Since the 1990s, cultural heritage institutions have been investing in digital technologies to address growing public demand for permanent open access to information resources. This trend continues to accelerate. Because of the pandemic, print collections have rapidly become more difficult to access, while research and learning activities have moved to an almost entirely virtual environment. Even the nature of digital content has shifted: Once it represented a preview of a physical collection; now it’s the primary access point.
Digital collections, however, are not simply representations of physical collections but resources in their own right. Unlike physical collections, their digital counterparts feature detailed metadata. Often, they also feature full text, thanks to optical character recognition conversion of text images into machine-encoded data. Both metadata and data can be mined, analyzed, and visualized—not only opening digital collections for active exploration and discovery but also providing tools for content analysis and communication.
A growing body of literature highlights graphics’ relevance for digital libraries in the context of our culture of ubiquitous screens. For example, graphic representations of digital collections are a great alternative to text-based interfaces and search boxes, especially for nonexperts and casual users. Unlike empty search fields, which rely on user input and background knowledge, graphs and diagrams provide a comprehensive collection overview easily understandable by all.
Along the same lines, interfaces designed to offer more generous choices than the traditional search prominently display graphs of digital collections on web portals in order to spark users’ interest and inspire them to explore digitized material. In addition to providing a holistic overview of a collection’s scope and content, these interfaces include the collection’s context, display relationships among its items, and offer a quick close-up of selected images. These graphic overviews make natural starting points for browsing large sets of digital items, identifying relevant topics and patterns, selecting pertinent documents and images, and focusing on details. Graphics also foster serendipitous findings. Some interfaces let users navigate digital collections as virtual galleries.
Similarly, archivists and curators find graphics useful when analyzing large digital collections. Visualization lets curators examine a collection’s structure, organization, content, provenance, scope, and size, as well as the number of files it contains and their formats, plus its documents’ text patterns and its images’ visual patterns. In addition, graphs may reveal hidden patterns that provide insight into the process of collection development. Monitoring collection progress also means assessing its metadata for completeness and quality. Computing applications used for visualization reveal inconsistencies and missing values in metadata fields, meaning that visualization becomes an effective tool for metadata quality control. Finally, visualization may inform the creation of metadata. When we know what information produces useful charts, we can reevaluate the metadata elements that describe our collections.
At New Mexico State University Library, we use visualizations primarily to curate digital collections, especially legacy ones. We have just started experimenting with visualizations that provide fresh insights into collections’ content and allow library users to explore it further. We’ve also added graphics to digital yearbooks. Creating visuals for digital collections has been a rewarding process, and we encourage readers to learn the tools and start experimenting with digital collections data themselves.
Adapted from “Data Visualization with R for Digital Collections,” Library Technology Reports vol. 57, no. 1 (Jan. 2021).