Review: Arizona Memory Project

In looking for directories of different digital library sites, I came across the “Arizona Memory Project.” I chose to write about this project as it both attracted me in its organization and usability, while also leaving many aspects that in my opinion could be easily improved. It is a digital library of images, text and sound. I'll mostly be referring to its images, as that is the medium I explored most.


The initial impression

The front page of this digital library allows one to quickly dive into
the material it is meant to display, without going on too much about
what the collection is about. While a byline in the header discreetly
states “A service of Arizona State Library, Archives and Public
Records, a division of the Secretary of State”, the page does not dwell
on itself. Instead, it naturally leads users directly to the digital
assets. There is little text, unless one looks for it. The front page
highlights the menu and a few highlighted features about the collection
itself that change.  The front page set the stage well; it was an
invitation to view the collection, not to read about people telling you
about it. You have to look more for that, if you are interested.

A little more information is localizable regarding the why’s and
how’s of its digital creation and management in the "About" section.
This section of the website lays out the digital library’s philosophy,
divulges a list of the core contributors across the state of Arizona
(with links to their own collections), as well as application forms and
advice on how to get one’s Arizona-based institution involved. For
potential individual contributors, it outlines how uploading images of
cultural assets to Flickr might lead to inclusion. It is also clear
about copyright information and terms of use. Missing, however, was a
clear set of criterion for defining what kind of material is/is not
eventually included. Given that this digital library in large part
organizes itself amongst various many institutional collections, one
might consider it a digital meta-library. For the information
professional, the site includes two PDF documents regarding the digital
project and metadata guidelines. This inclusion is fortunate for the
digital library student or managers of similar projects who require
more specific information. The site does include other back ground
information, but this is clearly not a central feature of the site. It
includes help sections, teacher resources and RSS feeds (broken down
into the various contributing institutions).


The collection itself

This extra information is peripheral to the collection, however, as
the website rightly focuses on the collection itself.  On the home
page, there are three clear mechanisms of collection entry: 1)
Collection Directory, 2) Search, and 3) Browse.
 
1) The collection directory is the clearest signpost of how this
collection is organized, as I've mentioned. It is basically a list of
the participating organizations. There are internal descriptions of
each these organizations and internal links to each respective
organization. These links also serve as browsing categories by
narrowing down the digital images that come from that particular
institution. This feature is also available when browsing, as we shall
see.

2) One can search in various ways across all fields ("all words", "none",
exact phraseology etc.), or the same way within selected fields (title, subject, description, format, identifier, date, publisher, and many others). One can also activate these search features across all institutions making up this meta-collection, or specify from a list specific institutions. These search features are great for professionals who know what they are looking for. What was missing, however, was a system of faceted searching, whereby the great range of metadata fields the collection does offer might guide a researcher along the way, (i.e., as a way of narrowing down one’s search as retrieves results). This is necessary, as the collection holds around 59,000 images, and would make it a far more interesting way to get a gist of its holdings.

3) Browsing is a better option for most users. However, this is where I
found the collection in need of a more comprehensive system of
descriptive tags. It may or may not already include this data (the
objects are described quite well, indeed). What I mean is: While it is
great the collection is OAI-compliant, it does not give a very decent
semantic representation (i.e., tag clouds etc) of what kinds of
pictures one is going to be treated to by checking it out.



In this respect, it has little to attract the user into its world of images representing concrete things. There are the basic general topics
(agriculture, business & industry, land & resources, transportation, society & culture), but nothing specific like “cows” or “guns” or “cowboys” or “beans” or “cactus” or “river” that allow the user a glimpse into what kinds of stuff s/he gets to see (I write like a child on purpose, as these collections should bring out the child and engender desire at re-living the pictorial history of the
state they were raised in). As you can see from the image, browsing is
broken down into other categories: popular searches, formats and time periods, but little else. The problem is that any one of these browsable categories pulls up well over 20 pages of images! Thus, this is another reason a faceted narrowing down mechanism would help. Browsing the collection leaves far too many digital image/material results in the set.  So, it seems you have to page your way through them, which takes time (but wait...read the conclusion).

The image itself

Again, the metadata is very rich, and when one does select an image,
it renders this information below an image that allows zooming,
shifting, cropping and cutting—all tricks that operate too slowly in
the given interface. I’d download the photo if I needed to manipulate
it. So, these bells and whistles look nice, but who uses them (besides
perhaps zoom)? The image is nice, though like I said the slow features
did not make me want to play with the images like I otherwise might. I believe there should be fewer options that work more quickly. As
bandwidth increases, this won't be a problem, however.


The collection is also quite a good selection of images (and some
documents and sounds) that provide a wonderful pastiche of one of the
US States over time. It is a general collection, made up of separate
institutions that specialize in some particular aspect of Arizona in
their own way. In this sense, it need not bore by being over-specialized in itself.  The collection (the majority seem to be visual images/photographs--from glass pates and other objects) is a
general overview that does allow one to specialize, but only if one
wants.  In that sense, it serves as a wonderful resource for the entire
state, as it integrates many of the states historical and archival and
educational institutions into one living memory.

In conclusion

This is a very good and effective digital library. Very little text,
it focuses on the images themselves. There are too many image results
at each category of browsing, and this needs to be ameliorated. The
image set that one gets after searching/browsing, in default mode, are
shown as a single-column row, with image on the left and descriptors on
the right. This format leaves you with the 20+ pages, and so my main
initial critique was a suggestion to provide a grid of just the
images/title themselves, so one could more easily browse the selected
set. It turns out, if the user pays attention (it took me some time to
even notice), that there is a setting that allows users to set their
own preferences for how these image sets might be viewed, and includes
grid/thumbnail/hierarchy/bibliographic/title only views with or without
the metadata of their choosing. It also allows one to change the
background color. Thus, this part of the library is fantastic, and
something I’d like to include in my own work. Thus, that 20 pages of
results can be narrowed down to 7-8 pages of just images, or just
titles, depending one what I want to be browsing.


In conclusion, a faceted search mechanism and descriptive tag clouds
(they don’t have to be “clouds”) would make this site far better than
it already is.