Category Archives: Tools

It’s About Russia

One of my favorite Woody Allen quips from his tragically short period as a stand-up comic is the punch line to his hyperbolic story about taking a speed-reading course and then digesting all of War and Peace in twenty minutes. The audience begins to giggle at the silliness of reading Tolstoy’s massive tome in a brief sitting. Allen then kills them with his summary of the book: “It’s about Russia.” The joke came to mind recently as I read the self-congratulatory blog post by IBM’s Many Eyes visualization project, applauding their first month on the web. (And I’m feeling a little embarrassed by my post on the one-year anniversary of this blog.) The Many Eyes researchers point to successes such as this groundbreaking visualization of the New Testament:

News flash: Jesus is a big deal in the New Testament. Even exploring the “network” of figures who are “mentioned together” (ostensibly the point of this visualization) doesn’t provide the kind of insight that even a first-year student in theology could provide over coffee. I have been slow to appreciate the power of textual visualization—in large part because I’ve seen far too many visualizations like this one, that merely use computational methods to reveal the obvious in fancy ways.

I’ve been doing some research on visualizations of texts recently for my next book (on digital scholarship), and trying to get over this aversion to visualizations. But when I see visualizations like this one, the lesson is clear: Make sure your visualizations expose something new, hidden, non-obvious.

Because War and Peace isn’t about Russia.

NINES Officially Launches

As someone keenly interested in the possibilities of digital scholarship as well as nineteenth-century British and American intellectual history, I’m delighted to hear of the official launch of NINES (Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century Electronic Scholarship), which allows researchers to search, organize, and annotate over 60,000 texts and images. A screencast of how to use Collex, their powerful web application, would be helpful for new users.

Zotero Needs Your Help, Part II

In my prior post on this topic, I mentioned the (paid) positions now available at the Center for History and New Media to work on and promote Zotero. (By the way, there’s still time to contact us if you’re interested; we just started reviewing applications, but hurry.) But Zotero is moving ahead on so many fronts that its success depends not only on those working on it full time, but also those who appreciate the software and want to help out in other ways. Here are some (unpaid, but feel-good) ways you can get involved.

If you are a librarian, instructional technologist, or anyone else on a campus or at an institution that uses citation software like EndNote or RefWorks, please consider becoming an informal campus representative for Zotero. As part of our effort to provide a free competitor to these other software packages, we need to spread the word, have people give short introductions to Zotero, and generally serve as local “evangelists.” Already, two dozen librarians who have tried Zotero and think it could be a great solution for students, staff, and faculty on their campuses have volunteered to help out in this role. If you’re interested in joining them, please contact campus-reps@zotero.org.

We are currently in the process of writing up instructions (and possibly creating some additional software) to make creating Zotero translators and citation style formatters easier. Translators are small bits of code that enable Zotero to recognize citation information on a web page; we have translators for specific sites (like Amazon.com) as well as broader ones that recognize certain common standards (like MARC records or embedded microformats). Style formatters take items in your Zotero library and reformat them into specific disciplinary or journal standards (e.g., APA, MLA, etc.). Right now creating translators takes a fair amount of technical knowledge (using things like XPath and JavaScript), so if you’re feeling plucky and have some software skills, email translators@zotero.org to get started on a translator for a specific collection or resource (or you can wait until we have better tools for creating translators). If you have some familiarity with XML and citation formatting, please contact styles@zotero.org if you’re interested in contributing a style formatter. We figure that if EndNote can get their users to contribute hundreds of style formatters for free, we should be able to do the same for translators and styles in the coming year.

One of our slogans for Zotero is “Citation management is only the beginning.” That will become increasingly obvious over the coming months as third-party developers (and the Zotero team) begin writing what we’re calling utilities, or little widgets that use Zotero’s location in the web browser to send and receive information across the web. Want to pull out all of the place names in a document and map them on Google Maps? Want to send del.icio.us a notice every time you tag something in Zotero? Want to send text from a Zotero item to an online translation service? All of this functionality will be relatively trivial in the near future. If you’re familiar with some of the browser technologies we use and that are common with Web 2.0 mashups and APIs and would like to write a Zotero utility, please contact utilities@zotero.org.

More generally, if you are a software developer and either would like to help with development or would like to receive news about the technical side of the Zotero project, please contact dev@zotero.org.

With Firefox 2.0 apparently going out of beta into full release next Thursday (October 26, 2006), it’s a great time to start talking up the powerful combination of Firefox 2.0 and Zotero (thanks, Lifehacker and the Examiner!).

Introduction to Firefox Scholar

This week in the electronic version, and next week in the print version, the Chronicle of Higher Education is running an article (subscription required) on a new software project I’m co-directing, Firefox Scholar, which will be a set of extensions to the popular open source web browser that will help researchers, teachers, and students. My thanks to the many people who have emailed who are interested in the project. For them and for others who would like to know more, here’s a brief summary of Firefox Scholar from our grant proposal to the Institute for Museum and Library Services, which has generously provided $250,000 to initiate the project. Please contact me if you would like occasional updates on the project or would like a beta release of the browser when it is available in the late summer of 2006.

The web browser has become the primary means for accessing information, documents, and artifacts from libraries and museums around the country and the world, thanks in large part to the tremendous commitment these institutions have made to bringing their collections online (as either simple citations or complete text and images). Unfortunately for scholars, while tens of millions of dollars have been spent to create digital resources, far less funding and effort has been allocated for the development of tools to facilitate the use of these resources. The browser remains merely a passive window allowing one to view, but not easily collect, annotate, or manipulate these objects. Moreover, from the user’s perspective individual library and museum collections remain just that—separate websites with distinct designs and different ways of displaying their information, making traditional scholarly practices of bringing together and studying objects of interest from across these collections unnecessarily difficult.

Firefox Scholar, a set of tools incorporated into popular, open, and free web software, will address these major problems by creating a web browser that is “smarter” in two key ways. First, one tool will enable the browser to intelligently sense when its user is viewing a digital library or museum object; this will allow the browser to capture information from the page automatically, such as the creator, title, date of creation, and copyright information. Second, another tool will store and organize this information, as well as full copies of items and web pages (not just their citation information) if so desired by the user and permitted by the institution’s site, allowing the user to sort, annotate, search, and manipulate these individualized collections created for scholarly purposes. Critically, all of this will occur within the web browser itself, not in a separate, standalone application; the web browser will be used not just to discover information, but also to collect, organize, and analyze scholarly materials.