Monday, February 17, 2014

Maps and Mapmaking in India - A Physical and Online Exhibit

The Stephen S. Clark Library is currently featuring its tenth exhibit, “Maps and Map-making in India”, in conjunction with the LSA theme semester “India in the World.”  The theme semester is coordinated by the Center for South Asian Studies in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, a faculty/Steering Committee, and a Student Advisory Board. The theme semester will be working with various departments across campus to arrange exhibits, performances, films, lectures, discussions, symposia, and conferences across campus. This exhibit at the Clark displays the Clark and Hatcher Libraries’ extensive collections of materials from and about India, focusing specifically on the Indian Survey and the history of mapmaking in India.
For the first time in the Clark Library’s history of exhibits, an online exhibit was created simultaneously with the physical exhibit. The online exhibit mimics most of the materials and text from the physical exhibit while providing a new interface for users to interact with it. To accomplish this, we used Omeka, the content management system utilized by MLibrary. Omeka is typically used by cultural heritage institutions to display visual and text-based content online. The process of turning the physical exhibit into an online exhibit required looking at four main aspects of the process of building an exhibit: the structure, the materials, the tools, and the preparation.

For the most part, we were able to maintain the structure and materials of the physical exhibit by organizing the materials within each case into a corresponding page online. The physical exhibit space is separated into four distinct cases. As a result, the online exhibit has multiple defined sections including: James Rennell: the Father of the Indian Survey, Surveying India, Colonial India, Mother India, and Early Maps of India. With the exhibit as a whole, we chose to keep the content mainly on one page per section in order to preserve the connections that exist in the physical display cases. In one instance, we were able to make a distinction between themes more clear: one physical exhibit case was used to display two themes, but this was easily translated into two separate divisions in the online version.

The template provided by MLibrary within Omeka, although somewhat restrictive, does force all of the libraries’ online exhibits to follow an identical format. Though this ultimately creates a cohesive online exhibit space across the library system and improves usability for patrons, the limitations of the templates were a challenge to work around. In one case. we were forced to distill one section of the exhibit down to only the items that were most relevant to that section’s theme due to the fact that exhibit pages can only hold eight items. It ultimately better served the flow of the exhibit to list the excluded items in the bibliography than to create a second page within the section. The result was that this part of the exhibit couldn’t mirror the complementary physical exhibit as the other sections do. Another tradeoff exists in how we were able to display textual information. The physical exhibit posters that provide a narrative to go along with the items displayed are designed to be visually interesting and are works of art in and of themselves. The online format cannot accommodate this illustrative text display without sacrificing readability. Similarly, other aspects of the physical exhibit that are purely aesthetic, such as the saris that are displayed in one case, aren’t easily captured with Omeka. This was an important consideration when ultimately deciding to include photographs of the physical exhibit itself. With these additional images, visitors to the site can get a feel for what the exhibit would have looked like if they were able to view it in person.

Despite these challenges, the process of turning the physical exhibit into the online exhibit gave us the ability to add more value to some of the materials. Most importantly, we added more metadata to each item within the exhibit and were able to link each item to its record in Mirlyn - a convenience that is not possible in a physical exhibit. This should help users in terms of researching and locating the materials within the exhibit and in the library after the physical exhibit has been taken down. The bibliography page is meant to do this as well by linking other materials referenced or used in creating the exhibit. The online format also allows for additional features that encourage users to interact more closely with the materials than they would be able to when viewing the items in person. The most notable of these features is the zoom function that allows for very close examination of the fine details in the maps. In the physical exhibit, some of these maps are displayed behind glass, predetermining the proximity of the viewer.
Placing the materials online in this way also allows for broader outreach to the library website’s visitors who may not have been able to walk through the physical exhibit. It creates an enduring version of the information that will persist long after the physical exhibit is taken down.

The physical exhibit will be on display in the Clark from January 16th through April 22nd. The online
exhibit can be viewed here.