Review: Preserving Complex Digital Objects

The following is a pre-print of a book review of Preserving Complex Digital Objects which I was invited to write for the Journal of Academic Librarianship. I wrote it in December of 2014. I keeping with everything on this site, it is not written in any kind of official capacity or role. 

delveRGBPreserving Complex Digital Objects, by Janet Delve and David Anderson, editors. Greenwich, CT: Facet Publishing , 2014.

Ensuring long term access and usability of complex digital objects is of critical importance to the future of nearly every area of arts, culture, the humanities and the sciences. With that noted, to date there is a surprisingly small amount of basic and applied research and scholarship that explicitly engages with issues in this area. To this end, the 25 essays in Preserving Complex Objects are invaluable as documentation and presentation work on this topic. With origins in a 2010 JISC funded workshop and further work funded by the European Commission the book is anchored in the UK and European context but includes a series of essays about several related projects from across the globe.

In the realm of complex digital objects, the book is particular focused on three kinds of born digital content; simulations and visualizations, software art, and gaming environments/virtual worlds. It includes essays by content creators on the significance of their objects, cultural institutions on issues in archiving these materials, discussion of tools and practices, a series of case studies and two essays on some of the significant legal issues.

From my perspective, the strongest and most valuable essays in the volume come from the section focused on practices and tools for software preservation. Many of the other essays, while interesting in their own right, read mostly as reporting out on work that was done instead of developing frameworks and material that is useful for someone actually focused on preserving a given piece of software. It is worth underscoring that “complex digital objects” is in some ways synonymous with software. Of particular interest is Neil Chue Hon of the Software Sustainability Institute’s essay “Digital preservation and curation: the danger of overlooking software” succinctly explains seven approaches to software preservation a (preserving original hardware, emulation, migration, cultivation, hibernation, depreciation and procrastination) and compares and contrasts the relative strengths and weakness of each approach for different contexts. Similarly, Brian Matthews, Arif Shaon and Esther Conway’s chapter “How do I know that I have preserved software” expands on those categories and offers some valuable initial discussion of how the community should go about assessing if what has been preserved in a given context is going to be good enough for a given set of future uses. These essays are both valuable building blocks for what should be a whole field of software preservation scholarship.

It should be noted that work in software preservation has recently picked up and that a range of recent and more U.S. focused projects in this area are not significantly discussed or considered. This is not so much a criticism, it isn’t really necessary for a book to cover the entire state of the field, but instead a note to potential readers that there is a good bit of related work that isn’t represented here. There are several significant U.S. based software preservation projects that are notably absent, the National Software Reference Library run by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, the open source JSMESS emulation platform which was recently implemented broadly by the Internet Archive and the Olive Executable Archive platform under development at Carnegie Mellon University. Similarly, recent acquisitions of software based art at MOMA and of mobile applications source code at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum are helping to move the state of the practice forward.

There remains a critical need for work on the preservation of software and other complex digital objects. To that end, this book is invaluable. With that noted, given the report like nature of this book, I think it’s audience is really the relatively small community of practice and research that is forming around the preservation of software and other complex objects. The book provides considerable insight into ongoing work in the UK and Europe more broadly. I hope that this is the first in an entire library of books to engage with these issues.

To Show For It: Links, Lists & Paper from Four Years at LC

I had originally intended this to be a post for The Signal, but it ended up having more of a personal bent to it so it made more sense for it to go here. Like everything on this site, nothing here reflects any official anything of any org or institution This is just my own personal thoughts/reflections. 

For the last four years I had the distinct pleasure of working as a digital archivist with NDIIPP at The Library of Congress. Apparently, I’ve been up to a lot here too. A search for mentions of me in The Library of Congress search box since 2010 currently turns up 187 “available online results.” After a quick skim of the results, I think that is mostly things this Trevor Owens was involved in. I’ve learned so much about this field and this work and a big part of that has been writing up my ideas and perspectives and conducting interviews for this blog.

As you might imagine, there is a form for leaving the LC.
As you might imagine, there is a form for leaving the LC.

I recently started a new position as the Senior Library Program Officer for the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) tasked with steering the national digital platform portfolio for libraries. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like too much fun and too great of a chance to make a national impact on the field to pass up!

Name badges from conferences, summits and workshops I've participated in the four years that accumulated in my desk drawer. It's fun to look at little pieces of paper and plastic like these that accrue in your desk and see what you see about yourself and your work in them.
Four years of name badges from conferences, summits & workshops I participated in and/or planned. These little pieces of paper & plastic that accrue in your desk pile into something that reflects back who you are and what your work has been.

As part of my work at NDIIPP, I’d been eagerly following developments around the emerging vision to support a national digital platform for libraries (PDF). A lot of incredibly smart and talented folks have been working on this and I am thrilled to be able to play a part in this effort. But the cool new thing isn’t what this post is about. This one is about looking back at what accrued over the last four years. The things I made, wrote, and did and what I find useful from that time and place and what I think is hopefully useful to others.

It has been a privilege and an honor to be able to work at The Library of Congress. The staff and the collections are both treasures from which I have learned so much. People at the institution, and throughout the national and international community of folks working on digital library issues, continue to be generous in sharing their time and ideas. I count myself very lucky to be a part of this field. With that noted, what do I have to show for my time?

Some Lists of Posts and Projects

"New business cards" Uploaded on November 15, 2010
New business cards” Uploaded on November 15, 2010

Given that we just finished out one year and started another, a time of top lists, and that leaving a job naturally pushes one to glance backward on their work, I thought it would make sense to share some of what I think are the interviews, posts and projects I’ve worked on in my time at LC. These are the things that keep popping up in my mind over time. So, here are some lists of work I did on The Signal and more broadly at LC that you can access over the web.

10 of the Interviews I Revisit

  1. Open Source Software and Digital Preservation: An Interview with Bram van der Werf of the Open Planets Foundation April 4, 2012
  2. Digital Strategy Catches up With the Present: An Interview with Smithsonian’s Michael Edson   August 9, 2012
  3. Life-Saving: The National Software Reference Library May 4, 2012
  4. We’re All Digital Archivists Now: An Interview with Sibyl Schaefer September 24, 2014
  5. Historicizing the Digital for Digital Preservation Education: An Interview with Alison Langmead and Brian Beaton May 6, 2013
  6. The Metadata Games Crowdsourcing Toolset for Libraries & Archives: An Interview with Mary Flanagan April 3, 2013
  7. The PDF’s Place in a History of Paper Knowledge: An Interview with Lisa Gitelman Jun 16, 2014
  8. Archivematica and the Open Source Mindset for Digital Preservation Systems October 16, 2012
  9. Exhibiting .gifs: An Interview with curator Jason Eppink June 2, 2014
  10. Collecting and Preserving Digital Art: Interview with Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito November 26, 2014
When I found Ed Summers name plate after he left but before I did.
When I found Ed Summers name plate after he left but before I did. Taken on October 3, 2014.

5 Posts I Wrote That I Revisit

  1. The is of the Digital Object and the is of the Artifact October 25, 2012
  2. Interface, Exhibition & Artwork: Geocities, Deleted City and the Future of Interfaces to Digital Collections January 28, 2014
  3. What Do you Mean by Archive? Genres of Usage for Digital Preservers February 27, 2014
  4. All Digital Objects are Born Digital Objects May 15, 2012
  5. Glitching Files for Understanding: Avoiding Screen Essentialism in Three Easy Steps November 5, 2012

5 Other Things I Loved Working On

  1. The NDSA Levels of Digital Preservation (PDF): I feel like this project illustrates the potential of an organization like the NDSA to make an impact on the practice of digital preservation. I love that I had a part in getting it off the ground and shaping it.
  2. Preserving.exe Report/Meeting: I think this meeting and report on collecting, preserving and providing access to software turned out really well.
  3. Working on the Digital Culture Web Archive with the American Folklife Center and the #FolklifeHalloween2014 Photo Project.
  4. CURATECamps: Shortly after I started I pitched the idea that we should host some unconferences and I think the CURATECamp Processing, CURATECamp Exhibition, and CURATECamp Digital Culture have all been great events.
  5. Finding Our Place in the Cosmos: They let me spend 60% of my time for a year doing research and writing about Martians, the history of models of the cosmos, and Carl Sagan.

Advance Praise for Designing Online Communities

Owens Book Cover
The cover for my book, which I’m rather happy with. I like that it looks like it could well be the cover of one of the books I focused my analysis on 🙂

My book proofs have been finalized and it now has a cover!

Along with that, Amazon seems to think it will be out in March. So in advance of that, I thought I would share the “advance praise” quotes I collected for the publisher here.

Can media archaeology have a methodology? Does software studies need data sets? In Designing Online Communities, Trevor Owens presents a bracing case study that not only contributes to our understanding of lives lived online, but also joins the empirical rigor of applied social science with leading-edge digital and media studies.” Matthew Kirschenbaum, University of Maryland

Designing Online Communities is a must-have for anyone designing or researching online communities, particularly for learning. Owens’ work is both comprehensive and eminently readable, a sweeping look at the technologies, design patterns, and cultural forms they produce that is both theoretically ambitious and grounded in examples and tools that will help you develop, research, and manage online communities.” — Kurt Squire, University of Wisconsin

“At a time when online communities are ubiquitous, and in some cases larger than most countries, it is critical that we understand how they are composed—technologically, psychologically, and sociologically. Trevor Owens shrewdly looks back to early bulletin boards and web forums to grasp the nature of these modern communities, how they arose, how they dealt with bad behavior and the inevitable disagreements between members, and how all of this was represented in rhetoric and code. This book provides essential context for our shared online existence.” Dan Cohen, Digital Public Library of America

“Part enabler, part denier, full-on technological mediation, web forums offer a fascinating entry point into the interplay of software and social interaction. In Designing Online Communities, Owens deftly mixes actor-network theory, discourse analysis, and other approaches, writing with clear language and insight to expose the ideologies inherent in seemingly pedestrian historical artifacts — how-to books for web forum administrators. His engaging analysis gives clarity to how the design strategies implicit in code influence the ways we build conversations, relationships, and communities on the web.” Jefferson Bailey, Internet Archive

“An important read for educators interested in using and building online communities. Trevor Owens asks us to consider how technologies reflect and shape permissions and control, and how the managers and builders of online communities wield power beyond simply an offer of “connectivity.” Audrey Watters, Hack Education


Mobile, Bots, Sound Studies & Video Games: Things In My New Digital Public History Grad Seminar

Huge thanks to everyone who weighed in on what I should add to my Digital Public History Graduate Seminar. I thought folks here might be interested in seeing how that all turned out. So, you can check out the course blog/website and you can read the syllabus embedded here below. I figured I would also share the topics of the weekly schedule to give a quick sense of the sorts of things we are going to be getting into. There is of course always room for improvement, but we have reached the time when the semester is going to start so I think aside from fixing typos and such this is going to be the course 🙂

The course blog is going to be a public thing. Think of it as something like a semester long student run Review of Digital History. So if you are interested, you should subscribe to the feed and join in that conversation.

Weekly Topics

  • Becoming digital public historians
  • Defining digital history & public history
  • The Web: Participatory? Collaborative? Exploitive?
  • Distant reading, text analysis, visualization as scholarly communication
  • Designing digital projects
  • “MTV Cops” proposal pitch week
  • Digital media, materiality and formats
  • Spring Break
  • What are digital archives and what do they have to do with the public?
  • Digital exhibition, hypermedia narrative & bots
  • Digital audio, oral history and sound studies
  • Mobile media, place & mapping in public history
  • Playing the Past: Videogames, Interactivity & Action
  • Class Conference Week

Digital Public History Syllabus UMD 2015

Curating in the Open: Martians, Old News, and the Value of Sharing as you go

The Salt Lake Tribune speculates about "vast thinking vegetable" on Mars
Speculation about the “vast thinking vegetable” on Mars from The Salt Lake Tribune

This is ultimately a story about how doing research for an online exhibition ended up sparking articles on Boing Boing, i09, and The Atlantic which explored a theme from the exhibit eight months before the exhibit would launch. I think the story has some lessons for thinking about the future of digital collections and exhibitions.

Finding our place in the cosmos

I spent 60% of my time at work in 2013 curating an online exhibition/collection/hypertext contextualizing the Carl Sagan papers in the history of astronomy and life on other worlds as evident in objects from across the Library of Congress collections. I’ve written before, about what I think that project has to say about how to compose such online things, but I haven’t shared much about how I went about identifying and selecting materials for it.

Through the process of working on the collection, I think I stumbled into something that has considerable potential to impact the way we should go about doing the work of creating such thematic narrative explorations of content in digital collections of libraries, archives and museums.


A big part of the interesting story about the idea of life on other worlds is that, for a good while, it was completely reasonable, if not expected that there would be intelligent life on the other planets in our solar system. One great episode in this story is the history of the Martian canals. Knowing how big of a topic this would be for popular press I realized I could just turn to Chronicling America, the website for a partnership between the NEH, LC and a network of libraries and archives from around the country to provide access to millions of digitized newspapers. I knew there would be a good bit of material here, and I was thrilled to find that a search for “martians” in the millions of digitized newspaper pages from 1836 to 1922 turned up a trove of pieces to explore. So I noted the pieces in this search that were particularly relevant for the collection. Instead of keeping these in a document on what my institution lovingly calls a “workstation,” I went ahead and just used Pinterest to keep track of them.

Work in Progress on Pinterest Progresses the Work

So I made Pinterest boards for each of the thematic sections of the collection I was working on. Below is an image of the Pinterest board I created on free and publicly available materials from across LC’s digital collections related to ideas of life on Mars. I liked using Pinterest for this as it created a visual way for me to track and organize these things. A big part of the project was to find what I could do with already publicly available digitized content, so it seemed like it would be fine to track these public materials using a personal Pinterest account. It had an interesting side benefit too.


I started using Pinterest for this purpose because it was easy, but it being public had an interesting secondary effect. As you can see from the image below, the board I started on Mapping Mars & Life on Mars ended up with 191 followers. It’s not a part of any official anything, but it turned out that many of the historians of science and history of science curious who follow me on twitter were interested enough to review and share some of the raw material I was pulling together on Pinterest. I needed to do this kind of aggregation for my own work for the essays and online collection, so it made sense to keep that up and out there for others to benefit from.


What Vast Thinking Vegetable of Mars Taught Me

Which brings me to the vast thinking vegetable that lives on Mars. One of the newspaper pages I found ended up showing up in my feed reader on Ptak Science Books.


If you don’t read John Ptak’s blog and you are into cool quirky history of science object stuff you are missing out. He is always sharing interesting finds. As you can see above, one day he found the article I found. It wasn’t just a coincidence, either. As you can see from the image below, John credited both the Chronicling America site and my Pinterest board in the post.


That alone was a hoot. What a success. I set out to use Pinterest to keep track and organize materials I might work with, but in the process I found an audience interested in the topics on Pinterest and that rolled into John getting in there and not only sharing what I had found but digging in and interpreting and explicating what about that article was interesting. While I hadn’t provided any interpretive frame, the things that I found interesting about the article were the same that John focused on. But it didn’t stop there. It turned out that Alexis Madrigal also reads John’s blog and that he thought this was interesting enough to take it to an even larger audience. It also hit BoingBoing and io9.


From my Pinterest board, to Ptak’s blog and from there to The Atlantic.  At this point, the Atlantic article ended up generating a surge of web traffic to the Chronicling America Website. So much so, that one of the project leaders noted the spike and went looking to see where it was coming from. The work I was doing to organize my notes, on at that point a project that had yet to be announced, had helped to punch a bunch of traffic and eyeballs back onto the content. That is, eight months before the launch the research process itself was hitting home a core objective of much of our work, spurring engagement and use of the collections. The traffic was nice, but importantly, it also had the effect of promoting thinking about the exact set of issues that the essays I was working on were focused on.

Both Ptak’s blog post and Alexis Madrigal’s piece on The Atlantic are brief but substantive. They contextualize and explore the issues of what it was and wasn’t reasonable to think about the existence of life on mars in the early 20th century. To this end, before I had even gotten close to publishing my essays, simply sharing the way I was organizing my resources and tweeting about them had prompted public scholarship exploring the same issues in the same resources.

Succeeding before You’ve Even Launched

So, before anyone had even formally announced this project, I was already meeting many of my objectives to spark conversations about the history of ideas of life on other worlds and generating significant use of the Library of Congress collections. I see a few different implications of this process.

  1. Defaulting to sharing serves the mission: The research that goes into preparing a thematic collection/exhibition is itself something that can be made into a public project that contributes to the objects of exhibiting materials. Using Pinterest to organize my research made that research into it’s own resource. While you can’t plan to have this kind of thing happen, you can plan to enable the possibility of it.
  2. There is great stuff on the cutting room floor that can have a life of it’s own: It ended up that I didn’t even use that giant vegetable eye story for the exhibition. It wasn’t the right fit in the end. The Pinterest boards I made are loaded with items that didn’t make the final cut but they still found their own audiences. This is to say, If I hadn’t shared the process there is little reason to believe this story would have gotten much attention. Just think about all the objects that someone considered featuring. Just the fact that it was considered is likely an interesting link that someone might be interested in following.
  3. Sharing Objects in the Research Process Encouraged Deeper Use: In the thematic essays, I work out what the objects mean and people scroll through and read that. However, just sharing the items I was working with in progress ended up inviting others to take those materials and interpret and explicate them on their own. Intriguingly, less became more there. It helped encourage others to explicate and contextualize.

PastPlay as the Digital Humanities

9780472035953I was invited to review Kevin Kee’s new edited volume Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology for the current issue of The American Historian. The author agreement allows one to post the “manuscript” version of this kind of thing to one’s personal website, so it’s shared here to that end. As I note, I think the concept of play at the heart of the volume is of potential interest for defining a perspective on play as something that defines the ever-nebulous digital humanities. 

Play can and should be a core part of both historical research and the teaching of history. This is the central argument the historian Kevin Kee frames around the fifteen essays gathered together in Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology.

The thesis of this collection emerges by stringing together the titles of the four sections of the book. Historians should be 1) teaching and learning history, 2) playfully, 3) with technology, 4) by building. Teaching and Learning History includes four cases studies of historical educational games. Playfully focuses on how play, or what author Stephen Ramsay calls the “Hermeneutics of Screwing Around,” can function as part of the practice of research and writing. With Technology explores board games, 3D printing, and simulation computer games as instruments for teaching history and engaging in historical scholarship. Finally, By Building provides four essays that argue that making things, from historical hoaxes to digital models of Victorian homes, can be powerful tools for historical inquiry. The Playfully section of Pastplay includes three essays that argue that play itself is an instrument for learning about the past. William J. Turkel and Devon Elliot connect work with 3D printing and fabrication with the value that historians of science have found in re-creating historical experiments. Ramsay argues for the value of serendipitous “screwing around” as a response to the massive scale of source material offered by millions of digitized books. Bethany Nowviskie explores a medieval device that served as a “mechanical aid to hermeneutics and interpretive problem solving” as inspiration for how humanists might make use of digital technologies (p. 140).

Pastplay focuses more on teaching and learning than it does historical scholarship, and as a result, the book is somewhat thin on addressing how play can and should be a component of historical inquiry. From my perspective, the most valuable contribution of Pastplay isn’t really articulated in the text. The book offers a framework for defining the ever-nebulous digital humanities. Many of the contributors are leading thinkers in the digital humanities, and their ideas about the playful use of technology to experiment, dabble, and explore the past offer insight into digital humanities epistemology. Often simply described as the application of computing technologies to humanistic inquiry, the playful hermeneutics described here, and the implication that there is no substantive difference between student learners and historians as perpetual learners, allow us to pin down what is different and significant about how these digital humanists approach the understanding of the past.

Pastplay is a book about teaching history, but the most intriguing parts of it deal primarily with historiography and method. In this respect, I might have liked to see two separate books: one focused on the educational possibilities of play and the other on how playful approaches to building models and exploring texts can provide value to the practices of historical research. While I’m still not entirely sure where this book belongs on my bookshelf, or what kind of course for which it is best suited, I am glad to know it is in my collection.

Wherein I Answer 13 Questions About Digital Humanities Blogging

Matt Burton, PhD candidate in the University of Michigan’s iSchool, is writing his dissertation on the role that blogs play in scholarly communication, primarily focused on digital humanities blogs. He asked me if I would respond to a set of 13 questions he put together as part of his study. Shawn Graham recently shared his responses, which I enjoyed reading, so I figured I would share mine as well.

In responding to Matt’s questions, I realized that there is likely a lot of tacit knowledge that comes from the practice of blogging in this community which it would be useful to make explicit for anyone else that wants to join. So I’d love to see other people respond to Matts 13 questions. If you link back to my post and Shawn’s we can keep track of all of this in trackbacks.

Matt: When did you start your blog (career wise: as a grad student,  undergrad, etc)?

Trevor: I started keeping an academic blog around the time I started my M.A. program. I had kept a personal blog for a year or so with my wife, but launched two blogs that had an academic bent in 2007. The first was a blog for a digital history course I was taking and the second was a site I was going to run that was called That was about history as represented in children’s books. The children’s books thing didn’t keep my interest long enough, so I eventually rolled them all together.

Matt: Why did you decide to start blogging?

Trevor: The digital history focused blog was the direct result of a course requirement, we had to start a blog and keep notes on it. At the same time, I decided I would stand up that other blog, the one about history through children’s books, because I saw it as an opportunity to

  1. refine some of my tech skills
  2. show folks that I could create and manage a decent looking blog
  3. set myself up with a structure and regular set of deadlines to get myself in a habit of writing for an audience
  4. because I saw the kind of exposure and connections that other colleagues at CHNM (Dan Cohen, Tom Scheinfeldt, Dave Lester & Jeremy Boggs) were getting from keeping blogs. So that is a web of reasons I ended up getting into blogging.

Matt: How do you host your blog, i.e. Do you use a generic web-host like Dreamhost with WordPress, do you use a blogging service like

Trevor: Currently, I use dreamhost to run an instance of WordPress. When I started blogging for the course I was using a instance but had set up and was running my own instance of the wordpress software for the history through children’s literature site.

Matt: How did you learn to set up your blog?

Trevor: I read the five minute tutorial for setting up a wordpress instance. It took a lot more than five minutes. I had put up websites before, but had never used anything that involved a database backend. I remember futzing around with a bunch of configuration issues to get the site up and running. At that point, I modified a theme at that point too. I wanted to make my own theme partly to show I could and to figure out more about how the HTML, CSS and PHP all interacted. Most of that tinkering just involved using Firebug to poke around and see what tweaks to the site would look like and then making those edits in a text editor to files via FTP.

Matt:  What are the challenges with maintaining your blog (i.e. spam, approving comments, dealing with trolls, finding time to write, etc)?

Trevor: At this point, the main challenge has been figuring out what role the blog plays in my productivity and work. I struggled a lot in the beginning to figure out what voice to write in and about how much my writing on the blog should be polished final product and how much it should be part of a kind of open notebook where I worked out things in a more personal voice. At this point, I feel like I’ve hit that stride, but at this point I also have so many places and commitments for writing that it’s tricky to do all the writing that I want to be doing. As a result of my blogging about history in video games, I was invited as one of the initial bloggers for Play the Past. At the same time, I also ended up blogging for my job, for the Library of Congress Digital Preservation blog. The result of this is that the “” blog has locked in as a place where I share more of the things that don’t easily fall into either of those other two spaces or that are the most perspectival of my writings. To sum that up, I haven’t had much trouble with technical or social issues around blogging. For me the challenge remains getting things up and out there via the blog and focusing on how I can make the best use of it as a place to develop and forward my thinking and writing.

Matt: What topics do you normally write about? Do you try and keep it strictly academic, or do you mix in other topics?

Trevor: At this point, I mostly talk about interpreting history as represented in new media, discussion of methods of research and scholarship in digital history and the digital humanities, and issues around the design, development, and process for the use of digital technologies in collecting, preserving, and providing access to cultural heritage materials. I upon occasion will delve into other issues in changes in scholarly communication. Another way to say this is that the thematic unity of the blog is that it covers the things I have an academic/professional interest in. The origins for a lot of posts are discussions with archivists, librarians, curators, artists, humanities scholars and scientists at conferences, on twitter, in the comments on their blogs and or reactions to presentations, papers or books that I’ve read.

At this point, is a professional/personal blog. I offer running commentary on issues in the field, but for the most part, it is not a place where I present original research as much as a place where I offer and develop my perspective on issues in this area of professional practice and scholarship. In contrast, when I write for Play The Past I envision my audience as a more general reader interested in issues and stories about history in video games. So the Play the Past posts are a bit more of a mixture between academic research writing and journalistic writing.

Matt: If you allow comments on your blog, do you often get comments? What has been your experience managing comments/commenters on your blog?

Trevor: When I write something really long, like the full write up of a talk I gave, I will often get nothing in the comments. I might see a lot of people sharing it around on twitter, or offering a word or two there, but I don’t see much engagement on the post. In contrast, if I write something short as a reaction to something that a lot of people are engaging in I can get some real substantive back and forth going. For example, Implications for Digital Collections Given Historian’s Research Practices responded to the ITHAKA report,Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians. Similarly, the satirical bent of  Notes toward a Bizarro World AHA Dissertation Open Access Statement responding to the AHA’s dissertation embargo information kicked up a lot of exchange. Along with that, some of the very technical proposals I’ve written up, like the recent piece on Linked Open Crowdsourced Description: A Sketch have had a tendency to spark a good bit of back and forth.

On the whole, I totally love comments. With the exception of that Bizzaro World post, and a post I wrote up about misogyny in tech communities, I haven’t really steered into waters where there is much divisiveness or trolls. Oh, wait, except for that one time when I co-authored a blog post on that asked if the source code of a video game could be racist and it got picked up by Rock Paper Shotgun and we ended up with all kinds of irate, but relatively thoughtful but very antagonistic comments. So those aside, I generally feel like the comment section of my blog works like the web once did. I put things up, and the small virtual community of practice I participate in on twitter and other blogs has a bunch of folks who pop in and read what I write and post thoughtful reactions that can open up discussions that I find myself going back to all the time.

Matt: What kinds of interactions (scholarly or otherwise) emerge out of your blogging practice?

Trevor: A bunch of them. I will try and break these out.

  • Finding and Establishing a Scholarly Community: Early on, I wrote a lot about history in video games on my blog, for example this post on the tech tree in Civilization from 2009 as a result I ended up getting roped into Play the Past at the launch. Through that, I ended up meeting a bunch of other bloggers I did not already know. As the blog has continued and I became a co-editor I’ve been thrilled to connect with and find people who I didn’t know at all who have now come to get a ton of traffic for their writing on this topic. We have had a range of folks move from commenters there, to guest bloggers to regular bloggers and a lot of their writing get’s a ton of traffic and exposure.
  • Refinement of Ideas and Writing and Collaborative Projects: A lot of my work toward publications and research projects occurs through a process of blogging. I blogged through drafts of parts of my dissertation proposal and writing process. A workshop I gave on crowdsourcing became a four part series of blog posts on the topic which turned into an invited essay for Curator: The Museum Journal which I then was invited to republish in an edited volume on the topic.
  • Getting My Name Out There: Every month or two I run into someone at a conference or event who says something like “I hope this isn’t weird but I read your blog.” At this point it’s totally not weird. It is a huge compliment and I feel really lucky about how the whole thing has worked out for me. The blogs are part of how I do public scholarship and it’s a continual part of the professional network and community I participate in.

As an example of how these things all weave together. One of my early pieces for Play the Past (still one of my personal favorites) asked if the game Colonization was offensive enough. Rebecca Mir, then a graduate student, read my post for a course and ended up writing this amazingly cool course paper that opened up a whole bunch of other themes from it. We corresponded a bit about the original blog post over twitter and she ended up sending me a copy of the course paper. Rebecca had found a ton of great stuff digging through some of the Civ modder discussion forums, and had some neat ideas about how to take a close look at the ways native peoples are represented in the game. At about the same time, there was a call for proposals for book chapters for what would become Playing With the Past I was planning on putting in a proposal based on the Colonization things I had written, and encouraged her to as well. Rebecca smartly suggested that it was unlikely that the editors would want to run two Colonization focused essays and suggested that we consider co-authoring something which I thought was a great idea.

So we put in for that and it was accepted, but ended up deciding to use Play the Past as a place for us to take turns blocking out and taking the lead on drafting a series of posts to explore the themes and issues I had laid out and she had begun exploring in her course paper. The result was a series of very widely read posts that got a ton of comments and ended up giving us a lot of great critical feedback to incorporate when we stitched them all back together into our essay for the book. What I love about this whole process is that it pulls at the seams of the traditional research and writing process and in doing so opens up the possibilities for a range of levels of collaboration and exposure to your work.

As is the case when you really spend time working on a piece, there is a bunch of material from the blog posts that we ended up leaving on the cutting room floor at the end. But, all of that material is still up and out there in the blog posts. The possibility of that collaboration hinged on her reading the short post I had written on the topic and the extensive feedback we received in comments helped us to refine and polish up the essay. Along with it, Rebecca went on to become a regular blogger for Play the Past and I know her participation in the site has helped to get her invited to present at conferences and played a role in her professional resume.

Matt: Do you find these interactions informative, useful, enlightening, tedious, frustrating, obligatory, etc? How do they feel?

Trevor: On the whole my interactions around blogging are informative and enlightening. I think a few other words I would use are challenging, rewarding, exhilarating, generous and warm.

  • Challenging in that on several occasions folks have called me out on things, or I have seen others called out, and on the whole I think that process has worked to make the broader community of folks in the digital humanities and library and archives tweet/blogosphere engage with aspects of privilege that help move the fields forward as they continue to grow.
  • Rewarding in that I get feedback and recognition for my work and am in regular and ongoing communication with the folks in a range of different communities of practice that I respect and admire.
  • Exhilarating in that every so often a post I write will blow up on reddit or something. One time a piece I wrote on Fallout was getting hundreds of more views each time I refreshed the stats page. That has the dual experience of “Yay! Look at how many people are reading something I wrote” and “Oh no! I really hope I didn’t mess anything up in there, look at how many people are now scrutinizing something I wrote.”
  • Generous and warm in that I have found myself in a community of peers, mentors, mentees and colleagues who regularly give of their time, and opinions and share in humor and the ups and downs of our careers and professional lives.

Matt: How do you think digital humanities blogging is different from more traditional forms of academic writing and reading?

Trevor: One of the essays in the report from this summit I helped plan on collecting and preserving science blogs is relevant in this case. The author suggested that part of the problem with pinning down what blogging is and how it is different from other modes of scholarly communication is that it’s something defined by particular technologies (text syndicated via RSS) and a set of practices that is socially defined in how people use those technologies at particular times. With that said, I think i can venture to offer two different approaches for going about this. Blogging is at once both a much more expansive and diffuse mode of communication than something like a journal article and simultaneously something that is an emergent genre of writing with a set of conventions.

Diffuseness: So, if you scroll down a bit further and read through some of my favorite blogs you will find that I like a lot of things that are totally different. Some of them have short posts that show up on a daily basis, some of them have long posts and are posted to every three to six months. Some have custom drafted material created for the blog, some are mostly sharing notes from talks and presentations and working drafts of papers. Some are filled with images and subheads some are just huge walls of text. To this end, one of the characteristics of blogging in the digital humanities is that it is far more particular to the person and their approach than something like a journal article. That is, I think you get a lot more variety in what people do with their blogs and what is considered acceptable practice.

Coherent Genre-ness: While I realize it might seem contradictory to now go on to suggest how blogging represents a coherent genre of writing after just saying that it’s so diffuse that isn’t so. While there is a broad diversity in practice, there are also a lot of conventions that bundle up in the middle of that diffuseness. So here are some things that makes blog writing, on the whole, different from other genres of scholarly communication like journal articles, book chapters, and conference presentations. On the whole, blog writing is more informal. It often is more conversational. It often involves less fancy talk, that is more straightforward attempts to get points across. Blog writing is generally much shorter than other forms of academic writing. Blog writing often has shorter paragraphs, makes use of hyperlinks to point out to ongoing discussion elsewhere instead of recapping that discussion, and includes more subheads to be easier to skim. Blog writing can often assume/connect with a broader audience than other forms of academic writing. Blog writing is often less finely tuned and honed than other forms of scholarly communication.

Matt: How would you characterize the relationship between blogging and the digital humanities (however broadly conceived)?

Trevor: Oh gosh, it sounds like that involves the infinite regress of attempting to define the digital humanities 🙂 I will lean on a recent review I wrote about the book Pastplay which I think get’s at a fruitful connection between what DH had become and what blogging does (I’m going to post a pre-print of the review on the blog one I get it back with final edits.)

While I’m challenged at exactly where I should put Pastplay on my bookshelf (educational psychology? historiography & method?) I’m glad to know it is in my collection. From my perspective, the most valuable contribution of this book isn’t really articulated in the text. The book offers a framework for defining the ever-nebulous digital humanities. Many of the authors of chapters in the book are leading thinkers in the digital humanities, and the ideas about the playful use of technology to experiment, dabble, and explore our ideas about the past offers insight into an epistemology of the digital humanities. Often simply described as the application of computing technologies to humanistic inquiry, the playful hermeneutics described here, and the implication that there is no substantive difference between students learning about the past and historians themselves as perpetual learners lets us pin down what is different and significant about how these digital humanists are approaching understanding the past.

So I think that’s it. I think it’s about play. Not play in the games sense or childish sense but in the sense of individually collectively learning how to do things. That is, play in terms of how learning happens at the individual and community level as we fumble around and figure out how to do better work and develop better ways to understand our world, our cultures and their pasts. I think when digital humanities blogging is at it’s best you have people stepping away from “fancy writing” to play with ideas and play with methods, to be honest, to be generous but to not shy away from calling each other out on our respective shit. I think this is something that has been a huge asset to the development of the community but at the same time it’s a real challenge. It is there inside the ups and the downs of concepts like “niceness.”

Academia has always had a bit of a rough and tumble discourse, go find the forum section of just about any history journal over the last 80 years and you have a very real chance of finding a real knock down drag out fight over what counts as good work and or whose work is or isn’t original or groundbreaking. With that said, the personal valence of blogging and the immediacy of it and of comment threads has some of the effect of making it all the more critical for the community to continue to figure out and reflect on how we can maintain an open and friendly network that is also ready to have it’s privilege checked and it’s background assumptions checked. Blog writing is also an incredibly immediate form of academic writing. You write it, you hit publish, you tweet it, you start talking about it. If it’s a hot topic, there is a good chance you could be reading someone’s response and reaction in another post in a few hours.

Matt: What DH blogs/bloggers do you read and why do you read them? What do you like about them?

Trevor: There are really too many to name here, I follow hundreds of blogs in my reader, so I will just point to some highlights. Here is a rundown of some of my favorites off the top of my head.

  • I read everything Bethany Nowviskie  writes, more or less as soon as I know it is up. She is routinely insightful and reflective and the fact that she is situated in a library context ends up meaning that her perspectives are particularly relevant to me.
  • Ted Underwood is another favorite. He does a great job at doing number crunching computing sort of DH in a way that opens up and elucidates big questions.
  • Sheila Brennan always has great things to say about work at the intersection of digital history, public history and the digital humanities.
  • Tim Sherratt’s posts often seem to come with some fully formed new project he concocted that is both immediately interesting and useful and simultaneously something that forwards the theoretical potential of building things in the field.
  • Miriam Posner has both a great voice for blog writing and covers a lot of issues thoughtfully and deeply.
  • DH+Lib often surfaces posts and pieces I would not otherwise have come across
  • Mark Sample is one of the most creative people I follow. I love how he has a focus on issues in born digital media like video games and twitter bots and his writing is really smart.
  • Steven Ramsay isn’t really a high volume blogger but I appreciate his perspective and I think his work on algorithmic criticism and the hermeneutics of screwing around are some of the best pieces of work at bridging the computational and mathematical with the epistemology and values of the humanities.
  • Ernesto Priego has a valuable perspective and I enjoy the intersection of library science and digital humanities in his work.
  • Natalia Cecire is a great writer and scholar and a thoughtful critic.
  • Adam Crymble writes a lot about issues around the practice of digital history and it’s both good stuff and particularly relevant to my interests.
  • Melissa Terras has written a bunch of great stuff and her work is often directly related to issues I am working on related to things like use and reuse of digital content.
  • Shannon Mattern is always writing about these amazing courses she teaches, about visits to galleries in New York and sharing these in depth and thoughtful pieces and talks that have a media studies bent. It’s great stuff.
  • Kate Theimer likely does not consider herself to be in the digital humanities tent, but her work on the future of archives is always thoughtful and relevant to folks in DH.
  • Scott Weingart has a bunch of great posts about things like network analysis and I appreciate his background in the history of science which situates his perspective on tools and methods in an understanding of the sociocultural framework that those tools operate.
  • Ian Milligan is someone whose posts I’m almost always tweeting out. He is one of a handful of historians doing work with Web Archives and he shares parts of the process of that work that are enlightening.
  • Fred Gibbs is a great historian and a thoughtful commentator on digital history.
  • Ed Summers builds very cool things and always has smart reasons and things to say about the things he builds.
  • Sharon Leon does great work in digital history and public history and I’m always interested in her perspective.

Matt: What was your most popular blog post? Why do you think it was so popular? What is your *favorite* post?

Trevor: Unquestionably, the most read things I’ve ever written are posts about Colonization and Fallout 3 for Play the Past. Both of those became and continue to be so popular because they have connected with audiences outside the network of academics and cultural heritage professionals I usually write for. Another hit in that vein, is a 400 word post I wrote about an amazing Pac-Man t-shirt.

For my personal blog, I’ve included the stats for the top 15 of my blog posts below (this really only goes three or four years back but it’s illustrative). The top post there is a perennial hit. I think that one resonated so well because it’s really in the sweet spot for a blog post, I lay out a point that turns some conventional wisdom about crowdsourcing on it’s head and that works in a short post. The second is actually a really long one, the transcript of a talk I gave earlier this year at the University of Pittsburgh that I think made it around a good bit because it weaves together a lot of the different things that I focus on (digital preservation, born digital materials and the digital humanities). So I think that one got around because it touches on and tries to connect more or less all the sectors of my professional network. The Bizarro world post was a fast moving issue in the higher education blogs. From there you see a few more of my posts on crowdsourcing and a range of things I’ve writing about research methods that tend to get some traction.


As far as a favorite post of mine, I’m not sure. I think I’d probably go with either the Fallout 3 post or the Is Colonization Offensive enough post. At the beginning of Play the Past I would spend a lot of time honing and refining pieces like those and I think it shows. For better or worse, most of the blogging I do these days is much more immediate and responsive and rushed between a bunch of other things. So I think I’m putting out good stuff that is useful but I don’t think it’s nearly as refined.

Digital Public History Course for an iSchool

I’m excited to announce that I will be teaching my digital public history graduate seminar again! I am tweaking the course I taught for American University’s Public History Program (in 2011 and 2012) and will be teaching it as a special topics course this spring in the University of Maryland’s iSchool program.

So, if you are a grad student at UMD (or if you have friends that are) it will be Thursday nights, 6:00-845 in College Park Maryland.

Here is the blurb on the course:

Digital Public History, LBSC 708 (Section D), College Park Maryland, Thursday nights, 6:00-845 

This course will explore the current and potential impact of digital media on the theory and practice of history. We will focus on how digital tools and resources are enabling new methods for analysis in traditional print scholarship and the possibilities for new forms of scholarship. For the former, we will explore tools for text analysis and visualization as well as work on interpreting new media forms as primary sources for historical research. For the latter, we will explore a range of production of new media history resources, including practical work on project management and design. As part of this process we will read a range of works on designing, interpreting and understanding digital media. Beyond course readings we will also critically engage a range of digital tools and resources.

Below is a bit of a scratch pad for how I am thinking about tweaking things for the course. I am curious for other comments/suggestions for things to consider with these.

Topics/Weeks I am Considering Swapping in

At the moment there are four areas I am considering as potential revisions/additions to the week by week topics of the course.

Books I am Considering Adding or Swapping in

One of the things I need to get done sooner rather than later is decide on what books I’m going to keep and or swap out. Here are a few I am considering. I am curious to hear if there are any other books folks think I should be considering.

Reviewing Some Syllabi for Related Courses 

I’ve been trying to keep track of some great looking relevent/related courses to review. This is the list I have so far. I’d love to know of other courses folks think I should take a look at.

So, what do you think?



Personal Digital Archeology Illustrated

Bundled up inside sectors of many of our hard disks you can find the traces of our digital past recursively tucked away in a hastily named directories. Our Old Files form layers of digital sediment ripe for personal digital archeology.

Old Files, XKCD 1360
Old Files, XKCD 1360

I love how this XKCD illustrates the way that personal computing becomes inherently archeological. Until recently, the cost of storage space kept plummeting.  Along with that, the nature of search in file systems enabled many of us to move from filing to piling. The result is something like the stratigraphy in the comic.

It was easy to just stick “Old Desktop” inside the new documents folder, which itself had the stack of files you recovered from an earlier hard drive crash. Nested deeper and deeper down you’ve got your high school zip disk.

If you tunnel down in there, you can even find out things about yourself you had forgotten. In this case, an 850k text file with forgotten poetry is uncovered.

As scholars in the future work with logical or forensic disk images of personal computers in the future their work will likely look much the same. Except they won’t have the benefit of memory to fill in the blanks about how this order came to be.

The comic is chaotic, haphazardly named files  and folders created on the fly become the long term structure of the data. Still, we get the joke because we can understand what these layers and files mean without knowing anything about their contents. We see the high school love note, the pile of files shared over Kazaa, the collection of pictures from Facebook. The directory names, file names and file extensions tell us a great deal about what we are looking at. Even in the chaos there is a lot of context and description in the arrangement of the files.

Interestingly, as we increasingly move to using cloud storage for more and more computing and as the days of really great Kryder rate continues to level off this is going to likely only be the case for a particular period in the history of personal computing. In any event, when we right up the digital historiography and source criticism text books for historians of the near and distant future who want to make sense of our old hard drives we should print up and explicate this XKCD and feature it on the cover.

Linked Open Crowdsourced Description: A Sketch

Systems and tools for crowdsourcing transcription and description proliferate, and libraries and archives are getting increasingly serious about collectively figuring out how to let others describe and transcribe their stuff. At the same time, there continues to be a lot of interest in the potential for linked open data in libraries archives and museums. I thought I would take a few minutes to try and sketch out a way that I think these things could fit together a bit.

I’ve been increasingly thinking it would be really neat if we could come up with some lightweight conventions for anyone anywhere to describe an object that lives somewhere else. At this point, things like the Open Annotation Collaboration presumably provide a robust grammar to actually get into markup and whatnot if folks wanted to really blow it out, but I think there is likely some very basic things we could just do to try and kick off an ecosystem for letting anyone mint URLs that have descriptive metadata that describe objects that live at other URLs.

My hope in this, is that instead of everyone building or standing up their own systems, we could have a few different hubs and places across the web where people describe, transcribe and annotate that could then be woven back into the metadata records associated with digital objects at their home institutions. In some ways this is really the basic set of promises and aspirations that Linked Open Data is intended to help with. Here I am just intending to try an think through how this might fit together in a potential use case.

A Linked Open Crowdsourcing Description Thought Experiment

With a few tweaks, we are actually very close to having the ability to connect the dots between one situation in which people further describe archival materials (in this case to create bibliographies) that could provide enhanced metadata back to a repository. I’ll talk through how a connection might be forged between Zotero and one online collection, but I think the principles here are generic enough that if folks just agreed on some conventions we could do some really cool stuff.

The Clara Barton papers are digitized in full, but in keeping with archival practice, they are not described at the item level. In this case, the collection has folder level metadata. So since it’s items all the way down in a sense, the folders are the items.

As a result, you get things that look like this, Clara Barton Papers: Miscellany, 1856-1957; Barton (Clara) Memorial Association; Resolutions and statements, 1916, undated. This is great. I am always thrilled to see folks step back from feeling like they need item level description to make materials available on the web. Describe to whatever level you can and make it accessible.

Clara Barton Papers Folder Level Item
Clara Barton Papers Folder Level Item


With that said, I’m sure there are people who are willing to pitch in and make some item level metadata for the stuff in that folder. Beyond that, if a scholar is ever going to actually use something in that folder and cite it in a book or a paper they are going to have to create item level description. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a generic way for the item level description that happens as a matter of course to put a footnote in an article or a book could be leveraged and reused?

Scholars DIY Item Level Description in Zotero

Everyday, a bunch of scholars key in item level description for materials in reference managers like Zotero. To that end, I’ll briefly talk through what would happen if someone wants to capture and cite something from the Clara Barton Papers in Zotero. Because there is some basic embedded metadata in that page, if you click the little icon by the URL you get that initial data, which you can then edit. You can also then directly save the page images into your personal Zotero library.

So you can see what that would look like below. I started out by saving the metadata that was there, I logged the URL that the actual item starts at inside the folder, changed it from a web page to a document, keyed in the title and the author of the document. I also saved the 2 actual images that are associated with the two images from the 19 images that are actually part of the item I am working with as attachments to my Zotero item.

Creating an item level record for materials in the Clara Barton papers folder in Zotero for the purpose of citing it.

So, now I can go ahead and drag and drop myself a citation. Here is what that looks like. This is what I could put in my paper or wherever.

Logan, Mrs. John. A. “Affidavit of Mrs. John A. Logan,” 1916. Miscellany, 1856-1957; Barton (Clara) Memorial Association; Resolutions and statements, 1916. Clara Barton Papers.

Now, wouldn’t it be great if there was a way for Zotero to ping, or do some kind of track back to the repository to notify folks that there is potentially a description of this resource that now exists in Zotero. That is, if I could ask Zotero’s API to see every public item they have that is associated with a URL. In particular, every item that someone actually went through the trouble to tweak and revise as opposed to the things that are just the default information that came out to begin with.

Connecting Back from the Zotero instance of the Item

At this point, I added in descriptive information, and because I have the two actual image files, I also know that the information I have refers directly to mss/mss11973/116/0400/0451.jp2 and mss/mss11973/116/0400/0452.jp2. So, from this data we have enough information to actually create a sub-record for 2 of the 19 images in that folder.

Because I have a public Zotero library, anyone can actually go and see the Item level record I created for those 2 images from the Clara Barton Papers. You can find it here In this case, the URL tells you a lot about what this is off the bat. It’s an item record from user tjowens and it has a persistent arbitrary item ID in tjowens’ library (IHKBH5WQ). Right that page could track back to the URL it is associated with, or even something simpler than that, just a token in the link that a repository owner could look for in their HTTP referrer logs as an indicator that there is some data out there at some URL that describes data at a URL that the repository has minted. So for instance, just stick ?=DescribesThis or something on the URL, like . Then tell folks who run online collections to go and check out their referrer traffic for any incoming links that have ?DescribesThis in them. From there, it would be relatively trivial to review the incoming links from logs and decide if any of them were worth pulling over to add in as added value of descriptive metadata.

Here is an image of the Item page created for the record I made in Zotero

Aside from just having this nice looking page about my item, the Zotero API means that it’s trivial to get the data from this marked up in a number of different formats. For instance, you can find the JSON of this metadata at

The JSON from the Zotero API for the item I created there. It’s easy enough to parse that you can pick out the added info I have in there, like the title and author.

So, if someone back at the repository liked what they saw here, they could just decide to save a copy of this record, and then ingest it or integrated it with the existing records in your index through an ETL process.

What I find particularly cool about this on a technical level, is that it becomes trivial to retain the provenance of the record. That is, an organization could say “description according to Zotero user tjowens” and link out to where it shows up in my Zotero library. This has the triple value of 1) giving credit where credit is do and 2) offering a statement of caveat emptor regarding the accuracy of the record (That is, it’s not minted in the authority of the institution but instead the description of a particular individual) and 3) providing a link out to someone’s Zotero library that likely could enable discovery or relate materials from other institutions.

Linked Open Crowdsourced Description

The point of that story isn’t so much about Zotero and the Clara Barton Papers, but more about how with a little bit of work, those two platforms could better link to each other in a way that the repository could potentially benefit from the description of it’s materials that happens elsewhere.  If a repo could just get a sense of what people are describing of it’s materials, they could start playing around with ways to link to, harvest, and integrate that metadata. From there, organizations could likely move away from building their own platforms to enable users to describe or transcribe materials and instead start promoting a range of third party platforms that simply enable users to create and mint descriptions of materials.