“The Future of the Library in the Digital Age? Worrying about Preserving our Knowledge” by Ian Milligan

Ian Milligan, a #twitterstorian I’ve been following for a while now, has written a new article for ActiveHistory.ca discussing some of the issues that have been raised in our course. In response to the CBBC’s discussion “What’s the future of the library in the age of Google?”, Milligan considers the significance of such discussions for historians.

How are we currently preserving digital resources? What might we be losing with our current methods of digital preservation? Milligan points out that the idea that all things digital last forever is an illusion; we have little of the early web remaining now.

A very interesting read with some though-provoking points, as always.

Check it out HERE.

 

Decisions, Decisions

This week’s assignment was a reflection on fellow classmates’ digital project proposals, so I have left that as a Moodle only post. I did want to post here this week, however, as I contemplate a few things in regards to my own project. In fact, I’m hoping someone out there might have some experiences along the same line and could offer a little advice even.

My digital project will be a site, Sentimental Locks, that will highlight the history of hairwork (contrary to how that sounds, it will not significantly incorporate alliteration). Firstly, I want to create historical posts about how hair was used in various crafts throughout history and, more importantly, why people chose to use hair as a crafting material. I believe the why is particularly important when considering a material that, today, can make people intrigued, confuse them a bit, cause internal squeals at the macabre excitement of it all, or provoke outright shivers of disgust. Of course, these posts will be backed by primary and secondary source research.

In addition to these original posts, I also want to create a listing of resources for those interested in seeing hairwork pieces, finding more information about these crafts, or perhaps even making their own pieces of hairwork. This will be accomplished through reviews of sources (both digital and traditional), posts with videos about how to craft items with hair, links to other websites and posts about hairwork, etc.

Now, the decision part comes in as a question of where to build the site. I have already started creating the structure for the site through the free version of WordPress.com. However, I also now have access to a WordPress page hosted through my university. The university’s page would allow me a bit more customization in some areas, would make clear the academic basis of the site, and would be a chance to experience another side of the WordPress platform; benefits to the site itself and to my own experience.

The biggest draw back of using the university backed WordPress site would be the inability to continue maintaining the site beyond my association with the university. Though it is being produced for a class, the project would be more of a personal interest project that I would possibly like to continue updating in the future.

For now, I think I will start fiddling with the university backed version. Even if I end up using WordPress.com instead, I’m curious to see what a hosted WordPress site is like and I think it will be beneficial to me to explore the possibilities. I’m hoping that I could use the export function to migrate information between the two blogs, regardless of which is the “main” one.

If anyone has experience working with university hosted WordPress sites, with exporting/importing WordPress sites between different versions, or just has some advice/suggestions, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

 

Reviewing, Digital Style

This week we were given a selection of sites to choose from and instructed to write a review of the one we chose. Our review was supposed to be 500-700 words long and needed to follow the Journal of American History and History Matters guidelines. My submission is below.


The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Daily entries from the 17th century London diary
http://www.pepysdiary.com/
Phil Gyford 19 September 2014

Content

The content of this site revolves around a decades worth of daily writings from Samuel Pepys, a 17th century civil servant living in London. By presenting each day separately, the user is given a new dynamic way of interacting with a primary source. Over the first decade of the site, users were able to follow Pepys life in the same way they would a popular blogger or friend. Today, the decade long cycle of Pepys writings are once again in rotation, attracting new and old readers alike.

It is important to note that the site was created not by a historian, but rather a technologist. Phil Gyford has created a variety of web projects and has been involved with many organizations throughout his career. He has a Masters degree in the fascinating sounding “Studies of the Future” from the University of Houston. Perhaps Gyford’s basis outside of a traditional historic focus is what allowed him to create a site that is much more than just a digital version of a 17th century man’s diary.

Form

The form of the site is simplistically modern at the moment. Using the Wayback Machine, one can see that over the past eleven years the site has gone through several iterations in form. Throughout the changes, however, simplicity seems to have reigned. The focus is always on the text; other than the addition of a header featuring Pepys’ portrait, the site doesn’t prominently feature any images, either then or now. The main page is composed of the diary entries. Through the menu and through hyperlink-ed text within the diary entries the user can access a variety of other areas of the site that each add a layer of further information.

Audience/Use

The intended audience seems to be quite broad. The use seems to be primarily entertainment with a side of education. The primary diary entries remain almost entirely true to the 19th century transcription of Pepys diary, which is available through Project Gutenberg, and could certainly be used for scholarly research.

New Media Aspects

What makes The Diary of Samuel Pepys stand out among digital projects of an historical nature is the level of involvement from users. The simple, yet deep, level of audience engagement is possible through an adept use of new media technology.

First, annotations can be added for each daily diary entry. This allows the readers to discuss the day’s content and create connections between previous entries. New annotations continue to be added daily. Debates over the use of certain words, their historical meanings, and Pepys intentions of use are one example of the rich discussion created in these areas of the site.

The site also features an “Encyclopedia” section that gives relevant information about people, places, and events mentioned in the diary. The Encyclopedia is similarly composed of annotations by users of the site. Each entry has a “References” tab that guides users to the pertinent diary entries. Some of these entries also make use of other digital tools, like maps locating relevant places with historic maps overlaid for a fuller understanding of the surrounding area.

Finally, in terms of audience involvement in the site, longer essays and articles on Pepys and other germane topics. These articles provide a fuller narrative aspect to the site than the diary entries alone. One of these articles, “The Next Chapter of Samuel Pepys” by Jeannine Kerwin indicates the real level of engagement created by the site in its brief description: “Dedicated to Phil Gyford and the community he created: to friends made along the way and to those who have left us.”

Certain days also incorporate information from other sites; for example, weather information, local goings on in a nearby town with a loose connection to Pepys life, or other newsworthy items. These additional snippets of information are included to the right of the pertinent entry. The user can click on each day’s entry, rather than viewing them from the home page, to find this additional information. (Edit: I initially thought this feature was gone. After a comment from the site’s creator, Phil, I realized however that I had simply not clicked through to the specific days, only looked at the post aggregation on the front page or jumped right to the annotations section on each entry. Happily, I stand corrected and this neat feature is still available.)

An early adopter of Twitter, Pepys entered the realm of social media in 2008. Tweeting from @samuelpepys, snippets of Pepys day are shared throughout the day. Undoubtedly the continued maintenance of the site and of Pepys’ social media presence helps the site continue to draw in interested users over a decade after its start.

Scan This… Blog?

Out of this week’s reading, I really enjoyed “Scan This Book!” by Kevin Kelly. The piece really got me thinking about the potentiality of a Digital Alexandria. When I started the article I wasn’t sure if Kelly’s enthusiasm was sincere or whether he was setting up an image he would soon be knocking down. It was soon clear that while Kelly acknowledges the potential limitations and roadblocks in the way, he seems to see the digitization process as beneficial and, likely, inevitable.

The piece is eight years old and many of Kelly’s predictions and musings seem to have come true in the intervening years. He discusses the potential for connectivity and interactivity once books moved to digital format. Kelly says that digital books will “have some of its words linked to definitions,” already a reality with Kindle books where you can instantly see a definition for any word in the book.1 In many ways the the community aspect of reading books has already become a reality too, through programs like Zotero or GoodReads people can share their book lists and illuminate connections between various books that would possibly have been more difficult to locate previously. Kelly also focuses often on the concept of sources being mashed-up and remixed, much like Mills Kelly discusses in his book, Teaching History in the Digital Age.2 Indeed, the students who have gone through their secondary education since Kevin Kelly wrote his piece are the ones now occupying the seats in Mills Kelly’s classes.

Google’s lawsuit with the Author’s Guild was dismissed in 2013, freeing Google to continue their scanning for now.3 In fact, Judge Chin, who dismissed the case, explained his decision in language very similar to Kelly’s. Chin’s decision states:

(Google Books) has given scholars the ability, for the first time, to conduct full-text searches of tens of millions of books. It preserves books, in particular out-of-print and old books that have been forgotten in the bowels of libraries, and it gives them new life. It facilitates access to books for print-disabled and remote or underserved populations. It generates new audiences and creates new sources of income for authors and publishers. Indeed, all society benefits.4

Regardless of the outcome of the suit, Kelly states that Google’s plans to begin scanning books on a massive scale has spurred action from publishers; “They are now busy digging deep into their records to see what part of the darkness they can declare as their own.”5 This implies that publishers are now realizing the necessity of knowing what is in the dark portions of their catalogs and, while searching for items that might bring in large revenue, they will end up sorting out the more numerous but less notable titles.

A final thought that stuck out to me was regarding the use of the web to bring forward niche topics of interest, especially since I will be doing my digital project this semester on just such a topic. Kelly states:

works on the margins of popularity will find a small audience larger than the near-zero audience they usually have now. Far out in the “long tail” of the distribution curve — that extended place of low-to-no sales where most of the books in the world live — digital interlinking will lift the readership of almost any title, no matter how esoteric.6

I think the same applies not only to the sale of books on esoteric topics, but also on the creation of sites, forums, and community groups on such topic. These digital points of information can, in turn, help support the sales of academic or popular books on these topics if the users are made aware of their presence.

Kelly’s article was brimming with optimism and potential, just my speed, and I very much enjoyed reading and comparing how technology has progressed so far and imagining what we have yet to come.

 

Footnotes

1. Kelly, Kevin. “Scan This Book!” The New York Times, May 14, 2006, sec. Magazine. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/14/magazine/14publishing.html.

2. Kelly, T. Mills. Teaching History in the Digital Age. University of Michigan Press, 2013. http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/dh/12146032.0001.001/1:4/–teaching-history-in-the-digital-age?g=dculture;rgn=div1;view=fulltext;xc=1.

3. “Google Book Search Settlement Agreement.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, September 5, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Google_Book_Search_Settlement_Agreement&oldid=624324351.

4. “Google Wins: Court Issues a Ringing Endorsement of Google Books.” PublishersWeekly.com. Accessed September 13, 2014. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/60006-google-wins-court-issues-a-ringing-endorsement-of-google-books.html.

5. Kelly, Kevin. “Scan This Book!” The New York Times, May 14, 2006, sec. Magazine. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/14/magazine/14publishing.html.

6. Ibid.

A Sim-ulating History

While doing some reading for class I stumbled upon this article from Ted Friedman’s book Electric Dreams. It particularly sparked my interest since the latest Sims installment, Sims 4, was released at the beginning of this month. It’s interesting to look back on the rise of the simulation game, particularly, and video games, in general, through Friedman’s lense.

Sims through the years c/o Luke Productions

I must admit though, between the required readings I am trying to make my way through and the short bouts of Sims 4 I’ve been playing, I haven’t been able to make it through Friedman’s entire chapter. I thought, however, that other gaming fans might enjoy having a read. The entire chapter has been published by Friedman on his own WordPress site and is linked below. Enjoy!

The Simulation Game.

Bonus: Here’s an episode of Stark Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson where he interviews the Sims creator, Will Wheaton.

An Experiment in Digital Resources

For this blog we were to search a topic pertinent to our upcoming digital history project in a variety of online resources, specifically Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, and a popular search engine, then compare the results to an academic treatment of the same topic. In my case I have chosen “hairwork” as my search term. Hairwork is a term used to describe artistic items crafted using, historically, human hair. Hairwork was especially popular during the nineteenth century in Europe and America and many examples remain in tact due to hair’s natural durability. So, let’s see what our resources have to say about this historically popular craft.

A stunning bracelet crafted from human hair. This piece is a part of the Leila’s Hair Museum collection. Click the image to visit the gallery portion of the museum’s website.

Wikipedia

We have read much about Wikipedia in the past few weeks, both positive and negative. A search for “hairwork” leads the user to the page “Hair Jewellery.” In regards to Wikipedia, I tend to side with those who wrote responses to Jared Lanier’s “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism”, rather than with Lanier, in thinking that Wikipedia is more a force for good with open and easily understood inner workings. In the case of “Hair Jewellery,” however, Wikipedia is severely lacking. The article focuses primarily on the broad use of hair in various crafts throughout history and its symbolic meaning therein, while briefly discussing the popularity of hairwork during the Victorian era. The article has no sources, is rather poorly written, and has no real organization. A peek at the View History page shows that Wikipedians have been editing the article for seven years and several editors have noted major changes they made regarding everything from the use of first person language, the removal of irrelevant information, and a minor debate about the spelling of “jewellery” vs “jewelry.” Frankly, this makes me a little concerned with what the original article looked like and the page itself warns readers that “(t)his article is written like a personal reflection or opinion essay.” Not a great source for anyone attempting to do academic work on this topic at the moment.

(P.S. The bad thing about learning how to edit Wikipedia is the urge to change poorly done articles of interest and distract oneself from other tasks at hand. Case in point, I just couldn’t resist the urge to edit it, so this particular article now looks slightly improved but still needs further additions in terms of academic sources. I’ll probably edit it again once I get all my research done for this digital project and have a more firm grasp of the literature.)

“A hair brooch in the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.” From the Wikipedia article “Hair Jewellery.”

Encyclopedia Britannica

Lanier worries in his piece about the loss of an individual authors voice through the use of crowd sourced sites like Wikipedia versus the tried and true reference resources like Encyclopedia Britannica. In this case, however, the Wikipedia article features a bit too much of the primary author’s voice while Encyclopedia Britannica remains entirely silent. A search for “hairwork,” “hair jewelry,” and the like pulls up nothing more than a scientific explanation of what hair is and various insects and animals with “hair” or “hairy” in their common name. This of course speaks to the limitations of older reference sources when it comes to niche topics which may not be popular enough to warrant paying an author to define.

Google

In his article, “Fighting Bad History with Good, or, Why Historians Must Get on the Web Now,” Marshall Poe hopes to convince historians of the need to create academic space on the web for their topics of interest. He states, “Google your own topic of research and review the top results. Likely you will see a Wikipedia entry and a collection of putatively educational sites, all of which are selling something.”1  Indeed, in the case of hairwork, this description of likely Google search results is still spot on five years after Poe’s article was written. The top search result is hairwork.com a largely disorganized looking site dominated by ads for various books, tools, and supplies for the art of hairwork. If you need a forum to find buyers for your own hair, then look no further! Among the ads and sales there are links to other interesting resources; for instance, one can navigate to a section full of collector’s stories. One of these collectors is Leila Cohoon who runs Leila’s Hair Museum. There are also links to a blog post about hairwork, the site of a historical re-enactor who does hairwork, and other similar enthusiast sites. One exception is a Project Gutenburg text of an 1867 instructional hairwork book.

Another piece from the Leila’s Hair Museum collection. This one is a decorative piece meant to be displayed under a glass dome. Click the image to visit the image gallery for Leila’s Hair Museum.

Academic Perspective

Locating an academic article was a bit of a challenge as well. JSTOR offered only reviews of the few books that have written about hairwork and other suggested sites come up with nothing relevant. Eventually through a hit on Google Scholar and then a trip to the library website, I located an intriguingly relevant piece. Helen Sheumaker’s “‘This Lock You See’: Nineteenth-Century Hair Work as the Commodified Self” offers an academic understanding of the use of hair in sentimental crafts of the nineteenth-century. While the enthusiast or “amateur” sites discussed above primarily focus on how hairwork was made and share past and present images of the craft, Sheumaker focuses on the ever-important academic question of “why” various crafts made with human hair took on a special meaning during the Victorian period. Sheumaker states “(i)t was precisely these aspects of hair-its seemingly stable individuality, its fragility wedded with materiality, its transcendence-that nineteenth-century American found so compelling.”2

Conclusion

This exercise leads me to an important conclusion. There is clearly a niche interest on the web for better understanding this type of craft work. Current sites offer how-to information along with stunning examples, but they lack in an academic grounding. If a history teacher or professor wanted to use hairwork as a visually engaging tool to help explain the sentimentality of the nineteenth century, there would be no “one-stop-shop” website to which they could turn. I believe this both highlights the continuing divide between academic and “amateur” sites online, while also making the need for a hybrid site on such a topic clear.

A brooch made of two sisters' hair. Item from the Minnesota Historical Society's collection. Click the image to visit the item's catalog record.

A brooch made of two sisters’ hair. Item from the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection. Click the image to visit the item’s catalog record.

Footnotes

1. Marshall Poe, “Fighting Bad History with Good, or, Why Historians Must Get on the Web Now,” Historically Speaking 10, 2 (2009), 22. http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/historically_speaking/v010/10.2.poe.html

2. Helen Sheumaker, “‘This Lock You See’: Nineteenth-Century Hair Work as the Commodified Self,” Fashion Theory 1, 4 (1997), 422.