Digital Renewal

December 17, 2009

Before the current wave of mass digitization ventures were even a gleam in the eye of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, many libraries were already engaged in their own endeavors. These early projects often involved digitization of historical images, maps, and documents centered on a place or historical period. The projects were innovative at the time and significantly improved access to these documents, and although many are still in use, they’ve become technologically outdated.

The Alliance Library System (ALS) of Illinois has shown one way to update, refresh, and revamp such outdated interfaces with its Alliance’s Trail to Learning-Casts and Syndicated Sites (ATLAS) project.

In 2009, ALS partnered with Learning Times (LT) and several of the ALS member libraries to undertake the ATLAS project. The goal of ATLAS is to repurpose and revitalize existing, aging digital assets of proven value and public interest, such as the popular “Early Illinois Women and Other Unsung Heroes:  The First One Hundred Years 1818–1918,” to make them more interactive and engaging in ways today’s users expect. The first phase of the project was finished June 30, 2009.

Created in 1997–98 from the collections of 10 libraries in west central Illinois and led by the ALS, Early Illinois Women intended to capture and convey digitally the experiences of Illinois women during the first century of statehood. Images and text from participating libraries were grouped generally according to topic: women pioneers, public life, religion, work, medicine, education, arts and entertainment, and war. Librarians from participating institutions selected images, scanned them, and wrote accompanying text.

But although Early Illinois Women was cutting-edge when it came out, it seems dated and frumpy today. Over the past decade, the growth and maturation of the web, coupled with rising user expectations based on the emergence of various Web 2.0 tools and resources, has created a need for this valuable resource to be refreshed, revamped, and revitalized.

How ATLAS works

ATLAS uses podmaps—interactive maps of Illinois which users can use to find podcasts, images, historical data, YouTube videos, and other Web 2.0 tools—to bring historical information to life. When users launch the podmap from the ATLAS homepage, they see an interactive map of Illinois that they can zoom and pan as they wish. The podmap is similar to Google Maps and other web-based maps, thus building on the existing experiences and expectations of online users.
The public can also submit either finished podcasts or ideas for additional podcasts to complement the existing collection. Submissions are reviewed by the project team before they are made available.

The ATLAS project demonstrates that existing historical digital images and other content could be re-purposed and revitalized through a collaborative effort that, while labor-intensive, is manageable.  While not all early digitization projects are amenable to revitalization through the use of podmaps, many could be.  The visual representation of podcast hotspots on a navigable map makes exploring the content very engaging and interactive.

The project also reinforced the importance of the project team’s emphasis on having both controlled access that is predefined by professionals with carefully chosen subject groupings, as well as uncontrolled access via user interaction. The two basic access methods complement each other, rather than compete with or replace each other.

 TOM PETERS (Maxito Ricardo in Second Life) is founder of TAP Information Services, a small company that helps organizations innovate.