Resurfacing treasures from California archives

screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-7-28-39-pmCalisphere is a growing aggregation of digital collections from 180 institutions across California. It currently contains more than 670,000 images, texts, and audiovisual materials on a sweeping range of topics that reflect the collecting areas of its participating institutions.

Sherri Berger is a project manager at the California Digital Library who managed the re-release of the Calisphere collection in 2015. We talked to Sherri about this massive project, including goals for the redesign, the response they’ve had from the public, and some of her favorite audio available in the collection.

What was the goal of Calisphere? Who is its audience?

Calisphere was developed and is maintained by the California Digital Library, in partnership with the ten campus libraries of the University of California. One of the biggest and oldest regional digital library sites of its kind, Calisphere is more than ten years old and still going strong!

Calisphere was originally launched in 2006 with the goal of making academic research collections accessible to non-academic audiences, with a deliberate focus on K-12 teachers. Today, the site maintains this public mission, but we think of the audience as even broader, including K-12 students, undergraduates, scholars, family historians, creative professionals, and the “casually curious.”

You recently did a re-design. What challenges did you encounter?

I think one of the hardest things about a “reinvention” of an existing site is balancing the new vision with the needs of legacy objects and metadata. This issue comes up in any redesign, but the scale at which we work and the heterogeneous nature of the collections can make it all the more complex. At the same time, you don’t want to always do the safe thing — you want to take risks that will make at least a majority of the content more easily discoverable and interesting for users.

Between the project team at the California Digital Library, additional development staff at UC Berkeley, and librarians at all ten campuses, I’d estimate about 30-40 people played some role in the implementation. It was a true collaboration.

Sound is part of your collection. What types of audio are included?

Calisphere only recently has started to take in sound objects in a systematic way, which is exciting. The audio really runs the gamut.

There are a ton of oral histories, featuring all sorts of people, whether they have had a renowned career (for example, jazz composer Dave Brubeck from University of the Pacific) or have important personal or community stories to tell (for example, the Vietnamese Oral History Project from UC-Irvine).

The single largest collection of audio is UC-Santa Barbara’s Cylinder Audio Archive, which includes recordings made from the late 1800s to early 1900s, including popular songs, vaudeville acts, comedic monologues, and more. (I am particularly fond of this recording of the “Maple Leaf Rag” hand-played by Scott Joplin.)

And many of the sound objects on the site were identified as essential for the preservation of California’s historical record. These were digitized by the California Audiovisual Preservation Project from a variety of institutions.

How did you decide how to organize the audio to make it searchable?

Admittedly, Calisphere isn’t currently super optimized for searching audio for a couple reasons. For one, the model for Calisphere is that it is first and foremost an aggregator: for audio objects, it brings the metadata in, but it currently doesn’t stream the files right on the site (except in some special cases).

Meanwhile, from a user experience perspective, the fact is that Calisphere was traditionally mostly an image and text repository, so we leaned heavily on the visual component. But now that we are getting more audio, we are revisiting some of our design decisions to make sure that content is just as findable and accessible.

Why is Calisphere important?

California contains such an incredible group of collecting institutions, from public libraries to universities to community historical societies. But many of those institutions lack the technical resources to really get their collections out there and visible to their users. For instance, maybe they’ve got some digital objects in a library catalog, but they are hard to find on the open web and not presented in a modern design.

In Calisphere, those collections really shine: they get the full user experience, they get indexed in Google, they get put in exhibitions, they get sent to the Digital Public Library of America. In short: they get discovered and used!

Thanks, Sherri!

See you in the archive,
The Pop Up Archive team