Using historic timelines to describe multicultural experiences

This is a guest post by Guanqiao (Tony) Fu, a student in the History program at University of Toronto Mississauga. 

As an intern, I am working with OurDigitalWorld on creating digitized historical timeline exhibits. This is an opportunity for me to learn new skills and knowledge while putting my historical research skills to use.

Image of article titled Town Celebrates Portuguese Month, from the Oakville Beaver, May 7, 2003
Town Celebrates Portuguese Month, Oakville Beaver, May 7, 2003

Working with OurDigitalWorld to create timelines to tell stories of others using creative exhibits is the exact experience that will refine my research skills while reminding me that studying history puts the story of humanity in our hands. I am working on three exhibit projects, focusing on the Portuguese Canadian Diaspora, Chinese Migrants in Canada, and Ontario’s Experiences of Wars and Conflicts for the past 100 years. Finding and selecting primary sources while interpreting them in ways of bias-free story-telling is perhaps the greatest challenge I have encountered so far, and it is also where I learned the most. Through the past three months of researching, organizing and training, I have become more familiar with the ways of understanding primary sources and how to use my understanding to produce works—a necessary skill for historians to succeed.

Photo of Portuguese protesters at Toronto City Hall 1971
Anti-fascist and anti-colonial protest by PCDA members on Nathan Phillips Square, 1971

What is most interesting about my experience creating timelines with OurDigitalWorld is perhaps my positionality as a Chinese international student studying in Canada. I have been staying in Canada since the COVID-19 pandemic hit and my own cultural background and social bonds enabled me to interpret the historic development here from a different perspective. I often have the feeling that even though I have no difficulties interacting and connecting with people here as an international student, I still feel like an “outsider” who cannot fully interpret or comprehend other people’s experiences. For example, I discovered material about Portuguese settlers in the 1970s actively participating in the pacifist protest against Portugal’s military operations in Africa despite their Canadian nationality. I first found it hard to interpret living as both Portuguese and Canadian at the same time because I grew up in a monocultural society where this diversity is unimaginable. I could not help but try to interpret Portuguese settlers’ identities separately, and it was not until after I read about the communal networks Portuguese settlers established to honour their traditions did I realize that it is possible for a community to be proud members of several societies without breaking off from their own culture. Different communities have their own culture, and these cultural traditions continuously develop despite how each community chooses to express them. There is no absolute contradiction between cultures, only how people interpret and treat how each expresses themselves.

And this is what historical study is all about! No matter how we express our perception towards a topic, a community, or perhaps an event, we inevitably use our own perspective, which is shaped by our own culture and experiences. Working with OurDigitalWorld allows me to further reflect on my own positionality, to expand my own knowledge of history while expressing my findings using timelines that are both creative and informative. To me, history is about the greater cause of telling humanity’s story by collecting representative instances and putting them together as a portrait of our civilization, and this practical work is both an exciting and enjoyable experience that extends my career as an undergraduate student far beyond classrooms and libraries.

See Guanqiao’s exhibit and timeline about the Portuguese Diaspora in Ontario here.

Ensuring Accessible Digital Collection Sites

This is a guest post by Olivia Najdovski, student at University of Toronto iSchool.

Desktop with green arrow on screen, surrounded by ear icon, eye icon, brain icon, and hand icon

One in five Canadians have a disability. As such, it is critical to consider the accessibility of websites to ensure that they are accessible to all. From October to December, I worked with OurDigitalWorld to conduct an accessibility audit of the VITA Digital Collections Toolkit base site code. The goal of this project was to achieve accessibility for sites as per the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG) guidelines. This process involved using WebAIM’s WAVE Browser Extension in addition to manual reviews to flag accessibility issues on the Toolkit sites, using both Safari and Chrome browsers. 

More specifically, the manual review involved combing through each individual webpage to pinpoint issues relating to keyboard accessibility and screen-reader compatibility. Some accessibility functionality is built in to the toolkit, like creating alt text for images from their titles, but this review process revealed some key discoveries that, with the web development talents of the ODW team, we were able to resolve. 

One issue we resolved across the Toolkit sites was a lack of labelling on buttons. When buttons or links are not accurately labelled, screen readers cannot pick up on what the purpose of that button or link is. Therefore, screen reader users cannot make use of the button, because the screen reader cannot relay what the button does. To remedy this, we ensured that buttons and links were accurately labelled across the toolkit sites, significantly improving the accessibility of the sites for screen reader users.

WAVE add-on testing a VITA Toolkit site
Sample application of the WAVE add-on during testing of a VITA Toolkit site

The great news is that incorporating small changes like labelling buttons and including additional informative alt text for images improved the accessibility and inclusivity of the Toolkit websites. Accessibility is an ongoing process, however, and can be compromised with any client-based content or site changes over time. This is a good step forward in keeping with ODW’s mandate of providing full and inclusive public access to community digital collections.

Some resources for WCAG review:

Broken tiles: A retro-conversion project

Over time, certain file formats become obsolete. When ODW implemented the first pan-zoom viewer in the VITA Toolkit in the 2010s, it was based on uploading large files made up of hundreds of little tiles all zipped into a folder. The once-free tool is called Zoomify. Over the years, we encouraged our users to “Zoomify” their full images and any pages of multipage items so that those items could be zoomed into and rotated for a dynamic user experience. This was particularly useful for scrapbooks where pasted items were sometimes in different orientation within a single page. Also, detailed items like the Welland Canal Records benefitted from this “Zoomification”. However, these folders of tiles were quite “heavy”, i.e. required more storage and some eventually became corrupt. 

Zoomify Tool “tiling” an image

Luckily, as technology has advanced and streamlined, the standard is now to use JPEG-2000 (JP2) files that automatically trigger the open-source IIIF (International Image Interoperable Framework)viewer in VITA. So, any user uploading full images, details, or pages can upload the considerably lighter and mobile-friendly JP2 file and it displays with all the pan, zoom and rotate options people expect for viewing this kind of material online. The trick was that we needed to go through our system and replace the old Zoomify folders with JP2 files. We were able to do this systematically for the most part, but some stubborn items required manual intervention and conversion. We were lucky to have Christine Anderson, a Mohawk College Library Technician student, who was willing and able to take on the task. Here’s Christine’s take on the project:

In my time at ODW, I have worked on (and completed) the Dezoomify project which primarily involved using the VITA Toolkit to access and replace collection images and other software for the conversion process. ODW provided me with a list that identified records with broken Zoomify files and I got started on the clean-up-work!

My primary task was to open and convert the broken Zoomify files and then replace them with JP2 files. This was done for Full images, some Details and Reverse images, as well as for many book and scrapbook pages. Using a RecordID list that was organized by Agency, I could identify all of the records with images that needed to be replaced and re-loaded. 

This work was accomplished by:

  • Using the Dezoomify tool which works by copying and pasting the item’s public URL into the tool
  • “Dezoomify” merges the tiles that make up a Zoomify file and that merged image can then be saved as a JPG
  • I used Irfanview software to convert JPG files to JP2 files, and I assigned their original file names so that the agencies could trace the display files back to their master copies
  • In the data management side of the VITA toolkit, I then activated a task-specific button to replace the broken Zoomify files with newer (and unbroken) JP2 image files
  • When certain Zoomify files were identified as too corrupt and this simpler workflow did not work, a workaround was created:
    • In some cases, I could open the PDF file associated with pages and save them as JP2 – although these tend to be quite large, so we adjusted the quality during the conversion process to reduce the storage overhead
    • In other cases, where there was no PDF, I would open an alternate JPG file for Full and Detail images and simply used the standard “Replace” button for the Full or Details file
  • The new files then automatically populate along with their records and now remain either public or non-public according to their original setting.

The JP2 files open in a IIIF viewer and provide excellent Pan-Zoom capabilities, like the slideshow below illustrates.

The Dezoomify project concentrated mostly on file creation and replacement (for example: digital collections from libraries’ local history/genealogy departments), and to an extent included working on the Metadata for the files submitted. The project consisted of a bunch of repetitive tasks that were not able to be automated and had to be manually manipulated/updated. This was important database work that will ensure the integrity and currency of the files uploaded to the clients’ digital collections and sites going forward.

There will always be advancements in technology standards and these inevitably require adjustment and retroconversion activities. With Christine’s work complete, the ODW team was able to purge a considerable overhead of corrupt and cumbersome Zoomify folders from the database. The positive outcomes of this work is a reduction in the affected agencies’ storage and the cumulative burden of these obsolete files on the servers, plus Christine gained new technological skills that she can carry forward in her career as a Library Technician. It’s a win-win!