Joho the Blog » libraries

October 13, 2014

Library as starting point

A new report on Ithaka S+R‘s annual survey of libraries suggests that library directors are committed to libraries being the starting place for their users’ research, but that the users are not in agreement. This calls into question the expenditures libraries make to achieve that goal. (Hat tip to Carl Straumsheim and Peter Suber.)

The question is good. My own opinion is that libraries should let Google do what it’s good at, while they focus on what they’re good at. And libraries are very good indeed at particular ways of discovery. The goal should be to get the mix right, not to make sure that libraries are the starting point for their communities’ research.

The Ithaka S+R survey found that “The vast majority of the academic library directors…continued to agree strongly with the statement: ‘It is strategically important that my library be seen by its users as the first place they go to discover scholarly content.'” But the survey showed that only about half think that that’s happening. This gap can be taken as room for improvement, or as a sign that the aspiration is wrongheaded.

The survey confirms that many libraries have responded to this by moving to a single-search-box strategy, mimicking Google. You just type in a couple of words about what you’re looking for and it searches across every type of item and every type of system for managing those items: images, archival files, books, maps, museum artifacts, faculty biographies, syllabi, databases, biological specimens… Just like Google. That’s the dream, anyway.

I am not sold on it. Roger cites Lorcan Dempsey, who is always worth listening to:

Lorcan Dempsey has been outspoken in emphasizing that much of “discovery happens elsewhere” relative to the academic library, and that libraries should assume a more “inside-out” posture in which they attempt to reveal more effectively their distinctive institutional assets.

Yes. There’s no reason to think that libraries are going to be as good at indexing diverse materials as Google et al. are. So, libraries should make it easier for the search engines to do their job. Library platforms can help. So can Schema.org as a way of enriching HTML pages about library items so that the search engines can easily recognize the library item metadata.

But assuming that libraries shouldn’t outsource all of their users’ searches, then what would best serve their communities? This is especially complicated since the survey reveals that preference for the library web site vs. the open Web varies based on just about everything: institution, discipline, role, experience, and whether you’re exploring something new or keeping up with your field. This leads Roger to provocatively ask:

While academic communities are understood as institutionally affiliated, what would it entail to think about the discovery needs of users throughout their lifecycle? And what would it mean to think about all the different search boxes and user login screens across publishes [sic] and platforms as somehow connected, rather than as now almost entirely fragmented? …Libraries might find that a less institutionally-driven approach to their discovery role would counterintuitively make their contributions more relevant.

I’m not sure I agree, in part because I’m not entirely sure what Roger is suggesting. If it’s that libraries should offer an experience that integrates all the sources scholars consult throughout the lifecycle of their projects or themselves, then, I’d be happy to see experiments, but I’m skeptical. Libraries generally have not shown themselves to be particularly adept at creating grand, innovative online user experiences. And why should they be? It’s a skill rarely exhibited anywhere on the Web.

If designing great Web experiences is not a traditional strength of research libraries, the networked expertise of their communities is. So is the library’s uncompromised commitment to serving its community’s interests. A discovery system that learns from its community can do something that Google cannot: it can find connections that the community has discerned, and it can return results that are particularly relevant to that community. (It can make those connections available to the search engines also.)

This is one of the principles behind the Stacklife project that came out of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab that until recently I co-directed. It’s one of the principles of the Harvard LibraryCloud platform that makes Stacklife possible. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been touting a technically dumb cross-library measure of usage. These are all straightforward ways to start to record and use information about the items the community has voted for with its library cards.

It is by far just the start. Anonymization and opt-in could provide rich sets of connections and patterns of usage. Imagine we could know what works librarians recommend in response to questions. Imagine if we knew which works were being clustered around which topics in lib guides and syllabi. (Support the Open Syllabus Project!) Imagine if we knew which books were being put on lists by faculty and students. Imagine if knew what books were on participating faculty members’ shelves. Imagine we could learn which works the community thinks are awesome. Imagine if we could do this across institutions so that communities could learn from one another. Imagine we could do this with data structures that support wildly messily linked sources, many of them within the library but many of them outside of it. (Support Linked Data!)

Let the Googles and Bings do what they do better than any sane person could have imagined twenty years ago. Let libraries do what they have been doing better than anyone else for centuries: supporting and learning from networked communities of scholars, librarians, and students who together are a profound source of wisdom and working insight.

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October 8, 2014

A dumb idea for opening up library usage data

A dumb idea, but its dumbness is its virtue.

The idea is that libraries that want to make data about how relevant items are to their communities could algorithmically assign a number between 1-100 to those items. This number would present a very low risk of re-identification, would be easily compared across libraries, and would give local libraries control over how they interpret relevance.

I explain this idea in a post at The Chronicle of Higher Ed

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October 7, 2014

Library as a platform: Chattanooga

I finally got to see the Chattanooga Library. It was even better than I’d expected. In fact, you can see the future of libraries emerging there.

That’s not to say that you can simply list what it’s doing and do the same things and declare yourself the Library of the Future. Rather, Chattanooga Library has turned itself into a platform. That’s where the future is, not in the particular programs and practices that happen to emerge from that platform.

I got to visit, albeit all too briefly, because my friend Nate Hill, assistant director of the Library, invited me to speak at the kickoff of Chattanooga Startup Week. Nate runs the fourth floor space. It had been the Library’s attic, but now has been turned into an open space lab that works in both software and hardware. The place is a pleasing shambles (still neater than my office), open to the public every afternoon. It is the sort of place that invites you to try something out — a laser cutter, the inevitable 3D printer, an arduino board … or to talk with one of the people at work there creating apps or liberating data.

The Library has a remarkable open data platform, but that’s not what makes this Library itself into a platform. It goes deeper than that.

Go down to the second floor and you’ll see the youth area under the direction/inspiration of Justin Hoenke. It’s got lots of things that kids like to do, including reading books, of course. But also playing video games, building things with Legos, trying out some cool homebrew tech (e.g., this augmented reality sandbox by 17-year-old Library innovator, Jake Brown (github)), and soon recording in audio studios. But what makes this space a platform is its visible openness to new ideas that invites the community to participate in the perpetual construction of the Library’s future.

This is physically manifested in the presence of unfinished structures, including some built by a team of high school students. What will they be used for? No one is sure yet. The presence of lumber assembled by users for purposes to be devised by users and librarians together makes clear that this is a library that one way or another is always under construction, and that that construction is a collaborative, inventive, and playful process put in place by the Library, but not entirely owned by the Library.

As conversations with the Library Director, Corinne Hill (LibraryJournal’s Librarian of the Year, 2014), and Mike Bradshaw of Colab — sort of a Chattanooga entrepreneurial ecosystem incubator — made clear, this is all about culture, not tech. Open space without a culture of innovation and collaboration is just an attic. Chattanooga has a strong community dedicated to establishing this culture. It is further along than most cities. But it’s lots of work: lots of networking, lots of patient explanations, and lots and lots of walking the walk.

The Library itself is one outstanding example. It is serving its community’s needs in part by anticipating those needs (of course), but also by letting the community discover and develop its own interests. That’s what a platform is about.

It’s also what the future is about.

 


Here are two relevant things I’ve written about this topic: Libraries as Platforms and Libraries won’t create their own futures.

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September 25, 2014

BoogyWoogy library browser

Just for fun, over the weekend I wrote a way of visual browsing the almost 13M items in the Harvard Library collection. It’s called the “BoogyWoogy Browser” in honor of Mondrian. Also, it’s silly. (The idea for something like this came out of a conversation with Jeff Goldenson several years ago. In fact, it’s probably his idea.)

screen capture

You enter a search term. It returns 5-10 of the first results of a search on the Library’s catalog, and lays them out in a line of squares. You click on any of the squares and it gets another 5-10 items that are “like” the one you clicked on … but you get to choose one of five different ways items can be alike. At the strictest end, they are other items classified under the same first subject. At the loosest end, the browser takes the first real word of the title and does a simple keyword search on it, so clicking on Fifty Shades of Gray will fetch items that have the word “fifty” in their titles or metadata.

It’s fragile, lousy code (see for yourself at Github), but that’s actually sort of the point. BoogyWoogy is a demo of the sort of thing even a hobbyist like me can write using the Harvard LibraryCloud API. LibraryCloud is an open library platform that makes library metadata available to developers. Although I’ve left the Harvard Library Innovation Lab that spawned this project, I’m still working on it through November as a small but talented and knowledgeable team of developers at the Lab and Harvard Library Technical Services are getting ready for a launch of a beta in a few months. I’ll tell you more about it as the time approaches. For example, we’re hoping to hold a hackathon in November.

Anyway, feel free to give BoogyWoogy a try. And when it breaks, you have no one to blame but me.

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September 22, 2014

The future of libraries won’t be created by libraries

Library Journal has posted an op-ed of mine that begins:

The future of libraries won’t be created by libraries. That’s a good thing. That future is too big and too integral to the infrastructure of knowledge for any one group to invent it. Still, that doesn’t mean that libraries can wait passively for this new future. Rather, we must create the conditions by which libraries will be pulled out of themselves and into everything else.

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July 9, 2014

Request for app: Annotation inhaler

During this seemingly-endless interregnum when we have e-books that suck at letting us take notes, I buy paper books when I’m doing research. I have a complex little application I’ve endlessly developed over the years that lets me type notes into a plain text editor or OPML-based outliner using a minimal markup. The app turns the notes into a database that I can then slice ‘n’ dice. Someday I’ll get it stable and done enough to publish. And that day is never.

A couple of years ago I wrote a Chrome extension (“Kindle Highlights Exporter”) that scrapes all of the passages you’ve highlighted with your Kindle, exporting them as a csv, xml, or json file. The only problem is that I seem to be the only person it works for. More precisely, it crashed for the only person I ever showed it to, my supersmart developer nephew. It still works for me, though. If you want (yet another) chance to laugh at me, feel free to download it and install it. Suckers.

So, how about if someone were to write some software that lets me import photographs of the pages of a book that I’ve highlighted in, say, yellow. The app finds the highlighted portions of each page, looks for the page number, does the requisite OCR, and returns a well-marked-up set of those annotations. (These days, outputting in the Open Annotation standard, as well as the usual suspects, would be extra cool.) That way, when I’m done with a book, I could snap images of all the pages with highlights and get a list at the end, instead of doing what I do now: type them in as I read.

I’d give it a try, but processing images is waaay beyond my hobbyist-programmer capabilities. As for the possible copyright violation: OH FOR HEAVENS SAKE WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH US? (Note: The previous sentence should not be construed as legal advice.)

In any case, as the digital/networked world continues to develop its superpowers, the mud wall that confines the physical becomes more and more aggravating.

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June 29, 2014

[aif] Re-imagining public libraries

I’m at an early Sunday morning (7:45am) session on re-imagining libraries with John Palfrey of the DPLA, Brian Bannon (Commissioner of the Chicago Public Library), and Tessie Guillermo (Zero Divide) . It’s moderated by Sommer Mathis (editor of CityLab.com. My seat-mate tells me that many of the people here are from the local library and its board.The audience is overwhelmingly female.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

SM: Libraries are being more used even though people can download books. Are libraries shifting away from being book collections to becoming community centers?

BB: Our missions are so much bigger than our traditional format for distributing knowledge. Over the past 144 years of Chicago Library’s history, we’ve been innovating all along. How many 144-year-old institations are experiencing record-breaking use?

TG: I was on the Aspen Institute’s sessions on libraries that wrote a report around three pillars of libraries: People, place and platform. Platforms are emerging now. They’re gathering up networks of people that can join together to continue to add value.

JP: I agree with Brian’s historical take and Tessie’s theoretical. I’m not as sanguine, though. Libraries are more important in digital age, but support for libraries could erode. Turning into community centers is risky for libraries. A community center is an open space that can be anything, but libraries are specific: in access to knowledge, in what immigrants need to find their way into a new country, to people seeking jobs [and more]. And all these are bound to the specifics of the community.

BB: When I think of community space, we’re Chicago’s largest provider of access to open, free technology, helping new economies, etc., but we do it through the lens of the library. It starts with the idea that everyone should have free and open acess to the leading ideas of the day. We think about our communities and how we can support these aspirations in very specific ways.

TG: Libraries are central to ideas that are shared across communities. We work with Web Junction as a content pusher to libraries around the enrolment of people in the Affordable Care Act. First, people need to enroll and can go to the library for the computer access. They need insurance literacy. Once you choose your plan and see a doctor, you might find out about a health problem, and you can come back to the library to get info curated for you, and then find out where to get community services. All at the library.

JP: Libraries should be the center of communities, but not be community centers.

BB: People are reading more today and in lots of different formats, and libraries have been great conveners of those conversations. On the other side, as the world of information changes, we’ve been experimenting with learning through experience. We wanted to explore the importance of manufacturing to the city. We opened up a lab that exposed people to ideas that would have been hard to understand simply through print.

JP: I saw your awesome innovation lab. Will you have 3D printers in there perpetually or always have the latest tech?

BB: It was supposed to be a 6 month experiment that’s been extended. We do not believe that Chicago Public Library [CPL] should be the city’s hub for 3D printing. We’re now starting to do experiments in data visualization to help people understand Big Data.

TG: It’s hard to talk about the future of libraries without talking about what places in the future will be like. Zoos, museums, etc., are all changing. There will be a lot of experimentation about how residents and community members organize themselves. At yesterday’s Market Future there was a lot of joking about librarians and the sense was that you can only get recommendations through algorithms. [Ack. That was my session. See this Atlantic post, and my comment there..]

Q: Atlanta libraries are helping people complete GEDs and LA libraries are going one step further and are granting HS diplomas. What innovating programming are you hearing about?

JP: Libraries helping people complete GEDs makes total sense. I like the model where libraries are connecting to learning — connected learning like at CPL. A lot of the learning that kids do is interstitial on mobile devices, and libraries can help with that. Hybrid spaces that connect what’s going on online to the real world is a great model.

TG: The use of libraries is increasing but not always the funding. Libraries have to find new sources of revenue…

SM: … not just revenues but being able to quantify the vaue they bring. JP: CPL has led in this.

BB: We worked with Mission Measurements to do that. We looked at the core mission of the library. We’re about supporting democracy but also helping to make our city competitive. So we looked at how we’re supporting the local economy.

BB: We don’t always recognize that there’s a large portion of the world, and parts of Chicago, where people have limited or no access to tech. So we are experimenting with ways to bring the Internet home. We’re launching a program that will let you checkout laptops and a hotspot. But that’s less about the tech than about the support to understand what programs are out there to sustain it and to gain the skills they need.

Q: Both CPL and NYPL won the Knight News Challenge to enable them to do this.

BB: We’ll be lending them for a three week term. NYPL is lending for months. It’s an experiment. But it’s not just about shiny objects. CPL has been acknowledged for experiments, for R&D. The buzz is important to elevating your brand.

JP: There will have to be trade-offs. Maybe libraries will have to spend less on books, on the marginal acquisitions, in order to support these hardware lending programs. That’s controversial but we have to talk about the trade-offs.

BB: Our model for sharing knowledge is changing dramatically because of the law. Our ability to lend physical books vs. digital materials …

JP: In the physical realm we have the right of first sale that lets you do whatever you want with a book, including resell it or lend it. But for digital there’s no first sale. Libraries acquire the digital under a contract that may limit the number of lends. Libraries are in a less good position with e-works.

TG: I’m not in the library world, but maybe librarians become facilitators of networked learning. People are becoming networked through their library cards, which becomes a platform for creating and curating knowledge that’s shared across the library system. If you create a platform where card holders in the virtual space are able to come together to say, e.g., that there are transportation issues in the city that need solving, the librarian can facilitate the coming together of that conversation. The library can be a link to other institutions.

BB: Librarians are moving away from being the experts in finding stuff (research librarians excepted) and becoming more facilitators.

SM: What about curation? Is that more the job of the librarian than ever?

BB: In the traditional sense, no. Curating programs, etc.: yes.

SM: When you were in SF, you were involved in the renovation of 24 neighborhood libraries. What are the challenges?

BB: Part of it is flexibility. We renovated beautiful Carnegie libaries, but they’re not well designed for the modern flow. As the environment changes, so will the spaces. So we were concerned with designing both for today’s needs and for the future. In Chicago we’re designing spaces to support simultaneous activities. E.g., many people using our libraries are coming because they’re a single person running their own busines out of the library. How do we support that? And we have huge usage by families and children, so we’re need to support that as well. So we’re trying to design spaces that support creative play.

TG: In one instance, a yong parent kept hearing people saying they were going to the library. She was curious. It turns out that the local library has lots of family spaces, not little chairs and little books and someone reading to a group. Rather, it’s an extension of the neighborhood. She’s learning parenting and her children are learning how to play together.

JP: In St. Paul they sent up a library space right off a basketball court. I think that’s a great idea.

JP: I was director of Harvard Law Library [Disclosure: where he was my boss] which had a reading room the size of a football stadium that was always filled, but I never saw a kid take a book off a shelf. They were there to study. They have good wifi in the dorms. There’s something about coming to a common space, with librarians there who could help them if they got in trouble. But they’re there using digital materials. We need to figure out how the physical and digital coalesce, but mainly we need to have to figure out how to build collaborative spaces. Boston Public Library is renovating the historic Johnson Building. They’re putting the teens and tweens on the second floor to make the space attractive to them but also to keep them a bit out of the way.

TG: We work with a teen center in the East Bay area of SF. When you walk into the teen center the first thing you see is the library within the center — the libraries services are embedded in the space that they think of as their space.

Q: [Fred Kent, project for Public Spaces] Different African cultures are coming into Winnipeg. They put an African market outside the library. Richmond BC had to move out of their library into a large Wal-mart-like space along with other services. In Perth, the state library took all the library materials off the ground floor and put in cultural activities. The main library Houston is sponsoring an activitation event with SW Airlines. Libraries could become an integral part of the community services. The future of libraries may not be in their own buildings . The architecture of libraries may be very different.

JP: Yes. E.g., the basketball court example.

Q: I hear about the bond problems in Chicago. I don’t hear that in your comments, Brian.

BB: Chicago has been struggling financially and hopefully is coming out of it. CPL saw significant reductions in 2009 and 2011, resulting in a reduction in hours. We’ve brought many of those hours back through a restructuring. It costs about $100M to run the library, but it costs $6B to run the schools. We’re a tiny piece. That tiny investment in libraries as community anchors and for after-school learning has been an important argument for keeping funding in place. Our collections budget is a little less than what we had in SF and we’re three times the size. So, we definitely have issues.

JP But you’re a cheap date. Our high school costs $100M to run and you’re running the entire library system on that.

Q: The Koolhaus-designed library in Seattle has the problem of being filled with homeless people. They’ve thought about relegating a space with showers and bathrooms and washing machines within the library. WDYT?

BB: Homelessness is part of the urban challenge. It’s important that we see libraries as public spaces open to all regardless of their background. We should not create rules to encourage some and discourage others. In SF we experimented with bringing in people to work with the homeless on finding services that can help them. So rather than creating a shelter within the library, I’d rather that we become a resource helping people to find resources.

Q: How can we make these presidential libraries less a monument and more a way to engage the populace?

BB: Presidential libraries are called libraries, but I’m very excited about the prospect of the Obama library aspiring to being a place to learn about democracy and see it in action. I think it’d be great if it happened in an urban space. We’ve been talking with all three organizations trying to bring the Obama Library to Chicago about what role the public library might play.

TG: It’s an opportunity to think about this as being more of a digital, virtual library. The discussion of democracy should not be confined to one physical place.

JP: I’d argue strongly for the blended approach especially with this president. His election combined beautifully the digital with knocking on doors. Also, the DPLA attempts to build a national digital library, backed by National Archives and the Smithsonian among others. We could do something incredibly cool by connecting the digital and the physical.

Q: In tough budgetary times how are acquisitions affected and how is that being used to shape publishers’ behaviors?

BB: Patron driven acquisitions has us buying books when users want them. The question of publishers is tough. Each library on its own doesn’t have much power. Some big city libraries have cut their own deals. We want to make materials available and also for the publishers to be successful.

JP: We haven’t talked here about the role libraries play in preserving knowledge. If all you were to do is provide what people want at that moment, you’d lose. Patron driven acquisition is a good idea in some respect, and libraires and puslihers should be making common cause, but we also should recall that publishers go out of business — major publishers two or three times came to Harvard Law Library asking for copies of their books so they could digitize them; they didn’t have copies.

TG: That’s where you have to be careful about these decisions made by the analytics of usage.

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May 13, 2014

Full-text searching Harvard Library: a hacky mashup

Harvard Library has 13M items in its collection. Harvard is digitizing many of them, but as of now you cannot do a full text search of them.

Google Books had 30M books digitized as of a year ago. You can do full-text searches of them.

So, I wrote a little app [Note: I've corrected this url.] that lets you search Google Books for text, and then matches up the results with books in Harvard Library. It’s a proof of concept, and I’m counting the concept as proved, or at least as promising. On the other hand, my API key for Google Books only allows 2,000 queries a day, so it’s not practical on the licensing front.

This project runs on top of LibraryCloud, an open source library metadata server created by the Harvard Library Innovation Lab that I co-direct (until Sept.). LibraryCloud provides an API to Harvard’s open library metadata and more. (We’re building a new, more scalable version now. It is, well, super-cool.)

But please note that this HOLLIS full-text search thingy is NOT a project done by our highly innovative and highly skilled developers. I did it, which means if you look at the code (github) you will have a good laugh. Also, this service will fail in dull and interesting ways. I am a horrible programmer. (But I enjoy it.)

Some details below the clickable screenshot…


Click on the image to expand it.
googleHollis screen capture

Click here to go to the app.

The Google Books results are on the left (only ten for now), and HOLLIS on the right.

If a Google result is yellow, there’s a match with a book in HOLLIS. Gray means no match. HOLLIS book titles are prefaced by a number that refers to the Google results number. Clicking on the Google results number (in the circle) hides or shows those works in the stack on the right; this is because some Google books match lots of items in HOLLIS. (Harvard has a lot of copies of King Lear, for example.)

There are two types of matches. If an item matched on a firm identifier (ISBN,OCLC, LCCN), then there’s a checkmark before the title in the HOLLIS stack, and there’s a “Stacklife” button in the Google list. Clicking on the Stacklife button displays the book in Harvard StackLife, a very cool — and prize winning! — library browser created by our Lab. The StackLife stack colorizes items based on how much they’re used by the Harvard community. The thickness of the book indicates its page count and its length indicates its actual physical height.

If there’s no match on the identifiers, then the page looks for a keyword match on the title and an exact match on the author’s last name. This can result in multiple results, not all of which may be right. So, on the Google result there’s a “Feeling lucky” button that will take you to the first match’s entry in StackLife.

The “Google” button takes you to that item’s page at Google Books, filtered by your search terms for your full-texting convenience.

The “View” button pops up the Google Books viewer for that book, if it’s available.

The “Clear stack” button deselects all the items in the Google results, hiding all the items in the HOLLIS stack.

Let me know how this breaks or sucks, but don’t expect it ever to be a robust piece of software. Remember its source.

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May 2, 2014

[2b2k] Digital Humanities: Ready for your 11AM debunking?

The New Republic continues to favor articles debunking claims that the Internet is bringing about profound changes. This time it’s an article on the digital humanities, titled “The Pseudo-Revolution,” by Adam Kirsch, a senior editor there. [This seems to be the article. Tip of the hat to Jose Afonso Furtado.]

I am not an expert in the digital humanities, but it’s clear to the people in the field who I know that the meaning of the term is not yet settled. Indeed, the nature and extent of the discipline is itself a main object of study of those in the discipline. This means the field tends to attract those who think that the rise of the digital is significant enough to warrant differentiating the digital humanities from the pre-digital humanities. The revolutionary tone that bothers Adam so much is a natural if not inevitable consequence of the sociology of how disciplines are established. That of course doesn’t mean he’s wrong to critique it.

But Adam is exercised not just by revolutionary tone but by what he perceives as an attempt to establish claims through the vehemence of one’s assertions. That is indeed something to watch out for. But I think it also betrays a tin-eared reading by Adam. Those assertions are being made in a context the authors I think properly assume readers understand: the digital humanities is not a done deal. The case has to be made for it as a discipline. At this stage, that means making provocative claims, proposing radical reinterpretations, and challenging traditional values. While I agree that this can lead to thoughtless triumphalist assumptions by the digital humanists, it also needs to be understood within its context. Adam calls it “ideological,” and I can see why. But making bold and even over-bold claims is how discourses at this stage proceed. You challenge the incumbents, and then you challenge your cohort to see how far you can go. That’s how the territory is explored. This discourse absolutely needs the incumbents to push back. In fact, the discourse is shaped by the assumption that the environment is adversarial and the beatings will arrive in short order. In this case, though, I think Adam has cherry-picked the most extreme and least plausible provocations in order to argue against the entire field, rather than against its overreaching. We can agree about some of the examples and some of the linguistic extensions, but that doesn’t dismiss the entire effort the way Adam seems to think it does.

It’s good to have Adam’s challenge. Because his is a long and thoughtful article, I’ll discuss the thematic problems with it that I think are the most important.

First, I believe he’s too eager to make his case, which is the same criticism he makes of the digital humanists. For example, when talking about the use of algorithmic tools, he talks at length about Franco Moretti‘s work, focusing on the essay “Style, Inc.: Reflections on 7,000 Titles.” Moretti used a computer to look for patterns in the titles of 7,000 novels published between 1740 and 1850, and discovered that they tended to get much shorter over time. “…Moretti shows that what changed was the function of the title itself.” As the market for novels got more crowded, the typical title went from being a summary of the contents to a “catchy, attention-grabbing advertisement for the book.” In addition, says Adam, Moretti discovered that sensationalistic novels tend to begin with “The” while “pioneering feminist novels” tended to begin with “A.” Moretti tenders an explanation, writing “What the article ‘says’ is that we are encountering all these figures for the first time.”

Adam concludes that while Moretti’s research is “as good a case for the usefulness of digital tools in the humanities as one can find” in any of the books under review, “its findings are not very exciting.” And, he says, you have to know which questions to ask the data, which requires being well-grounded in the humanities.

That you need to be well-grounded in the humanities to make meaningful use of digital tools is an important point. But here he seems to me to be arguing against a straw man. I have not encountered any digital humanists who suggest that we engage with our history and culture only algorithmically. I don’t profess expertise in the state of the digital humanities, so perhaps I’m wrong. But the digital humanists I know personally (including my friend Jeffrey Schnapp, a co-author of a book, Digital_Humanities, that Adam reviews) are in fact quite learned lovers of culture and history. If there is indeed an important branch of digital humanities that says we should entirely replace the study of the humanities with algorithms, then Adam’s criticism is trenchant…but I’d still want to hear from less extreme proponents of the field. In fact, in my limited experience, digital humanists are not trying to make the humanities safe for robots. They’re trying to increase our human engagement with and understanding of the humanities.

As to the point that algorithmic research can only “illustrate a truism rather than discovering a truth,” — a criticism he levels even more fiercely at the Ngram research described in the book Uncharted — it seems to me that Adam is missing an important point. If computers can now establish quantitatively the truth of what we have assumed to be true, that is no small thing. For example, the Ngram work has established not only that Jewish sources were dropped from German books during the Nazi era, but also the timing and extent of the erasure. This not only helps make the humanities more evidence-based —remember that Adam criticizes the digital humanists for their argument-by-assertion —but also opens the possibility of algorithmically discovering correlations that overturn assumptions or surprise us. One might argue that we therefore need to explore these new techniques more thoroughly, rather than dismissing them as adding nothing. (Indeed, the NY Times review of Uncharted discusses surprising discoveries made via Ngram research.)

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with Adam’s critique I’ve also had with some digital humanists. Adam thinks of the digital humanities as being about the digitizing of sources. He then dismisses that digitizing as useful but hardly revolutionary: “The translation of books into digital files, accessible on the Internet around the world, can be seen as just another practical tool…which facilitates but does not change the actual humanistic work of thinking and writing.”

First, that underplays the potential significance of making the works of culture and scholarship globally available.

Second, if you’re going to minimize the digitizing of books as merely the translation of ink into pixels, you miss what I think is the most important and transformative aspect of the digital humanities: the networking of knowledge and scholarship. Adam in fact acknowledges the networking of scholarship in a twisty couple of paragraphs. He quotes the following from the book Digital_Humanities:

The myth of the humanities as the terrain of the solitary genius…— a philosophical text, a definitive historical study, a paradigm-shifting work of literary criticism — is, of course, a myth. Genius does exist, but knowledge has always been produced and accessed in ways that are fundamentally distributed…

Adam responds by name-checking some paradigm-shifting works, and snidely adds “you can go to the library and check them out…” He then says that there’s no contradiction between paradigm-shifting works existing and the fact that “Scholarship is always a conversation…” I believe he is here completely agreeing with the passage he thinks he’s criticizing: genius is real; paradigm-shifting works exist; these works are not created by geniuses in isolation.

Then he adds what for me is a telling conclusion: “It’s not immediately clear why things should change just because the book is read on a screen rather than on a page.” Yes, that transposition doesn’t suggest changes any more worthy of research than the introduction of mass market paperbacks in the 1940s [source]. But if scholarship is a conversation, might moving those scholarly conversations themselves onto a global network raise some revolutionary possibilities, since that global network allows every connected person to read the scholarship and its objects, lets everyone comment, provides no natural mechanism for promoting any works or comments over any others, inherently assumes a hyperlinked rather than sequential structure of what’s written, makes it easier to share than to sequester works, is equally useful for non-literary media, makes it easier to transclude than to include so that works no longer have to rely on briefly summarizing the other works they talk about, makes differences and disagreements much more visible and easily navigable, enables multiple and simultaneous ordering of assembled works, makes it easier to include everything than to curate collections, preserves and perpetuates errors, is becoming ubiquitously available to those who can afford connection, turns the Digital Divide into a gradient while simultaneously increasing the damage done by being on the wrong side of that gradient, is reducing the ability of a discipline to patrol its edges, and a whole lot more.

It seems to me reasonable to think that it is worth exploring whether these new affordances, limitations, relationships and metaphors might transform the humanities in some fundamental ways. Digital humanities too often is taken simply as, and sometimes takes itself as, the application of computing tools to the humanities. But it should be (and for many, is) broad enough to encompass the implications of the networking of works, ideas and people.

I understand that Adam and others are trying to preserve the humanities from being abandoned and belittled by those who ought to be defending the traditional in the face of the latest. That is a vitally important role, for as a field struggling to establish itself digital humanities is prone to over-stating its case. (I have been known to do so myself.) But in my understanding, that assumes that digital humanists want to replace all traditional methods of study with computer algorithms. Does anyone?

Adam’s article is a brisk challenge, but in my opinion he argues too hard against his foe. The article becomes ideological, just as he claims the explanations, justifications and explorations offered by the digital humanists are.

More significantly, focusing only on the digitizing of works and ignoring the networking of their ideas and the people discussing those ideas, glosses over the locus of the most important changes occurring within the humanities. Insofar as the digital humanities focus on digitization instead of networking, I intend this as a criticism of that nascent discipline even more than as a criticism of Adam’s article.

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April 20, 2014

[2b2k] In defense of the library Long Tail

Two percent of Harvard’s library collection circulates every year. A high percentage of the works that are checked out are the same as the books that were checked out last year. This fact can cause reflexive tsk-tsking among librarians. But — with some heavy qualifications to come — this is at it should be. The existence of a Long Tail is not a sign of failure or waste. To see this, consider what it would be like if there were no Long Tail.

Harvard’s 73 libraries have 16 million items [source]. There are 21,000 students and 2,400 faculty [source]. If we guess that half of the library items are available for check-out, which seems conservative, that would mean that 160,000 different items are checked out every year. If there were no Long Tail, then no book would be checked out more than any other. In that case, it would take the Harvard community an even fifty years before anyone would have read the same book as anyone else. And a university community in which across two generations no one has read the same book as anyone else is not a university community.

I know my assumptions are off. For example, I’m not counting books that are read in the library and not checked out. But my point remains: we want our libraries to have nice long tails. Library long tails are where culture is preserved and discovery occurs.

And, having said that, it is perfectly reasonable to work to lower the difference between the Fat Head and the Long Tail, and it is always desirable to help people to find the treasures in the Long Tail. Which means this post is arguing against a straw man: no one actually wants to get rid of the Long Tail. But I prefer to put it that this post argues against a reflex of thought I find within myself and have encountered in others. The Long Tail is a requirement for the development of culture and ideas, and at the same time, we should always help users to bring riches out of the Long Tail

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