Computers in Libraries
Vol. 20, No. 8 • September 2000
Using a Web Exhibit About the Past to Build a Foundation for the Future
by Jeff Slagell

We wanted to create a digital resource that would not only recognize our university’s anniversary, but that would also draw in the entire community
It’s clear that the world of information will never be the same again. The comfortable niche that libraries once maintained no longer exists. The dot-coms have invaded, and they are armed with discounted books, document delivery, multimedia, and real-time answers at the click of a mouse.

In this competitive environment it’s increasingly important for libraries of all kinds to engage in various means of self-promotion. The community that your library serves needs to be reminded of what you have to offer. If people are aware of your resources then they are more likely to use them. And it’s no secret that increases in patronage help bolster requests for additional financial support. So when I discovered that we at Delta State University were preparing to celebrate our 75th anniversary, I knew that an opportunity had presented itself.

Our Reason for Building
Delta State University is one of the eight public institutions of higher learning in the state of Mississippi. Located in Cleveland, it has a population of over 4,000 students. W. B. Roberts Library serves as the main campus library and has recently undergone a $9 million renovation. In addition, the fall of 1997 saw the completion of the Charles W. Capps, Jr. Archives and Museum Building. These two adjacent facilities provide a wealth of informational resources for both the university and local community. (See Figure 1 and Figure 2.)

As chair of the Web Committee for the Library Services academic unit (which consists of the Roberts Library, the Capps Archive, the Audiovisual Center, and the Instructional Resource Center), I decided that a 75th Anniversary Web Exhibit would be the perfect complement to a variety of other campuswide activities. In addition, I discovered that the university archivist was planning to create a related display for the Capps Archive. This created the possibility of pooling our efforts and promoting our respective departments.

One of the first steps the university took to formalize the events surrounding the celebration was to organize a 75th Anniversary Committee. Its purpose was to oversee events planning and to award funding. Against conventional wisdom, I decided not to request monetary support, as there were several qualified projects already competing for a limited budget. What remained open to us then to complete the task at hand were existing staff and computer resources in Library Services.

We knew the project would be a challenge for us since a variety of other Web Committee projects were already underway, such as a W. B. Roberts Library virtual tour and the redesign of our Web site’s database section. However, we also realized it provided a unique opportunity to showcase our skills and creativity. We maintained four primary goals for the Web exhibit: First was to contribute to the campuswide celebration and reflection of Delta State’s history and influence. Second was to provide a multimedia resource of interest and that would be accessible to the entire community. Third was to promote the newly renovated Roberts Library and the Capps Archive. Finally, we wanted it to act as a catalyst to increase both university and local community interest in Library Services. Through careful planning and a long-range vision, we were able to accomplish these goals. I hope that this account will give you some insight into the demanding yet rewarding process that we followed.

How Do You Lay the Bricks?
One of my fellow committee members once told me that chairing a university committee was similar to herding cats. It can be easy to forget that library faculty always have their primary job responsibilities tugging at their attention as they try to complete committee work. With multiple projects going on at the same time in the Web Committee, it was constantly necessary for us to shuffle resources and to prioritize. We eventually decided that the exhibit should be completed in phases. This fostered a sense of manageability in what, at times, appeared to be an overwhelming task.

The first phase of the project (the one that this article will center on) included photos, letters, textual descriptions, and oral history transcripts from alumni, faculty, and students. All of the resources were categorized under six major subject headings on the Web site’s home page ( Welcome, Academics, History, Student Life, Reflections, and Contact Us. The subject directory structure is a familiar one on the Web, and it allowed us a degree of flexibility as we found interesting materials to add to the exhibit. Each piece could then easily be placed in a specific location within the exhibit’s hierarchy.

The Welcome section contains an introduction to the exhibit and letters of welcome from the current and past presidents of the university. Academics includes areas on departments, faculty and staff, and campus facilities. History presents a timeline, presidential history, and events. Student Life contains sports, organizations, and the local community. Reflections displays transcripts of oral histories and letters. Contact Us is where the user can give us feedback, and this section also provides contact information about contributing items to be included in the exhibit or to be added to the university archive collection.

Getting the Mortar to Set
Once we began the project we found it deceptively easy to agonize over the small details and, at times, to lose sight of the big picture. We lost time as we worried about the style and size of fonts, backgrounds, and page layouts. Eventually we came to realize that simplification is key. Our ultimate goal was to provide an interesting resource for the entire community, not to create a digital masterpiece. After we reminded ourselves of this purpose, it became much easier to focus on what was really important.

“Our ultimate goal was to provide an interesting resource for the entire community, not to create a digital masterpiece.”

Our solution was to create an overlying framework for the entire exhibit that would still provide some flexibility for creativity. We agreed on one font for headings and another for descriptive text, and we used a plain white background to enhance text readability. In addition, we created a general template for pages containing images that also would allow for some unique graphic design.

All of these features were integrated through the use of Macromedia’s Dreamweaver, generally considered one of the top visual editors for creating and managing Web sites. Unfortunately, because of our lack of knowledge with the product, it was sometimes mildly frustrating to work with. These challenges, however, proved useful as the exhibit provided us with a microcosm of practical experience, and we plan to upgrade the entire library Web site with Dreamweaver in the future.

Another aspect directly linked to design was the available technology on both sides of the Internet exchange. All of the advanced features that the Web has to offer don’t mean a great deal to a user frustrated by unavailable software or long download times. Even though the university network had recently been upgraded and campus connections share a T-1 line, the local community’s access certainly wouldn’t have been confused with Silicon Valley’s. Most of our off-campus target audience was limited by 28.8K to 56K bandwidths.

“All of the advanced features that the Web has to offer don’t mean a great deal to a user frustrated by unavailable software or long download times.”
Further complicating matters was the fact that the Library Services Web site ran on an older independent server with limited memory. While it was possible that this access would be upgraded in the future, these technological factors influenced our design and created limitations for the first phase of the project. Participants had to be reminded that audio, video, and other advanced features weren’t feasible at this stage. In addition, we had to pay special attention to image sizes. We attempted to maintain a careful balance between download time and image quality through the use of Adobe Photoshop 5.5 and ImageReady 2.0. Using thumbnails where appropriate and striving not to exceed 40 KB in full-size JPEG images accomplished this balance.

All of the above considerations played significant roles, but none more so than our issues concerning exhibit content. At the beginning of the planning stage, our university archivist accepted a position at another institution. Her assistant was enthusiastic, but was also relatively new to the Capps Archive. This left all of us at a rather steep learning curve to find appropriate and interesting materials for the project. A wealth of Delta State history was housed in the archive, but unfortunately only limited finding aids were available for much of its holdings. Most of our research involved methodically opening box after box—a sometimes frustrating, but remarkably rewarding, process.

Choosing a Cornerstone
From the very beginning we didn’t want our Web exhibit to simply be a rehash of previously seen or printed materials. In 1980, a pictorial history of Delta State University had been published, and the majority of its materials had come from the university archive. Also, a large portion of these same items were being scanned and integrated into a brief presentation for a 75th anniversary convocation by a faculty member. Our desire was to include different material that hadn’t been seen in years, or possibly not at all.

So, the “rare and unusual” became a large concentration of our exhibit. This usually took the form of photographs taken by students or donated by family and friends of the institution. (See Figure 3.) But it also included historic objects such as a piece of the coliseum basketball floor on which national championships had been earned years before and a 1929 athletic club sweater—items that provided a rich view of Delta State’s history for young and old alike.

It’s also the little touches that make a project stand out. For the Introduction section, I devoted a significant amount of time contacting both the current and past Delta State presidents so that they could provide a brief welcome to visitors. A 75th anniversary is a momentous occasion for any institution, so it seemed appropriate that these influential leaders should lend a voice. In addition, visitors would be able to hear other voices in the Reflections section. We included portions of transcribed oral histories that described fascinating people and events. Perhaps one of the more engaging was the revelation that a relatively early American performance of the Von Trapp family (the family on which the cinematic classic The Sound of Music was based) was given at Delta State.

How We Got the News Out
Considering the amount of time and effort we had invested in the exhibit, we were not about to leave its advertising to chance. The campus newspaper was notified, as was the weekly faculty/staff newsletter. In addition, the alumni magazine listed the project’s Web address in a special 75th anniversary issue. We also contacted our Department of Public Information, which then forwarded information to local newspapers, including requests for materials to include in the exhibit itself.

While local awareness was of primary importance in the first phase, latter phases will broaden to a wider audience. We’re achieving this by using metatags on selected pages and submitting the Web site to various subject directories and search engines. Of course an indirect benefit of increases in traffic will be more attention devoted to Library Services, since a direct link to the Web exhibit is on the library Web site and vice versa.

The Past and the Future
The creation of our 75th Anniversary Web Exhibit has been an extremely rewarding experience for the Library Services Web Committee. We have all learned a great deal about organization, design, and the colorful history of Delta State University. More importantly, we fulfilled all of our primary goals and established a permanent resource. These achievements have created a benefit not only for Library Services, but for the entire university and the local community as well.

We have just begun work on the second phase of the exhibit, which will continue to add materials and encourage even greater community participation. We hope that in the future both Delta State and organizations within the community will create more Web exhibits. In either case, Library Services will again have the opportunity to foster partnerships and provide various means of support.

It’s important to remember that sometimes the greatest benefit is not derived from the end result of a project, but in the process of achieving it. We have found that Delta State and its surrounding community have a symbiotic relationship. Moreover, our Web exhibit allowed both sides to learn more about this mutual dependence that has lasted three-quarters of a century.

Web Sites of Interest

Here are some online resources that you may find useful throughout the course of developing your own project.

Scanning Images:
A general overview of digital images and many aspects of the scanning process

Project Checklist:
Provides a detailed outline utilized by the Library of Congress in its National Digital Library Program

Standards and Practices:
A variety of guides made available by the Digital Library Federation (Note especially the digital imaging section.)

General Guidelines

Below are some recommendations based on our experiences for any organization that is planning to create a Web exhibit as a form of community outreach.

  • Design with the lowest common denominator in mind—Streaming video, audio, and other advanced features are wonderful aspects of the Web, but if your primary end-user is unable to take advantage of them, then your efforts could be better spent elsewhere.
  • Involve others that are interested and available to contribute—You never know where assistance in staffing and resources will come from. Take advantage of others’ enthusiasm, and include the community in the process.
  • Be careful to obtain permissions for content—Issues of copyright in a digital environment can be a confusing prospect. Always err on the side of caution because the reputations of both yourself and your institution are at stake.
  • Make people aware of your project—Take advantage of any means available so that people know that your resource is accessible. Try to be as creative in advertising as you are in the creation of your exhibit. 
  • Enjoy your efforts—Once you complete your project, do not simply rush on to the next one. Make time to reflect and take pleasure in everyone’s hard work, formally or informally. You have earned it.

To Contact the Companies

Macromedia, Inc.
(Dreamweaver Web software)
600 Townsend St.
San Francisco, CA 94103

Adobe Systems, Inc.
(Photoshop and ImageReady software)
345 Park Ave.
San Jose, CA 95110-2704

Jeff Slagell is the head of serials/ILL at Delta State University’s W. B. Roberts Library in Cleveland, Mississippi. He received his M.A. in information resources and library science from the University of Arizona. He serves on a variety of committees, and serves as chair of the Library Services Web Committee. Recently he has co-taught a three-credit course through the Computer Information Systems Department entitled Introduction to Microcomputer Applications. His e-mail address is

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