February 16, 2018

American Museum of Natural History Hackathon Tackles 21st Century Library Challenges


Teacher Rafa Weiman-Kelman (r. corner) works with Brown Scholars in AMNH’s BridgeUp: STEM program
(©AMNH/D. Finnin)

On November 18–20, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) hosted “Hack the Stacks,” a solution-building event where over 100 developers, programmers, and others with a passion for computer science worked overnight to develop innovative solutions for the challenges faced by modern libraries and archives. The goal was to animate, organize, and enable greater access to the increasing body of digitized content produced by the AMNH Library.

In addition to thousands of books and serials, the library houses over a million photographs, manuscripts, original art, and other ephemera from the Museum’s nearly 150 year history. For the third annual AMNH hackathon, the library was chosen to highlight its rich content and to develop tools that would enliven its digital materials, a growing and important component of the library’s collection. Based on challenges they’ve faced in increasing access to this historic repository, the library staff developed ten tasks that participants would be tackling at “Hack the Stacks.” Among them, the teams were asked to develop a unified interface for more efficient searching across all library systems, digitally reassemble fragments from the scientific notebooks of Charles Darwin, and virtually re-create the Museum at various points in history using archival photographs.

As they developed the challenges, AMNH Library staff worked to ensure all databases and applications could withstand the high level of traffic from the hackers’ work, which was as varied as the library collections themselves. Accessed by an application program interface (API), these included the OPAC (Innovative’s Sierra), the Digital Special Collections image database (Omeka), the Digital Repository of Museum scientific and other Museum publications (Dspace), the Biodiversity Heritage Library (of which AMNH is a founding member), the Darwin Manuscripts Project, our archival management system (ArchiveSpace), Encoded Archival Context entity repository (xEAC), and the homegrown and exhaustive Exhibit Hall Name Authority List.

Prior to the event, participants were recruited through online and social media promotion as well as outreach to organizations and companies that are active in the technology space. An application form that each potential participant filled out enabled event organizers to select attendees with balanced skills and backgrounds.


Programmers, developers and others with a passion for computer science worked through the night in the AMNH Library (©AMNH/D. Finnin)

Programmers, developers and others with a passion for computer science worked through the night in the AMNH Library
(©AMNH/D. Finnin)

The event kicked off on Friday, November 18, with an introduction and orientation session where participants chose the challenges they would be taking on, all of which were posted online in advance. While many teams signed up as a group, this session also provided hackers who came on their own to join a team or form a new team with others. The hacking began the following day, with participants working through the night in the library and AMNH’s world-famous fossil halls. On Sunday, November 20, they presented 18 working prototypes at a public reveal event.

A judging panel that included Susan Fraser (Director of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library at the New York Botanical Garden), Catherine Devine (Chief Digital Officer at AMNH), Nicole Anasenes (Chief Financial Officer of SquareSpace), and Juan Montes (Chief Information Officer at AMNH) selected four teams for awards. The award-winning teams, members of which each received 3-D printed statuettes of Museum founder Albert S. Bickmore, are listed below:

  • “Why Didn’t I Think Of That?” Award (most original approach to a challenge)
    • The Evolution of Darwin’s Notes Challenge: use machine learning to piece together 25,000 digital images from Charles Darwin’s handwritten scientific notes, housed in the repository of the Darwin Manuscripts Project at AMNH
    • Solution: Team DarWIN used computer vision scripts to analyze and match the edges of Darwin’s various notes, many of which constituted the raw material for On the Origin of Species and his other works
    • Team: Robert Carlsen, Jin Chung, Zach Gottlieb, Mike Heaton, Luis Ibanez, David Lichtenberg, Jacob Peacock, Sofia-Jeanne Roggeveen, Nathan Schucher, Danielle Sobel, Marko Stamenovic, Michelle Steigerwalt, Mariano Trebino, Harold Treen
  • Data Buster” Award (greatest potential for tackling big data sets)
    • API Challenge: create an easy-to-use and accessible API portal that enables better and faster access to specific types of resources across all of the library’s systems
    • Solution: by creating a simple module that allows one to query multiple data sources at once, the API Portal Team developed a prototype that can make the library’s digital content available as machine-readable data, not only enabling data sharing within the museum, but also with other institutions
    • Team: Jonah Blumstein, Evan Hammer, Tom Lavenziano, Jesse Lee, Joseph Spens, Alex Washburn
  • “Reach For The Stars” Award (most promise to educate learners of all ages)
    • Cabinet of Curiosities Challenge: build a fun and engaging experience that draws on physical items in the Museum’s library and special collections
    • Solution: using Illustrations of Exotic Entomology by Dru Drury, Team Nonsense developed ButterFly Effect, an immersive virtual reality experience that allows users to “dive into” the rare book—originally published in 1837—and bring its butterflies to life
    • Team NonSense: Phansa Chaonpoj, Will Field, Kevin Gong, Jackie Hurwitz, Shan Liu, Will Wurtzebach
  • “Labcoat Knockout” Award (greatest potential to change the nature of scientific or library research)
    • Library Metasearch Challenge: develop a unified interface to browse all internal and external library reference descriptions
    • Solution: with an easy-to-use, straightforward web portal, the One Big Search team developed a module for searching across all AMNH datastores by either keyword or free text
    • Team: Amy Ciavolino, Fiona Condon, Chris Fairbanks, Sophie Haskins, Amanda Pickering
“Hack the Stacks” award recipients at a public reveal event on November 20, 2016  (©AMNH/R. Mickens)

“Hack the Stacks” award recipients at public reveal event, November 20, 2016
(©AMNH/R. Mickens)

The prototypes developed during the event are open source and freely available on the “Hack the Stacks” GitHub site for the use of museums, galleries, libraries, and cultural institutions.

“Hack the Stacks” was produced by BridgeUp: STEM, an AMNH initiative educating youth and the public about cutting-edge computing in scientific research and science communication, supported by a grant from the Helen Gurley Brown Trust. Among the portfolio of BridgeUP: STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs is the tuition-free Brown Scholars program for high school girls, a group of whom participated in the hackathon.

To learn about how these projects are being further developed and implemented at the Museum library, visit the library’s homepage in the months to come.

Tom Baione is Harold Boeschenstein Director, Department of Library Services at AMNH

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