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"Bridging the Urban Landscape"


Photo of Santas in front of the Syria Mosque. *

An article by Barry Chad, Assistant Head, Pennsylvania Department,
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh,
appearing in
OhioLIBRARIES Fall 1995, Volume 8, Number 3.


"wires surcharged with a ruthless voltage
or delicately sensitive to speech and codes
bind here a district of vast natural resources into one organic whole."
--from "The Pittsburgh Survey," 1909.


Printing,
in its earliest days--
in the shops of Mainz, Subiaco and Venice--
must have possessed the same expansive excitement
as is being generated today by the World Wide Web (WWW),
hypertext markup language (HTML),
and the Web servers and Web browsers which make information lightningly available around the world.

Hypertext is the electronic equivalent of marginalia, glosses, footnotes. It permits the amplification of texts and images--their electronic annotation--capable on the printed page only in a cumbersome way. But its potential is much much more. It is the linking of information to information--subjectively as well as objectively. It is the breaking of the bonds that make of the printed book a self-contained unit. It is, as Richard Saul Wurman suggests in another context, the ability to follow one idea on a path through all knowledge. What else it promises--for the writing of fiction, for example--has yet to be truly explored. Because, while Dickens belongs comfortably between bindings of leather or paper, the texts of the future will (and in some sense already do) escape those boundaries.

The World Wide Web is the online interconnectedness of all those hypertext documents-- frivolous, fascinating, rich and strange--produced by individuals and organizations in hypertext mark-up language. These documents reside on servers which are accessed by clients which interpret HTML through Web browsers such as Netscape and Mosaic. The Web has the ability to display high-resolution graphics, as well as text, on a computer monitor and the whole presentation has an aesthetic potential that invites favorable comparison with illuminated manuscripts and the finest printing. Pleasure and wonder attend the online presentation of information, as images, sound, video clips and live cameras combine to report on the latest research endeavors, the creativity of an elementary school class, or a tribute to Jack Kerouac.

The Collection.

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh--100 years old this November [1995]--houses the unique and extensive collections of the Pennsylvania Department. Its diverse materials focus on Genealogy and on Pennsylvania History--with a special emphasis on Pittsburgh and on Western Pennsylvania. Its photographic collection consists of many thousands of images from the late 19th century through the mid 1970s-- including many by Abram M. Brown, Frank E. Bingaman and Luke Swank. Especially significant are the many wonderful photographs inherited from the University of Pittsburgh's "Pittsburgh Photographic Library" (PPL) which document the sweeping changes of urban redevelopment in the Pittsburgh district in the 1940s and '50s. Under the leadership of Roy Stryker, the PPL project attracted such notable photographers as Esther Bubley, Clyde Hare, Harold Corsini, and Richard Saunders among others. The Pennsylvania Department also maintains a unique vertical file with clippings, pamphlets, and ephemera dating back to the turn of the century. These files have supplied the peculiarly vivid and often charming text that accompanies many of the photographs in the exhibit.

How It Happened.

The explicit and implicit interrelatedness of the materials in the collection is naturally-suited to exploitation in hypertext. Thus, articles in the clipping file on the city's Mt. Washington community make reference to McArdle Roadway. Amplification can be found in the files on Pittsburgh streets-- in this case in a file specifically devoted to McArdle Roadway. Furthermore, the biography files can be consulted for information on the McArdle who gave his name to the prominent Mt. Washington thoroughfare. The knowledgeable librarian makes these connections for the patron and presents the patron with three files full of paper--one on Mt. Washington, one on McArdle Roadway and one on Peter J. McArdle. In hypertext, the knowledgeable librarian, once again, simply links the three elements together electronically--providing access to biographical information, traffic and/or construction information, information on the interplay of McArdle Roadway with the neighborhood which it traverses and also photographs of the neighborhood past and present. The links can be to full text or to citations.

The Department approached the Library's administration about the prospects of such a hypertext project. Some months later the administration was approached by Robert Carlitz, Project Director of "Common Knowledge: Pittsburgh" (CK:P), regarding the possibility of the Library's cooperation in an online collaboration--specifically the presentation of images on the Web. ("Common Knowledge: Pittsburgh," funded by the National Science Foundation, is engaged in testing the educational utility of wide area networks for the K-12 community within the Pittsburgh Public Schools.) Thus, the connection was made; the project discussed; the official go-ahead given; and a grant proposal entitled "Bridging the Urban Landscape" submitted to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an agency of the United States Department of Commerce. In October 1994, CK:P and The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh were awarded a grant to electronically bridge the urban landscape.

How It Was Done.

Prior to embarking on this project, my own computer background consisted of having used OCLC for four years as an Assistant Cataloger, searching DIALOG and assorted CD-ROM products and using basic word-processing software. Frankly, the prospect was intimidating. So, with the blessings of my supervisor, Marilyn Holt, I threw myself wholeheartedly into the work--almost 'round the clock. This consisted of "surfing the Net"--that is, simply seeing what was "out there" online, what it looked like, and how it was done. To do my surfing, I used "Uroulette," a search engine which browsed the Web randomly at the click of a mouse on the image of a roulette wheel.

Web browsers, such as Netscape and Mosaic, enable one to view the "source" of a document--that is, to look at the actual HTML structure which underlies the presentation on the screen. Thus, it is very easy to learn how most graphical tricks are done and how to get the same results when designing your own Web pages. Employing search engines provided by my Web browser, Netscape, I found online sites which showed how to do HTML. I made electronic "bookmarks" of these instructional locations and of the more interesting and dramatic sites that I stumbled upon using "Uroulette." Also, in addition to familiarizing myself with the Web and with Netscape, I began practicing with a scanner and with Adobe Photoshop since, for the project, I would be scanning in some 500+ photos and drawings of Pittsburgh and its neighborhoods.

My Homepage.

The result of this initial work was the construction of my own homepage. It is derigeur to have one's own homepage--whether or not anyone ever even visits the site. One's baby pictures, one's resume, photographs of one's cats, a "hotlist" of one's favorite Web sites. These are among the conventions of a personal homepage. Yet, however frivolous, however much they add to the babel on the network, they are very important. They provide extraordinary learning experiences for anyone unfamiliar with the Internet. And, they can be a source of incredible pride and personal satisfaction to volunteers, staff, schoolchildren, seniors.

The Exhibit.

In December 1994, with the approval of my supervisor, I selected approximately 500 images for inclusion in an exhibit on Pittsburgh, its neighborhoods and its bridges. The photographs were chosen for their humor, their ability to arouse curiousity, their visual and their nostalgic appeal. The photograph at the head of this article, the "Syria Santas," introduces the neighborhood of Oakland. It never fails to elicit a response--a chuckle, a laugh. It always provokes a desire to know more. Among the other photos are aerial views of Pittsburgh's Point and of old Allegheny City (now Pittsburgh's North Side) taken between 1900 and 1907 from a kite, and a hauntingly beautiful photograph of young African-American men in an art class.

Pittsburgh has well over 80 distinct neighborhoods. The plan was to describe each neighborhood by means of an outline--each outline consisting of:

* an anecdote,
* a bibliography for further reading,
* bridges,
* a brief, pithy introductory narrative,
* city information,
* a fact,
* a history framed as question-and-answer,
* images,
* a map,
* oral histories,
* organizations important to that neighborhood,
* people notable in the community,
* a quote,
* and some statistics.
In addition there are pages of notes in which all cited sources are identified.

It became clear over the past year that the thrust of the exhibit should be confined to the "historic" and that "current" information would be better served by the Three Rivers Free-Net or by other community-based Web pages. The resources of the Pennsylvania Department on any of Pittsburgh's richly-individual neighborhoods could have easily occupied an entire year's worth of work on that one neighborhood alone. There is a wealth of just historical materials to put online--let alone the changing contemporary scene. Yet part of the genius of the Web is its extraordinary flexibility. Links to other sites can readily be incorporated into one's own homesite--access to resources created by others and resident on a distant server are available, through the Web, on your very own homepage. This, of course, is what gives the Web its texture and its richness.

The historic images of Pittsburgh's neighborhoods form the core of the exhibit. The novelty of the Web is simply that people love to look at pictures. An imageless exhibit or an exhibit without links does not hold the interest. (That is not to say that the Internet represents a dumbing-down of America. Rather, it is a new medium, which calls for a new method of presentation and an innovative wedding of image to text.) Image pages within the exhibit present "thumbnails"--selected details from the scanned image--which can be clicked-on and which will link to the full image complete with caption, date, photographer, etc. These thumbnails also note the size of the image in kilobytes to clue viewers with slower online connections how long it may take for their machines to load a specific photo. For viewers without graphical capability, all images have been provided with an alternative text description.

The most labor-intensive element of this project has been the selection of text and its inputting by hand. While it is, in fact, possible to scan-in text, the chief benefit from actually keying-in materials, in my opinion, is the familiarity with the materials which is gained. As librarians know, much information is hidden, buried deep within other sources. Who would imagine that an article focusing on Fred Rogers would serendipitously reveal that Roberto Clemente's Pirates jersey is on exhibit in The Smithsonian? So rarely do librarians have the opportunity to actually read the materials in their care that familiarity fosters the effective creation of links, increases the knowledgeability of the librarian, and gives the finished product, I believe, humanity. This is not a chore. This is fun, and it borders on being an art and a skill.

Textual highlights of the exhibit include a newspaper account of Abraham Lincoln's visit to Pittsburgh in February 1861, an account of the city's Great Fire in 1845, and a lyrical 1909 essay on social conditions in industrial Pittsburgh--a quote from which serves as epigraph to this article. Old ideas are given new life, gain new currency, and perhaps suggest new solutions: the prescriptions of Andrew Carnegie for success in life, the library as a weapon against boys' gangs, and the exemplary civic-conscious life of entrepreneur Henry J. Heinz.

Technology & Design.

In a year's time I have experienced four different versions of Netscape, two different versions of Adobe Photoshop and two different pc's--not to mention new extensions to HTML which have opened up all kinds of new graphical possibilities. I have gone from maintaining all my work (images and text) on the hard drive of the pc to editing all my text on the server itself and transferring all scanned image files to the server from the pc. Sometimes the machinery worked; sometimes it didn't. Sometimes the machine's configurations mysteriously changed. It has, all in all, been a most exhilarating technological roller-coaster ride. But, without the committed technical support of the CK:P staff--especially Bob Carlitz, Gene Hastings, Dave Graham, Barry Check and John Fail--quite frankly, I would have been lost. A committed and responsive technical staff is absolutely crucial to the success of any networked project.

Aside from organizing the content of the exhibit through an outline, the most crucial design feature of the exhibit was navigational icons. These enable users to orient themselves within the exhibit and, by being links to other locations, allow users to travel through the exhibit unconfused. In "Bridging the Urban Landscape" this was accomplished through two sets of icons: one was a cartoon image of Andrew Carnegie playing with blocks. Originally, the blocks spelled out L*I*B*R*A*R*Y. This was changed in Photoshop to H*O*M*E*P*A*G*E, T*O*U*R*S, I*N*T*R*O, etc.--the blocks format being very adaptable. The second set of icons functioned within the neighborhoods themselves. These were little baseball figures posed with letters of the alphabet. They were linked to "Main Menu," "Narrative," "Outline," etc. They came from the sports pages back in the summer of 1909 when the Pirates were hot--beating the Detroit Tigers in the Series four games to three.

Images in the exhibit--other than thumbnails and some of the transparent gifs--are between 100 and 199 K. (The thumbnail gifs were saved in Photoshop at 72 dpi. The full images were saved in Photoshop at 100 dpi.) In the course of the project, image size provoked questions about how others--with less speedy connections--would handle the size of our images. In a sense this issue was never resolved and, then again, it was: the grant proposal was written to show what the Web and hypertext could do, and good connectivity--for those involved in the project--was built into the grant; however, for those without image access, the "alt" attribute provides text description in place of images.

One final important design point is: Use Menus. Don't say all you want to say on an endless homepage that scrolls on forever. Perhaps one of the linked pages, but not your Homepage. Make your homepage, brief and to the point--with a menu list that leads visitors to more substantive pages. Use at least one eye-arresting image and, if possible, splashes of color. The truly great thing about HTML and the Web and Netscape is you do not have to be a graphic design artist; you do not have to hire a graphic design artist. You can put up a simple, effective page that will look good. But be prepared to labor at it.

Problems.

Some problems have already been noted, such as: the absolute importance of a responsive, expert technical staff; the real commitment required of time and staff; the look of the Web pages, their design, their navigability. In addition, may I suggest that good Web pages are not designed by committees. While committees can offer their input and suggest content, the actual work should be in the hands of one individual who understands both the limitations and the possibilities of the medium. This individual should make his or her expertise available to other members of the institution--administrators, staff and volunteers--and, having learned the ins and outs, train others.

Copyright in the electronic online environment remains an unresolved issue. In one sense, if it's on the Net, it's up for grabs. That is, not only are sites linkable through hypertext, it is virtually effortless to download images, text, etc. onto your own hard drive. This is one of the glories and also one of the cautions of the Net. Accompanying the Pennsylvania Department's photographs, I have, as much as possible, noted that the items are from the Library's collections. When using text from our vertical files, I have assiduously attempted to acknowledge the source. For the more contemporary texts, I have used only brief quotes and snippets--once again, always citing the source in the notes. Copyright, however, remains a sticky issue. Oddly enough this is illustrated by "The unofficial Elvis Home Page" which had an interesting encounter with lawyers from Elvis' estate.

The Future.

The future is open-ended. With a corps of volunteers to enter-in text and scan-in images, the task of putting all the neighborhoods effectively online--all of historic Pittsburgh into cyberspace--begins. Oral histories from youngsters and oldsters, 30,000 more images from the PA Department's collections, not to mention millions of pages of text. Hardware and software will change and will need to be refreshed. Perhaps the technological changes will continue to be rapid; perhaps the pace of change will stabilize. If the world is experiencing an electronic transformation in the way it organizes, stores and presents information, so certainly must libraries and in multivarious ways.

Buhl Planetarium
used to house the Great Miniature Railroad and Village.
Both the Planetarium and the Railroad have since moved on to the shelter of the Carnegie Science Center.
The original train layout began in a private home in Jefferson County, Pennsylvania, sometime in the 1920s.
Every year since then, the village and its marvelous animations grew and grew and grew till today it counts nearly 100 charming animations, over 1,200 feet of track, over 2,000 non-animated people, 6 Asian elephants and 56 outhouses. It is a portrait of Western Pennsylvania frozen in time, but which, year by year, decks itself out with ever-increasing wonders: a steel mill complete with blast furnace, a muscleman lifting barbells, and a cat swishing its tail 'neath a rocking rocking chair. When, in my enthusiasm, I compared my hopes for "Bridging the Urban Landscape" and its future survival to the Great Miniature Railroad and Village, Gene Hastings, Common Knowledge's Network Engineer and a bear of a man, wryly commented,
"Every year a new Ferris Wheel."


Technical Information.

Web Foundry Components:

Hardware:

* SUN SPARCstation 2, running Plexus Web Server
* Digital DECpc LPv+ 433dx
Screen Size: 15", 800 x 600 dpi, Font Size Large.
Hard Drive: 170 M, RAM 16 M.
* Digital Celebris XL 590
Screen Size: 17" CTX Color Monitor, 1280 x 1024 dpi.
Hard Drive: 1 GB, RAM 16 M.
* Hewlett Packard ScanJet IIcx

Software:

* Adobe Photoshop 2.5
* Adobe Photoshop 3.0
* DeskScan II 2.0
* LView Pro 1.A/386/16-bit for Windows 3.1
* Microsoft Windows for Workgroups 3.11
* Netscape Navigator 1.0N
* Netscape Navigator 1.1N
* Netscape Navigator 1.2
* Netscape Navigator 1.22 for Windows
* WINFTP Windows Sockets FTP Client Version Jan 11 1994
* WinQVT/Net TCP/IP Services for Windows 3.1 Version 3.97
* OmniPage Professional 5.0

chadb@carnegielibrary.org
Revised, corrected,
& sites updated:
1 April 2003.


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