Building a Digital Archive

Screen Shot of SFC Yearbooks Digital Archive

Digital Archives are easier to create than ever before, utilizing content management systems such as Omeka, Drupal, Collective Access or even WordPress, libraries and institutions can share and organize their collections through the web. Digital archives can turn  300 years of chowder recipes into a resource that historians can utilize to analyze regional cuisines, or a media preservation project can become an archive that connects disparate artists from around the world.

Unfortunately with easy publishing formats can also come inflexibility. While popular content management systems allow for some customization through the use of themes, a bespoke digital archive will often require the skills of a seasoned web designer. Navigating through a theme’s files can make even fundamental changes (fonts, headers, column widths, the addition of a logo or footer) incredibly frustrating. When working on a digital archive in Omeka for a class project the few themes available were so inflexible that they required new JavaScript code to be written over them in order to override some of these very basic issues. The final outcome of the digital archive was far below what the class had set out to accomplish. Disappointingly, content was created and organized but was essentially ‘hidden’ behind the strict confines of Omeka’s basic themes.

The question of if librarians and information professionals should learn web design and development is a popular topic that I will not be addressing in this post, however, I tend to agree with the camp that suggests that a working understanding of basic web development should be fundamental for most current LIS students (see Bryan J. Brown’s two-part series on Web Development at Hack Library School). This working knowledge can definitely be tested by the editing of pre-existing templates. The creation of a new webpage versus customizing a preexisting webpage can be a lot like trying to install an air conditioner or trying to fix a malfunctioning one: while installation has clear guidelines, maintenance/repair requires expert knowledge.

Bootstrap, a collection of web tools developed by Twitter, is an excellent set of guidelines to help shepherd aspiring, novice or even accomplished web developers through the creation and ‘installation’ of a new website. Bootstrap is made up of HTML, CSS and JavaScript extensions that make tricky but necessary web components such as dropdown menus and responsive grids attainable. A testament to the usability of Bootstrap is its website, which is made entirely using Bootstrap, a bonus feature of  this is that all aspects of the website can be used as a Bootstrap textbook by looking at the underlying code with a web tool like Chrome’s DevTools .

Bootstrap is a nice alternative to a pre-made theme, as different pieces can be mixed and matched together. Additionally, if a project changes hands, a new librarian will be able to understand all of the components if they too are familiar with Bootstrap.

This summer I began working on a digital archive for St. Francis College while enrolled in a database design and maintenance class. Along with my classmate Tal Rozen, we created the framework of the database driven website using Bootstrap and MAMP. The class, focused on database design, also taught us how to create and utilize MySQL queries. An early development version of the website can be viewed from our professor’s server here: http://higilok.net/database3/sfc/. Currently I am working with student workers at St. Francis College to complete digitization of the 80 yearbooks available. The library’s goal is to complete the website and make it available through the library’s server space where alumni, current students and researchers can view this rich collection. As the website becomes more developed I hope to share more insights and code snippets here on the blog.

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