“Finding Our Place in the Cosmos”

Finding Our Place in the Cosmos” is a digital collection from the Library of Congress. The collection features items from the papers of Carl Sagan, while contextualizing his work in the history of the study of the universe. The digital collection is divided into three exhibit sections, as well as a full listing of each collection item included in the interpretation.

The first section, “The Cosmos: Its Structure and Historical Models,” follows the history of astronomy from ancient Greece to modern times. “Life on Other Worlds” follows, exhibiting science fiction materials to analyze how “we” (the language in this exhibit is always about telling “our” story) have imagined life beyond Earth. Finally, “Carl Sagan and the Tradition of Science” focuses on Sagan’s life and work within a context of the history of science.

The collection presents its goals right on the front page. Not only do the creators seek to contextualize materials from Carl Sagan’s papers in a wider historical context, but they also want to demonstrate the diversity of materials within the LOC’s holdings, and to encourage their audience to directly engage with primary sources.

The description notes that the exhibit is designed so that visitors can follow their own path through the material, and this true for both the exhibit content and how they choose to interact with the digital items. From the main page, you can click to the three main exhibit sections (under “Articles and Essays”) or go straight to the archival materials (under “Collection Items”). Viewing an item through “Collection Items” takes you to a metadata page – it’s interesting that visitors can see the materials in this collection both with interpretation in the exhibit itself and without interpretation on the item page (though this does have a link to the item’s location within the exhibit). The main page also has a “Featured Content” section with links to selected sources. It’s worth noting that, as far as I can tell, all of the materials presented in this exhibit are digitized forms of the original items rather than born-digital materials.

A sidebar menu shows each section and subsection that makes up the exhibit

Visitors can also take their own path through the exhibit content, using a menu on the side that outlines each main section and subsection. One of the most interesting sections to me was “Sagan’s Thinking and Writing Process,” which features drafts of Sagan’s writings – such as a list of textbook ideas written on the back of an envelope. It’s a good opportunity to play around with the document viewer – I found it to be very intuitive, if somewhat hard on my computer!

Finally, the collection includes teaching and “expert” resources. The teaching resources include sets of primary sources and suggestions for lesson plans on both learning the exhibit’s content and how to work with primary sources. Expert resources include links to the finding aids for Sagan’s papers, research guides for archaeoastronomy and extraterrestrial life, a lecture series, and interviews.

This site takes a really interesting approach of encouraging visitors to engage both with the exhibit interpretation and directly with the primary sources on their own, within the same digital space. There is a lot of information to consume, but having visitors choose their own path through the material and encouraging them to follow a tangent to look at individual items more closely seems to encourage deeper engagement with that information. If you’re just interested in Carl Sagan’s work you can skip ahead to his section, or if you want a broader history of science fiction pop culture you can start off there. It’s overall goal however is to put these topics and the individual sources into a larger context of the history of science and astronomy.

3 Replies to ““Finding Our Place in the Cosmos””

  1. Hi Kimberly, thanks for your post! I spent more time than I probably had available to wander through the ins and outs of this digital collection–it’s a super interesting (if almost elementary) concept to tie objects and themes of one collection to another. Indeed, this has been largely the intended impact of subject headings and other metadata in cataloguing. However, what this collection does is a next-level curation of LOC collections/objects/materials to weave them together in narrative fashion. Perhaps it’s because it reminds me so much of what historians try to do in their written work (bringing together lots of sources into a new narrative), or because of the fun objects that were tied to Sagan’s collection–I very quickly found myself on a page discussing UFOs as contemporary folklore and connections to popular culture of the 20th century–but I really appreciated this style of digital engagement. That being said, I think the level of curation required to put together something of this nature is HIGH, and no doubt limits the number of institutions who have the time/personpower to curate it.

    1. Thanks Carmen! The more time I spent wandering through this exhibit, the more I too realized the amount of effort that the project must have required. That kind of energy certainly isn’t accessible for every institution – the LOC likely benefited both from having items already digitized as well as having staff members dedicated to working with these digital materials, plus having good support from contributing institutions.
      Your point about the narrative structure is really interesting, and brings up a question I was pondering. Why does this collection call itself a “collection” and not an “exhibit”? Perhaps because of its emphasis on interacting with those individual objects, but the strength of the narrative both within and between sections points more to an exhibit. Maybe this is too nitpicky, but it seems like an intentional choice.

  2. Great walk through of the online collection and great to see discussion kicking off on some interesting threads.

    To Kimberly’s question, for LC something being an exhibition functionally means that it was mounted as an exhibit in physical space. So the online exhibits tend to be virtual presentations of the physical exhibits. With that noted, over time various projects have had a lot of supplemental interpretive material like this. It’s varied widely, but some of those can end up as extensive as this.

    If anyone is curious, here is more about some of the background on how it came together and some of it’s objectives http://www.trevorowens.org/2014/02/a-draft-style-guide-for-digital-collection-hypertexts/

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