Giving Digital History a History

I recently picked up and rapidly read Adam Cymble’s new book Technology and the Historian: Transformations in the Digital Age. I found it to be a great read and I’m planning to use it when I teach my Digital History grad seminar next spring.

One of the books conclusions is that historians “must stop calling it digital history” (p.166) which I think is going to draw out some good discussion in a course that has “digital history” in its name.

Given that the book in part explores the rise and fall of history blogging and specifically includes my own blog as part of that history it seemed fitting to put up a post and share out some thoughts, reactions and observations prompted by the book.

Digital Historiography

“Digital history does not need definitions. It needs histories” (p. 161). This works as a great opener for Crymble’s conclusions. I read that and it hit me as being spot on as both being right and being the ultimate historian move in any game of definitions. When someone asks what something means the historians go to move is to assert that things mean what particular people meant by them in particular contexts at particular moments in time.

The book does a great job at historicizing digital history. In that context it is really useful in helping to bridge earlier “history and computing” work and more recent “digital history” work. Cymble follows and connects ideas about historical research, teaching and learning, and scholarly communications through a range of contexts. Including books like 1971’s The Historian and the Computer: A Practical Guide, 1987’s History and Computing, 2016’s Exploring Big Historical Data and most centrally 2005’s Digital History A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web.

Defusing Digital History

In working across this history, Cymble ultimately argues that there isn’t much of a center to a thing one might call “digital history.” In his words “We must bring to an end our notion of a coherent digital history subfield” (p 164). That is, one historian’s work using digital tools and platforms to engage with the public has almost nothing to do with how a different historian is using computational tools to engage in analysis of historical sources. In service to this point, Cymble offers a glossary that includes a lot more terms we might use to describe the varied and different areas where computing and digital tools have emerged in a wide range of historical fields and disciplines.

In broad strokes, I agree. In the decade that I’ve been teaching the digital history course for American University’s Public History Program, I’ve increasingly embraced the eclectic survey nature of such a course.

To do any justice to the way that the work of historians and history organizations is changing as a result of digital tools ends up meaning that you can spent a bit of time on everything things including but not limited to;

  • User centered design
  • Project planning and management
  • GIS and mapping tools
  • Computational text analysis
  • Visualization tools
  • Computer vision
  • Digital platforms for oral history
  • Analysis of historical storytelling in video games
  • Development and creation of historical videogames and interactives
  • Mobile media and apps
  • Online exhibits
  • Crowdsourcing
  • The varied meanings of digital archives
  • Open access scholarship

That is a lot to try and cover in a survey course, but my sense is that, for most history programs, the option is having this kind of survey course or having nothing at all. That is, for graduate students, I think it’s still the case that they are lucky if there is a single catch all course like this in a history department. While I would love to see this kind of material showing up in other parts of the curriculum, I know full well that there is a lot of other kinds of material to cover in other courses too.

The Failure to “Un” All The Things

At the center of the book is a great exploration of the rise and fall of history blogging. As I’ve recently suggested, despite the fact that blogging didn’t take off like it could have, I think blogging is still an important set of practices for people to learn, particularly for folks that want to work at cultural heritage institutions. While we don’t see the kind of growth of individual scholars engaging in blogging as a practice, it still seems to be the case that cultural heritage institutions large and small continue to maintain and run blogs.

More broadly, I think the failure of scholarly blogging to take off represents a broader failure of an attempt to “un” all the things in academia. Blogging meant that publish became a button instead of being a function of who could authorize and enable distribution of one’s ideas. Unconferences, like THATCamp, similarly presented a chance to upend a lot of the norms and assumptions of how academics could convene, discuss, and build new kinds of scholarship.

Through that line of thinking, it made sense to gather together and think through how we might hack the academy and make something more open and democratic. Growing up professionally through events and communities like THATcamp had gotten me to think that we could build something like a DIY humanities. But it didn’t really happen. Digital history didn’t take off as something libratory in that vein. If there was going to be some unifying notion across a wide range of digital history areas it seemed for a bit like it might be related to changing norms about how openness worked in scholarship. To be fair, in hindsight, a lot of the “un” all the things ends up participating in a lot of what Franco Berardi calls the Wired Imagination, the set of values and ideology from Silicon Valley that operates to devalue much of the kinds of investment that needs to happen to support and sustain institutions like academia and cultural heritage institutions.

What Future is there for History?

On some level, it seems strange to try and sort out what the future of digital history can be given that we’ve got so much to think about in terms of if there is going to be much of a future for any kind of history.

We’re now legitimately in a place where archivists like Sam Win are helping us try and think through what Dying Well in the Anthropocene can look like for fields focused on memory work.

It does indeed feel like History departments in the academy should be reworking what they train future historians for too, but given that history professor jobs, like jobs in so many fields, really haven’t bounced back since the 2008 recession, it also seems like it might be a somewhat moot point. If the history profession is defined as what history professors do it does really seem like that, like so many other professions, is also dying and being replaced by a much more precarious adjunct gig economy.

In that context, if we start asking what kinds of things history graduate programs should teach students it seems like the answer should increasingly be disassociated with any idea that they are being prepared for a job market for history professor jobs.

In any event, I find myself lucky to have Cymble’s new book on hand. Its biggest strength is to help clarify and chart the varied paths that digital history and history and computing have followed to the moment where we are. Related, one of the resources that students in my course find particularly useful and helpful is The Programing Historian and the book provides useful context on how that open access publication and resource came to be. Significantly, I think the success of The Programing Historian on some level undermines the idea that that “digital history” doesn’t hold together as a concept in that the resource brings together information about a wide range of different areas of digital history and supports a very different kind of open form of scholarship. That is, if there is a thread that connects together digital history as a concept it may well be the kinds of open community that The Programing Historian itself manifests. To that end, I’m personally looking forward to putting it into the hands of students who can use it to help think about and chart where we should all be going from here.

Caring for Digital Collections in the Anthropocene

Earlier this month, I had the chance to give a talk as part of the Dr. Elizabeth w. Stone Lecture Series. It’s pretty humbling to be a part of a series that is now entering it’s fourth decade and includes people like Kate Zwaard, Deanna Marcum, Clifford Lynch, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Carla Hayden, and Henriette Avram as previous speakers. I thought the talk went well. I particularly enjoyed the great questions I got from the audience.

Several folks asked about if there was a video of the event, which I’m happy to share below. I’ve also posted my slides and notes from the talk in case folks would rather skim through it.

Video of the talk 

Slides for the talk 

The slide deck and text of the talk is up as this PDF too.

Caring for Digital Collections in the Anthropocene

The craft of digital preservation and digital collections care is anchored in the past. It builds off the records, files, and works of those who came before us and those who designed and set up the systems that enable the creation, transmission, and rendering of their work. At the same time, the craft of digital preservation is also the work of a futurist. We must look to the past trends in the ebb and flow of the development of digital media and hedge our bets on how digital technologies of the future will play out. This talk explores key issues for exploring and imagining that future. We start with consideration of some key emerging technologies relevant to digital collections and then zoom out to consider the future of digital collections in the context of technologies of surveillance, precarity of both cultural heritage institutions and cultural heritage workers in the context of neoliberalism, and then explore the broad set of challenges facing the future of collections stemming from the increasing effects of anthropogenic climate change. Drawing on frameworks for maintenance, care, and repair this talk concludes with an opportunity to reflect on and consider how memory and information workers should approach the digital present and future of our institutions and professions.

Collaboration, Empathy, & Change: Library Leadership in 2020

Collaboration, Empathy & Change: Perspectives on Leadership in Libraries and Archives in 2020

Last semester I taught a grad seminar on leadership and organizational theory in libraries and archives. As part of the course we worked together to create an open access book called Collaboration, Empathy & Change: Perspectives on Leadership in Libraries and Archives in 2020. You can download the book for free from SocArXiv. Below is the intro I wrote up for the book.

2020 was hard. It was hard in a lot of different ways at the same time. The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed nearly every aspect of our technical, social, and political systems and infrastructure. In this global context, people working in libraries, archives, and museums continue to struggle with how to take care of each other and persist in their work. Students aspiring for careers or for advancement in their careers transitioned to online courses. Through it all, we have faced major challenges in maintaining our health and well-being.

In that fraught context, the students in the organizational theory and leadership course I taught at the University of Maryland’s iSchool worked together to produce this book. Every student in the University of Maryland’s iSchool MLIS program is required to take Achieving Organizational Excellence, a course focused on “the principles, practices, and techniques required for effective leadership and management.” I’m really proud of the work that we did together over the semester. This book distills, documents, and communicates much of what we have learned together.

Context for this book

Each chapter of this book was written for the course in the Fall of 2020. With some support from me, each student connected with an individual working in a leadership role in an information organization relevant to their career interests. Each student interviewed their subject to learn about that person’s approach to leadership and organizations. Students then drew from those interviews to develop essays connecting their subject’s perspectives to literature on organizational theory and leadership. Inclusion of essays in this book was optional. Some students preferred not to publish their work here. Some interview subjects preferred that their perspectives not be widely shared. As a result, the scope of this book is intentionally non-comprehensive. This is not a survey of various areas and roles in the field. Instead, the book brings together voices and perspectives anchored in these particular students.

The book is itself part of the pedagogical approach of the course. It’s one thing to read about leadership and organizational theory. It’s another to see how ideas from books and journal articles connect to the real-world experiences of leaders in the field. It’s still a whole other level of learning to synthesize perspectives from leaders in the field with the literature and publish it. Library and archives practitioners working in the field wrote most of our course readings. A key part of joining that professional community of practice is developing the ability to contribute to the professional dialog in our scholarship and writing.

Overview of the book’s structure and contributions

The structure and content of the book emerges out of the career interests of the students and the ideas and perspectives of their interview subjects. To that end, I have organized the book primarily around the types of roles and organizations that individual interview subjects come from. The first section of the book includes a selection of essays on leadership in archives and special collections. The second section includes essays focused on senior leaders in academic libraries. The third section focuses on leaders in library organizations in the U.S. federal government. The fourth section focuses on work outside of libraries and archives, specifically in museums, humanities research centers, and corporations. The final section of the book offers two essays that more broadly explore issues on the need for libraries and archives to develop field-wide toward a more equitable future.

There are a range of crosscutting issues and themes that emerge in the book. First and foremost, the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic assert themselves throughout the text. Many of the interview subjects were in the midst of figuring out how to maintain and continue the operations of their organizations in the midst of a global crisis. To that end, the collection of essays in this book offers a unique opportunity to explore the more or less real-time processing and response to the challenges the pandemic presents.

The essays are also connected by consistent application of ideas and frameworks from Bolman and Deal’s book Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership. Bolman and Deal’s perspectives are focused on developing and exploring four competing frames for thinking about leadership and organizations: a structural frame tied up in separation of duties and functions, a human resource frame focused on how to support people in organizations to flourish and grow, a political frame focused on how scarcity of resources produces the need to build coalitions, and a symbolic frame focused on the ways that symbols, values, rituals, and ceremonies create and sustain organizational cultures. Throughout the book, students apply and explore issues in how these frames work to approach the perspectives of their interview subjects. As a result, the book presents a sustained exploration of how these frames of leadership fit with the perspectives of leaders in the library and archives community at the end of the second decade of the 21st Century.

I’m deeply grateful for the time and care that the individuals profiled in this book took to share their ideas and perspectives with our class and now more broadly in this book. As you might imagine, the Fall of 2020 was a stressful time to be working in library and information organizations. In that context, it would have been entirely reasonable for leaders in the field not to be able to make time for talking with students about their careers or library and archives organizations. All of the individuals featured in the profiles in this book were willing to make time to talk with students and give feedback and input on their drafts. The wisdom and insights they shared with students are invaluable.

It’s been a pleasure to have the chance to develop this book and facilitate this dialog between leaders in the field and students working to start or advance their careers. I learned so much from the generous and thoughtful perspectives offered by interview subjects and drawn into focus by students in the course. I hope you will, too

800 Posts Later: Reflections on teaching digital history with a public course blog

This is a draft that has been kicking around for a while in a few different forms, wanted to see it out in the world so I’m putting it up here on the blog. 

Now that the novelty of academic blogging has worn off, what are we left with? A decade ago, it seemed blogging was emerging as a core practice of scholarly writing. I speak specifically about history and the humanities, but the trend seems true for a range of other fields too. In 2005 the History News Network began recognizing the best history blogs with a series of awards shared out at the American Historical Association’s annual meetings. In 2006, Dan Cohen’s made the case for academic blogging in “Professors, Start Your Blogs.” A year later, academic blogging itself would be explored and extolled as a new literacy in scholarly communications. By 2015, academic blogging itself had become a subject of in depth analysis as part of the infrastructure of scholarly communications.

In the resulting decade, blogging appears to have stabilized into a persistent form of public writing. However, it does not seem to be poised for substantial further growth. Some scholars, librarians, and archivists blog. Most do not. Of those that do blog, they largely seem to do so a lot less. Analysis of the growth of blogging in the digital humanities suggests that the peak moment of growth in the field was in fact in 2008.  Indicative of this change, In 2011, the History News Network made the seventh and last set of history blog awards. The lack of growth of blogging has been largely attributed to the mainstreaming of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

Using Blogs for Graduate Seminars 

When academic blogging was emerging as a new literacy and scholarly form in academia, it made a lot of sense for digital history, humanities and library and archives inclined educators to explore introducing blogging as a part of digital humanities pedagogy. In that context, in 2012, I offered a perspective on these issues in The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends. Notably, that contribution, like many of the original contributions to the first Debates in the Digital Humanities, began as an entry in a series of blog posts. In that blog-post-turned-essay, I reported on the results of teaching my first graduate seminar, a digital history course, through a public course blog. Now 8 years, 9 seminars, 818 student blog posts, and 2057 blog comments later, after the hype of academic blogging has faded, I thought it might be good to circle back and interrogate the extent to which the potential of this form of open public writing has lived up to its potential.

While blog boosterism has faltered, the practices around course blogging in the humanities in particular, seem to steadily continue. In this context of the stabilization of blogging as a form of public writing how do we understand the value of public blogging as a pedagogical practice in the humanities and social sciences? I’ve gone back and looked at some of my students reactions over time to my use of course blogging and thought it might be interesting to share them here. It seems somewhat natural to post about them here on my blog.

Functions of a Public Course Blog

In The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends.  I made three primary claims about what I saw as the central value of the public course blog as a teaching mode. As a starting point, it is worth fully articulating each of these concepts.

  • Blogging enabled a shift from teaching as knowledge dissemination to teaching as knowledge production: Where classes generally require students to produce writing read by the instructor, by implementing a public course blog students were instead writing for each other and also for others outside and beyond the course.
  • Blogging enabled extending courses through time and space:  Where courses function as discrete classrooms that persist for a fixed semester of time, a public course blog could both spatially and temporarily extend the reach of a course. Teaching using the same course blog allowed for students to encounter and engage with previous writing for the course and could enable students from prior classes to engage with current students.
  • Blogging enabled students to write for and connect with broader audiences:  Students participating in the course were not only writing for each other, but they could also interact with the broader digital history community. That is, through the blog students could interact with the creators of tools and scholarship via the public blog.

Positive but somewhat mixed reactions from students

Overall, all ten of the graduate seminars I have thought through the course blogging platform have been well received in student course reviews. Most of these courses have been a digital public history methods seminar (see the syllabus from 2011, 2012, 2015, Summer 2015 , 2018, 2019, and 2020 versions of the course.) I also used the same approach to teach a Digital Art Curation seminar in 2016, and a Digital Preservation seminar in 2016 and 2018. I decided not to use the same approach for an online Digital Curation Policy and Ethics seminar I taught in 2019 (I had internal course discussion boards for that in part to facilitate more candid discussions). I also decided not to use that approach for the online course I taught on organizational leadership for libraries and archives last semester, in fall of 2020.

For context, this blogging assignment has been part of work with face-to-face classes. That is until spring 2020 when my digital history methods course shifted rapidly into an online course. Of note, I’m about to start teaching the spring 2021 version of that course which will be all online.

The numerical scores from student reviews  for each of those courses rank them higher than the median values for both the departments and colleagues that the courses are taught in. That offers, at least preliminary support for the idea that the public course blog, a central component of each of these courses, can be part of an effective approach to teaching and learning. That noted, delving into anonymous comments from students offer a chance to explore some of the varied ways that students have responded to this as a teaching too.

Blogging kept it interesting

Over the last decade writing as part of online discussions in course management systems has become an increasingly routine part of teaching for college courses. To this end, one of the students reflected that they found, “blogging was an enjoyable way to get to know the class over the semester and the less formal tone kept it from being a chore.”

This student went on to observe that they “have come to loath the mandatory discussion board participation in all my classes over the semester” and that they were “surprised with how much I enjoyed writing for the public course blog.” In this context, the goal of writing for broader audiences identified in my original objectives for course blogging appears to have indeed made this form of class writing more engaging.

This kind of general positive response to course blogging largely fits with additional feedback I have received on course design. With that noted, those aspects of writing for a broader audience have also resulted in specific related negative feedback from some students.

Finding the right rhythm for blogging and reading

One student explained that they were “too time-crunched and overwhelmed trying to read and understand the material to try to engage in a public intellectual discussion about my own or others posts.” This observation is an important one that I have been working to reflect on and refine my approach to. On some level, asking students to process readings and then engage in discussion of the readings in advance of a class session in which we then further engage in discussion  can create  significant opportunities for redundancy.

This sentiment was shared by another student who noted that they found the requirement to “write/comment/discuss ad nauseam” made it “impossible to keep up.” Throughout both of these students comments it becomes clear that it is challenging to establish and manage a rhythm for the course between the function of the blog as a place for discussion and the function of the face to face situation of the class. Resolving this issue is challenging. Many of the graduate students in the courses I teach are taking multiple graduate seminars while also often working full time jobs. To that end, I’ve worked over time to try and pace the volume of reading better and to lower the total number of times I ask students to blog for the course.

Notably, I have consistently observed over the course of teaching various instances of these classes through the blog that different students participate to varying degrees in the online discussions and the face-to-face discussions. To that end, it does appear that providing the two, potentially complementary, spaces for discussion to occur are creating opportunities for students to engage in discussion in ways they find most comfortable. Still, the comments from students also clearly suggest that the multiplicity of places for discussion also promote a kind of anxiety about a course being always on.

Engaging with “the profession in the real world”

Accepting the challenges and issues that are presented by the integration of blogging as a form of public writing in the course, there are also notable strengths that come through in this form of teaching. One student’s explanation of the role of blogging in their learning experience underscores several of these points. In their words, “Trevor…was always looking for ways to engage us with the profession in the real world.”

As a specific example of how I supported their engagement with the “profession in the real world” they mention my “referring working professionals in the field to student posts on the class blog via social media.” In keeping with my objectives for using the public writing function of the blog as a means to connect students with professionals in the field I will regularly share out examples of particularly thoughtful student posts and connect them with others working on those issues over Twitter. This kind of direct interaction with the people behind the papers, the tools, or the platforms we are working with can have a really powerful effect in the classroom.

The student who wrote that comment ended by asserting that, “In Trevor’s class I felt that I was treated as a professional and expected to perform accordingly, a challenge that I very much appreciated.” Blogging wasn’t the only part of the course that they asserted supported that feeling, but they did directly connect the concept of public writing, writing for an audience and connecting with that audience beyond their classroom, as something that supported that.

A Future for the Public Course Blog has come to present a significant collection of research and writing of students in public. While most student work in course discussion spaces is erased and overwritten shortly after it is created these posts, for the most part, persist. Given that the bulk of the courses taught on and through this platform are digital public history courses it makes sense that this platform functions as a way for students to engage in this for of public writing.

With that noted, part of my original concept for teaching through the public course blog was that blogging was an increasingly important form of academic public writing that it was significant for students to be learning. It appears now that even when I had started using blogging as a means for teaching in 2012 academic blogging had already reached its saturation point. Where at one point it appeared as if scholars of the future might each maintain and manage their own blogs as a kind of public research journal, it now appears to be the case that blogging has matured into a somewhat niche form of academic journaling.

In this context, and with these notes from students on the ups and downs of academic blogging, what do we make of the public course blog? I believe the strong positive reactions to the role of the public course blog suggest that students do indeed largely find value in this approach to teaching. With that noted, I am also sympathetic to the concept that an always on kind of course with considerable reading and writing isn’t particularly sustainable for all students.

Given all this, I’m still a believer in the value that public course blogs can offer to graduate seminar design. With that noted, I think a lot of my initial takes on why this would be useful don’t hold up. Blogging didn’t become a “new literacy” for scholarly communication. It’s a thing that some academics do but that most don’t. To that end there isn’t necessarily a general value for grad students to learn about blogging.

With that noted, if you want to do work in public history, or in libraries and archives, it turns out that blogging does persist as a valuable tool in the toolkit of social media communications. Organizations continue to use blogs alongside social media platforms to communicate with their audiences. In that context, learning how to use wordpress and thinking about audiences and public writing on history is inherently useful as a skill for folks that are interest in public history. I think that leaves me at the point where I’m going to continue to use public course blogging when it’s inherently relevant to the context and goals of the course.

To that end, in the last few years I’ve taught two courses that didn’t use the same public course blog platform. In one case,  the course is focused on digital curation policy and ethics, and I wanted to make sure that students felt comfortable discussing their own experiences with ethical and policy related challenges and dilemmas relating to digital curation and it struck me that this was not a great context for pushing students outward into public writing. Similarly, for the leadership and organizational theory course I taught, I wanted to make sure that students had a space where they could share candid reactions and reflections on their work experiences and on readings about workplaces. In both of those cases, I think setting up a more closed and temporary space for course discussions and student journaling worked a lot better then it would have if students were trying to filter things through what they would be comfortable saying in a more public forum.

Processing 2020: Going Inside, Supporting, and Learning

As the end of the year comes to a close, I generally make time organize and synthesize what I’ve been up to across different parts of my work each year. You can see my reflections at the end of 20192018, 20172015,  20142013, and 2012. I’m a big fan of metacognition, so I get a lot out of taking time to round up, reflect, and try and synthesize things at least once a year.

Going Inside 

Looking back at those blog posts from years gone by just draws attention to how dramatically different the world feels now. I also don’t think I’m really at the point where I can process the year. Marjee and I rang in the last New Year with hikes in the Torres del Paine, at the literal end of the earth. Then… so much of the rest of the year feels like a blur.  As the Pandemic hit and we both shifted into being in and around our home and our very local community. On multiple levels this felt like “going inside”, which also makes me think about one of my favorite John Fursciante songs. We ‘re inside our home far more than we have been in any previous year and I think we were inside our heads and reflective in ways that we haven’t been in previous years.

Growing as a supporter and facilitator

As the team at work shifted to an all online mode, I’ve been consistently impressed with how much I’ve seen folks help to support each other and find ways to grow and learn and get things done together. I’ve been increasingly transitioning my efforts in my work to focus on how to be a better supporter and facilitator for a team that continues to grow.

I was excited to interview some folks who joined our team this year about their work and goals. You can find those interviews here:  Web Archiving Virtually In Residence: An Interview with Meghan LyonDiving into Digital Content Management: An Interview with Mark Lopez10 Weeks of Digital Content Management at a Distance: An Interview with Junior Fellow Randi Proescholdt.

I taught two grad seminars, my Digital History Methods Seminar started out face to face and shifted online in the spring as the pandemic hit. Students worked up some really fun and creative projects and I was impressed by how they rolled with transitioning into an online format for the second half of the semester. My library organization theory seminar ran entirely online. It was the first time that I taught the library org theory course, and I found it really rewarding to engage in that kind of meta level discussion about navigating and working to improve library, archives, and museum organizations. In working on that course, I also read a lot more scholarship and work in management, business, public policy, and related fields which has been helpful in my own development of ideas about how organizations can better need the needs of both their constituencies and the people that make them run.

Reading and Sharing

While the year has been challenging, i’ve gotten a lot from the introspective space of all of it. I read a lot more than I have in previous years, we rode our bikes around the extensive trails in our community. I had a lot of fun talking about my digital preservation book on the Archives in Context podcast. Even before the pandemic, I was reflecting on my relationship with the end of the THATcamp era. I got pretty into TikTok, which, at one point sharing out a bunch of links to how people play with history on TikTok and also reflecting a bit on how folks told the story of the election in maps on the platform. Along with that, a few essays I’d collaborated with others on over time made their way into publication in 2020, one on digital sources and digital archives and another on studying digital culture in web archives.

I decided not to start writing a book, which feels like growth for me.  I’ve got a tendency to just keep piling up projects and it felt good this time to really try on the idea of a project and then just deicide I’d rather spend that time cooking, organizing my closet, and reading.

I enjoyed learning more about how to work with video editing and had a ton of fun helping Marjee work on her documentary film.

I was really thrilled to end up being a finalist for the Digital Preservation Teaching and Communication Award. I made this video about it for the review panel which I think underscores how meaningful that particular distinction is to me.

I was invited to contribute to the Biblioteca Nacional de México’s  Día Mundial de la Preservación Digital 2020 video series. Which will also ensure lasting documentation of my brief stint of having a goatee during quarantine.

Looking and Seeing

Thought I would leave off with some “How it started, How it’s going” run through photos. This is just a smattering of pictures from my phone in order.

MapTok: Watching the Election on TikTok

Collage of TikToks about the election

Over the last year I’ve come to really enjoy seeing the wide range of really creative things that folks are doing on TikTok. For example, I think it’s fun to see what folks do with history on the platform.

The platform is largely written off as something frivolous, but I’m routinely impressed by how people are using looping audio and video and green screen tools to create genuinely engaging stuff and thought provoking media.

As I was compulsively refreshing various online dashboard/election maps last week to see how the election was playing out, I was also switching over to TikTok a lot.

On TikTok, users were playing with those maps too, and I started thinking that by sequencing those videos you could see a bit of the emotional rollercoaster of the election playing out.

Below is the result of selecting and sequencing some of these. I included the text and hashtags that go along with each video to offer some context. I think it hangs together as a short documentary film about the election, data visualization, and storytelling on TikTok.

In these videos the states become characters with different personas. Memes like “I did it” and “what was the reason” become conversations between the states on the maps. A states teaches other states how to do a TikTok dance to a remix of a Russian Honey Nut Cheerios jingleLorde lyrics answer questions about why the map looks the way it does.

Looking at these reminds me a bit of some of the ideas that Dragan Espenschied was putting out in Big Data, Tiny Narration. That is, as we all kept refreshing these maps which pull together real time data, a whole cast of folks was sorting through what that data meant and doing creative storytelling about what it meant to them.

TikToks Included


Achieving Organizational Excellence Course Syllabus

Achieving Organizational Excellence syllabus.

Over the summer I’ve been  developing a syllabus and plan for teaching LBSC 631, Achieving Organizational Excellence at the University of Maryland’s College of Information.  It is the leadership/management/organizational theory course, and it’s one of the three core courses for the UMD iSchool’s MILS program. I just sent the syllabus out to everyone in the class and I’m also posting the syllabus here for anyone who might be interested.

This is a new course for me. Over the last five years I’ve taught five other graduate seminars for the iSchool, but those were all digital curation, preservation, and policy courses.

My section of the course was originally intended to be a face to face course, so in transitioning it to an online course I ended up playing around with approaches to make sure that there is a lot of flexibility in the course design. I sent out a questionnaire  to students in advance of the semester which confirmed my sense that there would be some anxiety about both a desire for synchronous interactions from some students and concerns about how to make  synchronous  interactions work for everyones schedules during the ongoing pandemic. I’m hopeful that I’ve figured out some ways to build a lot of flexibility in on the course but it will be curious to see how it all plays out. I should note that a lot of my approach to the design of this course is anchored in a fantastic education leadership seminar I took in my Ph.D program with David Brazer.

Reading on How Orgs work and how to work Orgs

I’ve largely developed the course around Bolman and Deal’s Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership which I’ve written about before. I like how they approach work in organization in terms of competing frames; structural, human resources, political, and symbolic. I also really appreciate that their book is more about organizational theory than it is about leaders and leadership. In large part, I think the cult of leadership books on what leaders do misses out on how things really get done in the complex systems that are organizations. I’ve paired that book with some sections from Evans & Greenwell’s Management Basics for Information Professionals, which is great at being more directly focused on issues in libraries and archives but I think less strong as an overarching toolkit for understanding organizations.

Along with those two books, I’ve also assigned two other books that we will focus on for individual weeks in the semester. We will read Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which I continue to find to be a really accessible point of entry into a lot of work in the psychology of motivation. We will also read Systems Thinking For Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, which is both a great point of entry into systems thinking and also a useful book in getting us to think beyond the boundaries of individual organizations to collectively enable social change.

I’ve tried to round out readings from those books with a mixture of articles. It ended up working out that I’ve got a lot of straightforward articles from Library Leadership & Management which I’ve tried to round out with much more critical work, largely from In the Library with the Lead Pipe.

Alongside the readings, I’ve built in a few situations where students need to go out explore some resources that I think everyone in library school needs to know about. Things like the Library Journal Placement and Salaries reports, the AFL-CIO“Library Professionals: Facts, Figures, and Union Membership” results from the IMLS annual  public library survey and both the ARL Salary data and general ARL library statistics. While all these reports are pretty dry, they are also amazingly useful resources for understanding how pay works in the field and how resources are located across and within library organizations.

Reflection, Introspection, and Engagement through Assignments

I spent a lot of time trying to think of what the right kinds of assignments are for a course like this. I think this kind of course really needs to support students in working to process and synthesize their own notions of how organizations work. To that end, I decided that a core part of the course would involve weekly journaling about course readings.

At the same time, I wanted to make sure that there were opportunities for students to connect with each other. This was originally intended to be a face to face course. Beyond that, there are actually two sections of this course this semester and the other one was an online course from the start. So functionally this section of the course is all students that had explicitly opted to take a face to face version of the course. It’s great that the course can work well as an online course, but I fully realize that this isn’t what students had signed up for. Beyond that it’s a seminar with 30 students, which presents challenges for having everyone do anything together in any situation. In light of that, I worked out a process where students are going to have peer learning partners that they set up time to check in with each week and who they will read and comment on each others journals. Over the course of the semester the partners are going to rotate four times, so everyone will have a few weeks with a different partner. My hope is that this helps scaffold everyone into some rich discussions and explorations of the issues that we get into over the course of the semester.

The last major set of assignments are focused on having each student do an interview with someone working in a leadership/management role in a library or archives who they will then write an essay about that connects that persons ideas about leadership with readings from the course. My current concept is that for all the students that opt in, I will go ahead and put out an open access book of all these essays on LISSA. My hope with this assignment is that it provides a chance for everyone in the class to do some networking and meet folks working in the field while also giving us a chance to make something together that everyone can point to after the semester as an outcome from the course. I’ll be curious to see how it goes!

On Digital History: Audiences, Archives, Tools, and Sources

I’ve been kicking around the idea of working up a proposal for a book about digital history for a few years. At this point I’ve taught digital history grad seminars for a decade. Through teaching that course I think I’ve developed a particular take on the subject. That said, every time I’ve started to sketch out ideas about it I end up running out of steam.

When I went back to review a lot of work that I’ve published about digital history as part of my most recent attempt to explore this idea I ended up deciding that the set of articles and blog posts I’ve written really cover what I want to cover and say at this point. So instead of continuing  to think about developing a book proposal on this I thought I would instead just share something that works as an index to a lot of the writing I’ve done on the subject. 

Engaging Audiences and Users around Digital Collections

The web presents new ways for historians to engage with audiences and communities. I wrote Digital Cultural Heritage and the Crowd as a piece to work out a series of frames for thinking about inviting user participation with digital collections through crowdsourcing.

Many organizations produce online exhibits or narratives to go along with digital collections, but there is not much guidance on how to go about that kind of writing. While working on an online exhibit a number of years ago, I wrote up and shared a guide for writing text for online exhibits. That same project prompted me to write Curating in the Open: A Case for Iteratively and Openly Publishing Curatorial Research on the Web. That essay was largely about the way that the research and writing process for an online exhibit could become more public and open up points of entry for others to explore digital collections. 

Approaching and Understanding Digital Archives 

As historians get more involved with digital collections that work increasingly blurs boundaries between work historians do and the work of librarians and archivists. Thomas Padilla and I work to lay out a lot of foundational and definitional issues around digital archives and sources in Digital Sources & Digital Archives: The Evidentiary Basis of Digital History. I also explored some of the connections between work archivists are doing with Jesse Johnston in Archivists as Peers in Digital Public History. 

Connecting back to the points about engaging with audiences and participatory aspects of work with history, in Archives as a Service: From Archivist as Producer and Provider to Archivist as Facilitator and Enabler I made a case for revisiting notions around archives as a product and focused on a range of ways that community archives and other explorations of participatory ways of engaging with communities to organize, preserve and interpret the past. 

Digital History Tools and Computational Analysis

Toward the end of my time at the Center for History and New Media I was working on a project to explore various text mining and computational data analysis tools for historical research with Fred Gibbs. The results of that work turned into a series of essays that came out in 2012 and 2013. In Building Better Digital Humanities Tools: Toward Broader Audiences and User-Centered Designs Fred and I reported out on a range of issues that illustrated a lack of user centered design approaches to many digital humanities tools.

In parallel to that, we worked up The Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing, which largely focuses on ways that historians can integrate computational data analysis into historical narrative writing. While working on both of those projects I spun Defining Data for Humanists: Text, Artifact, Information or Evidence? which is a shorter piece that attempts to work across the various ways that historians can approach data. 

Engaging With and Interpreting Born Digital Sources

Over time, I’ve worked on a number of projects that explore issues with interpretation of born digital sources and historical thinning and argumentation. One of my first explorations in this area was Modding the history of science: Values at play in modder discussions of Sid Meier’s Civilization an essay that focused on how a popular video game represented the history of science and the way that its user community was imaging and altering the game as documented in online discussion forums. Rebecca Mir and I took a somewhat similar approach in Modeling Indigenous Peoples: Unpacking Ideology in Sid Meier’s Colonization but in this case focusing on issues in the representation of indigenous peoples in video games.

In Tripadvisor rates Einstein: Using the social web to unpack the public meanings of a cultural heritage I used some of the same approaches to doing research grounded in discussion in online communities but instead of studying a video game I was studying online reviews of a memorial on Tripadvisor and Yelp. While working on those projects I was also working on  Lego, Handcraft, and Costumed Zombies: What Zombies do on Flickr which is more about the way that Flickr and it’s discovery system for photos was enabling new ways to explore and study trends in vernacular culture. In The invention and dissemination of the spacer gif: implications for the future of access and use of web archives Grace Thomas and I dove into the kinds of historical research one can get into on the history of web design through working with web archives. 

22 History TikToks

I’ve been surprised to see how often historical topics or themes come up in TikToks. So I went ahead and pulled together this listicle of 22 history TikToks. Some of them are pretty funny. Some of them have gotten quite a few views.  I think it’s interesting to see the way that young people are fitting historical info into the rhetorical forms that play out on TikTok.

The French Revolution

@rose_freya_And that’s on the reign of terror ##history ##foryou ##fyp♬ original sound – kasey.smo

Zimmerman telegram

@meme_kaiserHey Mexico you trynna invade the US? ##fyp ##greenscreen ##foryoupage ##tiktok ##PlayWithLife ##writethelyrics ##petparent ##ChilisBirthday ##history♬ Let’s go! – kevwithin

Martin Luther 

@baileyelizajust 1517 tings (shoutout to my art history zoom class for the inspo) ##foryou ##fyp ##history ##zoomuniversity ##apeuro♬ original sound – kasey.smo

The Plague

@zeauxiehas this been done before ? i sure hope not ##history ##fyp♬ Original Sound – yungtubesock

History of Psychology

@slaviccaesarSome AP Psych ##appsych ##psych ##foryou ##history ##historymemes♬ This Could Be Us – Rae Sremmurd




@daddythanosschmeetThese alliance systems in Europe can date back to the Austrian-Prussian war of 1866. ##fyp ##foryoupage ##History ##historymemes ##WWI♬ roped me – nibbavids

Peppered moths

@slaviccaesarThe amount of times I’ve had to learn about these moths ##apbio ##historymemes ##history ##foryou ##fyp♬ original sound – chaser

Francis Drake

@annemariehw##foryoupage ##history ##historymemes♬ original sound – annemariehw


@eboyavocadoThis deserves so much more love than it’s getting ##marchforsisterhood ##nativeamerican ##british ##spanish ##french ##apush ##history ##comedy ##fyp ##viral♬ original sound – jamesc_a

History of “Brah”

@reu3enbruh moment… hopefully this hasn’t been done yet ##getmefamous ##foryoupage ##fyp ##bruhmoment ##foryou ##inthecrowd♬ ear rape remix – ryleemgibson

German war debt 

@cavestripperMaking jokes about war reparations instead of lifting modern marks check mate buddy♬ original sound – adamcoil74

Treaty of Versailles

@toombraiderWTH tiktok took this down ##SpicySnap ##greenscreengaming ##SavingsShuffle♬ original sound – adamcoil74

Boston Tea Party 

@mattmoseleyOnly intellectuals will get this ##foryou ##foryoupage ##SpicySnap ##SavingsShuffle ##thatsrelatable ##tinymeatgang♬ original sound – adamcoil74

Louisiana purchase

@alana.luisaaI’m reposting this cause I think my APUSH TikTok was better than everyone else’s. ##APUSH ##louisianapurchase ##fyp♬ original sound – alana.luisaa

@jacksonnburnsGuys please come I need support ##foryou ##fyp ##foryoupage ##viral ##history ##louisianapurchase♬ original sound – jacksonnburns

Jefferson & States Debts 

@naayelydoes this count as studying for my APUSH test? ##APUSH ##history ##foryoupage ##hamilton ##SpicySnap ##SavingsShuffle ##thomasjefferson ##greenscreen♬ original sound – adamcoil74

Worst Presidents 

@mx_fannin##greenscreen part 3 (2/2) of 45 ##presidents ##usa ##history ##funfacts ##thomasjefferson ##xyzbca ##controvercy ##president ##fyp ##politics♬ Roses – Imanbek Remix – SAINt JHN

Andrew Jackson & the Trail of Tears

@empress_of_history##apushmemes ##apush ##andrewjackson ##trailoftears ##ushistory♬ original sound – jamesc_a

@basicallybillnye39Trail of tears:##fyp##foryou##history##historymeme##andrewjackson##school##morph##neverzero##nativeamerican##4♬ Back Up – DeJ Loaf feat. Big Sean

@aidenloya##greenscreen and that is on trail of tears ☹️##fyp ##apush♬ I HAVE MY OWN CHICKEN – aryamour_

The Civil War 

@_justindCivil war ##iykyk ##foryou ##peaceandlove ##southcarolina♬ Wait i have an idea – number_1_spongebob_fan

Protestant Reformation

@raguwuspaghettisauceHMU for addy ##fyp ##function ##martinluther ##reformation ##apeuro ##foryoupage ##protestant♬ Faneto – Chief Keef

Book.Files and the Inversion of Born Digital

Below are three images of my book, The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation. The first is a picture I took of a print copy of the book. The second is the book cover on Amazon. The third is from Johns Hopkins University Press page for the book.

One of them is not like the other. Can you spot the difference?

The first one, the print copy, is the outlier. It has a completely different picture than the latter two. It’s almost the same but not quite. The picture on the cover of the print book was taken by Jermaine Taylor and posted to instagram shortly after I got my floppy disk tattoo in 2017. The second is a photo I took of my arm, when I couldn’t source a higher resolution file of Jermaine’s instagram photo. I emailed both of them to the press as an idea for the cover of the book. I took the second photo because I was concerned that the instagram photo might not be at a high enough resolution to use in print.

The photo I took is, in all the places where book covers appear, the cover of the book. It is also the cover of the eBook version. With that said, all the print copies of the book actually have Jermaine’s photo on their cover. Which in all honesty I think is an objectively better picture. As far as I can ascertain, at some point whoever was actually doing the layout for the print book ended up deciding to use the photo from instagram instead of the photo I took. I think it was a good call.

I proposed that picture of my tattoo as a cover for the book because I thought it spoke to some of the themes in the book. The floppy disk is a medium on which we write digital content. Beyond that it’s now the save icon. Jermaine encoded an instance of that icon with ink in my skin. Much of the book is about how messy and complicated the world of digital content is, in large part, because it’s the result of the accrual of the work of people kludging together things on-top of the work of other people. The fact that there are now these variances in the book cover out in the world itself helps to further demonstrate that point. Online, and in its eBook form there exists one cover based on a photo I took. But based on decisions made in the workflow and process that created the physical copies of my book, the print copies all have Jermaine’s instagram photo on them. The messiness of the digital plays out through the workflows and processes that create digital books. Some of those files get printed out. I interacted with a ton of digital files in getting the book to the publisher and then a range of digital files had lives I don’t know about that resulted in the production of the tangible book.

I offer this anecdote as my own personal point of entry and connection to the Matthew Kirschenbaum’s m recently published report Books.Files Preservation of Digital Assets in the Contemporary Publishing Industry

Book.Files and the Inversion of Born Digital 

If you’re work has any connections to book publishing and production or collections in libraries and archives related to creative production you are going to want to make time to download and read Books.Files Preservation of Digital Assets in the Contemporary Publishing Industry. The report does an excellent job in providing an overview of the shift to digital workflows in the publishing industry. In this respect, it makes for a great companion to the 2011 report from CRL on digital workflows in the news industry Preserving News in the Digital Environment: Mapping the Newspaper Industry in Transition. I’m always interested to see work like this that involves in-depth engagement with partners in the creative industries. 

From the Book.Files report you get a great sense of the handoffs that occur in the production, transmission, tracking and management of books as digital files. From all the handoffs of word files with track changes into processes with Adobe InDesign, through to XML files and or PDFs that become the basis of printing books or creating eBook files.

Below are some quotes I pulled out that I found particularly striking and relevant for thinking about collections for libraries and archives. 

  •  “As early as 1999, an article in Publishing Research Quarterly observed that publishing “is coming to mean producing digital content which can subsequently be delivered in different media, rather than producing books or journals””
  • “there is at least one simple, uncontestable fact that obtains for any book produced with commercial press processes in the last twenty years, and which will continue to obtain for the foreseeable future. That fact is this: a book is a file, which is to say it is a persistent digital asset stored in a digital repository somewhere.“
  • “A “book” is thus the born-digital potential for a file to become a book first, and a physical, tangible object in our hands only secondarily. Every new book on our shelves has its shadow in a digital file, or more precisely a set of digital files consisting of the various assets needed to bring the book into being. A physical book nowadays is a surrogate for a digital master.”
  • “Increasingly, this means that the EPUB file becomes the version of record for the book. If the publisher wishes to retain a separate format-independent rendition of the book, any changes or updates in the EPUB must then be back-propagated to the original XML in order to keep versions consistent.”

I think these observations, along with the rest of the report, offer an opportunity for folks that work with collecting, preserving, and providing access to books and records of the history of the book. My sense is that the results this kind of study in nearly any other creative industry would produce similar results. So I think the results here are relevant to anyone interested in the production and circulation of creative works and their histories. 

Born Digital is the Norm, Born Analog is the Outlier

The report hits home that cultural heritage institutions interested in collecting and preserving contemporary cultural works need to be centering digital content in their approaches.  Increasingly the physical objects that come into collections are themselves the digital surrogates and it’s worth asking when the print surrogate for the digital asset is good enough given that the source for that object is increasingly a digital resource. 

History of Creative Industries is Increasingly Born Digital 

The report illustrates the ongoing major shifts relevant to the records of cultural production. This has huge implications for special collections work that involves acquiring the archives of creative industries. At this point books are a key case study in this shift, but the same is true for photography, film, the performing arts, music, etc. Creative production has become almost an entirely digital set of workflow process and the future of archives of industries and creators in these media will involve engaging with these increasingly born digital content streams. 

Variance Abounds Across Digital Instantiations of Works

The report includes a series of examples of how and where variances enter into the workflows and processes as various stakeholders “touch” book files over the course of their production and the varied output files that are produced. The example of my book cover is in this case not an outlier, it’s  another example of kinds of variances that enter into the management of books as digital assets. In that cloud of files, it becomes increasingly difficult to talk about a definitive or authoritative copy of a work. My sense is that this issue of variance is going to become increasingly important for libraries, archives, and museums to figure out. On that front, I think some of Cathy Marshal’s work and  Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito’s work is relevant for further exploring this issue.

In Digital Copies and a Distributed Notion of Reference in Personal Archives Cathy Marshal explores the various kinds of copies and derivatives that people produce in managing and sharing videos and photos. Below is a map of the kinds of variances she observes.

Ultimately, Marshal argues for the need to step back from thinking of their being a canonical instance of a work and to instead embrace that what we are going to end up with is varied copies that instantiate important differences as those copies take on lives of their own. Significantly, this means stepping bak from the notion of “derivatives” to instead see each copy of a work as contributing to a distributed notion of it.

I think Marshal’s observations are relevant for thinking forward about how we likely want to approach all kinds of digital creative workflows; “we will not only want to see copies, but we‘ll also want to harmonize them, to harvest their metadata, to select among them. Instead of relying on a simple notion—the truth is in the cloud, embodied as a single reference copy—we will want to expand our sense of what is entailed by the notion of a reference copy and turn to a distributed, social model.”

In Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory  Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito also take a run at the idea of a canonical master file for any given work. They suggest that with digital media, in many cases instead of thinking about a master file it’s more important to be looking for what they call “mother files;” the editable files that enable a wide range of outputs. You can see more on their thinking in the pull quote from the book below.

Altogether I think the report makes for a great read and I think it helps to draw out some major issues facing libraries and archives for the future. More and more of the material of culture is digital from the start. The issues faced by the proliferation of variance and copies still something that we have a long way to go to fully understand and integrate into how we think about our work.

I’m curious for thoughts any and all of you have about the questions the report brings out.