Can you dig through spaghetti to save a ribbon? @UTSLibrary

A library needs your help — and by helping them, you’ll be helping the world.

A few years ago, the librarians at University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in Australia awarded a creative residency to Chris Gaul, a designer and artist who used sound and visuals to find new ways to bring the collection to life.

One of Chris’ most impressive works from this period was the Library Spectogram, which visualised the library’s collection, organised by the Dewey Decimal system, as a colour spectrum.

 

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Chris’ artwork visualised the collection by representing the number of books under each Dewey subject heading as a colour, with different shades of each colour representing the subdivisions within each class.

What made this truly brilliant was what UTS Library did next: turning Chris’ artwork into a practical tool, an interactive web interface to explore the library collection.

On the UTS library catalogue, the library spectogram exists as a band of colour – “the ribbon” – which you can click to expand the colours of each subject into the subdivisions which they’re shaded by.

 

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The spectrum makes understanding and browsing the Library’s collections more intuitive and engaging. It’s a simple tool which could be used by almost any library with an online catalogue, large or small, in any sector.

In a world where everyone is trying to wow you with the latest digital innovation, it’s a simple, humble, effective tool which offers a transformative experience in collection exploration: the online version of serendipitous browsing among the shelves.

So what’s the problem?

UTS Library is going through massive changes right now: moving to a new building on their Ultimo campus and starting to rethink their discovery services, which could mean moving to a new online home too. The long-awaited project to share the ribbon’s code openly has been deferred by several years.

Plans to release it in early 2018 were delayed until the start of this year, and as 2019 comes to a close, more than seven years after Chris’ original residency, the ribbon is still not out in the world. With the planned overhaul of discovery services, it’s even possible that the UTS ribbon might be lost entirely.

What’s needed now is to find a way for the code which creates the ribbon to be liberated from the UTS online catalogue and shared openly. That’s where you, or someone you know, comes in.

UTS’ Dr Belinda Tiffen has kindly given permission for interested parties to work with the Library to make this happen. This could involve a group of interested students taking it on as a project; it could become the focus of a hackathon; or it could be volunteer work by public-spirited souls who want to give something back to libraries worldwide.

The code uses the functionality of the UTS search engine Endeca to group search results, so there could be a bit of a technical challenge digging through “spaghetti code” to make this happen – but once the ribbon’s code is exposed and shared with the world, any library with an online catalogue could consider making use of Chris Gaul’s gift to UTS.

In an age when university libraries are striving to be open, it would be an act of generosity, sharing digital discovery tools just as freely as libraries wish to share their content.

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At a time when we recognise the need to preserve digital as well as physical heritage, it would ensure that the Library Spectogram doesn’t just become “a nice thing one library had once”, yet another great innovation which is celebrated on social media and shown off at conferences, but ends up on the scrapheap when steps aren’t taken to nurture and sustain it.

If you think you could help UTS Library to share the Library Spectogram code with the world, reach out to Belinda Tiffen to offer your services and learn more.