From Our Guest Bloggers #TCMNY, digital libraries, scholarly communication, THATCamp
While I bet many of you were enjoying the transcendent weekend we just had, I attended a really great digital humanities conference – or rather “unconference” – called THATCamp over at the Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts, Design, History and Material Culture. A sincere thanks to Kimon Keramidas and Amanda French for doing a fantastic job playing Masters of Ceremony, not to mention the hard work of their equally amazing staff! The whole thing was so enjoyable I hardly missed the sunshine. For the origin story and reasons behind the formation of THATCamp, Tom Scheinfeldt, the Managing Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason gave a decidedly un-THATCamp-y talk at Columbia University CDRS last month.
My THATCamp Badge
I attended eight sessions total, and although all of them were incredibly useful I’ll only cover a few of them here. The first was a workshop on Viewshare, a tool I hadn’t heard of before that allows users to import thir collection data in order to generate visualizations such as maps, scatter plots, tables, timelines and/or pie charts. I’m excited to see how our collection play across this visualization tool, and I think it will really help me to understand where our collections strengths lie. This could inform future collections interface projects I am beginning to cook up, and hopefully help me avoid pitfalls that can arise when embarking on these kinds of projects.
Beth Harris and Steven Zucker’s talk on their innovative website and podcast, Smarthistory surprised me for its tremendous benefit to my thinking about the oral histories we capture at the Yard. For those of you less familiar, Smarthistory podcasts discuss works of art in a dialog format and through an insistence upon direct observation of the works of art themselves. The lively conversation and the in-situ nature of their podcasts adds immediacy and freshness to the study of art history (something many people find lacking). After their talk I now see that these same principles can just as easily applied to my oral history projects. What may be lost in sound quality can be gained by sparking more evocative memories in our oral history narrators. I can’t wait to hear the kinds of conversations we can capture with this new perspective on oral history.
One of my favorite parts of the conference was the interlude called “Dork Shorts,” in which folks pitched the projects they’re working on in two-minute bursts. All of them were great, but Stereogranimator, developed by Ben Vershbow and company at NYPL Labs, appealed to me for its ability to reinstate the sense of perspective offered by stereoscopic views in the web environment. I have a number of stereographs in my collection, and one of the things that troubles me about them is how they get passed up for other forms of photography simply because they’re these weird little duplicate images.
The Stereogranimator allows you to generate 3D images as well as animated gifs (not shown) which approximate the experience of having a hand-held stereoscopic viewer. Yes, the image below requires you to have a pair of red/blue 3D glasses, but the fun and whimsey these 3D images inspire – particularly in kids – is right in line with other aesthetic choices we made in our galleries.
ANAGLYPH made with the NYPL Labs Stereogranimator
I should also note that THATCamp isn’t all tech tools, there was a lot of deep discussions about how technology changes the museum experience, and the care digital humanities professionals must take not to not disrupt the primacy of art and artifacts. We also discussed the limitations of digital interpretation, and the trade-offs between conveying perfectly accurate information vs. simplifying data to better illustrate a point. At BLDG 92 these issues plagued us when developing a number of our museum features, particularly our interactive map. I was comforted to find other professionals struggling with this as well, and was given a lot to think about as we embark on our next digital initiatives.
These theoretical sessions were probably the most valuable for me, though they don’t convey as well in the confines of a blog post. For me the experience was endlessly useful, and reinvigorated my feelings about my collection as well as digital humanities as a practice. It was also great to find other humanities professionals who are further along in their careers voicing the same concerns I face in my work. I encourage you all to seek out THATCamp sessions in the future. You won’t be disappointed.
From Our Guest Bloggers archives, digital libraries, museums
I’m guessing my experience isn’t unique when I say that, as an archivist, I have gotten really familiar with the art of scanning. Prior to embarking on this career I thought of scanners as a slight improvement on the fax machine; an office nuisance that I only used when sending out a completed form or signed document. Now it seems that scanning – or as we archivists like to embellish, digitizing – is my number one priority and perhaps the most powerful tool in my arsenal.
First and foremost, I scan documents for our engineering department’s reference, which requires making our photographs, maps and plans available on the construction site while simultaneously offering them to outside contractors at other locations. Anticipating the needs of this department and digitizing our collections accordingly ensures that the required information is at everyone’s fingertips – greatly improving efficiency for many of our construction projects. Additionally, because the system that manages these collections (CollectiveAccess for those of you in the market) will soon be made available via the web, our staff—as well as our museum visitors—will be able to conduct their own searches, thereby expanding access to our collections exponentially.
Screen Shot of the Navy Yard's Collections Management System
But that’s the basics. It’s in the context of our museum where things get interesting. Digital scans of our collection inhabit all corners of the museum including its exterior walls. The most striking example is the three-story reproduction of the USS Brooklyn etched into the solar screen mounted to museum’s façade. Originally part of a WPA documentation project, this image was likely printed, filed and forgotten. Forgotten, that is, until our archive scanned it as part of a larger digitization initiative with the National Archives. Today this image and 5,000 of its kindred find themselves repurposed as press packets, educational materials, supplements to our tour program, and as reference materials for researchers and artists. The ease of sharing and manipulating these digital scans has breathed new life into this collection, and helped me to prove the archive’s value beyond the needs of the company itself.
Solar screen featuring etching of the USS Brooklyn, photograph by Beyer Blinder Belle
A lot of what we do with our digitized collections boils down to enhancing a 19th century imaging technology using 21st century tools, though there is something to be said for doing the reverse. Our museum’s mutoscopes – essentially hand-cranked viewers like the kind you’d find in a turn-of-the-century penny arcade – allows visitors to see the Yard’s oldest dry dock in action through a mechanism that was developed almost concurrently. By using individual frames of digital video footage and printing them onto heavy cardstock we were able to communicate how a dry dock works through a unique visitor interactive. This touch of 19th century innovation offers visitors not only the information we wanted to convey, but a visceral sense of the era as well.
Brooklyn Navy Yard mutoscope (internal mechanism revealed)
I think the most fulfilling use of our digital images comes from the creative partnerships we forge with our community. One of our partners, Groundswell, is an amazing organization that works with elementary and high school aged kids to create artworks that beautify neighborhoods and encourage social change. For their project with us they are designing a multi-wall mural that tells the Yard’s story as experienced by its workers from 1801 to the present day. Working with these kids, and watching them reinterpret our archival materials into a dynamic and unified piece has been incredibly fulfilling, and something quite different from my usual day-to-day. I think projects like these go great lengths to promote the strength of ones collections, and can serve as a poignant reminder as to why you got into this gig in the first place.
I realize none of you really need to be convinced as to the strengths of embarking on digitization projects, but I do encourage you to think more broadly about how these projects can manifest. Time consuming as they might be from the outset, I found that rewards can pay off a hundredfold.
From Our Guest Bloggers art history, art librarianship, digital libraries, visual literacy
What is the relationship between Art & Technology, specifically what does art and art history offer technology? I was recently posed this question and asked to present on my answer. At first I was a bit stumped… what do they even mean!? When I started working, I was mostly talking about all the things that technology was offering to Art History: digital libraries, digital humanities, digital other things! When I realized this, I knew I had to retrench. It was then that I hit on a skill that art history teaches and is absolutely vital to technology, visual literacy.
At this point you are probably saying either “yeah duh” or “visual what now?” For those in the latter category, do not worry, you’re certainly not alone. Go to ACRL’s visual literacy standards to get up to speed. It is essentially the ability to find, understand, and use images. Which is harder than it sounds.
First is the finding, or more often than not, the not finding, and worst of all, the not even attempting to find. We’ve all sat through power-points that were unending bullets of unreadable words, our eyes glazing over as we slump deeper into a stupor. Or we tried to read blogs that were essentially walls of text smashing into our faces, sapping us of our will to go on. The hard truth of the matter is that the web and most forms of digital communication are visual media. If you aren’t using images, you’re doing it wrong.
So you know you need an image, but that lolcat you found with google images isn’t cutting it? We all know someone who thinks it’s acceptable to use clip-art (“only sometimes!”, they might say), when it is 100% fact that it should never be used for anything, ever. Ever. Friends don’t let friends use stock photos. Libraries spend a good deal of time and money building better resources for people, we even call them digital libraries. But libraries cannot take a Field of Dreams approach to our image resources, because build it, and they very well might not come. We have to promote, persuade, educate, cajole, mock, and otherwise convince people to use these resources.
Don't use this!
But of course even when we get people to select a great looking image there are still challenges. A stellar image when paired with the content, might makes everyone go, “and that’s relevant how?” Which is generally to be avoided. With the preponderance of great images available out there, as well as the ever increasing number of tools for information visualization this problem can be prevented, but like forest fires, only you can do it.
This is very relevant to my post
Quite a bit more problematic is understanding the images one uses. This is where being an art historian comes in handy, or at least having an undergraduate minor. Evaluating images’ style, content, composition, meaning, and historical context is like second nature to us. When pretty much every website, Powerpoint, blog, digital humanities project requires us to use images, this is a danged useful skill. You don’t want to use an image that turns out to have some nasty connections, or that you simply don’t understand. But you studied something practical in college you say? Well too bad, you have to give us humanities people something. All that stuff about learning to think critically and analyze the represented world, well wasn’t all bullshit. But we’re more than happy to share our skills.
Time is money, which is why you don't waste people's time with images like this one
So you’ve successfully navigated these hurdles and produced a beautiful piece of well illustrated work. Too bad you may have broke the law, right? If you’re still using Google images, then probably yes. Hopefully you know where your image came from, you know if it’s in the public domain, or you found something licensed under creative commons and you’ve given attribution. Or if not, you understand your rights under fair use and have created a transformative work. Perhaps you’re pushing the boundaries of fair use, you brave and noble creature, and have set an example for us all.
Presto! You've created a work of art
That’s visual literacy! Simple right? But oh so lacking, and oh so vital for libraries’ digital projects. While this article may make light of the current situation (oh, it’s far worse than I’ve made out), it is a serious challenge for librarians of all stripes, one that will only get more vital as the internet increasingly takes over our lives.
From Our Guest Bloggers archiving, CDL, digital libraries, librarian, metadata, WEST
Working at the California Digital Library is very different from working in a traditional academic library setting. We are part of the University of California system, and provide services to the libraries on all 10 UC campuses, but we aren’t directly part of the library system. The UC libraries are not a streamlined, unified entity, though many initiatives are being undertaken to bring library practices across the UC into closer alignment. The CDL operates under the administrative branch of the UC, the UC Office of the President (UCOP). Working for a huge academic institution like the UC is a lot different from working for a small, private liberal arts college like Whitman, which was my last place of employment. There are a lot of moving pieces, and it’s not always clear how they fit together. And of course, California’s budget crisis is hitting the UC hard, though I think it’s felt a little bit less by CDL than it is in the other UC libraries. We are, after all, providing services that help the other libraries save money and work more efficiently, and in today’s library environment, that’s a pretty important role to play.
Our team of about 70-80 people works on a lot of varied projects. I’ve been here for about five months now, and I still don’t completely understand, or even know, everything that we do. On a very basic level, we provide access to electronic content to all the UC libraries at a reduced cost, because we can purchase it “in bulk,” so to speak. We’re kind of like the managing agent for all of the electronic content subscriptions that the UC libraries purchase collectively, and thus, we also run all the technology that provides access to that content, like link resolvers and authentication services.
Our other primary service is Melvyl, a UC-wide union catalog that allows patrons at any UC campus to search for and borrow materials from any other UC campus. This catalog was traditionally run via an ILS installed here at the CDL, in which each institution’s records were duplicated from their own local catalog. However, we’ve recently made the transition to OCLC’s WorldCat Local, a process that has not been without its headaches and growing pains. Overall, though, it’s been a good move. We at the CDL also manage the inter-UC campus loan service, and the courier service.
Besides these foundational services, CDL runs the UC-wide institutional repository, e-Scholarship, UC Shared Print archiving initiatives, the Mass Digitization project undertaken with Google and the Internet Archive, UC Publishing services, preservation services including EZID, Web archiving services, and DataCite, digital special collections like Calisphere…honestly, the list of things we manage and create is pretty huge, and it’s kind of fun to dig around the CDL website to check some of these projects out.
I wanted to come work at the CDL because it’s a place that is often on the cutting edge of library services. I think of the CDL as the research arm of the UC libraries. We have the time and resources to experiment with new ideas, make mistakes and learn and figure out what will work best to make the UC libraries the most efficient and effective library system it can be. I get to work with really smart, motivated, and passionate people every day, and that is really fun.
I was brought into the CDL fold to work, at least initially, on a project associated with the Western Regional Storage Trust (WEST). WEST is a distributed print journal archiving program, in which a number of institutions across the US are coming together to make collective decisions about retrospective archiving of print journals. Our project, the Print Archives Preservation Registry (PAPR) is affiliated with the Center for Research Libraries, and is being designed to support the kinds of collaborative archiving decisions that bodies like WEST need to make. At its most basic, PAPR is designed to ingest library records from a group of libraries, and analyze the holdings collectively to determine who would be the best candidate to hold an archive of a particular title (or list of titles, more accurately). PAPR will also provide a searchable registry of archived titles and archiving programs, so that individual libraries can make informed de-selection and archiving decisions.
So what does a metadata analyst do on a project like this? My job has been shifting with the project as development and deployment progress. When I first came on to this project, I spent a fair amount of time getting intimately familiar with the requirements of the project, the purpose of our tool, and the needs of our “clients,” both WEST and the CRL. I took an active role in working with the project manager and all the various players in finalizing project requirements and deliverables, and helped the team to really understand the data (largely MARC records) that we are going to be working with. I brought to the team a working knowledge of library practices and library metadata. I worked with our developers to ensure that the database and ingest programs being developed would reflect the kind of data we are going to be receiving.
Now that we’re into the deployment phase, I’m receiving each set of library metadata (i.e. MARC cataloging records) we receive and writing specifications for our programmer to create programs that will allow the data in the record to be ingested into a relational database. As much as MARC is a standard, there are a lot of non-standard elements in each set of records we receive. I have to identify where the rogue data is in each set of records so that our ingest programs can accurately find the data we need in the records.
Whenever I hear catalogers and people who are familiar with MARC records and bibliographic data talk about how they don’t know much about metadata, I feel deeply sad. Because library records ARE metadata. I’m not sure how we managed to convince ourselves that metadata is this new and foreign thing; we’ve been the masters of metadata for centuries. Say it with me now: cataloging librarians are metadata librarians.
The most exciting thing about being a metadata librarian right now is how much things are changing, and how much there is to learn. Our traditional standards and practices are about to change in major ways, but the way I see it, we all managed to learn card catalogs, and we all managed to learn MARC. There’s no reason we can’t all learn something new.
There are a few more projects here at the CDL that I’m going to start working on, and I’m excited to expand my horizons and learn about even more of the awesome things we’re doing here at the CDL. If you’re interested in seeing the future of library services, take a look at the CDL website and explore some of our projects. Maybe you’ll find some new things to introduce into your own library practices.