Many of our heritage institutations dispose of enormous digital archives and digitized documents. Interactive visualizations can help making these archives accessible, and help users find and work with digitized documents.

The Urban Complexity Lab in Potsdam/Germany has conducted intensive research about how to visualize digital cultural collections. One key point in their projects is how the visualisation enables the user to navigate and explore the digitized content. Let’s look at their latest project: Reading Traces, a collaboration with the Theodor-Fontane-Archive in Potsdam.

Theodor Fontane’s personal library consists of some 155 books of contemporary literature, poetry and non-fiction © Courtesy Theodor-Fontane-Archive, Potsdam. 

Theodor Fontane, whose long life spanned most of the 19th century, was a prolific writer and one of the most well-known literary voices of Prussia (which in turn was the leading power in German 19th century culture). Just like many authors, Fontane breathed and lived literature, and he possessed a comprehensive library of some 4,000 estimated books: contemporary novels, poetry and non-fiction. A small fraction of this personal library (around 155 books) is still in place and together (most of the rest being dispersed in the wake of WWII), and his books hold a very precious treasure: all throughout, the books contain spontaneous hand-written notes, remarks and comments which Fontane left when reading.

So why do we need a fancy visualization for that? 

The archive is a physical collection of 155 books, many of those intensely annotated by Fontane. Access to the physical objects not only requires traveling to Potsdam and persuading an archivist to grant that access. Also, looking at the collection of Fontane-marginalia by browsing through the physical books places the focus on each individual entry, while the larger patterns of how Fontane cut his way through his books remain in the shade.

In contrast, a digital collection representing each of these 155 books with all of their individual pages allows remote access and quick overview. But there’s more to it. The interesting feature about the collection are not the individual books, which can all be found in other libraries, too.

The interesting point about the collection is that they provide a glimpse into the mind and intellectual universe of their owner, Theodor Fontane. The archivists and literary scholars who keep the collection and investigate Fontane’s oeuvre not only wanted to get this material published, they were also looking to obtain a different perspective on the treasure in their hands. In order to achieve that, the archive took a major effort in scanning all pages (some 65,000 images) and manually describing and recording metadata for each item.

Concept stage and drafts © Courtesy of Urban Complexity Lab

So what’s in the prototype?

The project READING TRACES is a collaboration between the Theodor Fontane archive, housed at the University in Potsdam, and the Urban Complexity Lab. Together, they developed an interactive visualisation which works as an interface to explore the 65,000 images of book pages. Drafting up the interactive visualisation was preceded and accompanied by a major effort in manually tagging and describing each of the 65,000 in order to collect the metadata in the first place. The interactive features three main views: the author view, the book view, and the page view (soon to be complemented with a fourth view focussing on similarities between Fontane’s notes across the whole collection). The toggle along the left hand side works as the switch between the views.

The author view provides an idea about the patterns in which Fontane annotated a specific author (which type of remark, where in the books). The book view allows the user to scroll through the scans of the book (i.e. browse the book digitally – a feature which I specifically appreciate as it resembles the way I use books in reality). The page view then drills into the details and allows to explore the marginalia on one specific book page. Another type of access to the 65,000 is granted through a row of filters – which allows to search for specific patterns in Fontane’s annotations.

READING TRACES, author view | Courtesy of Urban Complexity Lab.

So what’s the take-away? 

Although there are a few minor interface issues which could be optimized in the future, this project is a brilliant use case for how visualisation can help access large collections of digital heritage. And not just provide access to the digital objects, but also provide novel types of information to the scholars (such as patterns and similarities in Fontane’s note-taking). This helps researchers pose new questions and take a different angle in their evaluation of historical documents.

But what  (as someone who has no particular knowledge of Fontane’s personality or work) was that the systematic overview of side remarks provide a very lively glimpse of an intimate conversation—a conversation that was held some 150 years ago between an author and his reader. Looking at the page view (see screenshot below) and seeing the succession of sometimes juicy remarks Fontane took throughout a novel almost makes you feel like you sit next to him, and listen to him murmuring while he reads… And that is quite something for an interactive visualisation to achieve.

READING TRACES, page view | Courtesy of Urban Complexity Lab.

The web-based application (built using D3.js and a mix of canvas and SVG) was produced as a cooperation between Theodor Fontane archive housed at the University in Potsdam, and the Urban Complexity Lab. Explore it here. The application has also been adapted for an interactive touch screen installation in an exhibition. A scholarly paper provides more detailed information about the process and approach. 

At the Fontane archive, the project was led by director Peer Trilcke and managed by Anna Busch. Sabine Seifert took care of the immense load of research data. At the Urban Complexity Lab, the design and concept were developed and implemented by Mark-Jan Bludau and Viktoria Brüggemann, in cooperation with Marian Dörk. 

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