“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.

 

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.

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.