Monday, October 29th, 2012...9:30 am

Visualizing Edward Lear

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[Thanks to Matthew Battles, Senior Researcher at metaLAB, for contributing this post on the new Edward Lear Visualizer.]

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but let me just get this out: a library is no mere set of bookshelves, no simple windowpane through which to view the wonders of books and the discoveries they make possible. In the course of cataloging and making accessible the books, manuscripts, and other materials they keep, librarians and archivists do a great deal of intellectual and narrative work. Much of this work takes the form of “metadata”—the words and figures they use to describe book-like objects, map their relationships with one another, and chart their links to various domains of expression and intellection. With the emergence of new technologies and the remixes of intellectual paradigms, the forms and patterns of these metadata shift and change. As they collect and accrete, these means of bibliographic control can begin to tell stories about the material they document—but sometimes a little technological intervention is required to pry loose the insights they contain.

At metaLAB, a research collaborative fostering technological innovation in the arts and humanities at Harvard, we’re entangled in the stories libraries (and librarians) can tell. Several fellows in metaLAB’s curatorial innovation workshop spent last year exploring the stories that metadata can tell, coming to grips with the description and cataloging of books and other materials as core curatorial practices. One of these fellows, Travis Bost (GSD MDes ‘12), found that through the judicious and intellectually-lively application of technology, he could make metadata tell stories that are hard to discern within the textual context in which they’re normally found. In this case, the careful and thorough work of archival description lent enormous narrative and analytic value—and yet much of that value was bound up in file formats that kept potential insights implicit or hidden.

Travis began work on the Edward Lear collection of landscape drawings (MS Typ 55.11, processed by Nancy Finlay) with hopes of creating a technological simulacrum of Lear’s artistic practice—imaging and visualizing the works themselves, and layering them with an editing layer that allowed web visitors to play with the works in the way Lear did, adding a color wash here, mixing in a tree or a ruin there, combining sketches and studies into a finished work ready for sale. But it was the metadata that kept calling to Travis, whispering hints about how Lear’s working methods changed with travel and time. In traditional, linear form, these metadata could only hint at the texture of such changes. Scanning them online, however (using the encoded finding aid accessible via OASIS, Harvard’s portal for archival finding aids online), Travis realized that he could create a program to pick out certain data—specifically those documenting time, place, materials used, and dimensions of specific works—and re-weave them into visualizations that set Lear’s travels, materials, and working methods and rhythms into clear relief.

Travis used a language called Processing—a version of Java designed to offer a flexible and intuitive programming tool for creating art, applications, and visual analyses to suit the expressive needs of artists, designers, and humanities scholars. With the help of Processing, Travis could sort through the finding aid for tags specifying the materials and dimensions of Lear’s works and the geographical locations they depict,weaving facts isolated in the linear format of the finding aid. What emerges is a robust, interactive presentation that permits the user to explore fluctuations in place, productivity, and palette over the course of Lear’s career as a journeyman landscape artist. This work was made possible by markup tags added to the finding aid by processing archivists to specify the various kinds of information contained therein. In the course of rendering the finding aid as a text document on the web, however, these markup tags are stripped away and hidden from the reader. By making use of the original encoded finding-aid file (provided with help from Houghton’s Melanie Wisner), Travis worked up an interactive visualization that hints at the promise of a technology that is increasingly within the reach of scholars, readers, and—but this goes without saying—librarians.

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