Lear Vizualization

Selection from the collection of drawings of landscapes, animals, and birds by English artist, Edward Lear. Harvard University, Houghton Library, pga_ms_typ_55_26_13

Metadata—pieces of information about information—are the librarian's and archivist's stock in trade. Call numbers, titles, keywords, place names, descriptions: all these turn an archive or book stack into a living collection to be browsed and read, searched and researched. Until quite recently, the technologies that we’ve used to record metadata and make them accessible—paper, gummed labels, rubber stamps, catalogue cards—have been passive. They're full of stories, and yet it takes the reader’s active fingers, eyes, and mind to tease those stories out and share them. New technologies exist that can lift metadata off the page, card, and spine to tell stories on their own. The old metadata were already telling stories, of course—stories of order, control, and connection. But in digital form, metadata can be made to leap and dance.

The application below liberates metadata describing the collection of landscape works made by Edward Lear, held in Houghton Library’s Department of Printing and Graphic Arts (MS Typ 55.11). It was developed by Travis Bost (MDes '12), a new alumnus of Harvard's Graduate School of Design, where he learned to build programs that use data to tell interactive stories. As a curatorial innovation fellow with metaLAB at Harvard, Travis explored the finding aid of the collection, which thoroughly describes each item in detail, records its place and date of creation, and documents Lear's own organizational traces in the collection. Here, Travis takes that rich trove of metadata (created by Nancy Finlay, Houghton's erstwhile manuscripts curator) and sets it loose in an interactive visualization that exposes stories about Lear's career as a landscape artist: the places he visited, the kinds of materials he used, and his sheer creative output in different times and places. Travis’s application isn't meant to supersede Finlay’s finding aid, which offers descriptive and expository information, a bibliography, and a host of other schemes for understanding the collection; nor is it a fully-developed product or a stand-alone tool (and thus be warned: it may not work optimally with every system or browser environment). Instead, it's a kind of technology sketch, meant to pose questions and suggest avenues of research.  Increasingly, such venturesome and propositional technologies join traditional visual and textual means for scholars and students to explore literary and material culture—new ways for the researcher's hands and eyes to coax life from data.

Please note: These visualizations require the Java browser plug-in to run. It can be downloaded for free at www.java.com/getjava/.


Lear Visualizer 1: Gallery

In this first and most simple visualization, the text-based finding aid was made into a simple navigable digital flipbook of images ordered chronologically and displayed at their relative proportion and size. Use the left/right arrow keys to flip through the images.


Lear Visualizer 2: Locations

This second interactive graphic presents the total drawing output of Lear at each location to which he traveled, in both quantity and cumulative area of drawings. Click on a location to see the images associated with it along with various metadata related to them. Click ‘Home’ to return to the main locations page.


Lear Visualizer 3: Materiality

This third visualization is the most in depth in terms of analysis of media. Represented are all 3,500 drawings as square cells arranged chronologically from top-left to bottom-right. Toggling between analysis options, the cells are shaded depending on their date of drawing, location, size, paper type, drawing medium, or amount of field notes made on them by Lear. On mouse over, a bubble will appear representing that image. If it is yellow, a digital image is available; click to reveal.


Lear Visualizer 4: Travels

This last visualization is an animated geographic tour of Lear’s travels. Using the same text-based finding guide, the locations were isolated from the guide and automatically geo-located, a tour being constructed along the way. As Lear produces more drawings along the way the points marking each location expand.