By DONNA URSCHEL
What started out as an emergency at the Library of Congress turned into a great opportunity.
The Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC), established in 1996, was barely holding up in 2008. The heavily-used catalog, which offers access to 1.25 million digitized pictures, was breaking down with increasing frequency. The Prints and Photographs Division (P&P) had difficulty adding new collections to the online resource.
“PPOC was using very old technology. The software was almost obsolete, and P&P was afraid they might lose data. It was time to upgrade,” said Christopher Carlson, a design manager in the Library’s Web Services Division.
The Library would have to act quickly to address the problems with PPOC. “We began a rapid-development replacement,” explained Helena Zinkham, acting chief of P&P. Staff of several divisions of the Library worked diligently to quickly build a new PPOC (pronounced p-pock).
P&P recognized that the short timeframe created constraints. Consequently, the functional requirements were to preserve the key features of PPOC, not to develop the ideal catalog. Information Technology Services (ITS) and Web Services, however, realized their staffs could deliver a lot more—a much better product—thanks to new software tools currently available.
The result has garnered substantial praise; the catalog can be found at www.loc.gov/pictures/.
The redesigned PPOC offers clean and visually inviting pages, with easy-to-use features for searching, browsing and sharing.
The search option has been improved to be available on almost every page of the catalog, allowing for easy modification of searches—no need to click back to a search page to conduct a new search. The search engine is more robust, bringing up all applicable items. There are no limits to the amount of records that can be retrieved.
Visitors to PPOC can now browse by alphabetical lists of subjects, formats and creators across the entire catalog, as well as for individual collections. Colorful banner images highlight the “learn more about it” essays for major collections, such as the popular Russian Empire photographs by Sergei M. Prokudin-Gorskii, which can be viewed at www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/prok/. The major collections have a view-all feature that opens the door to interesting visual explorations.
Viewing options, in general, are greatly expanded and now include gallery, grid and slideshow features. The gallery format displays 20 images on a page, four rows of five pictures. The grid format shows 100 images on a page, 10 rows of 10 pictures. Slideshows can be seen in two speeds, slow and fast, with an option to include item descriptions. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) posters from the Great Depression are especially interesting in this format.
Another new feature is the share/save tool. With stable and durable URLs, the searches and images can be shared quickly with one’s social network.
In addition, the descriptive records and image resources are structured to encourage crawling by such web search engines as Google. People who don’t even know that the Library has visual materials will be able to discover them initially in the open web.
Carlson said, “The new PPOC allows users to view images of one of the greatest photography collections in the world, in ways they never could before, and allows them to share what they find with their communities.”
Mary Donovan, a lead information technology specialist in ITS, was instrumental in envisioning the potential product when P&P presented her with the emergency-update project.
“Instead of just shoring up the system, I realized we could easily give the catalog a lot more functionality and an inviting interface,” said Donovan. “So ITS, using new technology, was able to provide additional features, and Web Services was able to design a more visual ‘face’ for the application.”
Zinkham said, “It was a wonderful collaboration among P&P, the collection experts, the skillful ITS developers, and the Web Services designers.”
Donovan agreed. “It was a great collaboration—a win-win-win. Everyone was flexible. It is one of the most rewarding projects that I have worked on.”
“P&P was open to new ideas and we wanted to push the boundaries,” said Carlson. “It’s a visual catalog, and now everything is driven by pictures. The strength of the material is front and center. We provide many ways to view the material.”
The PPOC team hired an external testing firm to gauge the user experience. After the Library received feedback, a few more changes were made. Rollout of the new catalog started in late March and a formal announcement was made on April 7. From start to finish, the project took about 18 months, which is often a short turnaround for the Library.
“I value the product and the process that got us here,” said Barbara Natanson, head of the P&P Reference Section, who guided the P&P project team. “Building on each other’s ideas and our mutual appreciation for the collections, PPOC now enables us to share more widely and communicate better about visual riches in the Library’s collections.”
“This is an exciting moment, but it’s not the end of the story,” said Zinkham. “The Library has more complex initiatives underway to improve access for all the collections. The changes to PPOC are part of a larger journey.”
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.