In the previous post I introduced our Discover the Queenslander project for the SLQ, and mentioned that we used the AngularJS web framework. That process has got me thinking about some of the technical challenges in creating rich collection interfaces, and the different approaches in play, and I'll report on these in the next two posts. In this one I'll focus on AngularJS, and in the next, some broader questions on working with collection data on the client side.

AngularJS is a Javascript-based framework that focuses on extending HTML to deal with dynamic content. Angular "binds" data to HTML elements; so change the data, and the HTML updates. Even better, the bindings are two-way: interacting with an HTML element can also change its bound data. Angular implements a MVC (Model View Controller) architecture, where the data structure is the Model, the HTML document is the View, and a Javascript Controller links the two together.

Our previous web-based collections projects (TroveMosaic, Manly Images, Prints and Printmaking) were built in plain JS and jQuery. The general approach is pretty straightforward: load and manipulate some collection metadata (either from an API or a static JSON file), then build the HTML dynamically (adding and styling elements according to the data). jQuery makes handling interactions with the HTML pretty straightforward. It also (in my experience) makes for a verbose mess. Because all the HTML is built dynamically there's a lot of code devoted to creating elements, setting attributes, then stuffing them into the DOM. Code that loads and munges data gets tangled with code that builds the document and code handling interactions. Some elements get styled with static CSS, others are styled with hard-coded attributes. It all works fine - jQuery is very robust - but under the surface, it's bad code.

AngularJS tidies this process up quite a bit. Here's a quick example showing how straightforward it is to bind some collection data to some HTML. Say we have a JSON array items where each item looks something like:
{ "id":"702692-19340823-s002b",
 "title":"Illustrated advertisement from The Queenslander, 23 August, 1934",
 "description":["Caption: Practical garments","An Advertisement for women's clothing sewing patterns acquired through mail order from The Queenslander Pattern Service."],
 "subjects":["women's clothing & accessories","advertisements"],
 "thumbURL":"702692-19340823-s002.jpg",
 "year":"1934"
}
To create a HTML list where each item appears as a list element:
<ul>
 <li ng-repeat="i in items"> 
  <h1>{{i.title}}</h1>
  <img ng-src="{{i.thumbURL}}"/>
 </li> 
</ul>

Angular lets us iterate over a list of elements with the ng-repeat directive; it will simply generate a <li> for each element in the items array. Attributes of each item i are easily bound to the HTML using the {{moustache}} notation - so the item title will appear inside the h1. Apart from the compact, HTML-based rendering syntax, the killer feature here is that the HTML stays bound to the data: in order to change the display, we simply change the contents of items. No jQuery-style DOM manipulation; the data drives the document.


So rendering items in a list is trivially easy; but what about more complex displays? It's a matter of creating the data structures you need, then binding them to HTML in the same way. The Queenslander grid interface (above) includes a histogram showing items per year. In HTML this is simply another list, where each column is a list element. To create the data structure we sort the items into a new array where each element contains both the year, and a count of its items. Then as in the example, we run through the array with Angular building an element (this time a column) for each year. Angular's ng-style directive lets us create a custom height for each element, based on the number of items in the year list. With an array yearTable, where each year y has a totalCount
<ul>
     <li ng-repeat="y in yearTable">
           <div ng-style="{height: y.totalCount+'px'}"
           ng-click="setYearFilter(y.year);" >
     </li>
</ul>
Here Angular is doing some rudimentary data vis, linking variables in the data to the dimensions of each HTML element. Note also that each column element has an ng-click directive, calling a function that filters the items displayed. The term clouds for subjects and creators work the same way.

Hopefully this gives a hint of how AngularJS can be applied to cultural collection interfaces. From a developer's perspective, there are a number of big advantages. Compared to our previous jQuery process, Angular simplifies the page-building process immensely; the templating approach encourages a separation of concerns and more organised, maintainable code. Angular's data-centric binding also provides some big wins. Data structures (models) become more important; Angular requires that you get your data organised before binding it to the DOM. Coming from the free-wheeling procedural world of jQuery, this data-centric approach was the biggest conceptual challenge. The bottom line is: manipulate the data, not the HTML. The payoff is that the work of keeping the HTML and the data coordinated just disappears. Angular's modular architecture and active developer community also bring benefits: in the Queenslander project for example we used ngStorage, a module that made the favourites incredibly easy to build.

Compared to standard web interfaces, the big difference here is that all the collection data (in this case some 1000 items worth) is in the browser, on the client side. No server calls, pulling down a few items at a time - instead we load the whole set up front, and build the interface dynamically based on that data. The biggest payoff for this approach is responsiveness - filtering and exploration are lightning fast - but there are problems too; search engines can't index this dynamic content, and it requires modern browsers with fast JS engines. Some would argue that this approach is just plain wrong; abusing the client/server architecture of the web. I'm more of a pragmatist, but there are certainly some technical issues to consider, and in the next post I'll go a bit deeper into this notion of client-side data for digital cultural collections.

Discover the Queenslander

Discover the Queenslander is our latest generous interface project, commissioned by the State Library of Queensland to showcase their collection of covers and pages from The Queenslander newspaper. Published 1866-1939, The Queenslander was the illustrated weekend supplement to the Brisbane Courier Mail. This collection includes around 1000 covers, advertisements and illustrations - a beautiful slice of Australian pre-WWII visual culture. Geoff Hinchcliffe and I developed a web-based interface that builds on our previous approaches - rich overview, browsing and visual exploration - and adds some new techniques. Here I'll provide a quick outline; in the following post I will focus on the web framework we used - AngularJS - which I think has some interesting applications for digital collections.


The Mosaic view provides a chronological overview of the collection - each tile represents items from a single year. Like the Manly Images mosaic, the tiles gradually reveal their contents - in this case they are also directly navigable. The Grid view is a more general-purpose explorer for browsing subjects, creators and years as well as colours. Both Grid and Mosaic interfaces link to a detailed item view. There's nothing radically new here - though there are a few new elements that extend on our generous interfaces repertoire.

Inspired by the qualities of the collection images and the related work happening at Cooper Hewitt, Geoff and I were keen to experiment with using colour to explore the collection. The process was (surprise!) more complex than we expected, but ultimately rewarding. Using some palette extraction code that Geoff developed, we first pre-built a palette for each item. These colours are stored in the collection metadata, and act much like any other metadata field. The interface then dynamically builds an "overview" palette revealing the colours in the current set of items, and both the item palette and the overview palette act in turn as filters; rinse and repeat for open-ended colour-browsing. Note also how the filters and facets in the grid view interact; selecting a colour will also reveal corresponding dates, creators and subjects (and vice versa).


This project also introduces some simple personalisation, with the ability to curate and share a collection of favourite items. We opted for a lightweight, no-login approach using HTML5 web storage (essentially fancy cookies) to simply track item IDs. Sharing a collection is a simple as sharing a URL with a list of IDs baked in; and because collections operate within the standard grid view they get filters and facets too.

Finally a little feature that I am particularly fond of is the Trove link on the item page; a simple demonstration of how we might start to link up collections across institutional boundaries. In this case, the State Library of Queensland has high-res images of covers and illustrations, while the NLA's Trove publishes the full contents of The Queenslander (albeit with low-res scans). Using the Trove API we simply harvested the full list of issue dates and corresponding Trove IDs, then matched them against the SLQ items. So each Queenslander item also provides a link to its source issue, providing additional context as well as opening onto further exploration.



Template based on Cutline port by Blogcrowds