For What It’s Worth: A Review of the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin”

This is what we know: On November 24, 2015, the Wu-Tang Clan sold its latest album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, through an online auction house. As one of the most innovative rap groups, the Wu-Tang Clan had used concepts for their recordings before, but the latest album would be their highest concept: it would exist as only one copy—as an LP, that physical, authentic format for music—encased in an artisanally crafted box. This album would have only one owner, and thus, perhaps, only one listener. By legal agreement, the owner would not be allowed to distribute it commercially until 88 years from now.

Once—note the singularity at the beginning of the album’s title—was purchased for $2 million by Martin Shkreli, a young man who was an unsuccessful hedge fund manager and then an unscrupulous drug company executive. This career arc was more than enough to make him filthy rich by age 30.

Then, in one of 2015’s greatest moments of schadenfreude, especially for those who care about the widespread availability of quality healthcare and hip hop, Shkreli was arrested by the FBI for fraud. Alas, the FBI left Once Upon a Time in Shaolin in Shkreli’s New York apartment.

Presumably, the album continues to sit there, in the shadows, unplayed. It may very well gather dust for some time.

This has made many people unhappy, and some have hatched schemes to retrieve Once, ideally using the martial arts the Shaolin monks are known for. But our obsession with possessing the album has prevented us from contemplating the nature of the album—its existence—which is what the Buddhists of Shaolin would, after all, prefer us to do.

RZA, the leader of the Wu-Tang Clan, had tried to forewarn us. As he told Forbes, “We’re about to put out a piece of art like nobody else has done in the history of music…This is like someone having the scepter of an Egyptian king.”

Many have sought ways that the public might listen to Once, but few have taken RZA at his word. What if Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is meant primarily as art, as a precious artifact that only one person, like a king, can hold? And if we consider this question, do we really need to listen to the album to hear what it’s saying?

*          *          *

In 1995, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei took an ancient, priceless Han Dynasty vase and dropped it onto a brick floor. It instantly shattered. He took a series of high-speed photographs of the vase drop, which he assembled into a triptych; in the middle photograph the vase seems like it’s in a levitating, suspended state. It exists, but it is milliseconds from not existing. It is forever there, whole, and yet we know it is forever in pieces.


He shouldn’t have destroyed that singular vase, you may be thinking. You must think more deeply, and enter the Shaolin temple of your mind.

*          *          *

In the old mill town of North Adams, Massachusetts, a cluster of nineteenth-century factory buildings has been converted into the largest museum of contemporary art in the United States: Mass MoCA. One entire building, from top to bottom, is dedicated to the work of Sol LeWitt.

Sol LeWitt is an unusual artist in that he rarely painted, drew, or sculpted the art you see by him. Instead, he wrote out instructions for artwork, and then left it to “constructors”—often art students, museum curators, or others, to do the actual work of fabrication. LeWitt liked to be a recipe writer, not a chef.

“Wall Drawing 1180: Within a circle draw 10,000 straight black lines and 10,000 black not straight lines. All lines are randomly spaced and equally distributed.”

Somehow, incredibly, this ends up looking like a massive picture from the Hubble Telescope: an infinite field of stars emerges after weeks of drawing thousands of squiggly and straight lines with a pencil.


Sixty-five art students and artists, none of them Sol LeWitt, made the Sol LeWitt exhibit, and it is one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see. The patterns, the colors, the way that LeWitt’s often deceptively simple recipes result in a sumptuous banquet for the eyes, is remarkable.

But the exhibit will only last for 25 years—eight of which have already ticked by—after which the museum will paint over all of the art. Touring the exhibit, you can’t help but think about this endtime: All of this beauty, and yet on some Monday morning in the not-really-that-distant future some guy with a 5-gallon bucket of white paint from Home Depot and a wide roller brush on the end of a long wood handle will cover those walls forever. Will he sigh before making the first stroke?

Until that Monday morning in 2033, the Sol LeWitt exhibit exists. You have 17 years remaining, but time moves more quickly than we like, doesn’t it? I have told you to see it, but will you make the trip to North Adams? Right now, for those who have not seen it, it’s Ai Weiwei’s Han vase in mid-drop. It’s just that the gravity is lighter, the fall slower. But the third photograph, the smashed pieces, is coming.

Do you fear the loss of that magical field of stars and scores of other wall-sized artworks? Or have you closed your eyes, meditated, and concluded: Even if I never get to North Adams, LeWitt’s recipes will still exist, and they are the true art.

*          *          *

In 2008, as Mass MoCA was constructing the Sol Lewitt exhibit, they also hosted an exhibit of the art of Spencer Finch. Finch was fascinated by Emily Dickinson, and wished to recreate the moments in which she looked out of her window, thinking and writing poetry. Could these ephemeral views be recaptured, made physical for us so many years later?

“Sunlight in an Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004),” tried to do so. Finch used lighting and light filters to make a cloud of just the right wavelengths that Dickinson would have seen outside of her bedroom on a particular day.


You cannot capture a moment, you mutter softly, waving your hand, nor Emily Dickinson’s thoughts.

*          *          *

Open your favorite streaming music app, and search for the blockbuster 2013 song “Get Lucky.”

Make a playlist that includes the original Daft Punk version, which should come up as the first hit, but also add to the list three other covers of the song by artists you have never heard of, which you will find by scrolling down the search results page.

These versions exist because of something called a “compulsory license,” which means that by paying a defined fee to an agency, you are allowed to record a cover song without asking for, or receiving, permission from the artist who wrote it. The song becomes a recipe and you become the constructor.

Now visit a friend. Play the “Get Lucky” playlist on shuffle mode. When all four songs have been played, ask your friend to identify the original version. The guitar and bass and singing will sound surprisingly similar in each version. Your friend will probably ask, increasingly frantically: “Which is the one true song?”

Do not answer. Thank your friend, bow, and leave.

*          *          *

“Get Lucky” was co-written by Nile Rodgers, the mastermind behind some of the greatest pop music of the last 40 years, starting with Chic, the disco band that gave us infectious dance hits like “Good Times.” Shortly after “Good Times” was released as a single, the enterprising music producer Sylvia Robinson brought a funk band into a recording studio and had them copy Chic’s bassist Bernard Edwards’ memorable bass line from that song. She also sampled its string section. Adding some rappers no one had ever heard of before, she created “Rapper’s Delight,” which seemed laughable to those who really knew the inventive, emerging hip hop scene, but which rather effectively set rap music on a course for mainstream (and white) popularity.

Rodgers initially hated “Rapper’s Delight,” believing it was a wholesale copy of “Good Times,” and he and Edwards sued for copyright violation. Later, after he won and was listed as a co-writer of the song, he declared himself proud of “Rapper’s Delight.” He realized it was a brilliant theft that changed pop music forever, and yet didn’t diminish Chic’s original work.

“Rapper’s Delight” was far from the only hip hop song to borrow; in fact, the reuse of older recordings was standard within the new genre, and part of its enormous creativity. The technique reached its apogee in arguably the three seminal rap albums of the late 1980s: Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, and Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. Each of these albums had over a hundred samples, mixing and matching from different genres to make sounds that were totally new.

They were large, you nod, they contained multitudes.

*          *          *

In 1992, the science fiction author William Gibson, who had coined the word “cyberspace,” released a new work entitled Agrippa (A Book of the Dead). The text was issued, most famously, in a deluxe edition on a 3.5” floppy disk encased in an artisanally crafted box. The disk would encrypt itself upon a single reading, so you only had one shot to read the text as it scrolled across your screen.

This Agrippa cost $2000, and only a very small number were made. Gibson publicly revelled in the work’s combination of the ephemeral and the valuable. He loved that the book, after viewing, would become like a television tuned to a dead channel.

Almost immediately, however, the text of Agrippa was surreptitiously released on an underground electronic bulletin board called MindVox. Anyone can now read it online, and view the deluxe packaging as well.

What is the nature of art, you consider, without its packaging? What is its value?

*          *          *

The British artist Damien Hirst is probably best known for putting a dead shark in a large tank of formaldehyde and giving it the existential title “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” In 2007, he asked the jewelers who fabricate items for the British monarchy—scepters for the king—to make a human skull out of diamonds and platinum, based on a real skull he bought. The skull’s teeth were added to the final product. Hirst called this artwork “For the Love of God.” Many critics called it “tacky.”


But “For the Love of God” was as much an exercise in the finance that goes along with the contemporary art scene, where prices for works regularly head into eight or even nine figures at auction. The fabrication of the skull apparently cost £14 million, and Hirst tried to sell the bejeweled skull to bidders for £50 million. Although there were rumors of a sale, ultimately there were no takers. A mysterious consortium then evidently bought the skull, but for less than £50 million, perhaps much less, and oddly, Hirst seemed to be one of the investors. Some analysts believe that Hirst actually lost money on the deal.

Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was also rumored to be for sale for a much higher number, perhaps as much as $5 million, but Shkreli ultimately bought it for $2 million, which is far less than the Wu-Tang Clan would make from a regular album release.

*          *          *

What is Once Upon a Time in Shaolin really worth? Is its scarcity its worth, and its worth its true art and value?

Once Upon a Time in Shaolin may not be as scarce as we imagine. It surely exists beyond the sole copy in Martin Shkreli’s apartment. It exists in the sense that members of Wu-Tang created it and still have its music in their heads and could likely recreate it if they wanted. Perhaps RZA is humming some of the songs in his shower right now. It exists as a recipe.

But it may also exist in actuality, albeit in pieces, like the wisps of a cloud. The master recordings may have been destroyed, but the way that digital recording works mean that elements of Once existed more than once on magnetic media and probably, somewhere, continue to exist regardless of what Wu-Tang Clan has done with the completed master. Parts of the album can probably be dug up, like the scepter of an Egyptian king, or the disappearing poetry on a phosphorus screen.

If samples were used, they exist on other recordings; if a drum machine was used, those beats exist, identically, on many other machines. Any computers involved surely have files that have not been truly erased, and that could be dug up by digital archaeologists. There may be assembly to be done, and perhaps the final product would be different from the “original.” Or would it?

And perhaps too many traces of the full Once Upon a Time in Shaolin exist for it not to leak, just as Agrippa did.

Of course, then it will just be another stream of bits among the countless streams in our ephemeral era, severed from its unique packaging. It will take its place on millions of playlists, its songs sitting alongside tens of millions of other songs.

We will have gained something from Once’s liberation, but then we will have lost something as well.

*          *          *

The abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly, who recently died, was once asked about the nature of art. “I think what we all want from art is a sense of fixity, a sense of opposing the chaos of daily living,” he said, with more than a bit of Shaolin wisdom. “This is an illusion, of course.”

George Boole at 200: The Emotion Behind the Logic

Today is the 200th anniversary of George Boole’s birth, and he certainly merits a big celebration at University College Cork, where he was the first professor of mathematics, and even that rare honor: a Google Doodle. The focus has been on his technical breakthroughs, since his brilliant advances in mathematics and logic formed the foundation of modern computing.

But on this bicentennial it’s also worth looking at the emotional motivation behind Boole’s supposedly dispassionate technical work—and at ourselves in the mirror. As I wrote in my book Equations from God: Pure Mathematics and Victorian Faith, Boole lived in a time of painful polarization, unfortunately not so dissimilar to ours. While his attention was on religion rather than politics (although those were intertwined, as they are in our day), Boole found the divisiveness unrelenting and sorely lacking in compassion.

My thesis, documented in his notebooks and letters home, and in his published articles and books—his Laws of Thought includes as much about social and philosophical concerns as it does mathematics—is that Boole saw his logic as a way to transcend the overwrought differences of his time to find an ecumenical way to work together toward divine truth. Boole hated that it had become so hard for opposing sides to talk to each other about many issues, and that even minor distinctions were amplified by the modes of discourse and by everyone’s quick jumps to strong opinion and judgment.

Boole’s contemporary and fellow mathematical logician Augustus De Morgan summarized the problem when he wrote that if you asked someone if the craters were larger on the dark side of the moon than on the side we can see, “The odds are, that though he has never thought of the question, he has a pretty stiff opinion in three seconds.” To counter this dogmatism, Boole and De Morgan not only created symbolic logic, but also through their generous interactions with those of many sects and faiths, tried to be true to the spirit of their work.

So today let us honor George Boole the mathematician, but also George Boole the human being. His entreaties to respect all sides, to be charitable with those with whom you disagree, to not jump to conclusions but instead to pause and think carefully first, to try to find a way bridge divides—these are all too rare qualities in our age as well as his.

What’s the Matter with Ebooks?

[As you may have noticed, I haven’t posted to this blog for over a year. I’ve been extraordinarily busy with my new job. But I’m going to make a small effort to reinvigorate this space, adding my thoughts on evolving issues that I’d like to explore without those thoughts being improperly attributed to the Digital Public Library of America. This remains my personal blog, and you should consider these my personal views. I will also be continuing to post on DPLA’s blog, as I have done on this topic of ebooks.]

Over the past two years I’ve been tracking ebook adoption, and the statistics are, frankly, perplexing. After Amazon released the Kindle in 2007, there was a rapid growth in ebook sales and readership, and the iPad’s launch three years later only accelerated the trend.

Then something odd happened. By most media accounts, ebook adoption has plateaued at about a third of the overall book market, and this stall has lasted for over a year now. Some are therefore taking it as a Permanent Law of Reading: There will be electronic books, but there will always be more physical books. Long live print!

I read both e- and print books, and I appreciate the arguments about the native advantages of print. I am a digital subscriber to the New York Times, but every Sunday I also get the printed version. The paper feels expansive, luxuriant. And I do read more of it than the daily paper on my iPad, as many articles catch my eye and the flipping of pages requires me to confront pieces that I might not choose to read based on a square inch of blue-tinged screen. (Also, it’s Sunday. I have more time to read.) Even though I read more ebooks than printed ones at this point, it’s hard not to listen to the heart and join the Permanent Law chorus.

But my mind can’t help but disagree with my heart. Yours should too if you run through a simple mental exercise: jump forward 10 or 20 or 50 years, and you should have a hard time saying that the e-reading technology won’t be much better—perhaps even indistinguishable from print, and that adoption will be widespread. Even today, studies have shown that libraries that have training sessions for patrons with iPads and Kindles see the use of ebooks skyrocket—highlighting that the problem is in part that today’s devices and ebook services are hard to use. Availability of titles, pricing (compared to paperback), DRM, and a balkanization of ebook platforms and devices all dampen adoption as well.

But even the editor of the New York Times understands the changes ahead, despite his love for print:

How long will print be around? At a Loyola University gathering in New Orleans last week, the executive editor [of the Times], Dean Baquet, noted that he “has as much of a romance with print as anyone.” But he also admitted, according to a Times-Picayune report, that “no one thinks there will be a lot of print around in 40 years.”

Forty years is a long time, of course—although it is a short time in the history of the book. The big question is when the changeover will occur—next year, in five years, in Baquet’s 2055?

The tea leaves, even now, are hard to read, but I’ve come to believe that part of this cloudiness is because there’s much more dark reading going on than the stats are showing. Like dark matter, dark reading is the consumption of (e)books that somehow isn’t captured by current forms of measurement.

For instance, usually when you hear about the plateauing of ebook sales, you are actually hearing about the sales of ebooks from major publishers in relation to the sales of print books from those same publishers. That’s a crucial qualification. But sales of ebooks from these publishers is just a fraction of overall e-reading. By other accounts, which try to shine light on ebook adoption by looking at markets like Amazon (which accounts for a scary two-thirds of ebook sales), show that a huge and growing percentage of ebooks are being sold by indie publishers or authors themselves rather than the bigs, and a third of them don’t even have ISBNs, the universal ID used to track most books.

The commercial statistics also fail to account for free e-reading, such as from public libraries, which continues to grow apace. The Digital Public Library of America and other sites and apps have millions of open ebooks, which are never chalked up as a sale.

Similarly, while surveys of the young continue to show their devotion to paper, yet other studies have shown that about half of those under 30 read an ebook in 2013, up from a quarter of Millennials in 2011—and that study is already dated. Indeed, most of the studies that highlight our love for print over digital are several years old (or more) at this point, a period in which large-format, high-resolution smartphone adoption (much better for reading) and new all-you-can-read ebook services, such as Oyster, Scribd, and Kindle Unlimited, have emerged. Nineteen percent of Millennials have already subscribed to one of these services, a number considered low by the American Press Institute, but which strikes me as remarkably high, and yet another contributing factor to the dark reading mystery.

I’m a historian, not a futurist, but I suspect that we’re not going to have to wait anywhere near forty years for ebooks to become predominant, and that the “plateau” is in part a mirage. That may cause some hand-wringing among book traditionalists, an emotion that is understandable: books are treasured artifacts of human expression. But in our praise for print we forget the great virtues of digital formats, especially the ease of distribution and greater access for all—if done right.

Information Overload, Past and Present

The end of this year has seen much handwringing over the stress of information overload: the surging, unending streams, the inexorable decline of longer, more intermittent forms such as blogs, the feeling that our online presence is scattered and unmanageable. This worry spike had me scurrying back to Ann Blair’s terrific history of pre-modern information stress, Too Much to Know. Blair notes how every era has dealt with similar feelings, and how people throughout the ages have come up with different solutions:

These days we are particularly aware of the challenges of information management given the unprecedented explosion of information associated with computers and computer networking…But the perception of and complaints about overload are not unique to our period. Ancient, medieval, and early modern authors and authors working in non-Western contexts articulated similar concerns, notably about the overabundance of books and the frailty of human resources for mastering them (such as memory and time).

The perception of overload is best explained, therefore, not simply as the result of an objective state, but rather as the result of a coincidence of causal factors, including existing tools, cultural or personal expectations, and changes in the quantity of quality of information to be absorbed and managed…But the feeling of overload is often lived by those who experience it as if it were an utterly new phenomenon, as is perhaps characteristic of feelings more generally or of self-perceptions in the modern or postmodern periods especially. Certainly the perception of experiencing overload as unprecedented is dominant today. No doubt we have access to and must cope with a much greater quantity of information than earlier generations on almost every issue, and we use technologies that are subject to frequent change and hence often new.

Blair identifies four “S’s of text management” from the past that we still use today: storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing. She also notes the history of alternative solutions to information overload that are the equivalent of deleting one’s Twitter account: Descartes and other philosophers, for instance, simply deciding to forget the library so they could start anew. Other to-hell-with-it daydreams proliferated too:

In the eighteenth century a number of writers articulated fantasies of destroying useless books to stem the never-ending accumulation…One critic has identified the articulation of the sublime as another kind of response to overabundance; Kant and Wordsworth are among the authors who described an experience of temporary mental blockage due to “sheer cognitive exhaustion,” whether triggered by sensory or mental overload.

When you ask historians which place and time they would most like to live in, it’s notable that they almost always choose eras and locales with a robust but not overwhelming circulation of ideas and art; just enough newness to chew on, but not too much to choke on; and a pervasive equanimity and thoughtfulness that the internet has not excelled at since the denizens of alt.tasteless invaded rec.pets.cats on Usenet. Jonathan Spence, for instance, imagines a life of moderation, sipping tea and trading considered thoughts in sixteenth-century Hangzhou.

Feels to me like there are many out there grasping for a similar circle of lively friends and deeper discussion as we head into 2014.


The Digital Public Library of America, Me, and You

Twenty years ago Roy Rosenzweig imagined a compelling mission for a new institution: “To use digital media and computer technology to democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past.” I’ve been incredibly lucky to be a part of that mission for over twelve years, at what became the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, with last five and a half years as director.

Today I am announcing that I will be leaving the center, and my professorship at George Mason University, the home of RRCHNM, but I am not leaving Roy’s powerful vision behind. Instead, I will be extending his vision—one now shared by so many—on a new national initiative, the Digital Public Library of America. I will be the founding executive director of the DPLA.

The DPLA, which you will be hearing much more about in the coming months, will be connecting the riches of America’s libraries, archives, and museums so that the public can access all of those collections in one place; providing a platform, with an API, for others to build creative and transformative applications upon; and advocating strongly for a public option for reading and research in the twenty-first century. The DPLA will in no way replace the thousands of public libraries that are at the heart of so many communities across this country, but instead will extend their commitment to the public sphere, and provide them with an extraordinary digital attic and the technical infrastructure and services to deliver local cultural heritage materials everywhere in the nation and the world. DPLA_logo The DPLA has been in the planning stages for the last few years, but is about to spin out of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and move from vision to reality. It will officially launch, as an independent nonprofit, on April 18 at the Boston Public Library. I will move to Boston with my family this summer to lead the organization, which will be based there. It is such a great honor to have this opportunity.

Until then I will be transitioning from my role as director of RRCHNM, and my academic life at Mason. Everything at the center will be in great hands, of course; as anyone who visits the center immediately grasps, it is a highly collaborative and nonhierarchical place with an amazing staff and an especially experienced and innovative senior staff. They will continue to shape “the future the past,” as Roy liked to put it. I will miss my good friends at the center, but I still expect to work closely with them, since so many critical software initiatives, educational projects, and digital collections are based at RRCHNM. A search for a new director will begin shortly. I will also greatly miss my colleagues in Mason’s wonderful Department of History and Art History.

At the same time, I look forward to collaborating with new friends, both in the Boston office of the DPLA and across the United States. The DPLA is a unique, special idea—you don’t get to build a massive new library every day. It is apt that the DPLA will launch at the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building, with those potent words carved into stone above its entrance: “Free to all.” The architect Charles Follen McKim rightly called it “a palace for the people,” where anyone could enter to learn, create, and be entertained by the wonders of books and other forms of human expression.

We now have the chance to build something like this for the twenty-first century—a rare, joyous possibility in our too-often cynical age. I hope you will join me in this effort, with your ideas, your contributions, your energy, and your public spirit.

Let’s build the Digital Public Library of America together.

The Other Academy Awards

Two related problems have been bedeviling the current discussion of new modes of academic work. First, it remains unclear to many academics how we can effectively assess digital scholarship, given its many shapes and sizes and often complex, collaborative production. This problem is receiving so much attention right now that we devoted our entire last issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities to it.

Second, given that many of these digital genres—multimedia scholarly sites, sophisticated digital collections, long-form academic blogs, and the like—are published directly to the web, a need has arisen for post-publication, rather than traditional pre-publication, peer review. Last week I was on a panel at the 2013 American Historical Association annual meeting on the future of history journals and peer review, and many in the audience were journal editors who were skeptical about the notion of post-publication peer review. Indeed, for many history and humanities scholars, “post-publication peer review” is an oxymoron; the only true form of peer review is the one that occurs before publication, and that helps to determine in a binary way whether an article or book is published in the first place.

Yet there is an obvious form of post-publication peer review already in wide use—awards—and I would like to suggest that we use them even more widely to help solve the problem of how to assess digital scholarship. As they currently stand, academic awards are icing on the cake. The prizes that the AHA gives every year—mostly books, with a few additional categories for articles, films, reference resources, and lifetime work—are wonderful signifiers of highly distinguished work. To receive one of these prizes is a major career achievement. One of the goals of the Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History, awarded by the AHA since 2009, was to validate the very top work in this new field.

One award isn’t nearly enough for our field, however, or for others that increasingly involve digital work. We need to recognize a broad swath of scholarship and innovation using awards, since it’s an effective way to signal creative, good work. Awards can be a clear form of professional validation for digital scholarship that is understandable to everyone in academia (including those outside of digital humanities), and that doesn’t rely on more controversial forms of post-publication peer review such as open review or crowdsourcing. How do we know that a professor’s blog is worthy of significant credit, that it is more than just musings and is having an impact in a field? A certifying scholarly organization or review panel has deemed it so, from a crowded field.

Furthermore, like the Grammys, we need to give awards not just for Record of the Year but for Best Jazz Instrumental and Achievement in Sound Engineering. Knowledgeable review panels with a deep understanding of the composition of digital work should be able to give out both general awards for digital projects and distinct awards, for instance, for outstanding work in user interfaces for digital archives.

Thankfully, there are already initiatives on this front. A new slate of annual Digital Humanities Awards has just launched, with an international review committee. (Nominations due today!) Now we need scholarly societies to back both interdisciplinary and disciplinary awards with their imprimatur. From conversations I’ve had recently, I sense that is likely to happen in the near future.

Of course, we need to be aware of the rather valid objection that awards can be overdone. We should avoid the digital equivalent of an award for Best Zydeco/Metal Duet. (Actually, that sounds incredible.) Last year the Recording Academy sensibly lowered the number of Grammy categories from 109 to 78. Furthermore, it’s important for awards to have some minimum number of entries or nominations every year, and as with book awards, peer review panels must retain the option of giving no award in a year if none of the options are deemed worthy. Awards must be meaningful.

Right now, however, we should think more broadly, rather than narrowly, about giving awards for digital work. There are precious few opportunities for digital projects to receive external validation. I continue to believe that other forms of post-publication peer review are needed as well (especially for developmental editing rather than vetting), but let’s at least start with a larger slate of rigorously determined awards and some (virtual) gold statues.

Visualizing the Uniqueness, and Conformity, of Libraries

Tucked away in a presentation on the HathiTrust Digital Library are some fascinating visualizations of libraries by John Wilkin, the Executive Director of HathiTrust and an Associate University Librarian at the University of Michigan. Although I’ve been following the progress of HathiTrust closely, I missed these charts, and I want to highlight them as a novel method for revealing a library fingerprint or signature using shared metadata.

With access to the catalogs of HathiTrust member libraries, Wilkin ran some comparisons of book holdings. His ingenious idea was not only to count how many libraries held each particular work, but to create a visualization of each member library based on how widely each book in its collection is held by other libraries.

In Wilkin’s graphs for each library, the X axis is the number of libraries containing a book (including the library the visualization represents), and the Y axis is the number of books. That is, it contains columns of books from 1 (the member library is the only one with a particular book) to 41 (every library in HathiTrust has a physical copy of a book). Let’s look at an example:

Reading the chart from left to right, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign library has a small number of books that it alone holds (~1,000), around 25,000 that only one other library has (the “2” column), 36,000 that two other libraries have, etc.

What’s fascinating is that the overall curvature of a graph tells us a great deal about a particular library.

There are three basic types of libraries we can speak of using this visualization technique. First, there are left-leaning libraries, which have a high number of books that do not exist in many other libraries. These libraries have spent considerable effort and resources acquiring rare volumes. For example, Harvard, which has hundreds of thousands of books that only a handful of other libraries also have:

On the other side, there are right-leaning libraries, which consist mostly of books that are nearly universally held by other libraries. These libraries generally carry only the most circulated volumes, books that are expected to be found in any academic research library. For instance, Lafayette College:

Finally, there are rounded libraries, which don’t have many popular books or many rare books, but mostly works that an average number of similar libraries have. These libraries roughly echo their cohort (in this case, large university research libraries in the United States). They could be called—my apologies—well-rounded in their collecting, likely acquiring many scholarly monographs while still remaining selective rather than comprehensive. For instance, Northwestern University:

Of course, the library curve is often highly correlated with the host institution’s age, since older universities are more likely to have rare old books or unusual (e.g., local or regional) books. This correlation is apparent in this sequence of graphs of the University of California schools, from oldest to newest:

Beyond the three basic types, there are interesting anomalies as well. The University of Virginia is, unsurprisingly, a left-leaning library, but not quite as a left-leaning as I would have expected:

Cornell is also left-leaning, but also clearly has a large, idiosyncratic collection containing works that no other library has—note the spike at position “1”:

Moreover, one could imagine using Wilkin Graphs (I’m going to go ahead and name it that to give John full credit) to analyze the relative composition of other kinds of libraries. For instance, LibraryThing has a project called Legacy Libraries, containing the records of personal libraries of famous historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson. A researcher could create Wilkin Graphs for Jefferson and other American founders (in relation to each other), or among intellectuals from the Enlightenment.

Update: Sherman Dorn suggests Wilkin Profile rather than Wilkin Graph. Sure, rolls off the tongue better: Prospective college student on a campus visit asks the tour guide, “So what’s your library’s Wilkin Profile?” According to Constance Malpas, OCLC has created such profiles for 160 libraries. These graphs can be created with the Worldcat Collection Analysis service (which, alas, is not openly available).

Clarification: John Wilkin comments below that the reason for the spike in position 1 in the Cornell Wilkin Profile is that Cornell had a digitization program that added many unique materials to HathiTrust. This made me realize, with some help from Stanford Library’s Chris Bourg and Penn State’s Mike Furlough that the numbers here are only for the shared HathiTrust collection (although that collection is very large—millions of items). Nevertheless, the general profile shapes should hold for more comprehensive datasets, although likely with occasional left and right shifts for certain libraries depending on additional unique book collections that have not been digitized. (That may explain the University of Virginia Wilkin Profile.) Note also that Google influenced the numbers here, since many of the scanned books come from the Google Books (née Google Library) project, introducing some selection bias which is only now being corrected—or worsened?—by individual institutional digitization initiatives, like Cornell’s.

Digital History at the 2013 AHA Meeting

It’s time for my annual list of digital history sessions at the American Historical Association meeting, this year in New Orleans, January 3-6, 2013. This year’s program extends last year’s surging interest in the effect digital media and technology are having on research and the profession. In addition, a special track for the 2013 meeting is entitled “The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age.” Looks like a good and varied program, including digital research methods (such as GIS, text mining, and network analysis), the construction and use of digital archives, the history of new media and its impact on social movements, scholarly communication, public history and writing for a general audience on the web, and practical concerns (e.g., getting grants for digital work).

Hope to see some of you there, and to interact with the rest of you about the meeting via other means. (Speaking of which, I hereby declare the hashtag to be #aha13. I know we care about exact dates, fellow historians, but we really don’t need that “20” in our hashtags.)

Thursday, January 3


THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) AHA


Henry Morton Stanley, New Orleans, and the Contested Origins of an African Explorer: Public History and Teaching Perspectives


Spatial Narratives of the Holocaust: GIS, Geo-Visualization, and the Possibilities for Digital Humanities

Presidential Panel: H-Net and the Discipline: Changes and Challenges


Plenary Session: The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age

Friday, January 4


Roundtable on Place in Time: What History and Geography Can Teach Each Other

Public History Meets Digital History in Post-Katrina New Orleans

“To See”: Visualizing Humanistic Data and Discovering Historical Patterns in a Digital Age

Viewfinding: A Discussion of Photography, Landscape, and Historical Memory

Scholarly Societies and Networking through H-Net

H-Net in Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean: Building New Online Audiences

Applying to NEH Grant Programs


Self Defense, Civil Rights, and Scholarship: Panels in Honor of Gwendolyn Midlo Hall , Part 1: Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s Africans in Colonial Louisiana Twenty Years Later

Online Reviewing: Before and After It Was de Rigueur

Gender, Sexuality, and Ethnicity: Household Space and Lived Experience in Colonial and Early National Mexico

The United States and Its Informants: The Cold War and the War on Terror


Front Lines: Early-Career Scholars Doing Digital History

From the March on Washington to Tahir Square and Beyond: Tactics, Technology, and Social Movements

Are There Costs to “Internationalizing” History?, Part 2: The Domestic Politics of Teaching and Outreach

Saturday, January 5


H-Net in Africa: Building New Online Audiences

Scholarly Communications and Copyright

Oral History and Intellectual History in Conversation: Methodological Innovation in Modern South Asia

Research Support Services for History Scholars: A Study of Evolving Research Methods in History

Comparative Reflections on the History Major Capstone Experience: A Roundtable

The Power of Cartography: Remapping the Black Death in the Age of Genomics and GIS


Mapping the Past: Historical Geographic Information Science (GIS)

Beyond “Plan B” for Renaissance Studies: A Roundtable

11:30am-2 – Poster Session 1

Hell Towns, Butternuts, and Spotted Cows: Bringing the History of a Small Town in the Hudson Valley into the Digital Age


Peer Review, History Journals, and the Future of Scholarly Research

Space, Place, and Time: GIS Technology in Ancient and Medieval European History

Factionalism and Violence across Time and Space: An Exploration of Digital Sources and Methodologies

Connecting Classroom and Community: H-Net Networks and Public History

The Deep History of Africa: New Narrative Approaches

First Steps: Getting Started as a History Professional

Renegotiating Identity: The Process of Democratization in Postauthoritarian Spain and Portugal

2:30-5pm – Poster Session 2

Digital History: Tools and Tricks to Learn the New Trade

Building the Dissertation Digitally

The Global Shipwreck

Picturing a Transnational Pulp Archive

Sunday, January 6


Building a Swiss Army Knife: A Panel on DocTracker, a Multi-Tool for Digital Documentary Editions


Teaching Digital Methods for History Graduate Students

Public History in the Federal Government: Continuing Trends and New Innovations

Using Oral History for Social Justice Activism

Generous Interfaces for Scholarly Sites

From time to time administrators ask me what I think the home page of a university website should look like. I tell them it should look like the music site The Sixty One, which simply puts a giant photograph of a musician or band in your face, stretched (or shrunk) to the size of your screen:

Menus are contextual, hidden, and modest; the focus is always on the experience of music. It’s very effective. I am not surprised, however, that university administrators have trouble with this design—what about all of those critical menus and submenus for students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, visitors, news, views…? Of course, the design idea of a site like The Sixty One is to put engagement before information.

Universities have actually moved slightly in this direction in the past year; many of them now have a one-third slice of the screen devoted to rotating photographs: a scientist swirling blue liquid in a beaker, a string quartet bowing, a circle of students laughing on the grass. (Expect a greater rotational frequency for that classic last image, as it is the most effective anti-MOOC advertising imaginable.) But they still have all of those menus and submenus cluttering up the top and bottom, and news items running down the side, competing for attention. Information before engagement. The same is true for most cultural heritage institutions.

In a break from the normal this fall, the Rijksmuseum went all-in for The Sixty One’s philosophy in their site redesign, which fills the screen with a single image (albeit with a few key links tastefully striped across it):

As effective as it is, engagement-before-information can be an offputting design philosophy for those of us in the scholarly realm. The visual smacks of popularization, as opposed to textually rich, informationally dense designs. Yet we know that engagement can entice us to explore and discover. Home page designs like the Rijksmuseum’s should stimulate further discussion about a more visual mode for scholarly sites.

Take the standard online library catalog. (Please.) Most catalogs show textual search results with plenty of metadata but poor scannability. Full-screen visual browsing—especially using the principle of small multiples, or grids of images—can be very effective as a scholarly research aid, facilitating comparison, discovery, and serendipity.

Oddly enough, one of the first examples I know if this design concept for a research collection comes from the Hard Rock Cafe, which launched a site years ago to display thousands items from its memorabilia archive on a single screen. You can zoom in if something catches your eye—a guitar or handwritten lyrics.

Mitchell Whitelaw of the University of Canberra has been experimenting with similar ideas on his Visible Archive blog. This interface for the Manly Library uses the National Library of Australia’s Trove API to find and display archival documents in a visual-first way:

The images on the search page are categorized by topic (or date) and rotate gently over time without the researcher having to click through ten-items-to-a-page, text-heavy search results. It’s far easier to happen upon items of interest.

Whitelaw has given this model a great name—a “generous interface“:

Collection interfaces dominated by search are stingy, or ungenerous: they don’t provide adequate context, and they demand the user make the first move. By contrast, there seems to be a move towards more open, exploratory and generous ways of presenting collections, building on familiar web conventions and extending them.

I can imagine generous interfaces working extremely well for many other university, library, and museum sites.

Update: Mitchell Whitelaw let me know about another good generous interface he has worked on, Trove Mosaic:

And I should have remembered Tim Sherratt’s “Faces” interface for Invisible Australians:

Trevor Owens connects the generous interface to recent commercial services such as Pinterest. (I would add Flickr’s 2012 redesign.) Thinking about how scholarly generous interfaces are like and unlike these popular websites is important.