelves to find its lost items; our digital collections must be found among the 1 trillion unique URLs 3 and 1.3 billion images 4. To put it another way: it is simply no longer enough to put library content into HTML web pages without cataloging information and expect the data to suddenly become discoverable. Online library content must also employ a variety of standards to ensure the data contained within it can "talk" to the web, and other data sets, as well as comply with the professional standards employed by various cultural heritage institutions. Librarians must now be conversant in the web standards set forth by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), as well as their own information management practices. It is with these concerns in mind that the Tisch Library Cataloging Department recently digitized a small group of medieval and renaissance miscellany, ensuring that future generations of Jumbos will be able to retrieve and review these unique cultural artifacts from any computer in the world.
Unlike records created solely for the library catalog, the records that make up the The Miscellany Collection at Tisch Library utilize a web-based data model for organizing traditional information such as: author, title and subject. This means that both computers and humans can "read" the metadata describing the collection. This is also important because the data model used for organizing the content of the collection is seen as the basic framework for the Semantic Web, or Web 3.0. The Semantic Web is envisioned by the W3C as: "a vision of information that is understandable by computers, so computers can perform more of the tedious work involved in finding, combining, and acting upon information on the web." As the web shifts to this new paradigm for organizing information, digital projects such as the Miscellany Collection will become even more important.
Still, what makes The Miscellany Collection distinctive from other projects is the fact that its presentation of content allows for verification of the descriptive information. There is a visual immediacy to the images themselves, allowing students and scholars from all over the world to really understand the exceptional beauty of the hand illuminated miniatures and scripts that make up the collection. The rich umber and gold illumination pops off the digital page, and users can zoom into portions of the images for additional detail. Scholars may also participate in on-line discussions about the project via a custom built Twitter feed, and assist in formulating explanatory elements in order to increase access to the collection and better meet their research needs. The collection ultimately leverages the best of web-based discovery, display functionality and user-based interaction in order to better highlight these important objects.
Currently the collection contains twenty records indexed by Google and fully searchable from the home page. It will eventually grow to 33 records and 58 associated images.
The Miscellany Collection may be accessed at: http://www.library.tufts.edu/tisch/ematlocalstorage/miscellany_collection/home.html
1 Cave, Damien. "Haiti's Founding Document Found in London." The New York Times, (March 31, 2010): Section: World/Americas.
Alex May, Library Assistant III, Tisch Library