Digital History Station at the Capital Area District Libraries

by Heidi Butler

This is the second post in the BloggERS series on Collaborating Beyond the Archival Profession

Inspired by the DC Public Library’s Memory Lab, the Brooklyn and Queens Public Libraries’ Culture in Transit Project, and the Kalamazoo Public Library’s Hub, in 2016 the Capital Area District Libraries (CADL) launched a pilot Digital History Station. This workstation differs from our standard patron computers in that it has many advanced capabilities for working with both old and new media. Patrons can use it to read data off older disk media, convert cassette audio or VHS to digital formats, or create new content. The station also allows for editing with a suite of programs and tools.

Digital History Station
The Digital History Station in CADL’s Local History Room. Photo by Heidi Butler.
Sanus Rack
The Digital History Station component rack, with video and audio decks, and storage for all sorts of card readers, recording devices, transparency viewers, cleaning tools, and other gear. Photo by Heidi Butler.

Hardware includes an iMac, an Epson v700 scanner, a Toshiba VHS-DVD deck with an Elgato video capture device, a Tascam cassette-CD deck, and more. For digitizing and editing, we provide the full Adobe Creative Cloud suite, as well as SilverFast 8 for scanning, and the standard iLife Mac programs. In 2018 we added Final Cut Pro to our software offerings. We have a Canon Rebel T6i camera with various lenses, a multifunction tripod, a Polaroid 3D photography cube for photographing objects or creating video, and a Zoom H2Next digital audio recorder. Due to demand, we also recently placed a Marantz cassette recorder into our Library of Things circulating collection. We are beginning to build a small collection of obsolete equipment such as mini-DV camcorders to facilitate more access to older materials.

The Digital History Station has several internal benefits as well. When it’s not in use by patrons, we are able to use it to access archival material in the library’s Local History collections or convert it to digital formats. Because Local History is a part of CADL’s Outreach department, we collaborate with coworkers on things like 3D photography for Etsy/eBay how-to classes, or workshops for seniors on personal digital archiving. We also take the handheld digital recorder and camera to family library events and record brief oral histories. Finally, we have conversations with every Digital History patron about what they are working on to determine if a copy of their materials would be a suitable addition the Local History collections. This has been beneficial as we continue building a collection of locally produced films and music. Recent accessions include three hip hop albums by Lansing artists, and several community theater productions on video from the community of Stockbridge, Michigan.

We ask patrons to complete an application to use the station, talk through their projects to be sure we can accommodate what they wish to do, and then schedule their visits in blocks of up to three hours at a time. Local History staff are not experts in everything the station offers, but we have identified colleagues elsewhere in the CADL system with relevant skills who can help when needed. We also recommend the library’s subscription to to patrons who want to build their knowledge of various digital practices. As of early 2018, the demand for the Digital History Station is moderate but expanding.

Heidi Butler (selfie)

Heidi Butler is the Local History Specialist at CADL. She previously served as archivist at Zayed University (Dubai, United Arab Emirates), Kalamazoo College (Mich.), Rush University Medical Center (Chicago, Ill.), and the Wichita Public Library (Kans.). She received her MSLS from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2000.


Iterative Collaboration at LC Labs

by Jaime Mears

This is the first post in the BloggERS series on Collaborating Beyond the Archival Profession

Four women around a computer, showing the LC Labs homepage
The LC Labs Team – Abigail Potter, Jaime Mears, Meghan Ferriter, Kate Zwaard (left to right)

The LC Labs team works to increase the impact of Library of Congress digital collections. This includes not only the 2,500,000+ items available on, but also on-site only content and derivative content, such as our 25 million MARC records. We want to increase the variety of ways users engage with our content, and we get there through experimenting and collaboration, ideally setting up feedback loops whereby the work of our Library of Congress colleagues and our users can inform each other. From hands-on approaches such as crowdsourcing and tutorials for using our API, to more traditional avenues into the content such as podcasts, blog posts and works of art, we work with folks to interpret our collections in transformative ways for broader audiences.

Man in front of filing cabinets looks through Stereoscope
Innovator-in-Residence Jer Thorp visits the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs division

Our Innovator in Residence program places an individual from three months to a year with Library of Congress staff and collections to create something inspiring for the public domain. The data artist Jer Thorp is our current innovator, and it’s been a blast over the last couple months showing him what we love about this place. As a part of his residency, Jer is producing a podcast called “Artist in the Archive,” exploring both stories found in our content and the story of the content itself – how it gets here, how it’s maintained, enriched, shared, and listeners get to meet the people doing the work! He’s also exploring Library of Congress data sets (such as using network analysis to identify polymaths in our MARC records), and will create a capstone work.

congressionalchallengeInspired by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Chronicling America Data Challenge and the excellent work we see coming from the data journalism field to make data meaningful, we are running a Congressional Data Challenge in partnership with the Congressional Research Service. This competition asks participants to leverage legislative data sets on and other platforms to develop digital projects that analyze, interpret or share congressional data in user-friendly ways. Anyone can apply, and we’re even awarding $5000 for the first prize, and $1000 for the best high school class entry! We’ll also work with the winners post-challenge to host their product on our labs site.

Piloting applications with the public is our most ambitious effort at collaboration to date. Right now, we’re running a crowdsourcing application built on Scribe called Beyond Words, where website visitors can identify, transcribe, or validate images from WWI era historic newspapers in our Chronicling America collection. The beauty of this application is that it also generates a viewable gallery of these images and a public domain data set for download and use in classrooms, research, or perhaps generating further applications. Not only do members of the public contribute to the gallery and data set (we’ve had 2240 volunteers so far and 685 completed images),  but the data we gather from feedback and metrics from Beyond Words users inform application updates and the design of our upcoming transcription platform (stay tuned!).

Events allow us to create dialogues around issues we care about, widen our network of peers, and work closely with new partners. For the past two years, we’ve hosted a Collections as Data annual symposium investigating the computational readiness, impact, and ethics of library content served as data sets.  Upcoming events include leading the local planning committee for Code4Lib 2018 and co-hosting the 2018 International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) Conference with the Smithsonian and Folger Shakespeare Library.

To see more of what we’re up to, go to our site at and follow us on Twitter @LC-Labs. Let’s work together!

Jaime Mears jame@loc.govJaime Mears is an Innovation Specialist with the National Digital Initiatives Division at the Library of Congress. She is a former National Digital Stewardship Resident and holds an MLS from the University of Maryland.

User Centered Collaboration for Archival Discovery (Part 2)

By the SAA 2017 Session 403 Team: James Bullen, Alison Clemens, Wendy Hagenmaier, Adriane Hanson, Emilie Hardman, Carrie Hintz, Mark Matienzo, Jessica Meyerson, Amanda Pellerin, Susan Pyzynski, Mike Shallcross, Seth Shaw, Sally Vermaaten, Tim Walsh

Insights from Discussion Groups

  • In discussion group 1, we went through a few different discussion areas. We had an interesting conversation about how to navigate using a user-centered approach. We talked about a) how to balance changing user needs professional practices; b) the difficulty of being user-centered within an MPLP paradigm; c) the contrasting difficulty of being *too* detailed in our description, and that getting in the way of discovery; and d) shifting our reference model so that public services staff are more facile with using finding aids and assisting users in navigating minimal description.
  • Discussion group 4 began by discussing the range of concerns relating to the state of discovery at the participants’ institutions. Everyone recognized that their current discovery systems for archives were not ideal, and there was a common interest across the group in centralizing discovery within an institution or consortium. The group also spent a significant amount of time discussing specific known issues to implementing a new discovery system, including issues related to system integration, the reality that information about archival materials is spread across multiple platforms, and that abrupt transitions across platforms were jarring for users. We also discussed challenges to undertaking user-centered design and collaborative work, which included barriers related to administrative support, systemic IT issues, lack of knowledge of user experience design methodologies, and resources for these projects.
  • Discussion Group 5 began by discussing archival discovery at participants’ institutions.  There was a wide range of strategies being used to facilitate archival discovery, but none of the participants were happy with their current state.  In most cases, the discovery systems were too deeply connected to library technologies like the OPAC, or utilized static html websites.  Participants were frustrated that their systems didn’t meet potential users where they were (the open web) and didn’t provide desired opportunity for users to find materials or more effectively use the finding aid data.   Participants saw flaws in their systems that negatively impact users, and all saw user testing as something that should be done when designing and maintaining archival discovery systems.  There was, however, some concern that user testing is resource intensive and that many archives don’t have the tools or training to do it effectively and that, while we feel good about our attempts to include users on product development we don’t have a good sense of what the return on that investment actually is in most cases.  
  • Discussion group 6 first considered how to go from having good description in multiple tools to having an effective user experience searching across all of those tools.  A user centered design approach was appealing, but there was concern about lacking the staff time and expertise to take this on, as well as challenges of knowing the demographics of your users well enough to establish meaningful user personas and being able to prioritize across different user groups’ needs. Collaboration and sharing the work seemed to be the answer to lacking staff time and expertise, although formal collaborative efforts do require overhead to manage the logistics of the collaboration. We discussed ways to have more effective collaboration, such as sharing the results of our work (like user personas) online rather than writing journal articles, making room for smaller institutions in the conversation, and allowing for different levels of time commitment and expertise within a collaboration. Roles for institutions without technical expertise include providing feedback or replicating a test at your own institution using another institution’s method.


Working on a user-centered design project for your archives? Have questions about the topic? Chime in via the comments below!

User Centered Collaboration for Archival Discovery (Part 1)

By the SAA 2017 Session 403 Team: James Bullen, Alison Clemens, Wendy Hagenmaier, Adriane Hanson, Emilie Hardman, Carrie Hintz, Mark Matienzo, Jessica Meyerson, Amanda Pellerin, Susan Pyzynski, Mike Shallcross, Seth Shaw, Sally Vermaaten, Tim Walsh

At the SAA Annual Meeting, a group of archivists and technologists organized a session on collaborative user-centered design processes across project and institutional boundaries: ArcLight (based at Stanford University), the ArchivesSpace public user interface enhancement project, and New York University’s archival discovery work. Using community-oriented approaches that foreground user experience design and usability testing, these initiatives seek to respond to the documented needs and requirements of archivists and researchers. In an effort to continue the conversation about user-centered design in archives, we wanted to share a recap of the session and discussion reflections with the community.


Sally Vermaaten started off the presentations by outlining NYU’s staged design work on a new archival discovery layer. In the first phase of work, a team of archivists, technologists, and librarians conducted a literature review on usability of archival discovery systems, held an blue-sky requirements workshop with stakeholders, assessed several systems in use by other archives, and drafted personas and high-level requirements. In parallel with this design work, a Blacklight-based proof of concept site was set up that utilized code developed by Adam Wead. The results of the pilot and design work were promising but also highlighted the growing need to upgrade other archival systems including migration to ArchivesSpace. Because implementing ArchivesSpace would offer new mechanisms to access metadata via API and would change underlying data structures, it made sense to migrate to ArchivesSpace before a full redesign of the discovery layer.


At the same time, the team at NYU knew that the proof of concept Blacklight-based site already running in a test environment included several tangible improvements to search and browse functionality that could be polished and rolled out with minimal investment. NYU therefore decided to take a phased approach in order to put those usability improvements in the hands of users earlier. First, they used rapid user-centered design techniques to quickly iterate on the proof of concept site, including a heuristic analysis and wireframing, and were able to deploy significantly improved search functionality to users within a few months. Next, they focused on ArchivesSpace migration and once that system was live, ‘Phase II’ of archival discovery work, a holistic rethink of the archival discovery layer, was kicked off. Sally wrapped up her presentation by sharing some of the aspects of the NYU approach that proved most helpful in their process and encouraged other institutions to consider these strategies in archival discovery work:

  • sharing and re-using existing resources (user research, design work, and code
  • documenting user needs as an impetus for and input into a future systems projects
  • incremental improvement and proof-of-concept approaches.


Susan Pyzynski and Emilie Hardman discussed the ongoing collaborative work toward an enhanced public user interface for ArchivesSpace. The first Design Phase took place between March and December 2015. This phase produced a set of wireframes and a report by the design firm, Cherry Hill, which was contracted to establish initial plans for the PUI.  The Development Phase, which spanned January-June 2017, took this initial planning into account and fleshed out the firm’s work with both fully exploratory and structured comparative user tests. A selection of these tests and findings may be found here. This work yeilded a 2.0 test release of the ASpace PUI: Though it sounds conclusive, the Release Phase (summer 2017) is not the final work, though it has put forth a user-informed product:

With this new release Harvard University is pursuing an aggressive timeline, looking at a January release for the ASpace PUI, and plan to engage in further and more specific community-centered user testing.


Finally, Mark Matienzo presented on the design process used for ArcLight, a project initiated by Stanford University Libraries to develop a purpose-built discovery and delivery system for archival collections. ArcLight’s design process followed a similar model as Stanford’s design process for the Spotlight exhibits platform, but with morea higher amount of community input and participation. The ArcLight design process included input from thirteen institutions, and significant individual contributions from eleven individuals, including both user experience designers and archivists. After providing an overview of the design process, Mark presented on how requirements were identified and evolved through over time. Using the example of the delivery of digital objects within the description of a specific collection component, this review included looking at early stakeholder goals and investigating existing functionality in their environmental scan; identifying questions to ask in user interviews, and subsequent analysis of their answers; how those insights were reflected in design documents like personas and wireframes; and their eventual implementation in the ArcLight minimum viable product. Mark closed his presentation by discussing lessons learned about the highly collaborative process. This included the recognition of the value of very broad input, the time and effort needed to organize collaboration, and the importance of needing professional knowledge and expertise in user experience in creating certain kinds of design artifacts./