DxD: Differentiate by Design No. 2 "Interdisciplinary Innovation"

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Profiles in Design


Anthony Cocciolo, assistant professor, Information and Library Science, is a digital archivist and researcher who helps individuals and communities access their past and preserve their present. That means he is involved in the important (but not always understood) task of saving current digital assets (e.g., born digital films, videos, websites, mobile apps, or email correspondence) that are of enduring value but not captured well on paper. Cocciolo, who considers himself a meld of old-fashioned historian and geek, has always been interested in how computing can expand what people know, how they know it, and what they can do with it. An example is an innovative open-source software platform he developed with Debbie Rabina of the School of Information and Library Science (SILS) and a colleague from GoetheInstitut. The first use of this software, GeoStoryteller, was the creation of German Traces NYC, which uses a phone app to let users view archival materials, from documents to photos, coupled with multimedia narratives. (Code from GeoStoryteller appears on the cover.) Now, the open source software has been adapted by a number of other organizations from Ride NYC to German Jewish New York. Pratt, which offers an Archives Certificate Program that can be taken as part of the master’s degree in the SILS, is one of several schools in the area offering such programs. Cocciolo says, though, that Pratt’s emphasis on leading edge technology makes it a standout. Pratt is also active in the Library of Congress National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA), along with two other local institutions, Columbia and New York University. NDSA gave its first innovation award to Cocciolo in 2012 for his pioneering methods in teaching digital preservation. Part of that approach is engaging students in real-world situations. “I pair my classes with cultural heritage institutions to complete digital archiving projects. The students learn about digital archiving in a realistic context, and the partner institution gets a tangible project at the end of the class,” says Cocciolo.

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He is also an advocate of the interdisciplinary approach for the optimal education. For the past three years, he has shared class sessions with a colleague from graduate Architecture, Adjunct Associate Professor Carla Leitão. The goal: for students to think about the intersections of space and information and develop practical applications. A current project, springing from a study of how mobile phones are used at the National 9/11 memorial, involves using mobile phones as a learning tool. The study found that “individuals . . . perceived that the mobile technology enhanced the memory and remembrance functions of the memorial. This is largely the result of having access to the curated oral histories or stories available on an app.”

Saving the Ephemeral Present

While some experts may worry that the digital age has led to depersonalization, Cocciolo would disagree: “I think some recent research has pointed out that history is very useful in helping people construct meaningful narratives where they can see how their actions and lives are situated within a larger continuum of human activity.” He adds, “History and archives are going to be essential tools for reflection and meditation on the meaning of one’s life.” To his mind, innovative uses of technology will allow more people to access this critical element of self-understanding.

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