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Launching a Digital Collection: Navigation and Enhancing the Search and Browse Experiences

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

It has been a little while since I have last written a blog here on the Beacon Street Diary. And that is because we have been hard at work migrating our New England’s Hidden Histories (NEHH) collections to Quartex, our new Digital Asset Management system. We have been, one by one, uploading NEHH collections into Quartex and providing each and every item brand new metadata, enhancing both the searchability of individual items and bringing much needed descriptive clarity that will help users find relations between disparate items and collection. I hope you are excited because the team here at the CLA is absolutely ecstatic. You will be able to explore these important digital collections in many new and exciting ways that greatly enhance the research experience and hopefully introduce these records to many more people.

I am happy to officially report that Phase 1 of this three-part migration project has now been completed and on schedule. Phase 1 was focused on the comparatively smaller NEHH collections. This allowed us to work on many collections over a shorter period of time, which hashelped the team to get familiar with, and further refine, the migration workflow. We have completed the migration of 97 NEHH collections into Quartex. This accounts for approximately 60% of the total number of NEHH collections (but not necessarily 60% of the total volume of NEHH). Each collection is comprised of individual items; to date we have uploaded over 297 items, (also sometimes referred to as assets or resources depending on the context). Each of these items is comprised of multiple images, the vast majority of which are JPEGs. In total, we have uploaded over 39,000 images. Phase 2 will change focus to somewhat larger, by volume, and more complex collections, but, based on the work we have already completed, we are expecting to remain on schedule. This means that we still believe that our soft launch date of early Fall is still reasonable and within reach.

Phase 1, in many ways, was the proof-of-concept phase of this migration project as it allowed us to put our workflows through the ringer in a controlled environment. And, more importantly, phase 1 offered us plenty of opportunities to work with a wide variety of materials and to experiment with ways to make those records more visible and easily found.  Navigation can be the difference maker when it comes to ensuring someone can find the exact item they are lookingfor. After a few months working with Quartex, we are hopeful that we will be able to provide excellent navigation to all our materials.

In the past I have talked about linked metadata as an important part of the navigation formula, and this remains true. It is safe to say that most of our metadata work is focused on attaching relevant subject, geographic, name, and genre terms to every asset. But today I wanted to talk about a couple of other features in Quartex that enhance navigation; the first of which will look quite familiar to our current users of NEHH.

Within NEHH we have arranged records into three browsable “series”. This was an early decision to help with navigation by grouping like materials into a single web page. With Quartex, and its asset-first approach to browsing, the concept of series has become largely moot. However, we still felt that it was important to maintain individual collection pages, analogous to the current NEHH collection pages, and a list of all manuscript collections. Quartex has allowed us to do that, to great effect. Using an A-Z page, we have been creating an updated and accurate list of collections, with abstracts, that navigate to more specific collection pages. On these collection pages, we provide either a historical or biographical note and an image representative of the collection, as well as links to external finding aids or catalog records when appropriate. These collection pages also allow for the user to browse, search, and refine a list of every single asset associated with that collection. Though our work with Quartex will greatly change how we present and make accessible our NEHH collections, as well as all of our non-NEHH digital holdings, some of the good lessons we learned from NEHH have been and will be applied moving forward.

Another area I am greatly excited for is navigation within individual assets. Many of the items within NEHH are bulky record books that are sometimes hundreds of pages long. Finding what you are looking for in that record book can sometimes be a frustrating exercise, one I know all too well. But one tool that Quartex gives us may be able to help. Each asset may be divided into “sections”, each with their own unique name. We have not employed sections extensively yet; really, we’ve only done some light experimenting. But already we can see the potential of this feature. “Tête-bêche” volumes, where usually two distinct records begin at each cover until they meet in the middle, can be split into sections to easily navigate to the two different beginnings in the record. And within Benjamin Wadsworth’s voluminous collection of essay-styled sermons and theological writings, we have used sections to help navigate between the various old testament books Wadsworth wrote about. It may be a long way off, but I sincerely hope that we will have the capability and bandwidth to use sections more extensively in the future to help people navigate these large record books.

The possibilities that Quartex introduce are seemingly limitless, and we keep on finding new andinteresting ways to use features to improve and enhance both the browsing and searching user experiences. Though we are still many months away from our planned soft launch, I already cannot wait to unveil the full scope of this important project and let researchers, genealogists, students, and interested knowledge seekers browse and search these records.