December 14, 2017

Library of Congress Encourages Public to Engage with Digital Resources via labs.loc.gov

Library of Congress LabsThe Library of Congress (LC) recently launched labs.loc.gov, a new online space that facilitates creative use of the Library’s digital collections. Highlighting crowdsourcing projects such as “Beyond Words,” in which volunteers can help identify illustrations and provide captions for WWI-era newspapers, as well as an “LC for Robots” page with a list of LC’s APIs [application programming interfaces], tutorials, and bulk downloads, the Labs site is designed to enable “users at every level of technical knowledge” to engage with LC’s digital resources, the Library announced. The site will also keep visitors informed regarding upcoming digital collections–related events, and showcase tools, art, applications, and visualizations that users have created with LC collections or data.

“Part of the reason we launched Labs was to encourage people to experiment, and to use our APIs and our data sources and then highlight the interesting work they’re doing,” Kate Zwaard, chief of National Digital Initiatives for LC, told LJ. “We’re creating a virtuous cycle…. In the ‘experiments’ portion of the site, it’s our hope to create provocations—do something interesting with the collections, and then have it in the experiments section” where librarians and other visitors can be inspired to try new projects of their own.

At press time, the experiments page featured Beyond Words—which was created by developer Tong Wang during a three-month innovator-in-residence pilot program—as well as a call for entries to LC’s upcoming Congressional Data Challenge, and collages by poet and artist Oliver Baez Bendorf that were inspired by LC’s Collections #AsData 2016 summit. All these projects are directly affiliated with the Library.

The “LC for Robots” page also links to “Example Projects” created by unaffiliated users, including numerous projects that have utilized LC’s Chronicling America historic newspaper collections API, as well as “A brief visual history of MARC cataloging at the Library of Congress” created by Benjamin Schmidt, assistant professor of history at Northeastern University in Boston, and a massive viewable list of every cataloged book in the Library of Congress created by Matt Miller, consultant and former head of Semantic Applications and Data Research for NYPL Labs.

Regarding Miller’s list, Zwaard said “one of the things that I love about that project is that it gives a sense of scale. The collections here are so vast that it’s kind of hard to wrap your mind around it. And the piece that he published allows you to zoom in and zoom out, so you can see…the scale, but also zoom in to…see the richness of the individual titles.”

Resources listed on the LC for Robots site, with accompanying tutorials and examples, include:

  • The gov JSON API which enables visitors to get search results for digital collections on loc.gov in machine-readable JavaScript Object Notation format. The API is described as a work-in-progress that will likely change as LC learns more about the needs of its scholarly and technical-user communities.
  • MARC Open-Access, with links to download bibliographic information for most of LC’s collection—25 million records available in UTF-8, MARC8, and XML formats.
  • The API for the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, which offers access to the organization’s public radio and television programs and their metadata records.
  • The Chronicling America API and Data Download, which enable users to work with optical character recognition text data from millions of historic newspapers.
  • The World Digital Library’s API, which offers programmatic access to materials from libraries, archives, museums, and educational institutions all over the world, in partnership with LC and the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
  • Bulk data downloads available from gov, hosted by the Government Publishing Office in partnership with LC, the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Office of the Secretary of the Senate.
  • Tutorials on OpenSearch and LC and how to use the International Image Interoperability Framework API to request and manipulate images from LC’s collections.

“These windows to the Library will make the collections and data more accessible to automated access, via scripting and software, and will empower developers to explore new ways to use the Library’s collections,” LC explained in the announcement.

In addition to the Beyond Words project and LC’s long-running Flickr project for its historic photo collections, the National Digital Initiatives team is working to develop other crowdsourcing capabilities for LC, Zwaard said.

“It’s our hope that [crowdsourcing projects] present a very low barrier for entry, so that everyone can engage with the collections and contribute,” she said. “We’re learning from the wisdom of the crowd, but also I think it’s really neat to have another access point to the collection. If you don’t have a specific research goal in mind, and you just want to learn and immerse yourself in the collection, crowdsourcing is a way that you can find an entry point.”

Separately, the Innovator-in-Residence program, piloted by Wang and LC software developer Chris Adams, continues with recruits from outside the library field. Acclaimed artist Jer Thorp—whose work has recently been shown in New York’s Times Square, the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, the Ars Electronica Center in Austria, and the National Seoul Museum in Korea—is a few weeks into his six month tenure as innovator at the invitation of LC and the National Digital Initiatives team. Next year, the Library plans to issue an open call to apply for residency, and has expressed particular interest in applications from journalists and writers who plan to utilize LC’s historical data sets for in-depth reporting.

“We can’t wait to see the proposals we get in,” Zwaard said. “The benefits are threefold. In a way scholarship and journalism, all of the fields that consume library collections, are viral. Having example projects to spur people’s imaginations about how these collections might apply to their interests is important. The second is, these innovators are generally well connected. They can bring their knowledge of the Library’s collections into their communities [following a residency] to help spread the word. And the third thing is, bringing a bit of innovation in—a new way of thinking about things, a new way of understanding—can be really helpful.”

She continued: “The relationship between librarians and patrons has always been very intimate. But when people are using our data sources and our APIs, making that connection can be a bit harder.” With the new labs.loc.gov site and the Innovator-in-Residence program, LC “is trying really hard to be purposeful about that.”

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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