SOPA Protest

For information on today’s internet blackout to protest SOPA/PIPA legislation, follow this link.

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2011 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,600 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 43 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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I’ve been thinking lately about the career aptitude test that my classmates and I took in  high school.  I remember the setting well: the high school cafeteria.  I sat at the second or third table down, on the far left side, facing the stage—roughly the place where my friends and I sat at lunch every day.  (How much of this is genuine memory?)

I have always tested well, so I have a generally positive memory of the test itself.  I remember kind of enjoying the variety of questions, though perhaps having been a bit frustrated with ones that required an ability to imagine how two-dimensional images would look once they had been folded into three-dimensional objects.

And I remember the results of the test, a recommendation that I should do work focused on organizing things, like being a file clerk.  Me and Harvey Pekar, right?

What interests me about this memory of the results (I wish I had the actual results, but I think they’re probably long lost) is how it could be read to be connected to the way that my interest in the kind of document markup I can do with TEI tends towards greater granularity.  I tend not to make use of those best practices for libraries that I mentioned last week.

And this reminds me of how I responded to a question Gerda Lerner asked in the first research seminar I took in graduate school.  She asked whether every person who had ever lived belonged in a dictionary of biography, and I said yes.  Which was the wrong answer because she was asking us to think about how, as historians, we would assess significance and apply that assessment to the formation of a research plan.  I didn’t like the idea of making those kinds of choices.

But one of the things I do like about the idea of what we are doing with the Wheaton College Digital History Project is that we are making available (eventually) documents that have not previously been known.  And I understand this activity to some degree as yet another positive answer to Gerda’s question.  In effect, we are saying that the fact these documents have not been used in the past is less a product of their insignificance than of chance.  Which is one of the things historians know about the documents we use as evidence anyway.  Whatever sources we have available to us come to us as a result of decisions that do not actually reflect their significance in some grand scheme so much as their significance to individuals for reasons that often have nothing to do with our research questions.

Sometimes, when my friends reflect on the work that I have come to be doing over the past seven years, they say that I could do this work as a librarian or an archivist.  (I’m not entirely sure whether I agree with them.)  And I wonder how close that means I have come to following the advice that resulted from that career aptitude test I took in the high school cafeteria all those years ago.

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Digital Humanities, Libraries, and Scholarly Communication

For me, the lines between digital humanities, libraries, and scholarly communication are so faint as to be insignificant.  And my perception of the equivalences among these entities that often seem siloed to my colleagues presents a real challenge as I try to help people–both at my own institution and at other campuses–think about possible futures for higher education in our digital culture.

The source of my perception lies in my having begun to learn about how digital innovations are changing libraries and publishing as a result of my first forays into digital humanities.  In 2004, I participated in a series of workshops at Wheaton College that were sponsored by the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  Those workshops focused on two sets of encoding standards that use extensible markup language (XML): the Encoded Archival Description Document Type Definition (EAD DTD) and the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI).  The hands-on workshop sessions focused on TEI, and I attended the workshops out of interest in testing the use of TEI in teaching my undergraduate history students.  But the EAD component of the initial workshops meant that librarians attended too, so perhaps I have found one source of my elision of digital humanities, libraries, and scholarly communication.

Perhaps I have identified also a significant point about how these three often siloed entities are in fact connected.  I don’t mean to claim originality here.  Folks involved in digital humanities have been working on these questions for quite some time, as is clear from the discussion of the development of EAD at the Library of Congress website.  EAD and TEI were both developed in the 1990s.  Both began using Standardized General Markup Language (SGML), and both shifted to use of XML.  And both are used by libraries.

In fact according to the TEI website cited above, “Since 1994, the TEI Guidelines have been widely used by libraries, museums, publishers, and individual scholars to present texts for online research, teaching, and preservation.” A search of the TEI consortium’s website led me to slides from a talk by Susan Hockey of University College London, “Markup, TEI, Digital Libraries.” The talk was presented at the TEI Members Meeting in 2002, and it offers a good overview of issues about the relationships between changes digital innovations were bringing to libraries and digital scholarship at that time.  The TEI has a Libraries special interest group (SIG), and they recently released an update to their recommendations for best practices for use of TEI by libraries.

So TEI–the flavor of digital humanities that I practice–does have clear connections to libraries that can be traced back for at least two decades.  I’m not making that up.  What a relief!

Scholarly communication, the third of my equivalences, belongs in the set as a result of the ways that digital innovations have affected communication in general, that is in the ongoing shift from print to digital formats.  The most obvious example–the one that has received the most public outcry in the past couple of years–is the case of newspapers.  Like many people, I no longer subscribe to print newspapers; I read them online.  And I resented the introduction of a pay wall by my newspaper of choice, the New York Times, as the publisher sought a new way to make the newspaper profitable as a business.  But eventually I gave in, and I pay my fifteen dollars every month.

Like newspaper publishers, university presses have been changing their production practices for at least the past twenty years, as various word processing programs have become the tools of choice for scholars writing articles and books.  I began to hear about changes in scholarly publication when I attended a NITLE meeting on scholarly communication that was held at Pomona College in January 2008.  (I think that’s the right date.)  Like all NITLE meetings, this one gave me plenty to think about, especially the idea of open peer review.  And in the intervening years, I’ve had opportunities to sit in on discussions in which I’ve heard editors talk about workflows and publishing software.  Now, I have an essay in a volume that is undergoing open peer review and that is under contract (the volume, not necessarily my essay) with the Digital Culture series at the University of Michigan Press.

All of this seems perfectly transparent and logical to me, and I understand digital scholarship–which is the term I use to encompass my three equivalences–to be the future of scholarship and higher education.  My greatest challenge lies in parsing out how that is the case for folks who haven’t had the advantages I have had over the past seven years as I’ve learned from my digital humanities colleagues.

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XML: The Latin of Digital Scholarship?

I’ve been playing with this analogy for a while, and I was pleased to hear the silence of assent when I took it out for a trial run at a session on Big Data at THATCamp Kansas a few weeks ago. It elicited some resistance at another moment that weekend, and I’m interested in the contextual differences.

The second group with whom I discussed my notion represented a couple of constituencies that I’m less familiar with in digital humanities, those interested in the semantic web and those who work with the languages that power social media. These folks mentioned Django, which is based on Python and was developed in Lawrence, Kansas. I haven’t yet learned Python, though I know about it, and William J. Turkel and Alan MacEachern’s The Programming Historian is bookmarked on my browser. (Thank you once again, Canada, for your excellent support of digital scholarship.)

My young colleagues pointed to Web 2.0, Facebook, and Google as examples of common tools not based on XML. I learned a lot from them–I’d never heard of Django before that conversation. But I don’t think their point invalidates my own.

I mean, after all, to point here to certain historical effects, including the use of Latin as the language of scholarship and diplomacy in Medieval Europe. (Easy for me, you may say, since I’m not a medievalist.) Thus, I think the analogy may be apt since XML lies behind long-term developments in what was long ago called Humanities Computing—efforts to consider how computers might facilitate humanities research, in Medieval and Classical Studies in fact.

Since the language also underlies such proprietary applications as MicroSoft Word and Excel, the analogy also alludes to the place of Latin as the foundation upon which the romance languages were built. Apt again, perhaps, since computational linguistics also makes use of XML.

I ponder this analogy because I want to better articulate the significance for liberal education of the effects of digital innovations on scholarship. And as I do so, I seek to understand digital scholarship in the larger landscape of digital culture.

I think that learning to feel comfortable with one type of coding (XML) can help humanities students develop the confidence to explore additional languages–like Python–and become ever more nimble citizens of their digital world.


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NEH Digital Humanities Project Directors’ Meeting

Almost a week has passed since I attended the Project Directors’ Meeting at the offices of the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington DC, and I’m struggling a bit to recall the joy I was feeling after four days almost straight of spending time with friends and colleagues who are practitioners of digital humanities. A cancelled flight home, post-travel exhaustion, and demanding local responsibilities tend to force even the most immediate and energizing of past experiences into the background.

So I want to take some time to recall the pleasure of having sat in a room filled with digital humanists for a full workday last Tuesday (which was also, by the way, Eliza Baylies Wheaton’s birthday). We began with a session just for us, hearing presentations from various members of the NEH staff. Then at 10:30 the meeting opened to the public, which included such members of the press as the reporter for Inside Higher Education who wrote up the event in a piece entitled “The Promise of Digital Humanities.” The main events in this portion of the day were two sessions of “lightning” presentations–three-slide, two-minute talks in which a total of sixty projects were summarized.

I was utterly delighted to learn about the creativity and technical innovation of classicists, historians, literary critics, and others who are developing mobile applications for subjects from Shakespeare to local history, constructing games to teach students about topics from daily life in 17th-century English villages to 18th-century medical history, and building tools to share local data for large-scale analysis. I can no more summarize the range of the projects than could the reporter from IHE.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that distinguished digital humanist Cathy Davidson would talk about her new book Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. I deeply appreciated her counter to the myriad books focused on scaring us about the implications of our digital culture. And I am pleased to have heard that she is giving this talk to business people and other decision makers. Hers is a powerful voice for the promise of our digital future.

Best of all, after I offered my own “lightning” report in the meeting’s afternoon session–giving the briefest of overviews of our work to date on developing standards for using TEI-conformant XML to mark up transcriptions of historic financial records–I met several people who expressed support for the work. A few of these new colleagues are interested in participating in the next steps of our project, when we are ready to test our nascent guidelines more broadly.

As I read the comments on the IHE article, I agree with historian Crandall Shiflett, Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech University and one of the innovators who was working in digital history twenty years ago. He gives credit to his colleagues in that work and writes: “The promise and challenge of digital humanities in the new age will be to break down walls of disciplinary separation and forge collaborations among scholars across these borders, if the revolution is to become truly revolutionary. It will require private and public support on a large scale, but the reward will be the creation of new knowledge and knowledge in new ways.” Hear, hear.

*Our project “Encoding Financial Records” has received financial support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post or other publications related to the project do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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In Praise of THATCamp Kansas

The good folks at the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities at Kansas University put together a fantastic three days of workshops, THATCamp, and panels organized around the theme “Representing Knowledge in the Humanities.” I was enormously pleased to have the opportunity to meet students, librarians, technologists, and faculty members from colleges and universities in the region and to both solicit and offer advice from and to colleagues at diverse stages of engagement with the place of digital research and scholarship in the humanities and humanities-inflected social sciences.

As is so often the case, the conversations between and around the organized events were easily as informative and inspiring as the events that made them. Thank you and kudos to Arienne Dwyer, Brian Rosenblum, and their colleagues. I gained more than I can possibly express from the events you organized, and I’ll be writing about some of ideas the events helped me develop more fully in the days to come.

I’m especially grateful for the opportunity to practice the lightning talk I will be presenting at the NEH Project Directors’ Meeting in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. More on that soon, as well.

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