Category Archives: Research

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.

Digital Journalism and Digital Humanities

I’ve increasingly felt that digital journalism and digital humanities are kindred spirits, and that more commerce between the two could be mutually beneficial. That sentiment was confirmed by the extremely positive reaction on Twitter to a brief comment I made on the launch of Knight-Mozilla OpenNews, including from Jon Christensen (of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford, and formerly a journalist), Shana Kimball (MPublishing, University of Michigan), Tim Carmody (Wired), and Jenna Wortham (New York Times).

Here’s an outline of some of the main areas where digital journalism and digital humanities could profitably collaborate. It’s remarkable, upon reflection, how much overlap there now is, and I suspect these areas will only grow in common importance.

1) Big data, and the best ways to scan and visualize it. All of us are facing either present-day or historical archives of almost unimaginable abundance, and we need sophisticated methods for finding trends, anomalies, and specific documents that could use additional attention. We also require robust ways of presenting this data to audiences to convey theses and supplement narratives.

2) How to involve the public in our work. If confronted by big data, how and when should we use crowdsourcing, and through which mechanisms? Are there areas where pro-am work is especially effective, and how can we heighten its advantages while diminishing its disadvantages? Since we both do work on the open web rather than in the cloistered realms of the ivory tower, what are we to make of the sometimes helpful, sometimes rocky interactions with the public?

3) The narrative plus the archive. Journalists are now writing articles that link to or embed primary sources (e.g., using DocumentCloud). Scholars are now writing articles that link to or embed primary sources (e.g., using Omeka). Formerly hidden sources are now far more accessible to the reader.

4) Software developers and other technologists are our partners. No longer relegated to secondary status as “the techies who make the websites,” we need to work intellectually and practically with those who understand how digital media and technology can advance our agenda and our content. For scholars, this also extends to technologically sophisticated librarians, archivists, and museum professionals. Moreover, the line between developer and journalist/scholar is already blurring, and will blur further.

5) Platforms and infrastructure. We care a great deal about common platforms, ranging from web and data standards, to open source software, to content management systems such as WordPress and Drupal. Developers we work with can create platforms with entirely novel functionality for news and scholarship.

6) Common tools. We are all writers and researchers. When the New York Times produces a WordPress plugin for editing, it affects academics looking to use WordPress as a scholarly communication platform. When our center updates Zotero, it affects many journalists who use that software for organizing their digital research.

7) A convergence of length. I’m convinced that something interesting and important is happening at the confluence of long-form journalism (say, 5,000 words or more) and short-form scholarship (ranging from long blog posts to Kindle Singles geared toward popular audiences). It doesn’t hurt that many journalists writing at this length could very well have been academics in a parallel universe, and vice versa. The prevalence of high-quality writing that is smart and accessible has never been greater.

This list is undoubtedly not comprehensive; please add your thoughts about additional common areas in the comments. It may be worth devoting substantial time to increasing the dialogue between digital journalists and digital humanists at the next THATCamp Prime, or perhaps at a special THATCamp focused on the topic. Let me know if you’re interested. And more soon in this space.

The Ivory Tower and the Open Web: Introduction: Burritos, Browsers, and Books [Draft]

[A draft of the introduction to my forthcoming book, The Ivory Tower and the Open Web, which looks at academic resistance to the modes and genres of the web, and how those modes and genres might actually reinvigorate the academy. I'll be posting drafts of chapters as well for open comment and criticism.]

In the summer of 2007, Nate Silver decided to conduct a rigorous assessment of the inexpensive Mexican restaurants in his neighborhood, Chicago’s Wicker Park. Figuring that others might be interested in the results of his study, and that he might be able to use some feedback from an audience, he took his project online.

Silver had no prior experience in such an endeavor. By day he worked as a statistician and writer at Baseball Prospectus—an innovator, to be sure, having created a clever new standard for empirically measuring the value of players, an advanced form of the “sabermetrics” vividly described by Michael Lewis in Moneyball.1 But Silver had no experience as a food critic, nor as a web developer.

In time, his appetite took care of the former and the open web took care of the latter. Silver knit together a variety of free services as the tapestry for his culinary project. He set up a blog, The Burrito Bracket, using Google’s free Blogger web application. Weekly posts consisted of his visits to local restaurants, and the scores (in jalapeños) he awarded in twelve categories.

Home page of Nate Silver’s Burrito Bracket
Ranking system (upper left quadrant)

Being a sports geek, he organized the posts as a series of contests between two restaurants. Satisfying his urge to replicate March Madness, he modified another free application from Google, generally intended to create financial or data spreadsheets, to produce the “bracket” of the blog’s title.

Google Spreadsheets used to create the competition bracket

Like many of the savviest users of the web, Silver started small and improved the site as he went along. For instance, he had started to keep a photographic record of his restaurant visits and decided to share this documentary evidence. So he enlisted the photo-sharing site Flickr, creating an off-the-rack archive to accompany his textual descriptions and numerical scores. On August 15, 2007, he added a map to the site, geolocating each restaurant as he went along and color-coding the winners and losers.

Flickr photo archive for The Burrito Bracket (flickr.com)
Silver’s Google Map of Chicago’s Wicker Park (shaded in purple) with the location of each Mexican restaurant pinpointed

Even with its do-it-yourself enthusiasm and the allure of carne asada, Silver had trouble attracting an audience. He took to Yelp, a popular site for reviewing restaurants to plug The Burrito Bracket, and even thought about creating a Super Burrito Bracket, to cover all of Chicago.2 But eventually he abandoned the site following the climactic “Burrito Bowl I.”

With his web skills improved and a presidential election year approaching, Silver decided to try his mathematical approach on that subject instead—”an opportunity for a sort of Moneyball approach to politics,” as he would later put it.3 Initially, and with a nod to his obsession with Mexican food, he posted his empirical analyses of politics under the chili-pepper pseudonym “Poblano,” on the liberal website Daily Kos, which hosts blogs for its engaged readers.

Then, in March 2008, Silver registered his own web domain, with a title that was simultaneously and appropriately mathematical and political: fivethirtyeight.com, a reference to the total number of electors in the United States electoral college. He launched the site with a slight one-paragraph post on a recent poll from South Dakota and a summary of other recent polling from around the nation. As with The Burrito Bracket it was a modest start, but one that was modular and extensible. Silver soon added maps and charts to bolster his text.

FiveThirtyEight two months after launch, in May 2008

Nate Silver’s real name and FiveThiryEight didn’t remain obscure for long. His mathematical modeling of the competition between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination proved strikingly, almost creepily, accurate. Clear-eyed, well-written, statistically rigorous posts began to be passed from browsers to BlackBerries, from bloggers to political junkies to Beltway insiders. From those wired early subscribers to his site, Silver found an increasingly large audience of those looking for data-driven, deeply researched analysis rather than the conventional reporting that presented political forecasting as more art than science.

FiveThiryEight went from just 800 visitors a day in its first month to a daily audience of 600,000 by October 2008.4 On election day, FiveThiryEight received a remarkable 3 
million 
visitors, more than most daily newspapers
.5

All of this attention for a site that most media coverage still called, with a hint of deprecation, a “blog,” or “aggregator” of polls, despite Silver’s rather obvious, if latent, journalistic skills. (Indeed, one of his roads not taken had been an offer, straight out of college, to become an assistant at The Washington Post.6 ) An article in the Colorado Daily on the emergent genre represented by FiveThirtyEight led with Ken Bickers, professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Colorado, saying that such sites were a new form of “quality blogs” (rather than, evidently, the uniformly second-rate blogs that had previously existed). The article then swerved into much more ominous territory, asking whether reading FiveThirtyEight and similar blogs was potentially dangerous, especially compared to the safe environs of the traditional newspaper. Surely these sites were superficial, and they very well might have a negative effect on their audience:

Mary Coussons-Read, a professor of psychology at CU Denver, says today’s quick turnaround of information helps to make it more compelling.

“Information travels so much more quickly,” she says. “(We expect) instant gratification. If people have a question, they want an answer.”

That real-time quality can bring with it the illusion that it’s possible to perceive a whole reality by accessing various bits of information.

“There’s this immediacy of the transfer of information that leads people to believe they’re seeing everything … and that they have an understanding of the meaning of it all,” she says.

And, Coussons-Read adds, there is pleasure in processing information.

“I sometimes feel like it’s almost a recreational activity and less of an information-gathering activity,” she says.

Is it addiction?

[Michele] Wolf says there is something addicting about all that data.

“I do feel some kind of high getting new information and being able to process it,” she says. “I’m also a rock climber. I think there are some characteristics that are shared. My addiction just happens to be information.”

While there’s no such mental-health diagnosis as political addiction, Jeanne White, chemical dependency counselor at Centennial Peaks Hospital in Louisville, says political information seeking could be considered an addictive process if it reaches an extreme.7

This stereotype of blogs as the locus of “information” rather than knowledge, of “recreation” rather than education, was—and is—a common one, despite the wide variety of blogs, including many with long-form, erudite writing. Perhaps in 2008 such a characterization of FiveThirtyEight was unsurprising given that Silver’s only other credits to date were the Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm (PECOTA) and The Burrito Bracket. Clearly, however, here was an intelligent researcher who had set his mind on a new topic to write about, with a fresh, insightful approach to the material. All he needed was a way to disseminate his findings. His audience appreciated his extraordinarily clever methods—at heart, academic techniques—for cutting through the mythologies and inadequacies of standard political commentary. All they needed was a web browser to find him.

A few journalists saw past the prevailing bias against non-traditional outlets like FiveThirtyEight. In the spring of 2010, Nate Silver bumped into Gerald Marzorati, the editor of the New York Times Magazine, on a train platform in Boston. They struck up a conversation, which eventually turned into a discussion about how FiveThirtyEight might fit into the universe of the Times, which ultimately recognized the excellence of his work and wanted FiveThirtyEight to enhance their political reporting and commentary. That summer, a little more than two years after he had started FiveThirtyEight, Silver’s “blog” merged into the Times under a licensing deal.8 In less time than it takes for most students to earn a journalism degree, Silver had willed himself into writing for one of the world’s premier news outlets, taking a seat in the top tier of political analysis. A radically democratic medium had enabled him to do all of this, without the permission of any gatekeeper.

FiveThirtyEight on the New York Times website, 2010

* * *

 

The story of Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight has many important lessons for academia, all stemming from the affordances of the open web. His efforts show the do-it-yourself nature of much of the most innovative work on the web, and how one can iterate toward perfection rather than publishing works in fully polished states. His tale underlines the principle that good is good, and that the web is extraordinarily proficient at finding and disseminating the best work, often through continual, post-publication, recursive review. FiveThirtyEight also shows the power of openness to foster that dissemination and the dialogue between author and audience. Finally, the open web enables and rewards unexpected uses and genres.

Undoubtedly it is true that the path from The Burrito Bracket to The New York Times may only be navigated by an exceptionally capable and smart individual. But the tools for replicating Silver’s work are just as open to anyone, and just as powerful. It was with that belief, and the desire to encourage other academics to take advantage of the open web, that Roy Rosenzweig and I wrote Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web.9 We knew that the web, although fifteen years old at the time, was still somewhat alien to many professors, graduate students, and even undergraduates (who might be proficient at texting but know nothing about HTML), and we wanted to make the medium more familiar and approachable.

What we did not anticipate was another kind of resistance to the web, based not on an unfamiliarity with the digital realm or on Luddism but on the remarkable inertia of traditional academic methods and genres—the more subtle and widespread biases that hinder the academy’s adoption of new media. These prejudices are less comical, and more deep-seated, than newspapers’ penchant for tales of internet addiction. This resistance has less to do with the tools of the web and more to do with the web’s culture. It was not enough for us to conclude Digital History by saying how wonderful the openness of the web was; for many academics, this openness was part of the problem, a sign that it might be like “playing tennis with the net down,” as my graduate school mentor worriedly wrote to me.10

In some respects, this opposition to the maximal use of the web is understandable. Almost by definition, academics have gotten to where they are by playing a highly scripted game extremely well. That means understanding and following self-reinforcing rules for success. For instance, in history and the humanities at most universities in the United States, there is a vertically integrated industry of monographs, beginning with the dissertation in graduate school—a proto-monograph—followed by the revisions to that work and the publication of it as a book to get tenure, followed by a second book to reach full professor status. Although we are beginning to see a slight liberalization of rules surrounding dissertations—in some places dissertations could be a series of essays or have digital components—graduate students infer that they would best be served on the job market by a traditional, analog monograph.

We thus find ourselves in a situation, now more than two decades into the era of the web, where the use of the medium in academia is modest, at best. Most academic journals have moved online but simply mimic their print editions, providing PDF facsimiles for download and having none of the functionality common to websites, such as venues for discussion. They are also largely gated, resistant not only to access by the general public but also to the coin of the web realm: the link. Similarly, when the Association of American University Presses recently asked its members about their digital publishing strategies, the presses tellingly remained steadfast in their fixation on the monograph. All of the top responses were about print-on-demand and the electronic distribution and discovery of their list, with a mere footnote for a smattering of efforts to host “databases, wikis, or blogs.”11 In other words, the AAUP members see themselves almost exclusively as book publishers, not as publishers of academic work in whatever form that may take. Surveys of faculty show comfort with decades-old software like word processors but an aversion to recent digital tools and methods.12 The professoriate may be more liberal politically than the most latte-filled ZIP code in San Francisco, but we are an extraordinarily conservative bunch when in comes to the progression and presentation of our own work. We have done far less than we should have by this point in imagining and enacting what academic work and communication might look like if it was digital first.

To be sure, as William Gibson has famously proclaimed, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”13 Almost immediately following the advent of the web, which came out of the realm of physics, physicists began using the Los Alamos National Laboratory preprint server (later renamed ArXiv and moved to arXiv.org) to distribute scholarship directly to each other. Blogging has taken hold in some precincts of the academy, such as law and economics, and many in those disciplines rely on web-only outlets such as the Social Science Research Network. The future has had more trouble reaching the humanities, and perhaps this book is aimed slightly more at that side of campus than the science quad. But even among the early adopters, a conservatism reigns. For instance, one of the most prominent academic bloggers, the economist Tyler Cowen, still recommends to students a very traditional path for their own work.14 And far from being preferred by a large majority of faculty, quests to open scholarship to the general public often meet with skepticism.15

If Digital History was about the mechanisms for moving academic work online, this book is about how the digital-first culture of the web might become more widespread and acceptable to the professoriate and their students. It is, by necessity, slightly more polemical than Digital History, since it takes direct aim at the conservatism of the academy that twenty years of the web have laid bare. But the web and the academy are not doomed to an inevitable clash of cultures. Viewed properly, the open web is perfectly in line with the fundamental academic goals of research, sharing of knowledge, and meritocracy. This book—and it is a book rather than a blog or stream of tweets because pragmatically that is the best way to reach its intended audience of the hesitant rather than preaching to the online choir—looks at several core academic values and asks how we can best pursue them in a digital age.

First, it points to the critical academic ability to look at any genre without bias and asks whether we might be violating that principle with respect to the web. Upon reflection many of the best things we discover in scholarship are found by disregarding popularity and packaging, by approaching creative works without prejudice. We wouldn’t think much of the meandering novel Moby-Dick if Carl Van Doren hadn’t looked past decades of mixed reviews to find the genius in Melville’s writing. Art historians have similarly unearthed talented artists who did their work outside of the royal academies and the prominent schools of practice. As the unpretentious wine writer Alexis Lichine shrewdly said in the face of fancy labels and appeals to mythical “terroir”: “There is no substitute for pulling corks.”16

Good is good, no matter the venue of publication or what the crowd thinks. Scholars surely understand that on a deep level, yet many persist in the valuing venue and medium over the content itself. This is especially true at crucial moments, such as promotion and tenure. Surely we can reorient ourselves to our true core value—to honor creativity and quality—which will still guide us to many traditionally published works but will also allow us to consider works in some nontraditional venues such as new open access journals or articles written and posted on a personal website or institutional repository, or digital projects.

The genre of the blog has been especially cursed by this lack of open-mindedness from the academy. Chapter 1, “What is a Blog?”, looks at the history of the blog and blogging, the anatomy and culture of a genre that is in many ways most representative of the open web. Saddled with an early characterization as being the locus of inane, narcissistic writing, the blog has had trouble making real inroads in academia, even though it is an extraordinarily flexible form and the perfect venue for a great deal of academic work. The chapter highlights some of the best examples of academic blogging and how they shape and advance arguments in a field. We can be more creative in thinking about the role of the blog within the academy, as a venue for communicating our work to colleagues as well as to a lay audience beyond the ivory tower.

This academic prejudice against the blog extends to other genres that have proliferated on the open web. Chapter 2, “Genres and the Open Web,” examines the incredible variety of those new forms, and how, with a careful eye, we might be able to import some of them profitably into the academy. Some of these genres, like the wiki, are well-known (thanks to Wikipedia, which academics have come to accept begrudgingly in the last five years). Other genres are rarer but take maximal advantage of the latitude of the open web: its malleability and interactivity. Rather than imposing the genres we know on the web—as we do when we post PDFs of print-first journal articles—we would do well to understand and adopt the web’s native genres, where helpful to scholarly pursuits.

But what of our academic interest in validity and excellence, enshrined in our peer review system? Chapter 3, “Good is Good,” examines the fundamental requirements of any such system: the necessity of highlighting only a minority of the total scholarly output, based on community standards, and of disseminating that minority of work to communities of thought and practice. The chapter compares print-age forms of vetting with native web forms of assessment and review, and proposes ways that digital methods can supplement—or even replace—our traditional modes of peer review.

“The Value, and Values, of Openness,” Chapter 4, broadly examines the nature of the web’s openness. Oddly, this openness is both the easiest trait of the web to understand and its most complex, once one begins to dig deeper. The web’s radical openness not only has led to calls for open access to academic work, which has complicated the traditional models of scholarly publishers and societies; it has also challenged our academic predisposition toward perfectionism—the desire to only publish in a “final” format, purged (as much as possible) of error. Critically, openness has also engendered unexpected uses of online materials—for instance, when Nate Silver refactored poll numbers from the raw data polling agencies posted.

Ultimately, openness is at the core of any academic model that can operate effectively on the web: it provides a way to disseminate our work easily, to assess what has been published, and to point to what’s good and valuable. Openness can naturally lead—indeed, is leading—to a fully functional shadow academic system for scholarly research and communication that exists beyond the more restrictive and inflexible structures of the past.

[Update, 7/29/11: I've answered Zach Schrag's criticism about the disciplinary scope of the book in a new paragraph beginning with "To be sure, as William Gibson..."]

[Update, 8/1/11: Added more about "good is good," beginning with the line on Alexis Lichine and continuing through the following paragraph, to address Sylvia Miller's point about promotion and tenure. Also fixed a few points of grammar, thanks to Sherman Dorn.]

  1. Nate Silver, “Introducing PECOTA,” in Gary Huckabay, Chris Kahrl, Dave Pease et al., eds., Baseball Prospectus 2003 (Dulles, VA: Brassey’s Publishers, 2003): 507-514. Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004). []
  2. Frequently Asked Questions, The Burrito Bracket, http://burritobracket.blogspot.com/2007/07/faq.html []
  3. http://www.journalism.columbia.edu/system/documents/477/original/nate_silver.pdf []
  4. Adam Sternbergh, The Spreadsheet Psychic, New York, Oct 12, 2008, http://nymag.com/news/features/51170/ []
  5. http://www.journalism.columbia.edu/system/documents/477/original/nate_silver.pdf []
  6. http://www.journalism.columbia.edu/system/documents/477/original/nate_silver.pdf []
  7. Cindy Sutter, “Hooked on information: Can political news really be addicting?” The Colorado Daily, November 3, 2008, http://www.coloradodaily.com/ci_13105998 []
  8. Nate Silver, “FiveThirtyEight to Partner with New York Times, http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2010/06/fivethirtyeight-to-partner-with-new.html []
  9. Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). []
  10. http://www.dancohen.org/2010/11/11/frank-turner-on-the-future-of-peer-review/ []
  11. Association of American University Presses, “Digital Publishing in the AAUP Community; Survey Report: Winter 2009-2010,” http://aaupnet.org/resources/reports/0910digitalsurvey.pdf, p. 2 []
  12. See, for example, Robert B. Townsend, “How Is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians?”, Perspectives on History, November 2010, http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/issues/2010/1011/1011pro2.cfm []
  13. National Public Radio, “Talk of the Nation” radio program, 30 November 1999, timecode 11:55, http://discover.npr.org/features/feature.jhtml?wfId=1067220 []
  14. “Tyler Cowen: Academic Publishing,” remarks at the Institute for Humane Studies Summer Research Fellowship weekend seminar, May 2011, http://vimeo.com/24124436 []
  15. Open access mandates have been tough sells on many campuses, passing only by slight majorities or failing entirely. For instance, such a mandate was voted down at the University of Maryland, with evidence of confusion and ambivalence. http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2009/04/28/umaryland-faculty-vote-no-oa/ []
  16. Quoted in Frank J. Prial, “Wine Talk,” New York Times, 17 August 1994, http://www.nytimes.com/1994/08/17/garden/wine-talk-983519.html. []

The Promise of Digital History

Back in January of this year I mentioned in this space that I was participating in an online discussion on digital history for the Journal of American History. That discussion has just been published in the September 2008 issue under the title “The Promise of Digital History.” The discussion ended up being extremely wide-ranging, including research possibilities in the digital age, the future of scholarly communication, training, and teaching. I’m obviously biased since I’m one of the interlocutors, but I believe the article is the perfect introduction to digital history for those who are new to the subject, and it also includes some important debates about where the field is headed. The article is available online at the History Cooperative, which is, alas, gated. Open access is another topic discussed in the article; I hope the JAH will make the article freely available soon.

Many thanks to the seven other digital historians—Bill Turkel, Will Thomas, Amy Murrell Taylor, Patrick Gallagher, Michael Frisch, Kristen Sword, and Steven Mintz—who participated in such a lively exchange!

The Pirate Problem

Jolly Roger FlagLast summer, a few blocks from my house, a new pub opened. Normally this would not be worth noting, except for the fact that this bar is staffed completely by pirates, with eye patches, swords, and even the occasional bird on the shoulder. These are not real pirates, of course, but modern men and women dressed up as pirates. But they wear the pirate garb with no hint of irony or thespian affect whatsoever; these are dedicated, earnest pirates.

At this point I should note that I do not live in Orlando, Florida, or any other place devoted to make-believe, but in a sleepy suburb of Washington, D.C., that is filled with Very Serious Professionals. When the pirate pub opened, the neighborhood VSPs (myself very much included) concluded that it was strange and silly and that it was an incontrovertible fact that no one would patronize the place. Or if they did, it would be as a lark.

We clung to this belief for approximately 24 hours, until, upon a casual stroll by the storefront, we witnessed six pirate-garbed pubgoers outside. Singing sea chanteys. Without sheet music. The tavern has been filled ever since.

Such an experience usefully reminds oneself that there are ways of acting and thinking that we can’t understand or anticipate. Who knew that there was a highly developed pirate subculture, and that it thrived among the throngs of politicos and think-tankers and professors of Washington? Who are these people?

My thoughts turned to pirates during my experience at a workshop at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill a week ago, which was devoted to the digitization of the unparalleled Southern Historical Collection, and—in a less obvious way—to thinking about the past and future of humanities scholarship. Dozens of historians came to the workshop to discuss the way in which the SHC, the source of so many books and articles about the South and the home of 16 million archival documents, should be put on the web.

I gave the keynote, which I devoted to prodding the attendees into recognizing that the future of archives and research might not be like the past, and I showed several examples from my work and the work of CHNM that used different ways of searching and analyzing documents that are in digital, rather than analog, forms. Longtime readers of this blog will remember some of the examples, including an updated riff on what a future historian might learn about the state of religion in turn-of-the-century America by data mining our September 11 Digital Archive.

The most memorable response from the audience was from an award-winning historian I know from my graduate school years, who said that during my talk she felt like “a crab being lowered into the warm water of the pot.” Behind the humor was the difficult fact that I was saying that her way of approaching an archive and understanding the past was about to be replaced by techniques that were new, unknown, and slightly scary.

This resistance to thinking in new ways about digital archives and research was reflected in the pre-workshop survey of historians. Extremely tellingly, the historians surveyed wanted the online version of the SHC to be simply a digital reproduction of the physical SHC:

With few exceptions, interviewees believed that the structure of the collection in the virtual space should replicate, not obscure, the arrangement of the physical collection. Thus, navigating a manuscript collection online would mimic the experience of navigating the physical collection, and the virtual document containers—e.g., folders—and digital facsimiles would map clearly back to the physical containers and documents they represent. [Laura Clark Brown and David Silkenat, "Extending the Reach of Southern Sources," p. 10]

In other words, in the age of Google and advanced search tools and techniques, most historians just want to do their research they way they’ve always done it, by taking one letter out of the box at a time. One historian told of a critical moment in her archival work, when she noticed a single word in a letter that touched off the thought that became her first book.

So in Chapel Hill I was the pirate with the strange garb and ways of behaving, and this is a good lesson for all boosters of digital methods within the humanities. We need to recognize that the digital humanities represent a scary, rule-breaking, swashbuckling movement for many historians and other scholars. We must remember that these scholars have had—for generations and still in today’s graduate schools—a very clear path for how they do their work, publish, and get rewarded. Visit archive; do careful reading; find examples in documents; conceptualize and analyze; write monograph; get tenure.

We threaten all of this. For every time we focus on text mining and pattern recognition, traditionalists can point to the successes of close reading—on the power of a single word. We propose new methods of research when the old ones don’t seem broken. The humanities have an order, and we, mateys, threaten to take that calm ship into unknown waters.

[Image credit: &y.]

Enhancing Historical Research With Text-Mining and Analysis Tools

Open BookI’m delighted to announce that beginning this summer the Center for History and New Media will undertake a major two-year study of the potential of text-mining tools for historical (and by extension, humanities) scholarship. The project, entitled “Scholarship in the Age of Abundance: Enhancing Historical Research With Text-Mining and Analysis Tools,” has just received generous funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In the last decade the library community and other providers of digital collections have created an incredibly rich digital archive of historical and cultural materials. Yet most scholars have not yet figured out ways to take full advantage of the digitized riches suddenly available on their computers. Indeed, the abundance of digital documents has actually exacerbated the problems of some researchers who now find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of available material. Meanwhile, some of the most profound insights lurking in these digital corpora remain locked up.

For some time computer scientists have been pursuing text mining as a solution to the problem of abundance, and there have even been a few attempts at bringing text-mining tools to the humanities (such as the MONK project). Yet there is not as much research as one might hope on what non-technically savvy scholars (especially historians) might actually want and use in their research, and how we might integrate sophisticated text analysis into the workflow of these scholars.

We will first conduct a survey of historians to examine closely their use of digital resources and prospect for particularly helpful uses of digital technology. We will then explore three main areas where text mining might help in the research process: locating documents of interest in the sea of texts online; extracting and synthesizing information from these texts; and analyzing large-scale patterns across these texts. A focus group of historians will be used to assess the efficacy of different methods of text mining and analysis in real-world research situations in order to offer recommendations, and even some tools, for the most promising approaches.

In addition to other forms of dissemination, I will of course provide project updates in this space.

[Image credit: Matt Wright]

Two Misconceptions about the Zotero-IA Alliance

Thanks to everyone for their helpful (and thankfully, mostly positive) feedback on the new Zotero-IA alliance. I wanted to try to clear up a couple of things that the press coverage and my own writing failed to communicate. (Note to self: finally get around to going to one of those media training courses so I can learn how to communicate all of the elements of a complex project well in three minutes, rather than lapsing into my natural academic long-windedness.)

1. Zotero + IA is not simply the Zotero Commons

Again, this is probably my fault for not communicating the breadth of the project better. The press has focused on items #1 and 2 in my original post—they are the easiest to explain—but while the project does indeed try to aggregate scholarly resources, it is also trying to solve another major problem with contemporary scholarship: scholars are increasingly using and citing web resources but have no easy way to point to stable URLs and cached web pages. In particular, I encourage everyone to read item #3 in my original post again, since I consider it extremely important to the project.

Items #4 and 5 also note that we are going to leverage IA for better collaboration, discovery, and recommendation systems. So yes, the Commons, but much more too.

2. Zotero + IA is not intended to put institutional repositories out of business, nor are they excluded from participation

There has been some hand-wringing in the library blogosphere this week (see, e.g., Library 2.0) that this project makes an end-run around institutional repositories. These worries were probably exacerbated by the initial press coverage that spoke of “bypassing” the libraries. However, I want to emphasize that this project does not make IA the exclusive back end for contributions. Indeed, I am aware of several libraries that are already experimenting with using Zotero as an input device for institutional repositories. There is already an API for the Zotero client that libraries can extract data and files from, and the server will have an even more powerful API so that libraries can (with their users’ permission, of course) save materials into an archive of their own.

Zotero and the Internet Archive Join Forces

IA LogoZotero LogoI’m pleased to announce a major alliance between the Zotero project at the Center for History and New Media and the Internet Archive. It’s really a match made in heaven—a project to provide free and open source software and services for scholars joining together with the leading open library. The vision and support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has made this possible, as they have made possible the major expansion of the Zotero project over the last year.

You will hear much more about this alliance in the coming months on this blog, but I wanted to outline five key elements of the project.

1. Exposing and Sharing the “Hidden Archive”

The Zotero-IA alliance will create a “Zotero Commons” into which scholarly materials can be added simply via the Zotero client. Almost every scholar and researcher has documents that they have scanned (some of which are in the public domain), finding aids they have created, or bibliographies on topics of interest. Currently there is no easy way to share these; giving them a central home at the Internet Archive will archive them permanently (before they are lost on personal hard drives) and make them broadly available to others.

We understand that not everyone will be willing to share everything (some may not be willing to share anything, even though almost every university commencement reminds graduates that they are joining a “community of scholars”), but we believe that the Commons will provide a good place for shareable materials to reside. The architectural historian with hundreds of photographs of buildings, the researcher who has scanned in old newspapers, and scholars who wish to publish materials in an open access environment will find this a helpful addition to Zotero and the Internet Archive. Some researchers may of course deposit materials only after finishing, say, a book project; what I have called “secondary scholarly materials” (e.g., bibliographies) will perhaps be more readily shared.

But we hope the second part of the project will further entice scholars to contribute important research materials to the Commons.

2. Searching the Personal Library

Most scholars have not yet figured out how to take full advantage of the digitized riches suddenly available on their computers. Indeed, the abundance of digital documents has actually exacerbated the problems of some researchers, who now find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of available material. Moreover, the major advantage of digital research—the ability to scan large masses of text quickly—is often unavailable to scholars who have done their own scanning or copying of texts.

A critical second part to this alliance of IA and Zotero is to bring robust and seamless Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to the vast majority of scholars who lack the means or do not know how to convert their scans into searchable text. In addition, this process will let others search through such newly digitized texts. After a submission to the Commons, the Internet Archive will subsequently return an OCRed version of each donated document to enable searchability. This text will be incorporated into the donor’s local index (on the Zotero client) and thus made searchable in Zotero’s powerful quick search and advanced search panes. In short, this process will provide a tremendous incentive for scholars to donate to the Commons, since it will help them with their own research.

3. Enabling Networked References and Annotations

One of the pillars of scholarship is the ability for distributed scholars to be sure they are referencing the same text or evidence. As noted in #1, one of the great advantages of the Zotero Commons at IA will be the transport of scholarly materials currently residing on personal hard drives to a public space with stable, rather than local, addresses. These addresses will become critical as scholars begin to use, refer to, and cite items in the Commons.

Yet the IA/Zotero partnership has another benefit: as scholars begin to use not only traditional primary sources that have been digitized but also “born digital” materials on the web (blogs, online essays, documents transcribed into HTML), the possibility arises for Zotero users to leverage the resources of IA to ensure a more reliable form of scholarly communication. One of the Internet Archive’s great strengths is that it has not only archived the web but also given each page a permanent URI that includes a time and date stamp in addition to the URL.

Currently when a scholar using Zotero wishes to save a web page for their research they simply store a local copy. For some, perhaps many, purposes this is fine. But for web documents that a scholar believes will be important to share, cite, or collaboratively annotate (e.g., among a group of coauthors of an article or book) we will provide a second option in the Zotero web save function to grab a permanent copy and URI from IA’s web archive. A scholar who shares this item in their library can then be sure that all others who choose to use it will be referring to the exact same document.

Moreover, unlike most research software the sophisticated annotation tools built into Zotero—the ability to highlight passages, add virtual Post-It notes, as well as regular notes on the overall document—maintain these annotations separately from the underlying document. This presents the exciting possibility for collaborative scholarly annotation of web pages.

4. Simplifying Collaborative Sharing

Groups of scholars also have the need to create more private “commons,” e.g., for documents that they would like to share in a limited way. In addition to the fully open Zotero Commons we will establish a mechanism for such restricted sharing. Via the Zotero Server, a user will be able to create a special collection with a distinct icon that shows up in the client interface (left column) for every member of the group.

Files added to these collections will be stored on the Internet Archive but will have restricted access. We believe that having these files reside on the IA server will encourage the donation of documents at the end of a collaborative project. The administrator of a shared collection will be able to move its contents into the fully open Zotero Commons via a single click in the administrative interface on the Zotero Server.

5. Facilitating Scholarly Discovery

The multiple libraries of content created by Zotero users and the multi-petabyte digital collections of the Internet Archive are resources that can potentially be of great use to the scholarly community. We believe that neither has experienced the level of exploration and usage we believe is possible through further development and collaboration.

The combined digital collections present opportunities for scholars to find primary research materials, to discover one another’s work, to identify materials that are already available in digital form and therefore do not need to be located and scanned, to find other scholars with similar interests and to share their own insights broadly. We plan to leverage the combined strengths of the Zotero project and the Internet Archive to work on better discovery tools.

Steven Johnson at the Italian Embassy

Well, they didn’t have my favorite wine (Villa Cafaggio Chianti Classico Reserva, if you must know), but I had a nice evening at the Italian Embassy in Washington. The occasion was the start of a conference, “Using New Technologies to Explore Cultural Heritage,” jointly sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (National Research Council) of Italy. The setting was the embassy’s postmodern take on the Florentine palazzo (see below); the speaker was bestselling author and digerati Steven Johnson (Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter; Outside.in).

Italian Embassy

Steven Johnson

Johnson’s talk was entitled “The Open Book: The Future of Text in the Digital Age.” (I present his thoughts here without criticism; it’s late.) Johnson argued that despite all of the hand-wringing and dire predictions, the book was not in decline. Indeed, he thought that because of new media books have new channels to expand into. While some believed ten years ago that we were entering an age of image and video, the rise of web instead led to the continued dominance of text, online and off. He noted that more hardcover books were sold in 2006 than 2005; and more in 2005 than in 2004. Newspapers have huge online audiences that dwarf their paper readership, thus strengthening their importance to culture.

Johnson pointed to four important innovations in online writing:

1) Collaborative writing is in a golden age because of the Internet. One need only look at Wikipedia, especially the social process of its underlying discussion pages (in addition to the surface article pages).

2) Fan fiction is also in its heyday. There are almost 300,000 (!) fan-written, unauthorized sequels to Harry Potter on fanfiction.net. There are even countless reviews of this fan fiction.

3) Blogging has become an important force, and great for authors. Blogs often provide unpolished comments about books by readers that are just as helpful as professional reviews.

4) Discovery of relevant materials and passages has been made much easier by new media–just think about the difference between research for a book now and roaming through the stacks in a library. Software like DEVONthink has made scholarship easier by connecting hidden dots and sorting through masses of text.

Finally, Johnson argued that despite the allure of the web, physical books are still the best way for an author to get inside someone’s head and convince them about something important. The book still has much greater weight and impact than even the most important blog post.

Social and Semantic Computing for Historical Scholarship

Under the assumption that many readers of this blog don’t receive the American Historical Association’s magazine Perspectives, you might be interested in this article I wrote for the May 2007 issue. In the piece I discuss the Zotero project’s connection to several recent trends in computing, and think ahead to what the Zotero server might mean for academic fields like history.