University News

Project mixes humanities and technology

Contributing Writer
Monday, November 8, 2010

A collaboration among the Department of Computer Science, the University Library Center for Digital Initiatives and the Department of Italian Studies — with sponsorship from Microsoft Research — created “Garibaldi on the Surface,” the centerpiece of “Growing Knowledge: The Evolution of Research,” an exhibit at the British Library. It is a pilot project intended to increase future collaboration and technology in the humanities.

“Garibaldi on the Surface” is a digitized version of the Garibaldi Panorama, a painting given to the library five years ago. The panorama is four-and-a-half feet tall, 273 feet long and intended to be read like a scroll painted on both sides. It depicts the life of the Italian liberator Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Massimo Riva, an Italian studies professor and Garibaldi expert, said he began the process of digitization to enhance a seminar he was teaching. In 2007, the Garibaldi panorama was filmed over one week and digitally stitched together so that it would appear to move forward. But Riva wanted to be able to access the images on a more usable device — University Librarian Harriette Hemmasi said the first version was “awkward.”

Riva talked to Andy van Dam, professor of computer science, who was interested in touch technology and, with Microsoft as a sponsor, they used the touch tabletop to create the current exhibit.

The tabletop looks like a coffee table and functions like an iPod, except the user doesn’t have to touch the surface. “It’s like an iPod on steroids,” according to van Dam. Touch table technology was originally built for restaurants, but Microsoft was interested in extending the uses of the devices.

After the British Library learned about the touch table project through a former head librarian at Microsoft, Van Dam said, Brown hosted a delegation from the London institution. They were so impressed with the work that they made the Garibaldi project the centerpiece of the “Growing Knowledge” exhibit, Hemmasi said.

The Garibaldi exhibit is interactive, with music, videos, news articles and photographs accompanying various parts of the scroll to place the artwork in context. “It now looks like what is was intended to be, a research tool,” Hemmasi said.

This is only a pilot project, with two similar projects already under way. Van Dam joked that one of the next projects will produce “Garibaldi on steroids” — a version with such high resolution that a user could see individual brush strokes, and a larger surface so the image will be life-size. This is still in the very early design phase.

A second project, HumBub — which stands for Humanities Bubbles — will enhance the image with added scholarly information in “bubbles,” small windows capable of moving around the screen. This is intended as a productivity tool for humanities scholars, but it is also still being formulated. Van Dam called it the “first pancake” — the one that always needs to be thrown out.

Van Dam said that those who are curious to see the Garibaldi project can contact him via e-mail. In addition, Riva plans to test the touch table project in a seminar he is teaching next semester, ITAL 1340: “Garibaldi and the Risorgimento.”

The Garibaldi project is one step in a larger effort to enhance collaboration and make better tools available to scholars in the humanities, Hemmasi said. In the future, she said, libraries may come equipped with a “digital scholarship lab” with touch tables and similar technology that will make difficult-to-access materials more available to researchers and allow multiple people to work on a project at once.