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Longfellow Online Exhibition Recognized by ACRL

Longfellow exhibition

The title page of the "Public Poet, Private Man:
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at 200" online exhibition.
The exhibition was recently selected as one of five winners
of Association of College and Research Libraries
(ACRL) Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS)
2009 Katharine Kyes Leab and Daniel J. Leab “American
Book Prices Current” Exhibition Awards.

June 3, 2009 – The online exhibition “Public Poet, Private Man: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at 200” has been selected as the Division 5 (electronic exhibitions) winner in the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) 2009 Katharine Kyes Leab and Daniel J. Leab “American Book Prices Current” Exhibition Award for online exhibitions. The annual awards recognize outstanding exhibition catalogues issued by American or Canadian institutions in conjunction with library exhibitions as well as electronic exhibition catalogues of outstanding merit issued within the digital/Web environment.

A collaborative effort between HCL Communications and Houghton's Modern Books and Manuscripts Department, the Longfellow exhibition was cited for its ease of navigation and organization of information, said Richard Noble, chair of the RBMS Exhibition Awards committee and rare book cataloger at Brown University.

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“The exhibition, which draws on Longfellow holdings of Houghton Library with highlights from the collections of the Longfellow National Historic Site in Cambridge, Mass., is a pleasure to navigate,” said Noble. “Its ‘rooms’ are clearly defined. The objects in them can be quickly glimpsed and examined more minutely in excellent digital rendition. Each item is precisely identified, and there are links to Houghton’s online catalog descriptions, as well as a general link to the finding aid for the collection. Initial presentations are compact, with clear provision for expansion. The exhibition is an excellent model for ways in which large bodies of digitally reproduced materials, with good metadata, can be selected and articulated within a meaningful virtual gallery space.”

The Longfellow exhibition was intentionally designed as a template that can be adapted for a variety of other exhibitions, Designer/Multimedia Specialist Enrique Diaz said. A second online exhibition, featuring the Harry Elkins Widener Collection, is already in the works, while other Houghton exhibitions, highlighting the library’s printed-end papers collection and the four major exhibitions and symposia held this year, are also being discussed.

“We realized early on that if we had a template with solid design and navigation features that we could drop in different content, make cosmetic changes and have a new exhibition,” Diaz said. “There is a general logic of an exhibition that breaks the material into chapters or segments.  Curators have a sense of how they want to lead a visitor through a physical exhibition and arrange the chapters in a sequence.  At the same time, visitors are free to jump around from case to case and see whatever catches their eye. We designed the online exhibition so that visitors could experience the material in a similar way.”

While the online exhibition contains the same written information as the physical display, the two are not simple reproductions of one another. In some ways, Houghton Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts Leslie Morris said, the online exhibition is a richer experience than the physical exhibition.

“The Web site allows us to link to images of all pages of an item,” said Morris, who acted as liaison to guest curator Chrisoph Irmscher, a Longfellow scholar and Indiana University faculty member, helping secure the loan of some exhibition items and designing the physical layout of items in the display cases. “In the physical case, you can only show one or two pages. Of course, we include the link to the full images in the label text as part of the physical exhibition, but on the web site, visitors can more easily access those images.”  Online exhibitions also have a long shelf life; while the physical exhibition is finite and eventually comes down to make way for another.

The impetus to create online exhibitions came last year, when the Houghton Library Web Site Task Force, which included Assistant Curator John Overholt, Rare Book Team Head Karen Nipps and Library Assistant EmilyWalhout, asked HCL Communications to develop a template which could be used for future exhibitions.

“Since Houghton Library usually puts on several major exhibitions each year, we thought that this would be the best model to follow,” Overholt said. “Using a template would allow us to produce multiple online exhibitions without the work becoming unmanageable for the staff members who create them.”

By coincidence, work on the online version of the Longfellow exhibition and the task force’s request for an exhibition template occurred at nearly the same time, said Morris. The two projects were quickly fused into one, with the design of the Longfellow exhibition becoming the template for future exhibitions.

 More information on the Leab Award, as well as a full list of winners, is available in the ACRL press release.