Spotlight: Shanti Interactive


If you’re looking for tools that will help you create web-based visualizations, images or maps, Shanti Interactive may have exactly what you need. Shanti Interactive, a suite of tools made available from the University of Virginia’s Sciences, Humanities & Arts Network of Technological Initiatives (SHANTI), is free to use and a helpful resource for individuals seeking to show their data visually.

The Shanti Interactive suite includes five programs: Qmedia, SHIVA, MapScholar, VisualEyes, and VisualEyes 5. Qmedia creates instructional and scholarly videos. SHIVA creates “data-driven visualizations,” such as charts, graphs, maps, image montages and timelines. MapScholar creates geospatial visualizations while VisualEyes — arguably the most well-known tool from the suite — creates historic visualizations by weaving images, maps, charts, video and data into online exhibits. While we could write an entire post on each member of the suite (and maybe someday we will), I will quickly go over some of the main functions of the Shanti Interactive suite.


A screenshot of QMedia's demo video.

A screenshot of Qmedia’s live demo.

Qmedia creates an interactive video experience. The screen is broken up into various, customizable boxes, which the user can then interact with. In its own words, Qmedia “delineraizes” the video, allowing it to be scanned. Tools in Qmedia include table of contents, clickable, searchable transcripts, graphical concept maps, images, live maps, interactive visualizations, web apps and websites! While this list can be a little overwhelming, you can see the incredible results with Qmedia’s live demo.


SHIVA's timeline capability.

SHIVA’s timeline capability.

Think of SHIVA as a multi-faceted data visualization tool. It can create charts, maps, timelines, videos, images, graphs, subway maps, word clouds as well as plain text. SHIVA works with open source and open access web tools, such as Google’s Visualization Toolkit and Maps, YouTube, and Flickr. When a user inputs data, they do so through Google Docs. One fantastic feature in SHIVA is the ability to add on layers of annotations onto your data. For more on SHIVA’s capabilities and partners, see the SHIVA about page.


MapScholar is a great tool for creating what they call digital “atlases,” allowing scholars to use historic maps to compare and contrast how different areas have been depicted by mapmakers through time. For example, here is the base map on the eastern United States:

And here is that map overlayed with a Native American map from 1721:

VisualEyes and VisualEyes 5

VisualEyes is a multi-faceted online exhibit toolkit, which helps create interactive websites to display data. There are two versions: Flash-based VisualEyes, and HTML5-based VisualEyes 5, which is recommended. In many ways, VisualEyes is a combination of the rest of the suite’s tools, providing a platform for some incredible integration of sources. VisualEyes’ current example is a tour of Thomas Jefferson’s life (as the program was created at the University of Virginia), and worth a look if you’re interested in the program’s capabilities! It is far more interactive than one screengrab can communicate.

This project includes historic and modern maps, a timeline, and text, which all work together to create the story of Thomas Jefferson’s life.

Shanti Interactive includes diverse, free resources that can transform the way that you present your data to the world. If you need help getting started, or want to brainstorm ideas, stop by the Scholarly Commons and we’ll have someone ready to chat!

Annotating Images with Thinglink

Thinglink is a web-based interface that allows users to annotate photos with words, links, and other media in order to create interactive experiences. It can be used in a variety of ways, but here we’ll showcase how you can use Thinglink to make static images come alive. These techniques can be used for classes or assignments, and can help students and participants contextualize images with links and information provided by their teacher. Including everything from fun facts to links to academic articles can make an image come alive, and brighten up your lesson plans.

For Thinglink’s basic package, you don’t have to pay, but you do have to create an account. Once you do, you can either go through their tutorials, or get started with your own image. I’ve chosen Diego Velázquez‘s 1656 painting Las Meninas to use as my example. Adding content is simple — just click on the area you’d like to tag and adding your content in the left side bar.


The initial set-up with no tags.


Adding my caption for the Infant Margaret Theresa of Spain.

Unfortunately, the free package doesn’t allow you much customization as far as styling goes, so you will have the big white dots as tags. That being said, in the final image, the dots will not appear unless the user has their cursor on the actual image. However, you still want to be careful not to entirely cover up the important part of your image that you’re talking about, because you won’t be able to see them when the tag appears.

These tags can include links, text — even videos and videos! In my photo, I’m including the link to an influential article about Las Meninas, and explaining why a certain part of the picture corresponds to that article.

Including links to articles with ideas from their authors allows the user to showcase a number of different views in one image.

Including links to articles with ideas from their authors allows the user to showcase a number of different views in one image.

In this section, I’m adding a YouTube video that can be played through the annotation, simply by adding the URL to the video. If you’re having trouble finding multimedia that you’d like to share, you can search in the upper right search box and Thinglink will provide you with suggestions ranging from YouTube Videos to Amazon books and everything in between.

Adding multimedia can add depth to your analysis.

Adding multimedia can add depth to your analysis.

My search for Las Meninas content.

My search for Las Meninas content.

When you’re done, simply press ‘Save Image’ and it will direct you to a permalink for your new, tagged image!

Have questions about images and how you can incorporate them into your work? Email Visual Resources and Outreach Specialist Sarah Christensen or visit the Scholarly Commons, open Monday through Friday, 9am-6pm.

Learning to Make Documents Accessible with OCR Software

Photo via

Accessibility in the digital age can be difficult for people to understand, especially given the sheer amount of ways to present information on the computer. However, creating content that is accessible to all individuals should be a priority for researchers. Creating accessible documents is an easy process, and the Scholarly Commons has the software you need to make that happen.

Optical character recognition software (otherwise known as OCR) has the ability to convert scanned documents, PDF documents, and image documents into editable and searchable documents. Documents that have gone through OCR software can then be recognized by, and read through screen reader software. Screen readers are tools oftentimes used by those with visual impairments; they convert textual content into ‘synthesized’ speech, which is then read aloud to the user.

One trick to see whether or not a digital document is accessible is to try to highlight a line of text and then copy-paste it into another document. If you can successfully do that, your document is ready to be read by a screen reader. If you cannot highlight a single line of text and/or copy-paste it, you may want to consider putting your document through OCR software. However, if you have a “protected” PDF, you will not be able to reformat the document for accessibility.

OCR readers can read more than just digital documents – they are powerful tools that can also perform their function on scanned documents, either typed or handwritten. That is not to say that they are infallible, however. OCR software may have difficulties reading documents created before 1850, and may not always be 100% accurate. The user must be vigilant to make sure that mistakes don’t creep their way into the final product.

The Scholarly Commons is outfitted with two OCR programs: ABBY FineReader, and Adobe Acrobat. To read more on the specifics of each software, see the ABBY FineReader LibGuide or Adobe Acrobat’s Guide to OCR. There are also numerous options online for PDF readers online — look around and find the option that works best for you. Just a little time with this user-friendly software can make not only your research accessible, but to make the world a little more accessible as a whole.

Collaborative Annotation Tools

With these tools, there will be no need for your colleagues to hover over your shoulder while you annotate!

With these tools, there will be no need for your colleagues to hover over your shoulder while you annotate! (via

Collaboration in the digital world can be awkward and confusing, especially when it comes to talking about sources. Emails with questions get lost or forgotten and Google Docs comments can be accidentally resolved before their time. Further, finding the right tool for you and your colleagues to communicate can be time-consuming, especially when deadlines loom. To help you get started in finding a tool that works for you, we have compiled a list of four free collaborative annotation tools that may help you get started!

  • A.nnotate
    • A.nnotate is probably the most straightforward of these platforms. You invite colleagues to an online document through an emailed link. From there, you and your colleagues write annotations that you can reply to and tag. Further, A.nnotate automatically creates an index listing the text selected in each document, along with comments and tags, allowing users to read what their colleagues are saying without necessarily having to scroll through specific documents. Users can also choose to receive email notifications when a change is made to a collaborative document.
  • DocumentCloud
    • Initially created for journalists, DocumentCloud is a great tool for annotating and finding primary source materials. Your annotations can be either public or private, and each has a unique URL that you can either share, or keep to yourself. DocumentCloud is open source, and already holds over one million public documents that you can use for your research or reporting. Because it is set up for journalists, DocumentCloud has a wide online reach, meaning that your primary sources and thoughts can be made available to the public at large.
  • eLaborate
    • Aimed towards academic scholars, eLaborate allows users to scan manuscripts or printed books, create annotations for them, edit them, and publish them online. Similarly to DocumentCloud, its primary purpose is to annotate primary documents, and to store them. Unlike DocumentCloud, eLaborate focuses on the digitization and preservation of these online documents, and creating a space where scholars can share them with one another. To see eLaborate in action, you can look at the Rembrandt Documents Project, which uses eLaborate as its platform.
  • NB
    • Created with teaching in mind, NB is a multi-dimensional platform that allows you to highlight text and make notes in a collaborative setting. However, the best part of NB comes from its additional capabilities. For example, you can create a question regarding a certain part of the text, which your colleagues can answer. Further, if members of your group mark certain spots with question marks, the program notes it, and allows you to focus on confusing aspects of the document. While it was created as a teaching tool, these capabilities can be easily transferred to academic research.

Have you used an annotation tool that you love? Let us know in the comments! Still looking for the perfect collaborative annotation tool, or have some cash to spend on some software? Check out DiRT Directory’s list of annotation tools.

If you have further questions about collaborative annotation tools, or any other technological tools that may aid you in your online research process, feel free to email us or stop by the Scholarly Commons, open 9am-6pm on weekdays.

Digital Preservation and the Power of Markdown

My markdown file in Notepad++.

My markdown file in Notepad++.

Many of us tend to think of digital documents as everlasting, and don’t put a whole lot of thought into how we’ll access our Word documents ten years from now. However, digital documentation tends to become obsolete within five years — as compared to a book, which lasts thousands, or microfilm, which lasts five hundred — and needs to be constantly refreshed. If you’re someone who is paranoid about losing your work, or who knows that they won’t remember to convert their documents every few years, saving important documents in markdown can be an easy way to ensure that you never lose the digitally-born documents that are most important to you.

There are a number of places to learn how to write in markdown. For example, you can take a look at our quick and easy guide to the basics of markdown, but that’s just one of many markdown language cheat sheets.

Write your document in a text editor — make sure that it’s in plain text mode, especially if you’re working with TextEdit — and save it as a .txt file. That .txt file can then be converted into other files with the styling in tact. To convert, you will probably need to download a specific piece of software. Most of us at the University of Illinois iSchool use Pandoc, but there are alternatives, if you’re interested. Using Pandoc and your command line interface, you can then convert your markdown file into whatever kind of file you need, whether that’s html, docx, pdf, or some future kind of file that we haven’t even heard of yet.

The input I put into Command Prompt in order to have Pandoc convert my document from .txt to .html.

The input I put into Command Prompt in order to have Pandoc convert my document from .txt to .html.

My file as an HTML file, viewed on Internet Explorer.

My file as an HTML file, viewed on Internet Explorer.

While this may seem like a lot of work today, it’s helpful to remember that you’re doing this for the you of tomorrow. Important research, dissertations, or even love letters can get corrupted, lost, or just become obsolete. Saving things in markdown allows you a safer route to long-term preservation in an uncertain digital world.

Scanning Woes: Best Practice Scanning Tips

As a researcher and student, I can attest to the frustration that scanning and digitizing documents often present.  Some of the most frustrating documents I have ever scanned were music scores from my undergraduate career. Before a recital, concert, or my finals, I would often have to copy or scan my music to be digitally sent or copied.  However, due to “creative” music publishers, my music was often over-sized, strange fonts, and extremely difficult to scan.  While I am no longer scanning music multiple times a month, I still experience many of these same scanning woes as a researcher and student and see many of my patrons struggle with the same dilemmas for their research.


Photo available through CC: Flickr Mikhail Kryshen

It often seems like turning a piece of paper into a PDF should be an easy task that only takes a few minutes to produce a nice, clear, and clean digital document that you can put into your computer.  While this is sometimes the case, more often than not, they are tricky.  The next time you are faced with a daunting scanning project or need digital copies of everything you are using for your dissertation, consider some “best practice” scanning techniques to make the task easier.


  • What color is your document?
    • Grayscale—this is best for OCR software, but can create large files
    • Color—only scan in color when absolutely necessary due to large files that may be difficult to save
    • Black & White—Great for everything else due to versatility and file size
  • What quality or resolution do you need your document to be?
    • 200 dpi—equal to a “high” fax quality
    • 300 dpi – is best for most things (creates a clear, usable image with a easily managed file size)
    • 600 dpi—This is typically more than needed unless scanning small text or photographs (large file size)
  • What brightness does your document need?
    • Start with your brightness at 50%
    • Adjust in either direction if the scan is too dark or light
  • Straightness is important
    • Helps create a clear and easy to read scan
    • Especially important for OCR software to read document

Dan Cohen Talk: “What can you do with the Digital Public Library of America?”

Dan_CohenThe Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is close to two years old, and contains millions of books, manuscripts, photographs, maps, works of art, and audiovisual material, all of it freely available from over a thousand partner libraries, archives, and museums. DPLA executive director Dan Cohen will be giving a talk that explores how you can make discoveries in the massive collection using DPLA’s innovative search tools, such as its map interface. In addition, he will provide a deeper look at the data underlying modern libraries and how this data can enable transformative uses of our shared cultural heritage.

Date: February 24, 2015
Time: 4:00pm
Location: 126 Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS)
501 E. Daniel St., Champaign

About the Speaker:
Dan Cohen is the founding Executive Director of the Digital Public Library of America. Until 2013, Cohen was a Professor of History in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University and the Director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. His personal research has been in digital humanities, broadly constructed: the impact of new media and technology on all aspects of knowledge, from the nature of digitized resources to twenty-first century research techniques and software tools to the changing landscape of communication and publication. At the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media he oversaw projects ranging from PressForward to the September 11 Digital Archive to the popular Zotero research tool. He received his bachelor’s degree from Princeton, a master’s from Harvard, and his doctorate from Yale.

Cohen is the inaugural recipient of the American Council of Learned Societies’ Digital Innovation Fellowship. In 2011, he received the Frederick G. Kilgour Award from the American Library Association for his work in digital humanities. In 2012, he was named one of the top “tech innovators” in academia by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

He is the co-author of Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), author of Equations from God: Pure Mathematics and Victorian Faith (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), and co-editor of Hacking the Academy (University of Michigan Press, 2012). He has published articles and book chapters on new media, the history of mathematics and religion, the teaching of history, scholarly communication, and the future of the humanities in a digital age in esteemed journals and his work has been featured frequently in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Times Higher Education.

This event is free and open to the public.

Great Lakes THATCamp 2013

Have an interest in digital humanities and curious about the unconference format? Are you looking for potential digital humanities research collaborators? You might consider attending Great Lakes THATCamp 2013. For those unfamiliar – a THATCamp is a conference driven by participants. Participants take part in schedule creation, and there is an expectation that all participants will contribute to the conference by presenting, discussing, and/or collaborating with other participants. The theme of this particular THATCamp centers around the digital humanities and will likely draw participants from a variety of professional contexts such as campus departments, libraries, and archives. This is a great opportunity to learn about digital humanities and share ideas with colleagues working throughout the region.

The event takes place Saturday, September 28, 9:00AM – 4:30PM at Lawrence Technological University.

Digital Content Creation: Preserving our Culture for the Digital Age

Around the world, libraries have awakened to the need for information to be digitally accessible.  Many have initiated their own digitization project or participated in the projects of others. At Illinois, one of the Scholarly Commons’ partner units, Digital Content Creation, handles much of this digitization. DCC is involved in a huge number of digitization projects often involving unique materials and innovative techniques. Take, for example, their archive of antique instruments from the Sousa collection. The Sousa Archive of American Music is a world-renowned collection of materials relating to the history and culture of music in the United States. The archive contains a collection of musical instruments dating back to 1810, and Digital Content Creation is building a digital collection of images of these instrument in their state of the art studio. These high quality images are made available as both 2D images and fully manipulable 3D digital models. Scholars interested in these instruments now have the ability to examine them as scale models and not just flat images. Digital Content Creation has created and curated dozens of digital collections of images and books often including very rare or hard to digitize items. Their current projects can be viewed on their current imaging projects page.

If you have a digitization project, come see us at the Scholarly Commons. We have two high quality scanners available, and, for larger projects, we can connect you with the experts at Digital Content Creation.