ShE-books Pilot/Head Start Project

Report on Activities Supported by  

University Library Innovation and Seed Funds for the

ShE-books Pilot / Head Start Project

Submitted by Valerie Hotchkiss,  1/8/14

The Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) and its collaborators received a $10,000 Innovation Grant to work on a pedagogic resource that highlights the primary resources in our world-renowned collections. When we applied for the Innovation Grant, we were awaiting word from IMLS on a two-year grant for a new value-added e-book series called ShE-books.


Our goal was to use the Innovation Grant to complete a prototype for the series and, ideally, to produce the first of book in the series, Mary Astell’s Some Reflections upon Marriage (1700). Unfortunately, the IMLS grant was not successful, but thanks to the Innovation Grant, we now have a better proof of concept model to use for subsequent grant requests.


ShE-books: Primary Source E-Books for Women’s Studies Curricula provides open access to high resolution digital facsimiles of canonical texts used in women’s studies, literature, and history courses across America, combined with searchable transcriptions, examination of the physical book, and a commentary by a well-known teacher of the text. The series is aimed at undergraduate and advanced high school students and will be released as a web application specifically optimized for use on mobile tablet devices such as the iPad. We are collaborating on this pedagogic project with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), the Institute for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science, the University of Illinois School of Art + Design, and the University of Illinois Press. The latter has agreed to lend its imprimatur and considerable publishing acumen to the series. The collaborative nature of the project is crucial to our success because it brings together experts in bibliography, digital humanities, literary criticism, academic publishing, design, content management systems, and technology.


This new series looks at the female lineage of the history of printing to consider the distinctive publication phenomena surrounding books written by women. Why do they so often cause such a stir? Within the narrow focus of women authors, the scope is broad, including texts from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century and covering fields as diverse as literature, theology, science, music, history, mathematics, politics, and social commentary. The combination of significant books in the history of ideas with milestones in the history of printing offers readers insight into the publication and reception of now-canonical texts of the women’s studies curriculum. It is one thing to read the paperback edition of Hrotsvita of Gandersheim, Aphra Behn, or Phyllis Wheatly, but it is quite another to see the first edition, to peruse the original prefatory material, to consider the format and design of the book, and to get a sense of the book’s character as a publishing event in its day.


In its exploration of women’s writing on the history of books, printing, and culture, we hope this new series will cause yet another publishing sensation.


During the period of this grant support we completed a great deal, including:


· Digitization of the first two books in the series

· Work with scholars/teachers to secure commentaries

· Shepherded the commentaries for the first two books through the peer editing   process at the University of    Illinois Press

· Textual editing for the first book and most of the second book

· 3-D scans of the first book (with Beckman Bio-Imaging Lab)

· Changed design to add functionality

· Worked with design students

· Implemented She-books interface into the NCSA Medici content repository,        with previewer that allows transition from text to transcription.

·New wireframes proposed, but final design not quite in place.


At this point, with no more funding in place, we are proceeding slowly, with all our collaborators moving forward as they are able.  We hope to apply for another grant (ca. $300,000) in the near future to move this project into the production mode.


We are sure that She-books will not only make the texts in our series freely available for classroom and general use, but also that the editorial platform we are developing will be adaptable (or just adoptable) for other digital humanities publishing projects.   Our platform allows users to put texts in context, as it were, by perusing a digital facsimile, experiencing the book as 3-D physical object, reading the book in a comfortable format, and understanding the place of the book in literary and publishing history through well-written commentaries.  These value-added interpretive aids help readers feel comfortable with the book and the text, without over-guiding the experience or presenting a “canned” interpretation that stifles the inquisitive spirit.


Attached to this brief report are progress reports from my colleagues at NCSA and Art + Design that elaborate a bit upon what I have summarized here.


We are grateful for the support of the Innovation Grant and look forward to proceeding with this project in the near future with a new source of funding.









Report on Medici Implementation (NCSA)

December 31, 2013


We have implemented the She-books interface on top of NCSA Medici. Medici[1] is an open source web based content repository developed at NCSA[2].  Often described as a smart Dropbox, Medici offers means of supporting collections of uncurated and/or unstructed data through social and automatic curation interfaces and processes. Medici is designed at its core to be extensible in terms of data types it can handle, metadata it can produce, and interfaces it can provide to users when accessing the collections data. Because of this flexibility Medici offers a framework to build upon for new applications such as the She-Books reader which has aims at providing both access to content as well as digital preservation of the content itself (Figure 1).

Figure 1. A preview of a data set within Medici.  A previewer renders the data in a manner that is both informative in terms of the contents of the data set and convenient with regards to network considerations for a web based application.

The current Medici book previewer supports books within zip files containing pairs of imaged pages and transcribed text for each page. The associated extractor, an automatic tool that pre-processes data for web based previewing or metadata extraction, will process each imaged page to remove the original text and replace it with the transcribed/translated text within the associated text file, preserving the original look and feel of the paper.  These images are used to provide the user with a means of switching from the original text to the associated transcribed/translated text conveniently through previewer’s user interface. The extractor then creates image pyramids for each page and stores them in the Medici database.  Image pyramids provide a means for previewing large high resolution images over the web which must consider possible bandwidth limitations.  Image pyramids do this by sampling an image at multiple scales and breaking it into tiles so that client applications are capable of downloading only the information relevant for the area the user is currently looking at as opposed to the entire full resolution image.  Lastly, the extractor constructs an XML file holding information for each element of the book, both information regarding the original data as well as the derived data from the extractor.

The She-book book previewer modifies the Medici book previewer to add the capability to select text.  To do this the method of text replacement has been changed and an image with the replaced text is no longer stored itself. Instead the previewer stores an image without text, a blank page, along with the transcribed text file. The previewer will then render the text overlay at runtime. This allows users to select text, via their mouse, directly from the preview in order to copy and paste it elsewhere. This method has a drawback however. Since the current previewer only supports raw text files (i.e. txt files) the She-book previewer cannot display text in manner that is pre-formatted to align word for word with the original text in the image. To overcome this problem the previewer has been extended to accommodate simple HTML file with CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) formatting. This approach is not convenient for end-users to create transcriptions/translations as it requires knowledge of HTML. Extending the previewer further to support formatted text within DOCX files would achieve a similar functionality in a manner that is more convenient for users.

The overall She-book interface takes the form of a customized Medici interface designed to show an overview of the book. Currently, it has a layout showing sample pages in the left panel and book details in the right panel. Information of the book is stored in the extractor generated XML file. Again, this file is the primary source of data of each book. The information that can be stored within the XML file is flexible to accommodate the needs of each book. For example, the book show in Figure 2 has information with regards to the author, the introduction, the virtual vault, as well as resources and references for the book and its six sections. Clicking on the text or the image button in each section will take the user to the book previewer described above. The XML file also contains information with regards to the content of the sample pages shown in the left panel. We plan on also incorporating a 3D image of the book as well and displaying it with an appropriate 3D previewer as part of this interface to allow users to view and manipulate (rotate, scale, translate) a model of the actual book.

Figure 2. The She-book interface, a customized Medici interface.

Figure 3. The book previewer showing pages from a book.  The arrows at the bottom allows the user to change pages.  The user can also drag their mouse across the page to flip pages (similarly using a finger on a mobile device).  The scroll bar at the bottom allows the user to gradually switch from the original imaged text to the transcribed/translated text associated with each page.

Figure 4. The book previewer showing a page of a book.  The user has moved the scroll bar to the middle causing the previewer to render the transcribed text transparently over the original text.


Figure 5. The book previewer showing a page of a book.  The user has moved the scroll bar to the middle causing the previewer to render the transcribed text transparently over the original text.  The user has further zoomed in and translated to focus on the top portion of the page.














Report on Design Progress

December 31, 2013



Role of Design


The SheBooks team views design as critical to the overall success of the project. Beyond merely providing an aesthetically pleasing interface to the content of SheBooks, the team has identified three design goals for the project:


  1. Develop an effective framework for curating a “virtual visit to the vault.”
  2. Leverage open standards-based and emerging publishing platforms.
  3. Mediate the relationships readers/viewers cultivate with our content by providing opportunities for critical engagement.



Early Developments



Sample initial wireframes and mock-ups of the SheBooks interface.


Prior to the start of 2013, the design team produced initial wireframes and mock-ups of the SheBooks interface. These visuals proved to be useful in sketching out desired functional and interactive elements, and also paved the way for the development of an initial prototype at the end of 2012.



Screenshots from initial SheBooks prototype.

This initial prototype was used to obtain the support of the University of Illinois Press in submitting a proposal for an IMLS grant, and was intended to serve as a platform for moving forward with SheBooks development.



Innovation Fund Progress


Receipt of the IMLS grant the SheBooks team applied for would have allowed for significant progress in both refining the design of the existing functional SheBooks prototype and implementing those refinements as part of the front-end of the Medici content management system previewer. As our platform is targeted for use on tablets (the iPad, in particular), an added challenge that presented itself during the Innovation Fund period was Apple’s release of iOS 7, which included a radically new interface paradigm that must be reflected in SheBooks.


Our receipt of the Innovation Fund, however, has so far allowed the team to fully analyze our existing design and propose refinements in the form of new wireframes and mock-ups. Under the direction of co-PI Brad Tober, senior graphic design students Lauren Blackburn and Evan Jarzynski contributed to proposing these refinements, with the objective of more appropriately addressing the three design goals previously identified in this report.



Sample wireframes and mock-ups produced during the Innovation Fund period thus far.

Implementation of these refinements into a functional front-end to Medici is currently in progress.



Sample aesthetic explorations produced during the Innovation Fund period thus far.


Early screenshot of new functional front-end.



Upcoming milestones


The SheBooks team looks forward to continuing the implementation of design refinements in a new version of a functional front-end in the first several weeks of 2014. We then expect to be able to incorporate these changes into the ongoing development with Medici shortly thereafter.