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Open.Marginalis: Tumblr as Platform for Digital Scholarship in Libraries, Archives, and Special Collections


Abstract: This project overview of Open.Marginalis is an avenue to explore Tumblr as a platform for digital scholarship in libraries, archives, and special collections. As a platform, Tumblr supports clear opportunities for scholarship through flexible display, discovery, and description. Reviewing project goals, operations, and practices, this project overview aims to serve as an accessible point of entry for digital scholarship using this platform.

Introduction: Establishing accessible and intuitive platforms to highlight digital collections is an uphill battle for libraries, archives, and special collections. Popularized blogging platform, Tumblr has shown great opportunity as an introductory platform to provide outreach and viewership to digitized collections. To explore this potential, I was interested evaluating the constraints of the platform through the creation of a product focused around the representation of digitized medieval marginalia selected from open access collections, titled Open.Marginalis. Establishing goals for
design, functionality, description, and discovery, the evolving final
product indicated a flexibility and potential of this platform as an
introductory content management choice to highlight digital collections
within libraries, archives, and special collections.

Goals for Work: Goals
for this project focused around the accessible viewership and display
of open access materials, using Tumblr as a platform for digital
curation and content management. Open.Marginalis, the title of this
project, reflects it’s content – an aggregation of open access digitized
marginalia found in medieval manuscripts dating from the 5th to 15th
century [The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2013.] Harkening back to the primary goal of accessibility, this
project aimed to adhere to a basic consistent description standard based
on information provided by the institution of origin reflected in the
following formula: Title>Creator>Place of Creation>Date>via
Institution>Use Terms. Within description, hyperlinking is used as a
method of both citing resources used and guiding viewers to new content
provided by parent institutions. Following description, user tags are
added as a basic discovery tool through the use of basic subject
analysis. Working through the visually charged platform of Tumblr, the
design of this project placed high priority on the viewership of
materials in high resolution – possible through the use of flexible
themes created and made available by designers worldwide. These
foundational goals and operations created the opportunity to present a
specific set of materials through an approach molded by consistency and

Base Operations: Selecting accessible
platforms for digital scholarship is key to the beginning and end of a
successful project. Choosing Tumblr as a platform to host the project, I
was interested in exploring potential for scholarship presented by this
flexible popularized blogging platform. In this vein, the outcomes of
the project indicated clear potential as a platform for future
scholarship and digital curation through the use of flexible
description, discovery tools, and options for interface design and
content presentation.

Establishing Scope: The first
step of this project was establishing the scope of Open.Marginalis.
Centered around illustrative content appearing in medieval manuscripts
dating between the 5th to 15th century [The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2013.], this project deviated from the
textual scholarship of these works to take a visually-geared approach to
their study, access, and viewership. Interested in curating a selection
of materials focused around a specific medium of creation,
illustrations situated within the pages of medieval manuscripts brought
to life through digitization technologies were the core of this project.
While the scope of this project was geared around materials with shared
qualities, shared qualities in the resources producing these materials
was also central to establishing scope. For this project, I chose to
solely use works generated by institutions with clearly defined open
access initiatives listed under the Open Knowledge Foundation’s OpenGLAM
. Folding these factors together into a short blurb, I
created an About page for the project [shown here] to provide users
with basic information framing the project and it’s origins.

Digital Curation: Attention
to digital curation is central to the integrity of digital projects.
Whether the project itself is centered around goals for digital curation
or just encouraging consciousness for principles of digital curation,
it plays an important role of material represented and stored in digital
interfaces. While the stewardship of digitized materials was not
central to primary goals of this project, it’s influence in operations
is undeniable. Attention to these elements were most influential in the
first steps of content creation on Open Marginalis.

manuscripts are undoubtedly detailed works combining historical data and
artistic expression. In this vein, providing high resolution images of
these works is a central step to their access in digital interfaces.
Given the technical comprehensivity of the institutions providing online
access to these works through high resolution downloadable files,
determining standards for downloading and displaying this content was a
central step. This project made downloading and uploading selected
content a high priority to maintain the integrity of the work.
Accounting for this factor, the project uses a design with the
functionality to display high resolution images for best viewership.

Description: Providing
succinct, accessible, and consistent description for open access
medieval marginalia was a primary goal for this project. To ensure
consistency, the following description formula was created to provide a
succinct yet strong foundation of information for viewers of this
visually driven project: Title>Creator>Place of
Creation>Date>via Institution>Use Terms Stated by Institution.
Information contained in this description is based on the information
provided by the object’s source institution; segments with no associated
content remaining omitted. For instance, if the location of origin for a
specified object is listed as unknown by the institution, the
description standard would display as Title>Creator»Date>via
Institution>Use Terms Stated by Institution.

Powering this
project with Tumblr, the core value of the platform for use in the
digital humanities is descriptive flexibility – the ability to create or
adapt a descriptive standards to meet the unique needs of a specific
object or larger project. We also see the opportunity to tie in
supplementary information, the example shown right, titled “De Musica”
by Boethius. Based on the complexity of the information-charged
illustration, I opted to include a descriptive segment written by the
National Library of New Zealand to accompany the piece to bolster viewer
understanding. While consistency for this project remained a key goal,
the descriptive flexibility offered by Tumblr and the tools therein
proved valuable in the description of digitized medieval marginalia.

Citation: Attribution
is a major concern for institutions providing digital access to
collections. Key concerns include material being viewed without
informational context and attribution being stripped from content. It
is commonly known that the integrity of information within scholarship
is directly linked to an existing base of knowledge through reference
and citation, and standards for the integrity of works shouldn’t be
taken less seriously once applied to the digital realm. Secondly,
working in online interfaces creates new opportunities to lead users to
source content through practices such as hyperlinking. Approaching the
issue of attribution when establishing description standards for
Open.Marginalis, linking back to original source content was key. For
example, within the description segment [via The British Library, Public
Domain] the name of the institution is hyperlinked to the source of
digital object. This practice has three functions – first, attribution
to the institution which produced the work – second, guiding the user to
related content – and third, guiding the user to valuable information
and metadata produced by the institution attached to the object.

Use Terms: The
accessible representation of use terms associated with featured content
was a key goal of Open Marginalis. The importance of use terms is clear
– defining how users can utilize content, and circular usage rights
crowded by legal jargon impede access for users of all levels. A main
goal of this project was highlight material produced by institutions
dedicated to open access initiatives by clearly stating use terms as
represented in content description. For this reason, I chose to focus
this project around content produced by open collections highlighted by
OpenGLAM [Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums], a initiative
produced by the Open Knowledge Foundation [OpenGLAM, 2015]. Structured
around content in the public domain and under Creative Commons
(CC-BY/CC-BY-SA) licenses, I was interested in curating a selection of
content located within these open collections within the prescribed
scope of this project and clearly representing use terms to promote
access to wider audiences.

Discovery: This product
aimed to take full advantage of the flexible user-driven discovery tools
provided by Tumblr. Centered around tags selected by users commonly
known as “folksonomy”, this crowdsourced approach to content discovery
is guiding how we find what we’re looking for online. Even at the core
of subject access in the world of libraries, services like LibraryThing
have begun taking folksonomy into users spaces for use as what it means
to exist as a discovery tool is beginning to change into something by
users and for users. On Tumblr, users upload content and use basic
subject analysis to select terms which capture the foundational
aboutness of an object. To provide an example of how this process exists
in the context of Open Marginalis, shown here is an illustration associated
with Introductorius ad Judicia, titled Drawing of Leo, the sign of the
Zodiac for July.

In the example above, following the creation of a
description based on information provided by the object’s parent
institution, tags are applied to the object. In this example, we can see
larger terms such as “Art” and “History”, as well as more granular tags
such as “medieval art” and “zodiac”. While comprehensivity of subject
access is tightly linked to future accessibility of the object in
question, major decisions regarding level of subject access can be a
primary tenet of a project, or a developing fluid approach to the
accessibility of project materials. This project aimed to provide
foundational subject access to materials based on widely utilized tags
such as “History”, or specific tags like “medieval art” used by
institutions like The Getty on
Tumblr. Working within a platform which permits flexible addition and
creation of discovery terms through the use of folksonomy and user tags
is an opportunity to add a secondary layer of access to materials
existing in small scale digital projects hosted by Tumblr.

Further Development: Ongoing
evolution and assessment are an integral part of digital project. Being
able to grow and thrive with changing technologies and tools is a key
opportunity working in digital platforms. Being able to fluidly
transform elements of this project was a goal for Open.Marginalis,
making this section key in understanding the state of the project now
and moving forward. Continuing forth with original project goals,
Open.Marginalis has begun experimenting with new potential display
options while maintaining the same standards for description and
discovery. Open.Marginalis is currently experimenting with a Tumblr
theme which displays content in grid format with a large header graphic
and top navigation, shown here. Upon selecting material
for view, content is viewable at full resolution. Moving forward, this
project will continue to adapt new design and functionality to best
display materials.

Best Practices: Bringing these
elements together, it is evident that digital projects focusing on the
display of collection materials warrant attention to multiple moving
pieces in constant growth and flux. As digital projects allow for
continual revision and attention to changing facets and growing
opportunities, familiarizing one’s self with options will help in the
development of a streamlined and consistent approach. While best
practices depend largely upon the unique needs and goals of a specific
project, reflecting on operations surrounding the development of
Open.Marginalis, the following practices proved integral to project

  1. Comprehensivity of description and user tags should
    be based on project goals, audience, and unique needs of the object
  2. User tags should reflect desired level of subject
    access. Higher comprehensivity is akin to a higher level of potential
  3. Display should allow for viewership at highest possible level of quality.
  4. Description should include citation, containing name of institution hyperlinked to guide user to related information.
  5. Scope should maintain a clear focus but adequate flexibility for future growth.
  6. Terms of use should be clearly and explicitly stated for best usership and access.

is a consistent and growing need for tools promoting the accessible
viewership of digitized collections to wider audiences. Reflecting on
project operations surrounding Open.Marginalis, it is evident that
Tumblr presents clear opportunity as a platform for scholarship and
defined potential for libraries, archives, and special collections –
supporting flexible description, display, design, and discovery.

Works Cited:

  1. “Middle Ages”. In The Columbia Encyclopedia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Accessed January 23, 2015.)
  2. National
    Library of New Zealand. “Boethius, De Musica, F.43v, (211 X 144 Mm),
    12th Century, Alexander Turnbull Library, MSR-05.” Flickr. Yahoo!, Accessed 27 Jan. 2015. <>.
  3. “OpenGLAM.” Accessed 27 Jan. 2015. <>.

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