Group Meeting November 18, 2014

The main focus of today’s meeting was on exhibits.

1. What is an exhibit? And what do I need to do to create one?
An exhibit is an essay or narrative illustrated by online items that support or enrich what is being said. There is no prescribed length. It should be as long as it needs to be to tell the story you want to tell. We should assume that our audience has no knowledge of the topic of our exhibit.

Meredith showed the group how exhibits and specific exhibit pages can be created using straightforward options at our Omeka site. For each page in your exhibit you can choose from a variety of layout choices.

The Design Team will be communicating with the Development Team regarding basic visual appearance options such as color and font. While those appearance options will alter the appearance of our exhibits, they will not alter our content or layout choices. Each individual should begin, as soon as she or he is ready, to create exhibits and exhibit pages, choose layouts, and add content.

2. Timeline and requirements

The team decided to extend the initial launch deadline for the public site to January 21, thus taking advantage of the lull time of Winter break to get work completed. Each exhibit should have a minimum of eight items integrated into it. People are free to add more items if they wish–either to their exhibits or to our public site in general, where all items will be browsable as items.

3. Example of an exhibit
John discussed with the group an exhibit he had created for his chosen Morningside location–Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine. He chose to focus on the competing visions of the architects who worked on the cathedral. Due to time constraints he limited archival research to Avery Drawings. For this building, he felt that there was enough non-archival material available to tell the story he wanted to tell. One key resource of interest for most of our locations is the database “American Periodicals (1740-1940).” This includes a good selection of architectural periodicals for 19th and 20th centuries.

Respecting Deadlines and Project Integrity

The Project management Team (Nancy Friedland and John Tofanelli) met on Monday to discuss how the Humanities and History team should best move forwards on our Morningside Heights Digital History (MHDH) project in light of our pending deadline for the initial launch of our public site–January 1, 2015. Here are our decisions:

*Downsize specifications for initial launch of public site. Our present guidelines for initial launch specify that each author should contribute three exhibits (that is, multimedia essays) for his/her chosen building or location plus twenty items with metadata, some of which should be in support of those exhibits, some of which can simply enhance the site overall. We have decided that the specifications for initial launch shall be revised as follows: one exhibit plus eight items with metadata from each author.

*We will leave it up to the MHDH team to decide at our 11/18 meeting who would like to add content beyond the initial launch specifications, what sort of content they would like to add, and within what time frame.

*The Project Management Team will meet with the heads of the Design Team (Karen Green) and the Development Team (Meredith Levin) prior to our 11/18 meeting to clarify how those groups will be working together to complete the architecture of the public site.

*In both of the meetings described in bullets immediately above, the Project Management Team will seek input needed to assess if the January 1, 2015 initial launch deadline is feasible.

*In order to provide the Design Team and Development Team a sample exhibit page to work with, John Tofanelli will author an exhibit page for his chosen building by 11/17.

As stated in a poster about our project that was recently exhibited by MHDH team members at the Digital Library Federation meeting in Atlanta : “The project is important, but the process of learning emergent technologies . . . is equally, if not more, important than the product.” The entire MHDH team is in agreement with this viewpoint.

Our Project Management Team felt strongly that respecting the original deadline for the project, insofar as possible, would provide all with a welcome sense of accomplishment. Downsizing the scope of the initial launch specifications, furthermore, would create a goal within reach that would provide each team member with an inspiration for the completion of work in progress. It remains the intention of the Project Management Team to work with the MHDH team to maintain fully the integrity of the project. Full attention will still be given to issues of metadata, site architecture and design, content, and functionality. We will aim to find and implement workable answers for the questions regarding these issues that have arisen throughout our work on the project. It will simply be a smaller site at the point of initial launch–one that may grow as and if members of the team choose to continue adding on to it.

Overall, we hope that other librarians engaged in project-based learning of new skills might find our example useful. Integrity and quality remain accessible goals–regardless of the sweep and scope of a project. Sometimes sweep and scope need to be reined in so that learning objectives can be attained.

Design Team: Nailing the Details

A scant six weeks after presenting our design choices to the Developing Library group, the Design and Development Teams at last sat down together to hammer out the details for which each were dependent on the other.

The Design Team learned that the Development Team had chosen the Omeka theme “Berlin,” which we found…unappealing.  The Development Team assured us that the choice was based on functionality, not style, as almost all stylistic elements in the theme could be adapted, which we found very reassuring.

We were tasked with nailing down the color scheme, font, and main page design.  Our earlier color scheme of charcoal grey background, with red and yellow accents, as found at the Jan Breughel Wiki page, had been questioned by the Development Team, given the difficulty, on text-heavy pages, of reading light text on a dark background.  We agreed that that was a problem, but didn’t find it an insurmountable problem.  The Brueghel Wiki deals with it by lightening the grey where there’s a preponderance of text; we felt that we could even create a frame for the text that would allow us to present it as black on white, within the framework of the charcoal grey background.  So, for now, charcoal grey with red and yellow remains our color scheme, and we will be emending the logos to reflect that choice.

Menu tabs at the top of the main map image remain our choice, as well.  We are still fans of the Medici Archive Project site, with its menu tabs above the main images.  We are also fans of the Mapping Gothic France main page, with its prominent main image, its text box that can be minimized so as not to obscure that image, its hovertext, and its minimalist footer.  To our great delight, we discovered that the Mapping Gothic France site, which is a Columbia project, is on GitHub, allowing us to mine its source code.

The big decision for the day was….FONT.  So much of a site’s visual impact relies on the font!  We knew we wanted a serif font, one that looked old-fashioned, like 19th-century newstype.  We played around with filters on Google Fonts without success–until, appropriately enough, the team-member who sits on both Design AND Development discovered the font with which we all fell in love: Old Standard TT.  We played with it in Google Fonts, typing the names of each of our topics to see how they looked in the font, and we remained excited.  This felt like a huge, huge step forward.

The Design Team also has the responsibility of delivering a design for item pages, but the two teams agreed that this would best be done collaboratively, once the Development Team has started building the site based on the specs thus far.

It felt like a good meeting!

Development Team: Making Strides

The Development Team met yesterday to reinforce our understanding of how to use GitHub to share our code and to try implementing some of the recommendations we received from the Design team with regard to our site. We established a list of rules for using Git that we are all committed to memorizing (or else we risk breaking branches, destroying the site, and creating extra work for ourselves). The rules are:

1. Pull before you push- any time we sit down to work on the code for the site we should remember to pull the code on each of our branches to ensure that we receive all the changes our colleagues have made and that we don’t end up with conflicts.

2. Don’t pull another branch into the Master branch- we want to keep the master branch clean!

3. Always check what branch you’re on whenever you make any changes (so that everyone else knows which branch to switch to when they are pulling the updates).

4. In order to delete other branches, you must be on the Master branch.

5. We don’t pull files- we’re only pulling code.

6. Don’t use capital letters or spaces in file names.

We also discovered, thanks to Alex and another colleague in the libraries, Seth Robertson’s choose your own adventure guides to Git:,, and the one we’ll probably use the most (since it helps you resolve merge conflicts and committing errors):

Once we had nailed down this set of rules to live and program by, we moved on to editing the CSS for our site’s homepage. We were able to insert a title into the header and to create a background image for the entire homepage. Our next steps will be centering the title, changing the font and size, and attempting to insert a navigation menu toward the bottom of the page. This all may sound very cryptic or, to those who are very familiar with coding and with Git, very basic, but having these rules crystallized has been extremely helpful for our team as we move forward in building the site.

(Our abstract and slightly insane visual understanding of how each member of the development team uses GitHub and connects to the Git repository)

Collaborative Research

This week we’ve scheduled two “Open Labs” in the Studio@Butler, the library’s collaboratory. Because of the modular furniture in the Studio we’re able to work individually or break into smaller groups to discuss shared research interests and resources. Since we are all struggling to find time to research our individual landmarks/buildings in Morningside Heights, we’re using these Open Labs as dedicated time to research and write outside of our normal training sessions and meetings. For me personally, it’s helpful to work in a room full of other people working, even if we’re not all doing the same thing. The energy and the buzz in the room definitely enhances my productivity, while taking short breaks to find out which resources my colleagues are currently exploring can be really inspiring! In Tuesday’s Open Lab, Bob and Sarah showed us some of the fascinating census documents they’ve been extracting from, as well as underlying spreadsheets and data that give us a better understanding of the neighborhood’s changing demographics in the late 19th and early 20th century. John and Anice also spent some time investigating Gateway to North America : people, places, and organizations of 19th-century New York, a database that includes directories and travel guides among other primary sources.

These Open Labs follow a successful “researchathon” that Alex and I organized for a faculty member in the French department last week. She is compiling a bibliography on literature, colonization and slavery in the Atlantic so we got several colleagues together from across the libraries and spent a few hours researching and adding citations to a Zotero group. We ended up with a bibliography of over 300 sources, having split our time between working individually and in small groups concentrating on themes like “Early American Travel Narratives” and “Natural History and Slavery.” These sorts of collaborative initiatives have not only brought us together and helped us foster closer partnerships with our academic departments, but they belie the notion that humanities research is conducted purely by individuals working in isolation. We’re all still spending plenty of time independently researching our selected locations for this project but I (and my colleagues) are increasingly valuing these Open Labs and researchathons as opportunities to create an interdisciplinary community of researchers at the university.


Project Management: Coordinating Progress

Our project is moving forward along two basic tracks. The first is team accomplishments, and progress here depends heavily on synchronization. For example, the Design Team needed to complete its designs and specifications for logo and home page before the Development Team could begin working on implementing them. The second track is individual accomplishments. Each individual has chosen an historic Morninigside site, and is required to create three exhibit pages, each of which explores some aspect of it. Each of us is also charged with uploading twenty documentary items, some of which should be integrated into the exhibits, while others can simply enrich the scope of the site as a whole. Within the overall deadline of December 2014, when our project is slated to have its initial launch, the timing of individual accomplishments is quite flexible.

Nevertheless, various group members have expressed the idea that further individual progress on items and/or exhibits would actually be helpful to give us all a greater sense of where the project is going. With this in mind, two open labs have been scheduled for this coming week in which individuals can work on any aspect of the project they choose. Bob Scott and Alex Gil will be on hand at the open labs to provide expert guidance as needed for matters such as the creation of bibliographies in Zotero and the uploading of documentary items to the project site. Near the beginning of the project, we all had training in both and we already have for each Morningside site an initial body of work to return to and expand upon. There is a lot of energy in the group right now, in these last weeks of summer; and we are all looking forward to the open labs.