Updating and Extending the Digital South Project:

Hugh Blackmer
revised and expanded, 17 November 2002 (see a later update)
n.b.: This continues to be "in process", a draft that I'll continue to elaborate and refine over the next couple of months. Please note especially the Civil War project addition. As usual, any of the co-conspirators are welcome to use bits of it in proposals or whatever.

The Digital South project began as part of the effort to design, develop, and deploy infrastructure to support and sustain Geographic Information Systems (GIS) development at ACS institutions. A series of proposals, reports and RFCs for GIS development sketches the variety of approaches I have explored. The proposal submitted to ACS in summer 2002 ("The Digital South: A Spatial Data Library") had the specific goal of developing a "plan for a robust digital library of spatial data relevant to Southern states", but couched this specific objective in a broader context:

The basic problem addressed by the Digital South project is the need to collect and distribute a broad range of electronic media which are finding their way into teaching and learning, including images, spatial data, text, and other materials that are on the horizon of library collections. We conceive of the Digital South as a distributed resource, shared by members of the ACS and available to Internet users everywhere, constituting (1) a growing digital adjunct to campus library collections of traditional print materials, (2) a means to distribute the scholarly work of ACS institutions to a global audience, (3) an integral part of the emerging National Digital Library, and (4) an easily accessible resource for use in enhancing teaching and learning.
This document addresses this broader context, by

My sabbatical visits to liberal arts colleges in the northeast have made it clear that no single model for development and support of GIS is agreed upon, that peer institutions are no farther along the path to curricular integration than we are, that consortial development of digital resources is in its infancy, and that the concept of GIS as a linchpin for organization and distribution of digital resources has not crossed the screens of librarians or IT personnel. Presentations I attended at NELINET's Digital Reality III conference made it clear that considerable activity in the area of digital asset management (DAM) is underway in university and museum contexts, and that DAM is a useful rubric to focus institutional attention on productive use of a broad array of electronic resources. This perspective has led me to extend my concentration beyond GIS as a teaching tool, though it is the pedagogical uses of the technology that are essential to support and develop in order to realize the benefits of other uses.

GIS in the Liberal Arts

GIS is one of several digital information technologies which compete for the attention of educators and the dollars of budget administrators. The case for campus support for GIS must rest on its relevance to the core concerns of liberal arts education, and requires that we establish its practicality as a tool applicable to a broad range of disciplines and institutional problems.

For disciplines which deal extensively with spatial data, GIS is already a necessary curricular element (geography and geology, with environmental studies and biology close behind), and applications of GIS are easily found in many other fields. Indeed, it is difficult to think of disciplines which have no spatial component and no use for maps as a means to visualize their subject matter. The problem is how to bring GIS to a campus, and how to support it once it is installed. The complexity and proverbial steep learning curve of common GIS software packages are daunting to beginners, and network maintenance and information management issues challenge the skills and capacity of computing and library services.

Fitting GIS into the array of tools provided and supported by a small liberal arts college requires a benefits-based justification for the necessary allocation of institutional resources: GIS must be seen to have clear relevance for teaching and research, pathways to implementation must be clear, and connections to long-run institutional information management strategies must be manifest. In short, the "case for GIS" must rest on a broadened view of its actual and potential applications, which can be summarized as a widening circle of influence and interrelationships:

Only a very few liberal arts colleges have Geography departments, but many have modest GIS presence, often within a department and generally in the hands of one or two interested faculty. A few institutions have made the investment in a dedicated staff position to support GIS teaching and development, and some have dedicated GIS lab space. Most campuses are in the very early stages of developing and promulgating GIS as an ancillary instructional technology, and the pathways to evolution of integral GIS are not well-trodden. While many faculty express interest in the prospect of maps to aid their teaching or enhance their research, few are able to make the substantial commitment of time and energy to "learn GIS" to a level that allows them to be self-supporting in curricular uses of GIS. Institutions without dedicated GIS support staff typically assign fractional IT support, which allows for on-demand help for student and faculty users, but is insufficient to provide for the R&D that can develop integrative GIS applications that extend the technology beyond ancillary classroom use.

The growth of GIS on a campus presents a familiar chicken-and-egg dilemma: without sufficient support, few faculty will attempt to develop the necessary skills, but without clear demand, funding for support will remain a low priority. In order to attract the necessary institutional resources, GIS must demonstrate its integrative capabilities to a broad range of potential users, who must see clear and practical pathways to implementation. Carefully chosen and fully developed and documented examples of applications are both persuasive and suggestive: viewers quickly recognize the relevance of examples in their own domains, and readily imagine adaptations to their specific interests. The steps from imagining to implementation require expertise and mediation, in the form of readily-available technical support for experimenters and early adopters.

The GIS dimension of the Digital South project seeks to

To accomplish these aims we must move beyond GIS as a stand-alone technology, and demonstrate its power as an integrative technology for instruction and digital asset management. These objectives do not diminish the need for on-campus GIS support, and are not a substitute for GIS workshops and for efforts to fund and staff GIS labs. The initiative described below is seen as a means to demonstrate the broad curricular applicability of GIS to broad audiences, and so to build informed campus demand.

Elaborating the Vision: The Digital South as a Distributed Library

A presentation at the NELINET conference by Liz Bishoff of the Colorado Digitization Project was instrumental in extending my view of what the Digital South project can aspire to. A glance at coloradodigital.coalliance.org makes the point eloquently: with the use of appropriate image standards and collection development procedures, it is feasible to build a common interface for a distributed collection of images and other documents. In principle, GIS data can be served in the same ways as text and images, and maps can serve as a powerful interface for access to multimedia collections.

A rapidly-growing array of online examples and resources includes these:

The National Academy Press volume Distributed Geolibraries: spatial information resources is a summary of a workshop convened in 1998 to "clarify the vision of distributed geolibraries and identify some of the key issues... provide a common focus for the many efforts already under way and... stimulate new and expanded efforts." Their summary of the rationale for distributed geolibraries emphasizes that

...place provides by far the most effective means of searching for information when the issue is localized to a neighborhood, city, or region and when it spans many different themes, disciplines, and areas of responsibility. Location is the only way to link information from diverse themes in such circumstances, and our current inability to do that is a major impediment to informed debate on many of the issues that concern society.

...for many reasons queries [defined primarily by location] have been difficult to handle in the traditional library and ...kinds of materials best found through such queries are consequently less likely to be found in the traditional library.
(from Chapter 6: Conclusions --see also Contributed White Papers --e.g., Making the Case for Distributed GeoLibraries [Barbara P. Buttenfield])

Examples of distributed digital libraries with strong geographical components are beginning to appear at scales from local to global. Some recent examples:

International Dunhuang Project "A treasure trove of more than 50,000 manuscripts, paintings and artefacts from ancient caves and temples along the Silk Road are going on show on the web... In real life, the collection is spread out all over the world, but researchers will now be able to find it all in digital form on a website developed jointly by the British Library and the National Library of China..."

Many states offer access to GIS data: Massachusetts GIS and MIT Ortho Browser, Maine GIS, West Virginia GIS, Georgia Spatial Data Infrastructure, Geographic Information North Carolina and North Carolina County GIS Data (see MIT GIS Laboratory for an exhaustive list)

Two problem-focused efforts exemplify regional collaborations and local empowerment, and thus suggest some of the goals to which ACS might aspire:

Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment --see an article by Paul Schroeder et al. Gulf of Maine Environmental Information Exchange: Participation, Observation, Conversation (Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, Dec 2001)
an attempt to create an inclusive and participatory information sharing network across a large geographic region, the Gulf of Maine. This network aims to contribute to the health of the region's human and natural environments through facilitating partnerships among individuals and organizations that are already working toward this goal. Initiated at a time when cooperation, public learning and information sharing increasingly depend on digital information technologies, this effort represents a turn away from earlier attempts to create centralized data sharing systems toward a more people- and project-centered approach.

An example closer to home is the Southern Appalachian Man and the Biosphere Program, which aspires to "foster a harmonious relationship between people and the Southern Appalachian environment."

The vision of the program is to promote the achievement of a sustainable balance between the conservation of biological diversity, compatible economic uses and cultural values across the Southern Appalachians. This balance will be achieved by collaborating with stakeholders through information gathering and sharing, integrated assessments, and demonstration projects directed toward the solution of critical regional issues.

Other examples of problem-focused combinations of digital library and GIS include:

New Jersey Environmental Digital Library

Floristic Digital Library Initiative

Cleveland Cartography

The broader context of digital library development (which generally does not include a geographical component) includes some startling initiatives, most recent of which is MIT's DSpace ("A sustainable solution for institutional digital asset services" --see Functionality and Technology and Architecture for further details, and see source code download). In the GIS realm, the UC Berkeley Digital Library GIS Viewer and examples offer other open source pieces that may be useful.

Other support materials include:

Semantic Interoperability for GIS (Project goal: "To develop techniques to support semantic interoperability of geographic information retrieval system which consists of image, digital, and textual data.")

Alexandria Digital Earth ProtoType (ADEPT) Digital Library Architecture

Many of the above examples are from much larger organizations than liberal arts colleges, but they demonstrate that the essential technologies are well developed, and give us reason to think that we can make use of the basic models to build our own implementation, demonstrate proof of concept, and raise the profile of spatial information on ACS campuses.

It is clear that we have on ACS campuses (in existing campus computing equipment and the skills of faculty, staff, and students) the resources to create the environment and infrastructure for a distributed, growing multimedia digital library which exemplifies and demonstrates the collaborative potential of interlinked technologies (databases, GIS, the active Web) both within campus communities and among consortium members. We propose the Digital South project as the vehicle for an electronic resource that

To accomplish these aims we must move beyond GIS as a stand-alone technology, and demonstrate its power as an interactive and extensible technology for instruction and digital asset management. The practical task is to identify a domain of information that is of vital interest and importance to all ACS institutions, to demonstrate how that domain can be augmented by sharing of resources, and to outline how such a distribution structure can be built and managed. The domain should be chosen for maximum impact, influence, and coverage, and should have immediate curricular application.

The Civil War: a common pedagogical focus

The case of Civil War materials, elaborated below, seems an appropriate choice, though other collections (environmental, political, medical, sociological) would be of similar interest. In general, we observe that the value of a local collection is enhanced by being seen in its regional context, and by being distributed to local and distant users. The point is to make a convincing demonstration of the power and flexibility of linked technologies which can be applied to many subjects, and in the process build an infrastructure that is scalable and can be adapted to the needs of any discipline or project.

Each of the partners in ACS offers one or more courses on the Civil War, and each has a regional legacy, including local resources (photographs, documents, maps, data) in their collections; these resources, once digitized (and so converted into 'digital assets'), would be available for local use in teaching, but their value could be greatly enhanced by linkage into a growing mosaic of materials on the southern United States, displaying many perspectives.

While there are many Civil War sites to be found on the Web, most have local focus (specific battles or localities) or serve specific purposes (cemeteries, particular regiments), or are lists of links. Many are carefully done and well maintained (LSU Civil War Center, University of Tennessee Knoxville and Ed Ayres' Valley of the Shadow from UVa are noteworthy), but I know of none that aims at the several goals we intend: synoptic treatment of time and space, creation of a general entry point for the study of the liminal decades between 1850 and 1870, and construction of a collaboratively-built multimedia database intended as an adjunct to courses on the Civil War.

The easiest way to elaborate this vision of a distributed digital library on the Civil War is to describe some of its possible features, most of which can be built with technologies we have in hand (relational databases, ArcIMS) and have already prototyped. The basic organizing structures are

It is easy to imagine (and to construct --this functionality is displayed in various examples at ims1.wlu.edu) an ArcIMS interface which permits a user to zoom in to specific areas, choose map layers to display, define rectangles within which to query an active map layer, and click on a map symbol to retrieve hyperlinked material. Search utilities for browsing and textual interrogation of databases are also easily developed.

The materials linked in the digital library include documents in various media and datasets with well-known formats, most of which can be located within the temporal and spatial framework. Many are locally-held and unpublished, and thus have been available only to visitors to their home institutions. Those that exist in publications are not usually linked together with related documents and texts.

Each of these resources has obvious utility in courses, but the possibility of linking them and making them accessible via spatial and temporal interfaces would add greatly to their value.

What distinguishes this Digital South project from the many existing Civil War websites is the possibility for users to contribute faculty research, course projects and student papers to the growing digital archive, and to locate their material in the spatial and temporal matrix. This implies (indeed, necessitates) centralized management of the digital library, but the materials themselves can reside on servers in many locations.

A Plan of Action for Resource Development

What follows is a scenario based on resources and personnel at Washington & Lee, laid out here as a speculative possibility and intended to provoke the comments of prospective collaborators (none of whom have yet been consulted about participation). I want to emphasize how relatively easily we can build prototypes which will be convincing demonstrations of technologies and of pedagogical possiblities, building upon work already done at W&L. This W&L foundation includes the Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues, extensive work with databases and the active Web (including collaborative tools and image management utilities) and with ArcIMS.

I identify three phases:

  1. prototype development at W&L (basic content, relational databases, ArcIMS implementation, utilities for collaboration), summer 2003; testing in W&L courses, academic year 2003-2004
  2. conference and workshop on teaching the Civil War (with participants from many ACS campuses), academic year 2003-2004; beta testing with early adopters
  3. Digital Library ready for multi-campus implementation in history courses, academic year 2004-2005

Phase 1: the W&L collaborators include

Phase 2: Extension to other ACS participants will require liaison with computing and IT and library personnel at other institutions, and jawboning of history faculty at the various sites. Once several institutions are active participants, a conference would be useful in charting further directions. Another necessity is creation of a management board to vet content.

Phase 3: too remote to design at the moment



Plotters and printers: the need for 11x17 color, perhaps as important as wall-size

Scanner, especially to be able to (1) make copies of fragile materials, and (2) MrSID for Web use and georeferencing


Some useful references:

GIS Approach to Digital Spatial Libraries (ESRI White Paper, May 1994)

Guidelines for Developing a Successful and Sustainable Higher Education GIS Program (ESRI White Paper, August 2002)

UNIT 30 - STORAGE OF COMPLEX OBJECTS Compiled with assistance from David H. Douglas, University of Ottawa , and UNIT 42 - TEMPORAL AND THREE-DIMENSIONAL REPRESENTATIONS Compiled with assistance from John H. Ganter, University of Pennsylvania (from NCGIA Core Curriculum ("provides fundamental course content assistance for educators as lecture materials. The compilation is not meant to be a comprehensive textbook, but rather several lecture note outlines." Goodchild, M.F., and K.K. Kemp, eds. 1990. NCGIA Core Curriculum in GIS. National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis, University of California, Santa Barbara CA.)


Rapid Visual OAI Tool (RVOT)

...can be used to graphically construct a OAI-PMH repository from a collection of files. The records in the original collection can be in any one of the acceptable format. The format currently supported are RFC1807, Marc subset & COSATI formats. RVOT helps to define the mapping visually from a native format to oai_dc format, and once this is done the tool can respond to OAI-PMH requests. The tool is self-contained; it comes with a lightweight http server and OAI-PMH request handler and is written in Java. The design of RVOT is such that it can be easily extended to support other metadata formats.


TopoZone.com --some Dartmouth alums... just the sort of service it would be worthwhile to license for ACS, since everybody has some need sometimes for Topos.

collect finding aids in EAD format (and/or facilitate the conversion of existing material) from various institutions... (see EAD Help Pages from UVa, and the basic page... c.f. OPENING SMALL ARCHIVES IN THE UPPER MISSISSIPPI VALLEY TO ILLINOIS AND THE WORLD and LOC site

Conversion of Microsoft® Access Databases into EAD-encoded Finding Aids

MARC EAD Conversion Spec

RLG minimal requirements


GIS reached most campuses as a desktop application, often installed on free-standing local machines. A GIS laboratory usually implies a local network to support data-handling and software licensing. Extension of GIS to an institutional network environment (as in the case of a site license) may create performance and storage problems. Development of Internet distribution capabilities (using ArcIMS or other distributive technologies) adds a further layer of local software development.

Goodchild Visions for the Digital Library powerpoint slides

John Seely Brown:

The Internet and other technologies honor multiple forms of intelligence --be they abstract, textual, visual, musical, social or kinesthetic-- and therein present tremendous opportunities to design new learning environments that enhance the natural ways that humans learn.
(The Internet and the University, pg. 76)