ARC partner sites leverage Collex for shared search index

NINES home page18thConnect Home Page





After being in use for the NINES site since 2006, Collex has also been implemented on the eighteenth-century studies partner site to NINES, 18thConnect. These two sites, and other nodes yet to come online, will form a larger entity of scholars interested in federating digital objects called ARC. Thanks to this group, supported by the Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media and Culture (IDHMC) at Texas A&M University, development on Collex will continue and expand, based upon the needs of contributing partner sites.

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New code repository for Collex

If you are interested in an anonymous checkout of Collex, the new repository can be found at


We have worked to generalize the tool so that you can install a more generic version, without NINES-specific information. Please direct questions to technologies at nines dot org.

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The Collex Name Browser


NINES has been investigating new ways to facilitate browsing in the Collex interface, resulting in a new, experimental feature, the name browser, as a way to target authors, editors and publishers associated with a set of results.

Once a user has begun a search, the new browser will be offered below the constraints table. Opening this feature sends another query to the NINES index, returning names as they were contributed by the NINES partner sites in their metadata.


Clicking on any one of the names in this list will add a new facet to your search, allowing you to target the more relevant items. And since name contributions to NINES are not rigorously standardized, the new name browser exposes variations to users, allowing them to consider objects that are similar, but differ in terms of markup.

Since the majority of searches within NINES will return large numbers of objects, a full name browser dialog can be opened from this screen, in case the user prefers an exhaustive name search.

Since this feature is very new, and still under development, we would appreciate any and all feedback from our users!




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New feature: footnotes

After the most recent wave of Exhibit Builder development in Collex, the NINES development team experimented with a number of exhibit types, including annotated bibliographies, essays, presentations, and thematic tours of our partner sites. In doing so, we determined that footnotes were a crucial feature of academic argument, and required even outside the confines of the codex.

Hyperlinks often serve the purpose of footnotes in online publishing, precisely because they allow an author to direct the reader to a full resource instead of a mere citation. However useful, links cannot fully supplant the discursive footnote or endnote, in which the author is able to cite a reference and also provide additional information about those sources outside of the main body of the text. Collex now allows users to add footnotes to their documents in Exhibit Builder, which can be read precisely where they are placed in the text (by pop-up dialogs) or as endnotes.

From the text editor, simply choose the the icon with the asterix under ‘Insert Item’ to create a footnote. Once you’ve finished, you’ll be taken back to your original section. Only after you submit the changes to that section will Exhibit Builder number the notes for you. This way, wherever you insert a note, the software will re-number the list for you.

Once you’ve added a note, your document will automatically add an endnotes page, seen here as a diamond. If you decide to print out your exhibit, the notes will be printed on the final page, along with a comprehensive list of links used in your work as well.

As always your feedback is greatly appreciated!

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New and improved exhibit setup

The development team at NINES has been investigating ways to make the Collex exhibit building process easier and more streamlined. We’ve come up with a new Exhibit Wizard to guide each user through the creation of a new exhibit.

From your My 9s page, just click the link to “Create a New Exhibit” from the column on the right. Collex will then ask you for the title of the new exhibit.

The next step is to choose your resources from a list of your collected objects. Gone are the days when you had to toggle back to the ‘Search’ and ‘My 9s’ page before you could associate objects with a new exhibit!

Once you’ve personalized your exhibit with your own durable URL or thumbnail, you’ll be taken to the exhibit editing page which has gotten a facelift of its own.

Editing mode looks more like the Preview mode, to give users a better sense of the finished product as they author their exhibits. Hovering over a section will bring up the editing toolbar, where you’ll find all the options you’ll need to polish your presentation.

As always, we appreciate your feedback! Please contact us at inquiries [at] nines [dot] org or join the Collex dev list to let us know what you think!

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Collex Redesign Preview

As the NINES R&D team scrambles to complete as many last-minute bug-fixes and refinements as possible before our December 18th launch date, I thought it would be a good time for a preview of what’s to come. For those of you who are regular users of the NINES Collex interface, things are going to change a good deal over the next month.

On the new homepage, we’ve made the search blank more prominent so that Collex is easier to access. Tabs make navigation a cinch: with one click you can jump to the advanced search page, browse the NINES tag cloud, or read exhibits shared by your peers.

You’ll also notice a new tab: the My 9s page.

If you’ve set up a free account you’ll have full access to this page, which serves as your personal workspace within NINES. Your saved searches will be listed here, as well as your recently collected objects and a tag cloud showing your tags only. Currently, the profile will be visible only to you, but if you provide a link to your web page or CV, we’ll make sure that it’s listed with your shared exhibits.

The My 9s page is also the gateway to the Collex Exhibit Builder, which has been refined and re-designed based on your feedback.

In editing mode, you have the option of three section templates to arrange your text and illustrations. An outline pop-up helps you stay organized, even when your exhibit spans several pages, and the new resource palette makes linking to material outside of NINES much easier. I recommend that anyone interested in making an exhibit browse those available with the new release to get a sense of the range of the software.

It’s a busy and exciting time for us, and we welcome your comments!

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The case for structured data


As the number of projects contributing to NINES grows, more and more I find myself answering questions about structured data. Why XML?  How does one choose between formats like that of the Text Encoding Initiative and other databases?

These are good questions, and can be hard to answer without using even more acronyms and alienating technical terminology. Recently, however, text-encoding guru Julia Flanders addressed the topic of XML and databases on the TEI encoding seminar series discussion list. Her answer is one of the most informative and eloquent presentations of the topic I’ve seen, and with her permission I’ve posted an excerpt here.

“I should…say in advance (before anyone reads the more detailed screed below) that we’re teaching XML and TEI for a reason, which is that they help us work with text in a way that respects both its nuance and our own interest in that nuance. So my own personal recommendation for representing textual information is to use XML on principle, because (regardless of what tools are available right now) in the long run it’s the right kind of approach. However, it’s worth understanding the broader context, which I will try to sketch below.

The short theoretical answer to your question is that at a deep level, both XML and databases are doing the same thing: they are representing the structure of your information. Both of them can do essentially the same work of representing the individual comment entries, the names and addresses of the commenters, their gender, etc. In a sense, both the database format and the XML format are really just expressions of a deeper and more abstract data model that is conveyed when we say things like:

–”a comment is made by an individual who has a name, address and gender”

–”a comment contains text”

–”a comment may contain information about other exhibits attended by this individual”

etc. etc.

Database tools and XML tools differ in the kinds of things they’re good at (and this is where the readings may come in handy, to give concreteness to this point). In addition, database structures and XML structures differ somewhat in their emphasis: database structures emphasize what is regular and predictable about your data (e.g. the fact that every individual commenter has a name, address, and gender). XML structures emphasize what is less regular and predictable about your data (e.g. the fact that the comment might or might not include praise for the exhibit, references to other exhibits, references to specific artists of interest, statements about being inspired, etc., and also the fact that the comment might contain an unpredictable number of paragraphs). For your data, which has a fairly regular and predictable structure, the difference is comparatively minor. For other kinds of data, though, the difference might be great: it would be much more difficult and bizarre to express the structure of a novel using a database.”

Julia goes on to describe the practical aspects of using databases and/or XML to store your content. In the end, each project is different and the decision ultimately boils down to the kinds of data you’re working with and the questions you pose. But it is crucial that scholars familiarize themselves with the technical aspects of digital scholarship, not just for the success of their projects, but also for their sustainability.

Further reading: Ronald Bourret, “XML and Databases” and “Going Native: Use cases for native XML databases

Thanks, Julia!



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Usability Testing for Collex

During the 2008 NINES Summer Workshop we put Collex to the test – a usability test. As we plan for the redesign and official release of Collex in December 2008, the NINES tech team decided it was time to get some honest feedback from users unfamiliar with Collex. Thanks to Dr. Laura Mandell, Associate Director of NINES and organizatrix extraordinaire, we were allowed access to the eye-tracking software in the Usability Lab at Miami University, Ohio. We had 5 participants complete three tasks – search, collect and create an exhibit (Illustrated Essay). The results were painfully informative, and we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. But that feedback will go into making a more powerful – and more intuitive – Collex.

Task: Use Collex to find objects associated with John Keats

This image shows the activity of the user’s eyes when looking at the homepage. Green indicates a quick glance, while red areas show the places where the user’s gaze rested for longer durations.

As you can see, it’s tough to get to Collex from the shortcut is obscured by all the text on the page, and people are more inclined to use the main navigation bar. Notice how this user looked directly at the “Try Collex Now” link, and still did not notice it.

The NINES redesign will improve this by providing a search blank on the homepage, immediately communicating the function and purpose of the site and encouraging its use.

This image shows the user’s eye movements while collecting objects from the search results. The “x” marks indicate where the person clicked the mouse button while completing the activity. Although every single user tested had trouble finding the log-in area, the action of collecting went smoothly overall.

The shift to the Exhibit Builder proved difficult, however, mostly due to problems with Collex and Internet Explorer. No one was able to finish an essay during the study, unfortunately, because browser incompatibilty.

Here’s a final screenshot of a user reading the Exhibit Builder page:

In the redesigned Collex, the Exhibit Builder menus will be more prominently displayed. Text will also be rendered much larger, to make skimming easier and more productive.

Many thanks to Miami University for making this study possible!

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“a scholar’s guide”

A quick (and tardy) note here to say that an article I wrote last year, describing the NINES instance of Collex, has been published: “A Scholar’s Guide to Research, Collaboration, and Publication in NINES”. I had a little fun with self-reflexivity when writing it — knowing that it would appear in NINES — and it’s also notable because it’s part of the first issue of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net — a shift in that seminal electronic journal’s focus brought about in no small part because of the work of NINES.

But, mainly, it’s the Collex “missing manual.”

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Open-Source Collex (at last!)

***UPDATE***   The NINES source code repository has moved. It can now be found at



ARP is pleased to announce that Collex, the social software and knowledge discovery tool powering the NINES federation of scholarly resources, is officially open source! We’ve been sharing and collaborating on a small scale with other programmers for some time, but have now made our Collex codebase available for anonymous download at:

To communicate with other Collex developers, please subscribe to our email list, here:

You can see Collex installed and in action in the Mellon-funded NINES project, a federation of some 184,000 digital objects from 40 contributing sources: projects, libraries, journals, and publishers of 19th-century literary and cultural material. Collex also powers Finding the Celtic a newly-founded collaboratory for Celtic Studies, funded by the NEH.

Collex source code is shared under the Apache Software License 2.0.

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