The Charleston Multimedia Project: A DH Public Library Case Study

In a three-part series for dh+lib on Digital Humanities in the Research Commons, Donald Beagle, Director of Library Services at Belmont Abbey College, reflects on influences to his 1999 writings on Strategic Alignment in the information commons, uncovering precedents to his theories, tracing subsequent development, and suggesting future prospects. In this first part, Beagle introduces the series and considers his experience producing the Charleston Multimedia Project, an early DH project.

Precedent 1. The Charleston Multimedia Project: A DH Public Library Case Study

On May 16, 1996, Steve Cisler of Apple Computer stood before the National Community Networking Conference in Taos, NM, and introduced a project that he predicted could point toward a new role for public and academic libraries to “…nurture, facilitate, incubate, and produce digital projects in the humanities.” The project, The Charleston Multimedia Project (CMP), came into existence by way of Cisler’s visionary Apple Library of Tomorrow (ALOT) grant program. As the creator and coordinator of that project, I was the unknown speaker being introduced to the audience. Cisler’s interest in supporting CMP in 1995-96 was sparked by his awareness of humanities computing projects during that period. The CMP was envisioned as an early demonstration project that would provide an online forum for both popular and scholarly explorations of the city’s history and culture.

Surprisingly, the summary page of that 1996 conference panel can still be found on the web, although the presentations (and Cisler’s introduction to my talk) are no longer posted.

The CMP initiative itself, funded by one of the very last grants awarded in the ALOT program, was already considered a success. It had been profiled in the “Libraries of the Future” column in Computers in Libraries and prominently featured on the initial “Important Links” page then hosted by the Society of Architectural Historians. It had even been featured in the book, Great American Websites, published by McGraw-Hill.1 My article about the project, “The Virtual City,” had just appeared as the lead article in a special issue of the journal Microcomputers for Information Management (April 1996).

I want to briefly mention three central features of CMP.

  • Collaborative. First, it entailed collaboration between the Charleston County Public Library (the project host) and organizations like the Preservation Society, Historic Charleston Foundation, the Charleston Museum, and especially what was then called the Office of Applied Technology at the College of Charleston, which digitized a number of key source texts and provided several student interns.
  • Extensible. Second, the virtual framework of CMP, consisted of four interlinked elements (Guidebook, Topics, Timeline, and Tours) and was designed to be extensible, modular, and recursive. That is, our vision was that CMP could grow over time to incorporate any number of subsequent digital scholarship initiatives related to the cultural history of the city and the social and ecological contexts of its built and natural environments. This framework also permitted individual modules to be extended independently to face popular and academic audiences.
  • Anticipatory. Third, it was anticipated that future IT innovations would bring new possibilities for DH components featuring more advanced media, including video, 3D renderings, and virtual reality “walk-through” capability (as mentioned in “The Virtual City”). This was a key reason why the word “multimedia” was featured so prominently in the CMP title itself (The CMP title, proposed in 1995, was directly influenced by a 1994 HyperCard-based DH initiative at CalPoly titled “The Blake Multimedia Project”).2

Fifteen years later, the core structural components of CMP remain online, accessible within the larger website of the Charleston County Public Library (CCPL). The Guidebook remains the CMP module that faces a popular audience, as it holds the digitized street-by-street descriptions of major neighborhoods in the Historic District, with photographs from each neighborhood (The CMP grant included Apple’s first digital camera, the QuickTake, used by myself and student interns over two semesters to generate jpegs of the most significant structures in each neighborhood to accompany the online Guidebook text). It remains the source text still used by the City Tourism Office in licensing local guides.

In one sense, the CMP must be considered a long-term success, as it is online and well-utilized nearly two decades after the initial ALOT proposal was written, although some internal navigation links and a few CMP content pages disappeared when the CCPL’s website migrated to a new system server in 2001.3 In fact, the rise of mobile devices has given it a whole new utility, as tourists can now call up Guidebook pages to review on tablets and smart phones as they walk among the historic neighborhoods. But the scope of its original vision as a framework for potential future digital humanities extensions has never been fulfilled. The CMP content remains for now essentially static; much as it was left when I departed CCPL to become Associate Library Director / Head of the Information Commons at UNC-Charlotte in 1997. This unrealized potential relates to a number of factors, such as the closure of the Office of Applied Technology by the College of Charleston (also in the late 1990s).

For example, years after the CMP went online, Addlestone Library at the College of Charleston initiated what has since become known as the Lowcountry Digital Library (LDL). Yet, while the public library has contributed content to be scanned into LDL, there is no indication of online linkages between the two web-based resources. Why? One reason seems to have been the understandable perception of an academic library as the naturally autonomous host and sponsor of scholarly digital library initiatives, based on mutually-assumed organizational boundaries and community roles. LDL remains essentially (at least for now) an archival digitization project focusing on preservation and utilizing current online tools within a relatively narrow functional scope, while CMP remains essentially a cultural heritage demonstration exhibit focusing on access, dating back to the earliest period of web development but still exhibiting a structure that offers potential for expansion and extension. In fact, the structural schema of CMP, while disadvantaged by the crude development tools available in the mid-1990s (I scripted its original HTML in Apple’s “Notepad” utility!) shares features in common with some current leading edge academic DH initiatives. For example, compare CMP’s structural sections (Guidebook, Topics, Timeline, and Tours) to the structural sections of “The Dorr Rebellion” (Gallery, Constitutions, Letters, and Lesson Plans), a newly-created DH project posted by the Digital Publishing Services of Phillips Memorial Library at Providence College.

The continued success of CMP as a component of a public library’s online presence relates almost entirely to the popular front-end of its content: an online guidebook to the city’s historic district. Note how this aligns with the prevalent perception of a public library’s role in its community. This seems consistent with other digital cultural heritage exhibits successfully mounted by public libraries, such as the “The Great Cyclone of 1896” online exhibit recently posted by St. Louis Public Library. By contrast, the Lowcountry Digital Library’s success in mounting digitized archival content for historical research aligns well with the prevalent perception of an academic library’s autonomous and differentiated role in its own community of users.

library role / project scope alignments are not coincidental

I will offer a more detailed description of the differences between an Information Commons and a Research Commons in my forthcoming “Prospects” post, but I want to start this discussion of DH in the Research Commons by suggesting here that library role / project scope alignments are not coincidental. In fact, they go to one justification for applying Strategic Alignment as a model for DH incubation in academic libraries.

Managing the Information Commons

The prevailing limitations of the public library as a host and incubator of DH projects going forward became a major motivation in my own move to UNCC in 1997, where I developed a management framework for what became called the Information Commons (IC). It is important to note that I was not initially contracted by UNCC to consult on IC space reallocation. The IC space layout had already been finalized by the project architect (including the now somewhat-infamous cluster of five service desks in that IC’s original layout). I was contracted, and then formally hired, to propose a new service delivery framework and organizational model.4 My choice of Strategic Alignment for UNCC’s IC was based on three problems faced by academic libraries in the late 1990s as the online revolution accelerated.

a. As was already clear to me by 1997, the prevailing organizational model of a traditional reference department hosting a generic computer lab was broken beyond repair. The model’s endemic problems had been specifically predicted by Molholt (1985) and later substantiated through the focus group study by Young and Von Seggern (published in 2001).5 The Young/Von Seggern study was very limited in sample size, but its findings closely echoed our 1997 internal studies of UNCC students and anecdotal accounts from numerous other libraries. Further confirmation came later via the Shill-Tonner study (ca. 1999-2004), which found that generic “computer labs” per se showed only a very weak correlation with increased student library use, despite the exponential rise in student use of technology overall. As I moved to UNCC, I was deeply skeptical that such endemic problems could be fixed merely by applying band-aids to existing reference department / computer lab organizational models, because, as Molholt had discussed, the operational norms of traditional reference service and generic computer labs were not yet aligned with student needs for a tightly-coupled linkage between knowledge retrieval from library databases and coursework completion using productivity software (such as MS Office and Adobe Creative Suite).6

the likely future trajectory of the online revolution would become a disruptive dynamic that would force ongoing reformulations of how libraries could best support print / digital hybrid scholarship, emerging pedagogies, and knowledge creation

b. Initial models of the Information Commons, including examples from University of Southern California (1994) and the writings of Philip Tompkins, offered potential solutions to some of the computer lab problems described above. But looking toward the future, even these carried an inherent shortcoming. This IC model had emerged with a very specific focus on the needs of undergraduate students. USC’s IC was specifically articulated as a core feature of its new Leavey Undergraduate Library, and Tompkins’s writings drew on that USC experience and also his work at Estrelle Community College.

While UNCC’s first-floor IC initiative was also aimed initially at undergraduates, built around the focal point of a “continuum of services and resources,” or one-stop shopping, the larger vision I developed at Associate Vice Chancellor Ray Frankle’s request was to later extend enhanced versions of the model (described by us as a “Learning Commons” and “Research Commons”) for graduate students and faculty up to the library’s second floor. The Learning Commons was envisioned as an incubator for faculty / librarian collaboration on constructivist pedagogies (integrative learning, project-based learning, etc.), while the Research Commons would be oriented toward graduate student research and faculty knowledge creation needs, including the digital humanities and new multimedia. This schema grew from my view that the likely future trajectory of the online revolution would become a disruptive dynamic that would force ongoing reformulations of how libraries could best support print / digital hybrid scholarship, emerging pedagogies, and knowledge creation. My work in 1995 developing a public library space where college students, faculty, and collaborating scholars could co-develop the CMP had already given me a concrete sense of how such a Research Commons might someday “look and feel.” Therefore, I sought a robust IT management framework (Strategic Alignment) with sufficient scope and flexibility to generate models beyond the USC / Tompkins undergraduate IC framework, models that might someday be labeled Learning Commons (LC) and Research Commons (RC).

c. Academic libraries themselves continued to function within college and university governance structures which, as loosely-coupled systems, perpetuated traditions of academic tenure and promotion which were too often proving resistant, sometimes inhospitable, and on occasion even hostile to digital scholarship initiatives. Such discouraging accounts of institutional inertia persuaded me that early-adopter faculty were likely to continue looking beyond campus for corporate and foundation co-sponsorships for future DH initiatives—just as I had turned to Apple for CMP in lieu of any hope of funding support from local government.

Strategic Alignment has always seemed to me to be an excellent choice because it puts the library in a position to continually realign itself with ongoing innovation while repositioning its contribution to its host institution’s mission and objectives

If the hypothetical library Research Commons were to function as an effective host and incubator of DH projects, I felt it would be strengthened by a strategic planning and management model drawn from beyond the academic norms of 1997-99. Strategic Alignment has always seemed to me to be an excellent choice because it puts the library in a position to continually realign itself with ongoing innovation while repositioning its contribution to its host institution’s mission and objectives. Plus, in nurturing potential corporate and private foundation support, a planning model drawn from corporate IT governance could bring inherent advantages. Therefore, I felt Strategic Alignment was a model that could both help libraries more effectively start serving the one-stop technology needs of undergraduate students in 1997-99, while also bringing the potential to dynamically evolve to serve the future needs of faculty engaged in both pedagogical innovation and in digital humanities research and development.

Beyond Strategic Alignment: Matrix Management

While Strategic Alignment has in fact proven to be an effective (though certainly not exclusive) approach to the initial wave of IC development, by 1999 I also began to realize that it was not sufficient in itself to meet those future developmental needs. I first articulated the need to add a framework for developmental change in my white paper for the University of Southern California’s Information Commons Conference in 2004 (“From Information Commons to Learning Commons”). This paper added a matrix “change management” perspective to the proposed developmental process, from adjustment to isolated change (change that remained internal and library-centric) to far-reaching change and transformation, (involving collaborations both across campus and beyond), thus projecting IC development beyond my own UNCC first-floor example to something that could encompass the sorts of collaborations earlier seen in CMP. (That 2004 white paper referenced the Learning Commons but not the Research Commons, because the theme of that USC conference was shaped by the keynote speech of Joan Lippincott, whose important work with Diane Oblinger on “Educating the Net Generation” fit the pedagogical focus of the LC model, rather than the digital humanities / knowledge creation focus of the RC model. But a developmental schema projected across the entire IC-LC-RC spectrum was central to my inclusion of matrix management in concert with strategic alignment.)


Figure 1: Typology of Change as a basis for matrix management

Figure 1: Typology of Change as a basis for matrix management
Source:  Image Courtesy of ImageQuest. Used with permission. Terminology adapted from Eckel, P., Green, M., Hill, B., & Mallon, W. (1999). On Change III: Taking charge of change: A Primer for colleges and universities. Washington D.C.: American Council on Education. 
Note that this figure, used here with permission, is not included in the CC BY-NC 3.0 licensing terms that apply to the text of the post.

A full discussion of matrix management is beyond my scope here; I’ll simply add these brief pertinent Wikipedia quotes about the general concept that apply to the lessons from CMP: “…to increase cooperation and communication across the traditional silos and unlock resources and talent that are currently inaccessible to the rest of the organization….To develop broader people capabilities – a matrix helps develop individuals with broader perspectives and skills who can deliver value across the business and manage in a more complex and interconnected environment.” This matrix approach to IC-LC development from my 2004 white paper was also well-received, and has been frequently cited in the years since.

Based on my conversations with early hypertext theorists Joyce and Bolter (see, for example, the 1991 letter from Bolter archived in my Skydrive file. The “Michael” referenced in Bolter’s letter was, of course, Michael Joyce), I also felt that yet another conceptual feature was needed: the idea of aligning service delivery, knowledge resources, and technologies across carefully-defined physical, virtual, and cultural domains. This was reflected in the “Three-Domain Diagram,” first proposed in my presentation prepared for Deutscher Bibliotekartag / Düsseldorf in 2005, and enhanced in my keynote for ACRL’s New England Chapter Conference in 2006.7

Three-Domain diagram

Figure 2: Three-Domain Diagram
Source: Beagle, Donald. The Information Commons Handbook. ALA/Neal-Schuman, 2006. p. 4. Used with permission.
Note that this figure, used here with permission, is not included in the CC BY-NC 3.0 licensing terms that apply to the text of the post.

matrix management and cross-domain alignment can still help libraries serve the needs of academic DH developers across this still-evolving landscape

To help clarify the potential of this enhanced model for the incubation of DH, I need to a) look back even before the CMP initiative to briefly review my involvement in discussions in the late 1980s and early 1990s with early hypertext theorists Michael Joyce and Jay David Bolter; b) discuss how and why online knowledge media have changed the academic and library landscape even beyond what Joyce and Bolter may have originally anticipated; and finally c) explain more clearly how and why I feel matrix management and cross-domain alignment can still help libraries serve the needs of academic DH developers across this still-evolving landscape.


Editor’s note. This post is part one in a three-part series. Recommended citation: Donald Beagle, “The Charleston Multimedia Project: A DH Public Library Case Study,” Part I in “Digital Humanities in the Research Commons: Precedents & Prospects,” dh+lib (January 30, 2014). 

  1. Renehan, Edward. Great American Websites: An Online Discovery of a Hidden America. Berkeley: Osborne McGraw-Hill, 1997. Print.
  2. Note: Over the years, any number of DH projects have incorporated multimedia features similar to what was envisioned for future DH extensions of CMP. A good example is the “Oxford Friars” project created in 2010 by graduate students of Caroline Bruzelius at Duke University (Jim Knowles and Michael Koszycki). Note how this video superpositions a vertical timeline component over landscape layouts and 3D renderings (developed in SketchUp Pro) of Oxford’s early growth.
  3. An example of a surviving CMP module that features scholarly content related to architectural history can be found under the subsection “Topics: Architecture & Preservation.
  4. For supporting detail, see the August 1997 letter from Associate Vice Chancellor Ray Frankle. Note Frankle’s repeated emphasis on “services,” and lack of any references to space planning or layout (this was in spite of my work as Head of Main Library on CCPL’s executive team in the mid-90’s that had planned the highly successful space layout for Charleston’s new $15 million Main Library). At any rate, it was on the strength of my consulting report (reproduced in part with Frankle’s letter, with some redactions) that I was then hired by UNCC the following month as Associate Director of Library Services / Head of the Information Commons.
  5. Molholt, Pat. On Converging paths: the Computing Center and the Library.” Journal of Academic Librarianship. Vol. 11, No. 5. (1985): 284-288. Young, Nancy J. and Marilyn Von Seggern. “General Information Seeking in Changing Times: A Focus Group Study.” Reference & User Services Quarterly. Vol. 41, No.2 (Winter 2001): 159-169.
  6. Note: By 2013, of course, a large and growing stack of IC / LC assessments now demonstrate strikingly strong correlations between IC / LC facilities and increased library use, in stark contrast to what Shill and Tonner found with those earlier generic library computer labs. These remarkably consistent IC / LC usage results are a clear repudiation of those few remaining skeptics who continue to insist that IC’s and LC’s are “merely computer labs in libraries.”
  7. Note: Neither the DB/D nor the ACRL presentations remain online, but both were similar to my “Visions Going Forward” presentation prepared for TRLN’s “Information Commons Symposium” in February 2005, which also featured the first version of the Three-Domain Diagram. By 2006, I had further refined and republished this diagram in The Information Commons Handbook, with helpful input from Paul Hagner, then Vice-President of EDUCAUSE. In this version, which Hagner began using in his own presentations even before the Handbook was published, the three domains carry their now-current headings of “physical / virtual / cultural,” as shown in Figure 2.

Donald Beagle

Graduated Oakland University [English & Linguistics] 1975; University of Michigan [Library & Information Science] 1977. Formerly Head of Main Library, Charleston County Public Library, (SC) 1989-1996; Associate Library Director & Head of the Information Commons, University of North Carolina--Charlotte, (NC) 1997-1999; Director of Library Services, Belmont Abbey College (NC), 2000-current.