2012 Year in Review: Digital History, Digital Cultural Heritage, and the Born Digital History of Science

Looking back on this year makes me exhausted. It looks like I managed to put up 34 posts on The Library of Congress Digital Preservation Blog as well as 11 posts on Play the Past and 24 posts here on my own blog. Seven different things I wrote ended up churning their ways through the process of becoming journal articles or book chapters, and by my count I was involved in 12 conferences (4 of which I was involved in planning). All of that led me to make the face below.

Photo of me from the OSI Newsletter

What follows is my attempt to make sense of it all and provide anyone interested in an overview of what I’ve been up to with a run down. Looking back over what I have gotten into this year I think I can (broadly speaking) fit most of what I have worked on into one of two buckets, digital strategy for cultural heritage organizations and work trying to further advance digital history.

Digital Strategy for Cultural Heritage Organizations
Earlier this year i had a chance to interview Michael Edson from Smithsonian for the LC blog. In working up one of my questions for that interview I think I’ve found one of the central questions that much of my work responds to.

Where do you think the home should be for digital media in a cultural heritage organization? Or, how do you think one should divide up roles and responsibilities when digital is increasingly becoming a key part of nearly every part of cultural heritage organizations? We are increasingly acquiring, preserving and exhibiting born-digital and digitized materials, using social media for outreach and public relations, supporting researchers and fielding reference questions through digital channels, and supporting all of that work with a substantive IT infrastructure. Who should be whom’s ramp and loading doc?

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to forward my own answer to this question when I was invited to keynote the Connecticut Digital Initiatives Forum. I think some of the features of the digital makes it possible to apply a lot of the ideas that have come out of the open source software movement into how we do a lot of other work. I called this  Do Less More Often An Approach to Digital Strategy for Cultural Heritage Organizations. Everybody is trying to do too much at once. Find the low hanging fruit and pick it. Get the boxes off the floor. Release early and release often. Put things out there and find out how you should be doing things. I think this idea cuts across all parts of digital cultural heritage work. Everything from, collecting, processing, arranging, preserving, making available, and exhibiting can be re-framed in this mindset.

As an example, alongside this year’s Digital Preservation Conference I helped to facilitate CURATEcamp processing. An unconference focused on bringing notions of archival processing and computational processing. The event itself (minimally planned and programmed and participant driven) to me, exemplifies do less more often. At the same time, some of the great work on applying More Product, Less Process for Born-Digital Collections and Born Digital Minimum Processing and Access are also great fits in that they become ways to think about iteratively structuring work. A similar iterative approach is evident in the NDSA levels of digital preservation project. Which went from a concept to a release candidate over the course of the year.

Another big area of strategy I did a good bit of thinking and writing about this year was crowdsourcing. You can see a recap of most of my Crowdsourcing Cultural heritage posts here.

Advancing Digital History: Practices, Tools, and Data

This year I wrote a bit about how historical research is changing as a result of digital tools, I worked on building and designing a tool for historians, and I was thrilled to be able to participate in ongoing conversations about how historians thinking about

I was excited that Fred Gibbs and I’s essay Building Better Digital Humanities Tools: Toward broader audiences and user-centered designs made it’s way into Digital Humanities Quarterly earlier this year.  I was also thrilled to see that a lot of the things we found about how historians were approaching digitized source material were similar to what ITHAKA found in their recent study of historians research practices.

Keeping these ideas in mind, I was thrilled to work and write about the ongoing work on Viewshare. Jefferson Bailey and I wrote From Records to Data with Viewshare: An Argument, An Interface, A Design. Bulletin of American Society for Information Science and Technology, Viewshare: Digital Interfaces as Scholarly Activity for Perspectives on History  and in collaboration with Lauren Algee wrote Viewshare and the Kress Collection: Creating, Sharing, and Rapidly Prototyping Visual Interfaces to Cultural Heritage Collection Data for D-Lib.

I was also happy to be able to respond to the Joint Conference on Digital Libraries panel on the Digging into Data grant project in One Culture: Digital Collections, Computational Humanities and History at Scale and got a good bit of traffic to my blog for my post on how Discovery and Justification are Different. in digital history research. Oh, and Defining Data for Humanists: Text, Artifact, Information or Evidence? based on a blog post of mine from last year was published in the Journal of the Digital Humanities. I see all of these changes coming together to result in changes as to how historians talk and think about sources as data. On that, Fred Gibbs and I finished an essay called The Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing.

Born Digital Primary Sources for Historical Research
One of my biggest projects this year was planning, running and working on the report for Science at Risk: Toward a National Strategy for Preserving Online Science. We set out asking “what kinds of online science content will invaluable for understanding science in our age?” and I think we came to some valuable answers and calls to action.

I was happy to see my essays, Tripadvisor rates Einstein: Using the social web to unpack the public meanings of a cultural heritage site and Teaching intelligent design or sparking interest in science? What players do with and take away from Will Wright’s Spore published this year. Both are attempts to explore the kinds of research we can do when we work from born digital primary sources from the open web. These two pieces focused on materials on the web, but I did a bit of writing about some other sources as well.

In The is of the Digital Object and the is of the Artifact I explored some of the nitty gritty details and waxed a bit philosophical about digital objects and artifacts. I see this kind of perspective as relevent to some of the writing and interviews I did around software and video game preservation. Both topics I am excited to be more involved with in the future. On this topic see, Yes, The Library of Congress Has Video Games: An Interview with David Gibson, Exhibiting Video Games: An interview with Smithsonian s Georgina Goodlander ultimately, oh, and I also gifted my own video games to the Library and lastly, this start to a list of work on software preservation Preserving.exe: A Short List of Readings on Software Preservation

Where do we go from here?
So I think I’ve had a productive year. I imagine most of these threads will continue into the new year, but I am also excited about the prospect of getting involved in some other new and exciting projects both at LC and on my own.


Implications for Digital Collections Given Historian’s Research Practices

The new ITHAKA report, Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians is something that everybody working with cultural heritage collections should read. It’s full of good stuff, but in my opinion the key finding is that Google is now (by and large) the first step in historical research. Fred Gibbs and I reported on nearly the same finding in our recent paper on digital tools for historians. The Google search box is the first place historians go when they start their research, it plays a key role in their discovery process. This is particularly true for idiosyncratic terms, phrases and people’s names which often turn up results from Google books. So, the next time someone tells you that they want to make a “gateway” a “portal” or a “registry” of some set of historical materials you can probably stop reading. It already exists and it’s Google.

The report makes some suggestions for what libraries and archives should do to help make their materials more accessible. Namely, that they work to integrate them with discovery tools and that they do what they can to make more finding aids accessible online. Both of these are valuable, but I think both goals fail to fully integrate the finding about Google and Google Books. If a library, archive, or museum wants its resources to be found as part of the discovery process, the initial phase of theory development, they need to be thinking about how they get their materials (or information about their materials) to show up in Google search results.

Are more and bigger online finding aids really an answer?

The report suggests that we cultural heritage organizations should be getting more finding aids up. That’s great, that would be useful. However, given the finding about Google, I think an even bigger potential lesson here is that if you want your collections to be used by researchers (digital or otherwise) the first thing you need to think about is not finding aids but about making web pages about items, boxes, collections, etc that will be discoverable in Google. In short, I would rather see a well-structured web page with a well-chosen title and persistent URL before one even begins to make a finding aid. This is not about SEO, it’s about doing very simple things that make for better HTML pages. Importantly, if an org makes a single PDF out of a finding aid for a collection and puts it on the web that finding aid is almost useless as far as Google is concerned.

What would finding aids look like if they assumed the existence of the web and web search?

To me this begs a rather controversial question. If the goal of the finding aid is to help researchers find things and the way they do that is to search Google (which is really good at looking for particular things in HTML pages) then why is the HTML page a byproduct of the EAD XML finding aid and not the primary thing that the archivist authors? We designed an infrastructure around EAD and found ways to make that into HTML pages, but in the meantime Google came around and historians found out that Google was such a more useful and powerful way to search that they only consult the finding aids to round out the ideas they have already started developing. So, what would minimal archival processing for access look like if we thought first about creating an HTML web page for every collection or every box?

Seeing With Cinimagram

I’ve been dabbling a bit with Cinamagram this week. It’s a free app that lets you create Cinamagraphs. Their tagline is “Create a stunning hybrid between photo and video”  and it does a nice job at letting you create something that does just that. It’s done a nice job of getting me to see my walk to and from work a little bit differently.

You record short 2 second videos and then draw a mask on the photo to identify the part of the image you want to be animated. The rest of the image stays still. The end product is an animated gif. For example, in the image above I set it to keep counting down at the end of the walk signal. You’re always just about to have the light switch to red.

It’s an interesting process. It get’s you to see spaces in different ways. It’s fun to look for things that can run as repetitive motions in scenes where a lot of other action is held still. For example, getting things like the car in the image to blur from motion while keeping the lightly flapping flag going.

It’s tricky to get them to pan out exactly right. But it is a lot of fun to try and find things that you can play back and forth with.

By focusing in on very little movements, like rustling leaves or the lights on a police car you end up with things that have this strange quality of being something between a photography and video. Aside from being neat, it’s rather easy.

I think it’s always fun to get a new toy like this that prompts you to look around at the world a little differently, to try and see with a different eye.