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?

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.

Why Historians Need to Be More Interested With Children's Literature

One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong. This picture from the 1976 children’s book The Value of Learning: The Story of Marie Curie depicts the resolute young Curie standing her ground against a visiting Russian school inspector. (I have posted about this confrontation before) It is a ‘Value Tale‘ publication. If you aren’t particularly familiar with Curie’s life take into consideration the following. Curie, born in 1867 would have fifty by the October revolution of 1917, needless to say the Soviet Uniform worn by her harsh Russian instructor is a bit out of place. This could point to a interesting argument for why there are so many Curie children’s books, stories about harsh Russians past and present make for good stories during the Cold War.

But back to the title of the post. While The Value of Learning does not come highly recommended it is still one of the most avaliable to children around the world. I have to believe that if historians were involved in the review process for these books these kinds of kinks could be better ironed out.

Ann Donegan Johnson, The Value of Learning: The Story of Marie Curie (La Jolla, Calif: Value Communications, 1978).

Children's Books By The Numbers: Or Two Things I Learned From Franco Moretti

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading Franco Moretti’s Graphs Maps and Trees. If you haven’t read it I highly recommend it as a truly compelling exploration of what individuals interested in the history of literature can glean by counting. After a bit of thought I am confident that some of his approaches will be quite useful in framing our understanding of children’s nonfiction.

As previously mentioned my project began in consideration of an anomaly of numbers. There are more Children’s books about Marie Curie than any other scientist. As a start to quantifying the history of science literature for children I thought it would be worth sorting out a bit more of who the popular stars are in comparison to the major players in biographies of scientists written for a more mature audience.

For a rough start I did some quick searches on the Worldcat for juvenile and non juvenile biographies about a laundry list of popular scientists and inventors and dumped the data at swivel.

Number of Children's Books About Different Scientists and Inventors

It appears that the same trend for gender in science is mirrored in race in invention. Curie is the most written about scientist for children, and George Washington Carver is the most written about inventor. But when we take the list of books for a older audience they fall far out of their top positions. What are we to do with this? The second thing I took away from Moretti is his insistence that we should be actively looking for questions we have no answer for. While this is essentially the same question I started my undergraduate thesis with I don’t really feel I am any more qualified to answer it.

Number of Biographies of Scientists and Inventors Written For An Adult Audience

I have a few ideas but I need to spend a bit more time fleshing them out. Stay tuned for more. In the mean time, what do you think could explain this phenomena? In the next few weeks I will post some of my thoughts on this and hopefully pull together some more robust numbers about these books. I am working on a way to export a CSV file from my Zotero collection that should help me isolate when Curie and Carver became the most written about scientist and inventor for kids

But in the mean time, why is there such a large market for children’s books about Carver and Curie for a young audience, and why does that market dry up when those children grow up?

Curie and Einstein Go To School

These are two of my favorite pictures from my research on children’s books about Einstein and Curie. (You can click on them to see the bigger images). They are I think, the most visual example of my thesis’s argument and I think they are also illustrative of exactly what we need to pay attention to in Children’s biography.

Stories about famous figures’ biographies are the most directly applicable aspect of children’s literature. This is the part of the story that with which children can most readily identify. Tragically, this part of the story of these lives is generally the thinest part of the historical record. Because children’s literature is so rarely reviewed by historians, this is not an issue for many children’s authors. They can simply invent the figures childhood.

Albert Einstein and His Tutor

The first picture is a picture of the young Albert Einstein terrorizing his baby sitter. Albert is described as cruel, and angry, he throws tantrums the text tells young readers that “His temper so terrifies a tutor hired to help young Albert prepare for school that she runs away, never to be seen again.” In the picture Albert and his anger are foregrounded as the tutor runs away in terror, apparently never to be seen again. You will be hard pressed to find historical precedent for this story: By all accounts Albert was a much more timid boy, but it is easy to see here how masculinity and power are imbued on this child.


The second picture is of Curie crying in the arms of her teacher. Before I get into the details, consider the differences between these two images. Notice the relative size of Curie and her teacher. Einstein is bigger than his tutor, while the small (and surprisingly Aryan) Curie is presented as significantly smaller. In the second picture, the teacher does not come down to her level and instead maintains her size and visual power. This story appears in almost every single children’s book about Curie. The young Manya Skłodowska was the youngest and smartest student in her class. Her school, which was run by Polish teachers, was under constant threat from the Russians who occupied Poland. The school was barred from teaching children in Polish and teaching Polish history. Instead, schools were required to have children memorize Russian history and learn Russian language. The school that Manya attended disobeyed these rules. When Russian school inspectors came to check on the school a look-out in the hallway would warn the class and the class would hide their Polish books. Once the inspector came in, the teacher would call on Manya to answer his questions. In the story, Manya succeeds by answering all of the Russian inspector’s questions in Russian to his liking. After he leaves she cries.

In this story it becomes apparent that while Manya is very smart and strong she still has a kind of frailty. Readers are told that Manya’s knowledge gives her a kind of importance. She is called on in class and because of her impressive memory; she saves the class from the inspector. While the stories of Einstein were exaggerate stories that stress his clashes with authority the story of the Russian inspector is usually treated in a way that is much more consistent with the authoritative texts. However, Eva Curie tells several other stories about Manya that only make it into one of the children’s books, and thus the picture of the young Manya is shaped more by exclusion than by exaggeration.

The following anecdotes come from Eleanor Doorly’s 1939 book, The Radium Women: Madame Curie. Doorly’s book went through many printings and was highly acclaimed, being recommended in three consecutive editions of the Children’s Catalogue. Doorly states quite clearly in the opening of her book that it is a children’s adaptation of Eva Curie’s biography of her mother. This book stays very close to Eva’s biography and offers insight into a different trajectory that could have been developed in accounts of Curie. These selections come from the second chapter of her book, appropriately entitled “Rebels.”

In the Russian-run high school Manya and her friend Kazia “took delight in inventing witticisms against their Russian professors, their German master, and especially against Miss Mayer who detested Manya only a little less than Manya detested her.” Their teacher Miss Mayer stated, “It’s no more use speaking to that Sklodovska girl,” she said, “than throwing green peas at a wall!” On one occasion Eva tells us of a time in which Manya was openly disrespectful, and witty. “I won’t have you look at me like that!’ Miss Mayer would shout. ‘You have no right to look down on me!’” Manya responded “‘I can’t help it,’ said Manya truthfully, for she was a head taller that Miss Mayer. No doubt she was glad that words sometimes have two meanings.”

In the second series of stories, the young Manya is openly disrespectful of her teachers. While the story of her crying in front of the Russian inspector is interesting it should be seen as just one of several stories about Manya’s school experience. Importantly, it is the only story that puts her in a position of weakness against the authority of both the teacher and the inspector. Other stories show the potential of portraying a Manya who is similar to the exaggerated Einstein, openly disrespectful of a rather hostile teacher.

Brown, Don. Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein . Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Doorly, Eleanor. The Radium Woman, a Life of Marie Curie; and Woodcuts. New York: Roy Publishers, 1939.