February 25, 2008

Taiwan Images Expand College’s Academic and Technological Capabilities

Resource establishes international access to photographic history of Taiwan during Japanese colonial rule

Technological innovation has created international access to a rare collection of photographs housed in Skillman Library’s Special Collections and College Archives.

Known as the Gerald Warner Taiwan Image Collection, the photographs have been researched, organized, and installed on a newly constructed website by general editor Paul Barclay, associate professor of history, and project developer Eric Luhrs, digital initiatives librarian. The web site went live in December.

The Gerald Warner Taiwan Image Collection is a photographic record of a United States consul’s impressions of urban and rural life in Taiwan under Japanese colonial rule.

“Gerald Warner was the last U.S. consul in Taiwan before Pearl Harbor,” explains Barclay. “His collected photos and postcards constitute a visual record of the island’s landscapes, cities, ethnically varied rural population, folkways, means of production, and infrastructure. This collection contains dozens of hard-to-find images from a world that has all but disappeared in the wake of Taiwan’s high-speed economic growth and rapid urbanization after the war.”

Totaling 340 photographs and postcards gathered by Warner between August 26, 1937 and March 8, 1941, these images provide an ethnological snapshot of Taiwan’s hybrid culture of Chinese, Taiwanese, Austronesian, and Japanese influences.

The subjects represented are wide-ranging, including clothing, arboriculture, urban structures, agriculture, religious rituals, topography, highways, parks, and more. These digitized images have been researched and annotated to serve as a web-based encyclopedia of colonial Taiwan’s material culture.

The digitized collection can be searched, browsed by image or by subject, and sorted in various ways. The interface allows users to select images and create temporary personal collections that can be saved locally. Users can also zoom, pan, crop, compare images, and create slideshows as detailed in the collection website’s help pages.

“To date, we have built and continue to build an online, searchable encyclopedia of material culture in a tropical, island colony,” says Barclay. “The study of these colonies and the aftermath of colonialism is a central topic of research in history, anthropology, literature, and political science at the moment. The study of visual records has lagged far behind research into text-based materials. To give evidence of the need for such an archive, we have had visitors from over 60 countries on all five continents, and continue to receive a steady stream of visits 10 weeks after our initial posting.”

The technological capabilities of the collection and, more importantly, the ability to access it outside of Skillman Library’s Special Collections and College Archives were made possible by Luhrs’ breakthrough design of a new data interface called MetaDB.

“MetaDB is a metadata creation system that allows us to delegate individual digitization tasks to experts throughout the campus, and then export completed collections directly to our online storage area,” explains Luhrs. “MetaDB allows users to work concurrently, automates tedious data entry tasks, minimizes input mistakes, and provides remote access to digital collection builders. The Warner project has become an important scholarly resource, and I hope that MetaDB can be used to create many more such projects.”

Barclay plans to utilize the collection with all of its new capabilities frequently in his teaching. This would include slideshows for classes and lectures, student assignments revolving around the collection and, eventually, specialized seminars and courses dealing specifically with the subject matter of the collection. Additionally, with the knowledge he has attained through this project, he plans to incorporate database construction into his world history courses next fall.

“In conjunction with digital initiatives, we will be able to help students learn to read images, sort them according to appropriate classificatory schemes, turn them into useful information, and understand the technical and legal complexities of creating documents in e-space,” Barclay adds.

Luhrs is training student assistants to handle delicate archival material, create high resolution scans, work with advanced imaging software, and manage images and metadata in MetaDB. He has extended the training process developed for the Warner project to other projects as well, including an effort to digitize a portion of the Lafayette Print collection held by Special Collections & College Archives in Skillman Library.

“I think there is an opportunity here to use MetaDB to teach students how to evaluate images, and how to think about the associations between text and images, especially in the search engine-driven world in which we all live,” says Luhrs. “I can envision class projects that use MetaDB to allow students to catalog images for class assignments that deal with visual literacy.”

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