An old library book can contain a trove of insight beyond its text. Margins can serve as direct windows into the past through the notes, thoughts, and doodles left behind by readers from long ago.
There’s now a growing effort within the academic community to discover, archive, and study antique marginalia. This is the core focus of Book Traces, a University of Virginia (UVA)-led project that started in the school’s Alderman Library and has since grown into a global crowdsourced initiative.
Of course, mining for marginalia may sound romantic. But it’s also hard work that requires patience, an eye for detail, and a significant amount of data entry.
It’s also vital to use the right tools—which is something the Book Traces team discovered early on.
Challenge: Streamlining data entry
When the project first launched, students were surveying books in the UVA library stacks using bulky laptops and spreadsheets.
“They had to manually enter items such as a book’s location, its condition, and whether any markings were present,” says project manager Kristin Jensen. “They’d then take the books with markings and enter more details into Google Forms. It was very inefficient.”
There were many photos to keep track of, too, which created extra work.
“The team would have to spend hours going back through our digital camera, matching photos with books in the spreadsheet, and then matching the spreadsheet to the corresponding Google Form,” Jensen explains.
Seeking a better way forward when the project expanded to other libraries, Jensen started searching online for a solution that could interface with her spreadsheets. After doing her due diligence, Jensen discovered AppSheet’s no-code development platform.
AppSheet was an ideal match for several reasons. Jensen liked its mobile nature and the fact that the platform can integrate directly with spreadsheets via the cloud. AppSheet was also in line with her budget. Most importantly, AppSheet was something her team could start using almost immediately.
“We had a $60,000 grant, but half of that had to be spent on student wages,” Jensen said. “Plus, we only had a year to spend it and so we needed to get this project underway quickly. We didn’t have time to find a developer.”
Jensen decided to take matters into her own hands by becoming a citizen developer. Within just a few hours, she started designing an app despite having a limited amount of technical experience.
“I started by building a prototype and then I kept iterating until I got it where I wanted,” she says. “I created a base app that I could copy for each new library that we go into. So each app is a variation of the original, but has its own spreadsheet.”
Jensen’s team has now worked at nine different libraries, and so the project has nine separate mobile apps in use which students can access over a UVA-owned iPod Touch.
“Our students are now fully mobile, which is very helpful when traveling to other libraries,” Jensen continues. “They don’t need to set up a laptop somewhere. They can just walk around the stacks and use an app.”
The data entry process is now much faster and more intuitive for students, too. Each app is based on a spreadsheet which contains a list of books that students need to comb through. Students can type in data and attach photos when they find interesting notes in the pages.
One noteworthy feature is a special “completion” dashboard, which appears when a student nears the end of his or her list of books. The dashboard alerts students about books that have not been completed so that they don’t accidentally bypass any titles—something that is easy to do when scrolling through a long list.
Jensen also created a special feature that helps students enter data more efficiently for books with multiple volumes.
Results: Accelerated workflows and increased productivity
According to Jensen, the workflow is night and day compared to the old system.
For example, in the past it would take several days or even weeks for photos and updates to trickle in from the field. Now, photos can be automatically tagged and tracked in the app. Jensen and her team can see updates in near-real time from a centralized dashboard.
“When something interesting comes in, I can send it to my team right away for analysis,” Jensen concludes. “We love having instant access to fresh data.”
With the help of AppSheet, the project is moving along much faster. It’s also eliminating a significant amount of backend labor, keeping it fun and interesting for Jensen and her team. The platform is enabling the Book Traces team to dig through history and pull out literary treasures that would otherwise go unnoticed—book by book.
We’d also like to congratulate the UVA Men’s basketball team for its historic NCAA tournament victory! Go Cavaliers!