Building a Faculty Member’s Research Exhibit using the DRS Project Toolkit

Before the break, Param Ajmera and Gregory Palermo developed a draft website to showcase Professor Stephen Sadow’s work with Latin American Jewish Artists. We built the website using the DRS Project Toolkit, a custom WordPress installation currently being developed by the Digital Scholarship Group to support faculty members in digitally representing their ongoing and completed scholarship. The goal in building the site was to update the former project website to take advantage of the DSG’s Digital Repository Service, a platform that stores digitized materials for archiving and potential sharing. The draft site features a number of items that Sadow had previously uploaded to the DRS: works authored or edited by him and his colleagues, and a number of video interviews with Jewish-identifying artists in Buenos Aires. The site which dynamically displays these hosted objects alongside pages profiling his research and a link to his existing directory of Latin American artists that contains pictures of their work.

Technical Work

Most of the pages for Sadow’s exhibit were built using a “Page Builder” plugin for the Toolkit, developed by the DSG for the quick and easy creation of custom page layouts using a graphic user interface. Sadow’s DRS items were then added to the relevant pages using WordPress shortcode tags such that their thumbnails and relevant metadata are called from the DRS when the pages are loaded. These thumbnails each link to pages with the file embedded alongside a comprehensive list of metadata. The shortcode tags, some of which are specific to the Page Builder plugin, were modified in order to customize how these thumbnails render: the video interviews, for instance, appear as tiled thumbnails that display their titles on mouseover, while the works’ thumbnails do not. Alternatively, these different options are user-selectable when the items are added using the plugin.

While this and other websites might employ light CSS and HTML encoding to further customize the layout of their sites, the technical work required to build this draft site was minimal by design. The Project Toolkit is meant to allow faculty, regardless of their level of technical proficiency, to develop their own exhibits with the DSG serving as collaborators rather than as outsourced web designers; in keeping with the DSG’s philosophy, we lay the groundwork and provide guidance and support to project administrators. These administrators, then, are responsible for building and maintaining their site.

Conceptual Challenges

Because the Toolkit does not require any background knowledge in coding or computer languages, we were able to devote more of our attention to the design concerns of the site given the needs of the project. Unlike a site profiling ongoing research, which may incorporate a blog or news updates, Professor Sadow’s project website was to be an exhibit with fixed content. The collection is also small when compared to archives and special collections with a longer history hosted in the DRS: it consists, at least so far, of twelve interviews and four works. While the collection’s tight scope and stability simplified our bug testing of the Toolkit, they at the same time complicated the site’s development because they shift the focus of its viewers to its design–the effect of our choices was more apparent when displaying fewer items. Additionally, some of the features of the Toolkit, which is designed to be able to accommodate large collections, did not make sense to use and were omitted. The Toolkit provides the capability, for instance, to incorporate a “Search” homepage that can be customized to display items by default sorted differently than a “Browse” page (by creator, date, etc.). Because the items in Sadow’s collection were created by he and a small number of colleagues on a limited set of dates, this search homepage would have been redundant; a search bar was instead included on the homepage, which brought with it its own design considerations.

The decisions we made in designing the site were coupled with calls about ethics and efficiency. The DSG is unable to host images of the artists’ work in the DRS, which would permit us to build a new artist directory using the Toolkit; we decided, instead, to link externally to his existing directory. Even the display of items we can host presented challenges because of the Toolkit’s youth in development. The Toolkit cannot currently point to a faculty member’s user folder in the DRS–the root level of the filesystem for each user–and instead must point to a specific collection. Because the works and video interviews were in separate collections in Professor Sadow’s space in the DRS, we had to choose one as the site’s collection and manually add the items from the other using shortcodes. Besides not being user-friendly for the intended audience of the Project Toolkit, this technical quirk excluded the works that we chose to add manually from the site’s “Browse” feature. It also means that the monograph page is not as aesthetically-pleasing as the interviews page. The DSG is currently working on a more sensible and dynamic way of querying the filesystem called “Sets,” which will allow project managers to designate items within multiple collections that they can add to their sites by pointing and clicking.

Future Developments

Further improving the Jewish Latin American Artists site will now require closer collaboration with Professor Sadow. He will providing us with more explanatory text and feedback to fine-tune his site’s layout. Before we fully hand over the site’s reins to Sadow, we need to ensure that he and whoever maintains the site with him will have access to well-written manuals. This documentation will help them navigate the various platforms that they are using and preemptively address any issues that they may face. Working with Sadow’s site as a pilot has permitted us to address limitations in the DRS’s and Toolkit’s existing documentation and articulate potential features to include in the next version of the Project Toolkit.

We would like to see future Toolkit features, accompanying Sets, that further promote its flexibility depending on the needs of the project. The current Toolkit offers sites potential to display items seamlessly across platforms and devices, but we anticipate the need for those sites to be able to display the different “genres” of DRS items in a number of potential ways on those devices. Currently, image and video thumbnails can be displayed in either a slider or thumbnail gallery, but we could imagine them appearing with narrative text as the viewer scrolls down the page. We also anticipate the development of an interactive component within the limitations of the WordPress platform. The works on Professor Sadow’s site, for instance, would benefit from a foregrounding of their content in a more reader-engaging manner than linking to their DRS items from thumbnails; we’d like to see, instead, a viewer embedded in the page with a sidebar of selectable thumbnails and relevant information from the metadata displayed when each is selected. Developing any of this functionality would, of course, be challenging because it must be accessible even while being more intricate; it must still be addable with an intuitive GUI like the Toolkit’s current options. We would also like to see options targeted specifically at smaller collections like Sadow’s.

Post by Gregory Palermo and Param Ajmera, Graduate Research Assistants