Lessons on the Internet for LAMs from The Oatmeal: Or, Crowdfunding and the Long Geeky Tail

Yesterday Matthew Inman (sole proprietor of the generally hilarious webcomic The Oatmeal) put up a post on his site to help raise funds to buy Tesla’s lab, Wardenclyffe Tower, preserve it, and make it into a Tesla Museum. At the time I’m writing this, 10,900  people have committed a total of $480,00  dollars to help make this happen.

I think folks who work at libraries, archives and museums need to pay attention to this. In particular, people who work at libraries, archives and museums that have a science and technology focus need to pay attention to this.

The Oatmeal and Tesla as the Geek of Geeks

If you don’t follow The Oatmeal you should, it’s a fun comic. If you do, you’ll know that Inman recently posted a funny and exuberant ode to Nikola Tesla as the geek of all geeks. It’s a story about an obsessive desire to make the world a better place through science and technology. (If you check that story out you should also check out this response from Alex Knapp and Inman’s critique of the critique.) The original cartoon uses Tesla to define what being a geek is. I like the sincerity in this particular quote at the front of it.

Geeks stay up all night disassembeling the world so they can put it back together with new features.

They tinker and fix things that aren’t broken.

Geeks abandon the world around them because they are busy soldering together a new one.

For someone who cares about the history of science and technology and the preservation and interpretation the cultural record of science and technology it is neat to see this kind of back and forth happening on the web. With that said, it is unbelievably exciting to see what happens when that kind of geeky-ness can be turned into a firehose of funding to support historic preservation.

How is this so amazingly successful?

As cultural heritage organizations get into the crowdfunding world it makes a lot of sense to study what about this is working so well. While one might not have the kind of audience Inman has, part of why he has that audience is that he’s a funny guy and he knows how to create something that people want to talk about all over the web. Even the name of the project,Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum, is funny. It is also participatory in the name alone. He is asking us to be a part of something. He is asking us to help make this happen.

Shortly after going up there were posts about this on a range of major blogs. It’s a great story and Inman is already a big deal on the web. Most importantly, Inman’s fans are the kind of people that can get really excited about supporting this particular cause. Aside from that, he publicly called out a series of different organizations that might get involved as sponsors. At least one of which was excited to sign on personally. Aside from getting the folks who were interested to just give money, he also asked them to reach out to the organizations. It just so happened that someone who has both Inman’s email address and the head of Tesla moters was thrileld to have the ouppertunity to connect the dots and help make this thing happen.  The project not only mobilizes supporters, it mobilizes people to mobilize supporters and in so doing lets everybody be a part of the story of making this thing happen.

Is this just a one off thing?
So Inman has been able to turn his web celebratory into a huge boon for a particular cultural heritage site. The next question in my mind is, is this a one time thing? I think there is a good reason to belive that this is actualy replicable in a lot of instances.

First off, Inman’s love for science and his audiance’s love for science isn’t an oddity. The web is full of science and tech fans and other web celebratories who might be game for doing this kind of thing to connect with fans and help support worthy causes.

Off the top of my head, here are three people I think could and very likely would, be up for this sort of thing for other projects related to scientists and engineers.

Jonathan Coulton

I would hazzard to guess that Jonathan Coulton fans would be thrilled to support at some archive to accession and digitize and make avaliable parts of Benoit Mandelbrot’s personal papers. Not sure exactly who has those papers but I am sure they are awesome, and I would hazzard to guess that the man who wrote an ode to the Mandelbrot Set and the fans who love it would come out in droves to support preserving his legacy.

If you haven’t heard Coulton sing the song take a minute and listen to it.

When you get to the end, you find the kind of sincerity about the possibility of science making our world a better place.

You can change the world in a tiny way
And you’re just in time to save the day
Sweeping all our fears away
You can change the world in a tiny way
Go on, change the world in a tiny way
Come on, change the world in a tiny way

We can change the world in a tiny way, and that is a message that Coulton’s fans want to hear. It’s really the same message for Inman’s geeks who are taking apart and rebuilding the world with new features.

Randall Munroe
I would similarly hazzard to guess that XKCD fans would follow Randall in any given campaign he wanted to start around a scientist or a technologist. You can see the same enthusiasm for science and technology in a lot of the XKCD comics. Here are a few of my favorites. For a sense of what people will do based on XKCD comics I would suggest reading the section on “Inspired Activities” on XKCD’s Wikipedia article.

For starters, there is the ever popular “Science: It Works” comic.

For a specific example of actual scientists check out this Zombie Curie comic.

Kate Beaton

Kate Beaton makes funny, clever, and rather nice looking historical comics. Many of those comics, like the comic about Rosalind Franklin below, are about scientists. I would hazard to guess that her fans would follow her to support these kinds of projects as well.

So these were just a few examples of other folks that I think could potentially pull this kind of thing off. I could also imagine all three being up for this sort of thing. In all three cases, you have geeks who have been able to do their long tail thing and find the other folks that geek out about the same kinds of things.

As a result, I think we could be looking at something that has the makings of a model for libraries, archives and museums to think about. Who has an audience and the idealism to help champion your cause? The web is full of people who care about science. Just take a look at what happened when someone remixed Carl Sagan’s cosmos into a song. There are some amazing people out there making a go of a career by targeting geeky niches on the web. If they are up for helping, I think they have a lot to offer. I’m curious to hear folks thoughts about how these kinds of partnerships might be brokered. What can we do to help connect these dots?

Tripadvisor Rates Einstein: Traces of Public Memory and Science on the Web

Arguing with Einstein is one of my favorite photos of the Albert Einstein memorial. It encapsulates how some of the sculptor’s intentions, his argument about Einstein and science, manifest themselves in an invitation to argue with a statue. The seated statue invites us to sit on him, climb him, and argue with him, and it is my contention that sites like Yelp, Tripadvisor, and Flickr offer us the ability to explore and examine our relationship to these kinds of monuments and memorials in unprecedented ways.

Photo: Schmidt, C., 2008. Arguing with Einstein, Available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisbrenschmidt/2190660089/

Its been long in the making but I am excited to report that my paper Tripadvisor rates Einstein: Using the social web to unpack the public meanings of a cultural heritage site is out in the newest issue of The International Journal of Web Based Communities. I did the primary research for this project back in my master’s program in a great course called Museums, Monuments and Memory. That was in the Fall of 2008. (I know, wow that was a while ago my how time flys in the world of academic publishing)

The paper is largely an attempt to parse out the different kinds about sites of public memory that we can tell when we draw on traditional archival collections, in this case using materials from the National Academy of Sciences archives, as opposed to the kinds of stories we can tell when we look at traces of experience and interaction with those sites of memory online. In this case, I find it particularly interesting to try and evaluate how some of the intentions in the design of the monument can be evaluated in the kinds of things that we create online as a result of experiences with the memorial. My hope is that this can serve as both further validation of the value of preserving public discourse on the web and potentially as an example for how other’s might use social sites like Yelp, Flickr, and Tripadvisor to explore and interrogate public memory.

Below is the abstract for the paper. I would love to hear any comments or critiques in the comments. Similarly, if you end up using the paper in any way I would also love to hear about it.


Near the US Capitol, in front of the National Academy of Sciences sits a gigantic bronze statue of Albert Einstein. The monument was created to celebrate Einstein and the sense of awe and wonder his work represents. However, while under construction, art critics and some scientists derided the idea of the memorial. They felt the scale of such a giant memorial did not fit the modesty of Einstein. This paper explores the extent to which perspectives of the monument’s public supporters and critics can be seen in how people interact with it as evidenced in reviews and images of the monument posted online. I analyse how individuals appropriate the monument on social websites, including Fickr, Yelp, Tripadvisor, and Yahoo Travel, as a means to explore how the broader public co-creates the meaning of this particular memorial. I argue this case-study can serve as an example for leveraging the social web as a means to understand cultural heritage sites.

If you don’t have access to the official copy I have my own personal unofficial personal archival copy that you can take a look at.

Mining Old News For Fresh Historcal Insight

This week I had the honor of participating in the Library of Congress’ national strategy for digital news summit. The Library gathered together a diverse mix of corporate and public archivists, representatives from public and private foundations, and librarians to discuss the digital future of news. The conversations focused on both how to preserve born digital news and how to archive old news migrating into digital forms. I was honored to have a chance to bring in my perspective as a consumer of that archived news.

I gave a short presentation about some of the ways digitized historical news enables historians to ask different kinds of questions. I think the talk has some implications for both historians and digital archivists, so I thought I would share the gist of the talk here to continue the conversation we started at the meeting.

In my mind this contributes to ongoing discussions about the role that digital tools should play in re-framing conversations about historical methodology. Since the structure of the archive plays a significant role in the structure and character of the kinds of questions a historian can ask it’s crucial for historians to be involved in helping shape these archives.

A Use Case for Historical News: Marie Curie Visits America

On May 11, 1921, the world’s most famous female scientist disembarked from a long Atlantic voyage in New York City. For the ten weeks Marie Curie toured the United States, she was greeted as an international celebrity, according to the New York Times, the “biggest hit of any celebrity who has come to New York” for quite some time. Curie was greeted with speeches and fanfare in New York, Washington DC, Pittsburgh and Chicago, gracing major news papers several times a week. Less than a year after American women won the right to vote through the 19th Amendment, Marie Curie —the only noble laureate twice over and worlds most distinguished women of science— visited the United States. Last year I decided to explore how different periodicals reported on Curie’s visit. Analysis of coverage of her visit exposes divergent ideas about the place of women in American science, society and work emerging in the early twentieth century. For our purpouses, this case also exposes some of the transformational power  databases and digital tools present for  historical inquiry.

Asking A Database Historical Questions

Picture 1

It took me six seconds to find the 1512 references to Marie Curie in the entire history of the New York Times, the Atlanta Constitution, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Wall Street Journal. Now this obviously saved me a ton of time, but the implications of this search are much deeper than this. Reading the entire history of these publications for mentions of Curie would not only be impractical, it would be impossible.

If I had wanted to explore press coverage of Curie in the pre-full-text search world, I would have selected a few key dates when I would expect her to have been mentioned, gone to the library, and rolled out the microfilm. I would have found many of these articles, but the time it takes to find them requires a larger upfront commitment to exactly what I intend to explore, and how I want to explore it. With search I have the ability to quickly get a feel for different questions in different queries while simultaneously uncovering mentions of Curie on editorial pages and in periods I would not have expected to find her mentioned.

Personal Archive Tools Exponentially Increase This Transformative Power

Repositories like Proquest historical News are powerful, and their ability to allow users to explore connections between items inside their collections has a powerful effect on the kinds of questions historians can ask about their contents, but that is just the surface of the potential these databases afford. With a tool like Zotero it is possible to aggregate materials from a variety of different sources and mine them in sophisticated ways for historical insights.

After I gathered the relevant items and fulltext PDFs from Proquest I pulled a similar search through Reader’s Guide Retrospective. While readers guide retrospective did not offer seamless integration with Zotero I was able to pull out structured data for hundreds of references, and with a few clicks had submitted inter-library loan requests for fulltext scans of the most relevant articles. When I received those PDFs I was able to simply drag and drop them into Zotero to store alongside the data. As I constructed my personal archive I was then able to turn Zotero’s search capabilities on the collection to explore interesting relationships between my data.

Zotero Library

Data fields carry unexpected potential

I created a variety of saved searches from criteria in my research data. Page numbers are included in this data for a specific reason, they are crucial for citation. Beyond that purpose, page numbers also represent an important statement about the objects in my collection. While all of the articles I discovered about Curie are relevant to my analysis articles on the frontpage of a newspaper are particularly relevant to questions about how Curie was presented to the public. This field in my database, the page on which each article can be found, was included to help people find the articles in citations, but it, like many other fields in my database, also communicates an historical significance.


Facets of that significance can expose historical insight

Once I had isolated the frontpage stories about Curie I had the opportunity to further explore this subset of thirty or so articles. Zotero’s ability to visualize the collection in a timeline allowed me to quickly visualize the chronology of Curie’s appearances on the front page. From there I could use the “highlight” function to further explore the data. Based on my experience with discussions of Curie’s visit to America I decided to highlight the mention of cancer in titles, finding the word in a plurality of the frontpage studies leads to a particular historical insight.

Marie Curie’s contributions to science are impressive, but the connection between her work and a cure or treatment for cancer is tenuous. While the word cancer does not appear, in any significant fashion, across all the hundreds of article titles about her visit, it does show up in a significantly larger portion of the front page story titles. This provides tentative support for the notion that Curie’s work, and importance, was misrepresented in feminine terms, framing in the feminine role of healer instead of the masculine role of a scientist.


Implications for history and digital archives

Implications for historical methods: While it is indeed possible to count these things out without these sort of tools, the ease at which I was able to mine a large set of documents for relevant information, and historical insight, has important ramifications. As far as I am concerned, the only way that historians can overcome the issues that arise from the problem of abundance of historical materials is to begin using tools for data analysis that allow for “distant readings” of texts. This can only be accomplished if some larger issues are observed in the creation and digitization of historical records and texts.

Implications for historical archives and databases: Exposing fulltext and coherent metadata is essential, building fancy repository specific visualizations and manipulations is extravagant.  What is going to matter to historians of the future is the ability to take your data, dump it onto a tool like Zotero, and use any number of analytical tools to explore that data in relation to information from other repositories. In that light, any fancy encoding and detailed levels of information you work into your resources is of limited use if that is not carried across into other spaces. We are not going to solve the problem of abundance by digging deeply into small sets of documents encoded in TEI, were going to get there with the metadata we have, dirty OCR and the emerging universe of entity extraction.

Re-mixing The Tech Tree: Build Your Own History Of Science

A few weeks back Rob Macdougall posted a great essay about using the game Civilization’s approach to the history of science and technology as a point of entry into conversations about models for representing the history of science and technology more broadly. Rob’s students picked apart the way the game allows players to develop science and tech. Student’s then proposed their own ideas for how to model the history of science in a video game.

There is a lot of excitement about games and education but so much of that fervor misses a crucial point at the heart of Rob’s assignment. Games, like other media (books, articles, films, etc.) express arguments in their content. But it’s not just the content of the games that make arguments. In most cases the most compelling arguments in games are actually embedded inside game mechanics. As Rob’s students uncovered, the structure of the tech tree itself makes assumptions about how progress, science, and technology work.

Rob’s assignment is in fact so fun that there are all sorts of gamers that do exactly this sort of thing for fun. Civilization has a sizeable Moder community, which spends a tremendous amount of time building, tearing apart, and remaking the way science and technology work in the game. For an indication of the tenaicty of this community take a look at this book length post on editing tech trees in Civ 4. More impressive than the posts length are the 150 comments from modders thanking and critiquing the work. For another view on the community check out this Civ Asia scenario. Many of these moders are going well beyond tweaking the game, for example in this thread some are working on put different civilizations on completely indpendent  trunks.

The tech tree is such a facinating entity that it provokes all sorts of gamers to get into heated arguments about how the history of science and technology works. In the face of this sort of evidence it is hard to support notions that limitations in the way Civ models history give gamers a poor conception of the way history works. On the contrary the enthusism of these moders seems to suggest that the mechanics of Civ provoke gamers to think more deeply about the nature of science and technology.

Darwin, History, and Visualizations

Two weeks ago our Creating History in New Media class had a great chance to chat with historian David Staley about his book Computers Visualization and History and Scott McCloud‘s book Understanding Comics. New media provides some exciting places to take conversations about visualizations in history, but one of my other take-a-ways from the conversation was that there are a lot of places to talk about historical visualizations in old media.

I know that I said it’s not about pictures, but for those of you interested in pictures there are some neat projects that you can look to. To (quite literally) illustrate the point, here are a few examples of some of some dead tree picture based visualizations.

Children’s Picture Books

Below is a shot from Peter Sis’ The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin. Each page of the book places the primary content of the story in the center circle and frames. The picture below isn’t the best example but it does a good job demonstrating the way the side stories leaf into the center image to express different parts of a related story. Over the last thirty years or so critics and artists have developed several different works that explore how picture books work. Folks interested visually communicating history might do well to borrow from their work.

Science Comics

The Sandwalk Adventures

As I mentioned, alongside Computers Visualization and History our class also read Understanding Comics. It is worth mentioning that comics themselves are becoming a compelling medium for visually communicating history. In my own area of interest, the History of Science, Jim Ottaviani and Jay Hosler have developed some fantastic examples of what you can do with comics. Below is a page from a great book about Darwin’s ear ticks by Hosler. 

Photos of Legos With Currency

Ok it doesn’t really fit, but it’s awesome-ness outweighed its misfit-ness, so here it is.

So, why have I pulled together these images? To demonstrate that there are already communities of comic and picture book artists interested in presenting historical information to young and old alike, many of who are doing a bang up job. There is enough material out there to just focus in on a single figure like darwin and see different examples from these fields. If historians want to think more about developing picture based visualizations they would do well to try folding in insights form these different communities.

Scientists in Action: Front Door Iconography At The National Academy Of Sciences

As I’ve mentioned before I have been looking at the Einstein memorial on the grounds of the National Academy of Sciences as a interesting spot to think about science in public. In working on the project I have been trying to find points of comparison, other statues of scientists or presentations of scientists, ideally in a similar setting like the National Mall. The first point of comparison to consider is the iconography on the National Academy’s building.

Just as the placement, posing and popularity of the Einstein statue suggest interesting points to explore perceptions of science the etchings on the door and reliefs along the side of the building make suggestions about what science is. I’m not entirely sure what to do with them yet but, they are so engaging that I thought I would share them, and some first thoughts.

Each of the panels below tries to distill a scientist’s work and achievements into a few icons and actions. Each panel is stunning, but I’m not sure about how successful they are in representing the scientist and their accomplishments. I suppose there is not much you can do in less then a square foot of space to commemorate a scientist. Below I have tried to extract the gist of what each pane suggests scientists do. What is your take on these? Oh, and does anyone have a clue about what the four little icons surrounding each pane are about?

Galileo Galilei 1564-1642

  • Setting: Outside
  • Action: Pointing
  • Tools: Holding, but not using a telescope

Issac Newton 1643-1727

  • Setting: Unclear
  • Tools: Scroll
  • Action: Unclear, Is he looking at calculations and charting the orbit of the planets? Is he flying a kite?
  • Extra: Science involves awesome capes

James Watt 1736-1819

  • Setting: Sitting by some huge gears
  • Action: Cranking gears and taking notes while other guy looks on
  • Tools: Lever, or some sort of super wrench

Charles Lyell 1797-1875

  • Setting: Pedestal suggests some sort of museum setting
  • Action: Looking at striations in strata
  • Tools: Magnifying glass

Charles Darwin 1809-1882

  • Setting: Museum? Clearly there are mammoth bones, but what is the tower all about?
  • Action: Reading, possibly dosing off, and potentially skull gazing
  • Tools: Book and a skull

Louis Pasteur 1822 – 1895

  • Setting: Labish alterzone with draped statue on a pedestal
  • Action: Looking at a test tube, resting an arm on books,
  • Tools: Testube, might be a Bunsen burner
  • Extra: Only panel to include a table

Euclid and Aristotle are also on the door, but it is a bit tougher to get a good shot of them because they are way up top.

All of these images come courtisy of Flickr user sethgaines

A More Scientific Aproach To Comics

banner1.pngWhile not exactly a historical website The Periodic Table of Comic Books is an interesting web resource which has historical value. Designed by a chemists at the University of Kentucky The Periodic Table of Comic Books allows visitors to see how elements have been used and in some cases abused by American comic books.

Be forewarned, the website is not attractive. There are a few typos and the repeating background is quite atrocious, but still I think the idea is ingenious!

The site offers the viewer an image of the periodic table of elements. When you click on any element you jump to a page offering small multiples of images excerpted from pages of comics that mention that element. The resource immediately suggests new avenues for thinking about the popular perceptions of the history of science.


When you look at the small multiples it is clear that these chemists get comics in a way that the Library and Archives of Canada does not. Instead of offering tiny images of full pages from the comics viewers are given little piece of the action in the thumbnails. The bibliographic information is still present but the presentation respects the artifact being presented.

For whatever reason the site does not appear to have a database back-end. Instead each page for each comic seems to have been individually added to the collection. While taking advantage of the non-hierarchical basis of the web page format the site does not take what would seem to be the natural next step and run the site from a database of comics and elements. I would hazard to guess that this is due to lineage issues. It is entirely possible that the site has retained its initial structure from 1996.