Finding The Tool That Brings It All Together

One of the hardest parts of the Digital Media Commons Initiative (DMCI) project has been finding the right tool for the job. I had a hard time creating a narrative when I didn’t have the tool that would help me imagine a framework that I needed to build within.

When I first started this project I was looking at Open Exhibits as an authoring tool, but not long after I started playing with it they were bought out by another company and it seems that support for the tool went away. The tool was also buggy and instead of spending time dealing with it I left it behind.

Around that time I was still struggling to come up with what the content would be and what story I wanted to tell. I knew I wanted to do something involving Mary Washington history, possibly utilizing a map, and using items from the Library’s Digital Collections to create an end product that could be displayed in the Convergence Gallery. So, for awhile I put away the worry about how I’d build it and I figured I’d spend some time delving in to learning more about Mary Washington history and spending time in the Digital Collections to see if anything grabbed my attention. I read through the majority of Edward Alvey’s History of Mary Washington College, 1908-1972 and also read a good portion of William Crawley’s University of Mary Washington: A Centennial History 1908-2008. During this time you’ll see I stumbled across cool things like Faulkner visiting Mary Washington. I also spent a fair amount of time looking at the Centennial Image Collection finding shots that caught my eye or made me wonder, “where was that?”. I still seem to be terrible at taking notes, but at least I wrote down citations so I could go back and find things later.

After accumulating lots of interesting facts in my head I became obsessed with the idea of building a BuzzFeed style quiz about “What Era of Mary Washington Do You Belong In?”. I figure it’d be fun to capture some of the excitement and hype of the ridiculous quizzes and I had quite a bit of Mary Washington information in my head. There is no real good free tool out there that helps you design personality quizzes, but I found a plugin for WordPress that could possibly play the role. I started building a spreadsheet, collecting images, and playing with the plugin, but once again I was not over-joyed by the tool. So, I put that half done project down and once again struggled with “what is the story?”.

Next I went on to the idea that using my knowledge in Mary Washington history I’d write an interactive fiction using Twine as a framework to tell story. The story was going to take you back in time to a day in Mary Washington and you’d be able to, through a narrative, get to learn about what life was like at Mary Washington. Once again I started in, writing, collecting images, mapping out the path. I quickly became frustrated by what would essentially be a text driven story. I love interactive fictions, but a builder of compelling fictional narratives I am not. Frustrated by my own inability to be a creative writer I put away that project too.

Sidenote: Is it a wonder I struggled so much with academics? So many half-done papers and projects haunt me.

After many failed grandiose ideas and feelings of disappointment I circled back around to the original idea of a map. This time, taking a concept from the interactive fiction iteration of the project, I’d build a map of Mary Washington as it would have been seen in 1957. I decided to build it in Prezi because it allows you to move through a visual space and I knew that Prezi works with our kiosks. I started collecting images, writing blurbs of content and piecing it together in Prezi. It happened again though. I did not like the way the story looked in Prezi. Would I ever find the tool? Would I just have to accept good enough? (ah, the joys of being a perfectionist).

Cut to last week: I shuffled in to DTLT, looking for inspiration and to vent my frustration of not finding the “right” tool. I described to Andy what I was trying to do and why I just didn’t like the way Prezi was handling it. He thought for a moment and said he might know of a tool that could be the thing I am looking for. Enter stage left:


I went through the live demo and was immediately entranced by the possibilities. It is an incredibly extensible presentation tool and it doesn’t require anything fancy to run (HTML framework, baby!). There is even a website that utilizes the reveal.js framework called Slides so you easily build presentations without knowing any code. What really caught my eye was the ability to add depth to a linear narrative. In each slide you have the ability to add nested slides. So you can have a fairly simple narrative that goes left to right, but if you want to give people the option to spend time getting in to more detail they could delve deeper by going down a level. It also has lots of little features (like native support of gifs) that are nice to see and could be used in fun ways.

So, what now?

I think since I am so close to summer I might as well take the time to learn reveal.js instead of using (although it is very slick and has great features on the free level). How do I know this isn’t going to lead to another dead-end? Well, I can’t really know for sure, but at this point I think I’ve really exhausted all possibilities (and I’m exhausted by the constant thinking and rethinking). I’m going to spend the summer learning how to program reveal.js so I can tell the story of the Sights at Mary Washington in 1957. Hopefully, if this tool is as cool as I think it is, I can easily create other projects in the future using it.

Fits and Starts and Technology

The DMCI project has been moving in fits and starts. The initial idea was accepted,  I explored technology, focused an idea, realized technology we planned on using probably isn’t going to work, started rethinking whole approach. I know this is all part of the process, but it feels like I’m back at square one.

After OpenExhibits underwent its merger it seems like the product has been left to flounder. It is now freely available to everyone, but the website is still glitchy and there is minimal support. So, we have started rethinking what we are going to use to do the digital gallery displays. With this rethinking of the technology comes the rethinking of the content. In many ways what you use to create a project dictates what you say, the medium changes the message. So, here I am rethinking (once again) how I am going to approach this project. To me, Open Exhibits, was very much focused on being a container for a bunch of items to interact with, whether it was maps, images, or sound (at least at the very basic authorship levels). This approach can be useful in some settings, but with what we wanted to do I couldn’t seem to make the pieces fit inside the box. Now, that we are looking elsewhere to present the content I am more open to reconsider the narrative I want to tell. In fact, now I feel like I can tell a story rather than just give people a bunch of artifacts to touch and and fling around a touch screen.

So, the search continues for the technology that doesn’t require a huge learning curve, but is still powerful enough that we can build something that we can show-off in the Digital Galleries in the ITCC. As I was discussing this search with our assistant systems librarian, Katherine, she mentioned a tool called Zeega and a journal called Sensate Journal that features some projects the used Zeega. This one, “Hearing the Hills: An Acoustic Encounter with South Dakota’s Black Hills” not only tells a narrative, but has multiple threads you can explore while you go through. This example made the cogs in my head start moving. This was what I really wanted to do with the project. Have a semi-guided tour through a narrative that allowed the viewer some agency, but in the end moved them in a direction that I wanted them to head. I spent the better part of this morning looking at various different story-telling like websites. Shout out to 50 Ways to Tell a Story that also provided me some inspiration as I looked at through the different examples.

Another component of this is the digital galleries are touch screens and until we get the physical computers here it will be hard to test out usability. Can we build a website in something like WordPress and have it be useable via touch? So, we are playing the waiting game on that too.

I’m no closer to an end product, but it has been good to work through a lot of these issues and I am thankful for my colleagues here in the Library and around University for helping me think this through. More to come on this adventure to get something ready for the digital gallery.







Getting the Ball Rolling

break on through to the other sideThe hard part of getting going on a big project is deciding how to attack it. Currently I’m facing two pressing issues:

1) The software we are using for the Digital Galleries, Open Exhibits, is something I’ve never used before so there will be a bit of a learning curve and the final shape of the project will really depend on how easy/hard it will be to develop in this system. Additionally, Open Exhibits just underwent a merger with a company called Gesture Works so the website is in a bit of chaos right now. The first day I finally sat down to sink my teeth in was the day after the merger happened and I was watching things change on the site as I tried to find my way around. I’m giving the site some time and I hope the documentation pops back up. Expect more posts about the joys/frustrations of learning a new piece of software.

2) The second pressing issue is the scope of the project. Putting together something that is about UMW history can be an endless task. Being the perfectionist I am I want to cover it all, but it is truly not realistic. I have to be okay with deciding to cover a certain theme or time period or some buildings. I get so excited about different possibilities and aspects of UMW history that I find it difficult to be okay with narrowing it down.

My goals this week are to decide what my scope will be and now that the Open Exhibits is getting back in it’s groove I need to start playing around with the software. If anyone has any suggestions on scope please feel free to suggest. We are possibly thinking about featuring the initial 3 buildings on campus (Monroe, Virginia, Willard). Not sure if we would cover their entire history, but maybe it will be doable!