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November 22, 2008

Our strange new home

I’ve published a new issue of my free newsletter

Our strange new home: A talk to the people in the Chinese government designing ways to use the Net to deliver government services.

Has the Internet been saved?: Obama’s appointments to head the FCC transition team fill me with joy.

The main article is the text of a talk I gave a few weeks ago in Beijing at a one-day seminar/conference for the people in the Chinese government who are putting together sites — portals, usually — to provide government services. These were, I was told, the government people most excited about the opportunities brought by an open Internet. I gave the closing keynote. The previous speakers, from China, S. Korea and Denmark, had expanded the audience’s practical imaginations. I would’ve if I could’ve. Instead, I tried to resolve the seeming contradiction and doubtless cross-cultural meaninglessness that the Internet is weird and the Internet feels homey. It occurred to me afterward that that is the theme of Small Pieces Loosely Joined.

You can read it here.

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September 22, 2008

One Web Day at Berkman continues: An amazingly cool interface

The Berkman Center has today launched an incredible user interface into the [email protected] conference. Put together by Bestiario, a group that has done some amazing work — you’ve got to see their home page! — this swirling pixellated cloud of info lets you dive into multiple relationships to browse by topic, person, tag, etc. The nodes that go swirling by display info as appropriate: a scrolling Twitter tweet, live video, etc. Your mind…is it blown yet?

Zack McCune, one of the Berkman’s Super Summer Interns, worked with Bestiario to put this together. Zack describes the process here. It took a lot of work by Zack and by Bestiario. Thank you!

Screen capture of lovely graphical ui by Bestiario

It’s all part of the Berkman Center’s One Web Day celebration.

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June 18, 2008

History of index cards, part whatever

Kevin Kelly has a terrific piece about edge-notched cards. They’re interesting to me because I’ve been working on a piece that’s part of a piece, that may be part of some other piece that uses the history of the punch card as a way to trace the emergence of modern information. Edge-notched cards have an interesting place because the notches both indicate data and are used as a physical mechanism for sorting.

Kevin’s post was prompted by Alex Wright’s terrific article recalling Paul Otlet as a network pioneer.



May 31, 2008

Scan and Release: Digitizing the Boston Public Library

I’ve lived in Boston since 1986, but have never made it into the great Boston Public Library. Until today. My streak was totally broken because the little group digitizing the BPL’s holdings invited me in to see what they’re doing. And, oy, the work they have cut out for them!

But they’re an intrepid band. And they recognize that they’re up to something important. Although some in the BPL may have thought that digitized prints and photos are just lesser-qualities backups, the group knows that they’re not only bringing hidden images into the public sun, they are engaged in a social project that changes how and what we know. (What’s not to love about librarians?)

The Print Stack, where photos, prints and miscellaneous other objects are stored, only seems to be in the basement. The ceiling is low, there are no windows, and the lighting leaches vitamin D out of your body. It’s long and overflowing, reminiscent of the warehouse that ends Citizen Kane, and that is echoed in two Indiana Jones movies.

Boston Public Library storage area
Boston Public Library Print Stack

If you want to find a particular image in the roughly two million prints and images (no one knows for sure), you ask Aaron. Some bits and portions have catalogs of various sorts, but overall, it’s a disarray of metadata. For example, the Herald Traveler collection of photos has about 1.2 million pieces, arranged in 104 cabinets, each with four drawers. The folders and drawers are labeled, which helps a lot, but they’re not indexed, much less cross-indexed.

Herald Traveler collection in file drawer
Herald Traveler collection

At least those photos have captions. Aaron shows me some beautiful 19th century photographs of Indian architecture. Many years ago, the BPL went to enormous trouble to paste the photos into multiple volumes — turning the photos into a book, as Aaron points out — but didn’t bother to record the notes on the back of the photos. Aaron is now going to have to dissolve the pages to expose the notes.

Eroded negative
Aaron holds up a degraded negative.
A dirigible is barely visible on it.
Tough reclamation project.

The archive doesn’t just have pictures and prints. It’s got, well, everything, including a couple of old typewriters and a collection of matchbook covers from Boston restaurants.

matchbook covers
Boston matchbook cover collection

Of this abundance, the digital group has so far scanned about 24,000 objects. When I point out to Maura Marx, the group’s head, that, given the library’s estimate that it has maybe 23 million objects, she’s looking at a 2,000 year project, she tells me that they’re just getting started. They’re going to bulk up, maybe do some offsite digitizing, and begin to make some serious progress. When I ask Thomas Blake, who does the actual digitizing, how he decides which stuff to do, he laughs a little and says, “What I think is cool.” And, since the public has an appetite for “choochoo trains, maps and postcards,” he’s done a bunch of them. The BPL is, after all, a public institution that both serves the public and relies upon the public’s support.

stacked volumes

The Library has been posting digitized works at Flickr. Take a look at the 19th century photos of Egypt, or, yes, the postcards And the book fetishists among you should definitely check out the “Art of the Book” collection. Predictably and hearteningly, the public — you and me, sister — have been commenting and adding to what’s known. Maura hopes to get permission to put the images into the Commons. Digitizing and posting — “scan and release,” in the group’s memorable way of putting its mission — turns patrons into historians.

The scanning is slow because it’s one guy who’s doing a careful job. The camera has a 22 megapixel chip, but they’ve been known to digitize at 88mps, creating files that are half a gig in size. Tom likes saving the RAW files to avoid unnecessary data loss. You never know what’s going to be useful. For example, he had been scanning postcards at 300 dpi, but a curator pointed out that then you couldn’t see the dotscreen pattern, which might be of interest to someone. So now Tom scans them at 600dpi. Overall, they have about 1.5 terabytes of stored images.

The metadata is a whole ‘nother issue. Chrissy Watkins, who has been there for four days — she had been at the JFK Presidential Library — is working on it. For now, Tom gives every item an arbitrary and unique ID number, the key piece of any metadata scheme. But the BPL is facing the inevitable conundrum: Maximize the metadata but slow the process, or gather less metadata but go at a far faster clip. The group seems to be leaning toward the latter, which makes sense to me. They’ve been using what Tom calls the “Curator Core,” a reference to the Dublin Core metadata standard for books. Trying to capture everything that might be useful is a task beyond daunting. For example, Michael Klein points to “fore-edge paintings,” paintings done on the edges of a book that are revealed when you fan the book slightly. Does the BPL have to come up with a standard that includes whether you fan the book to the left or right? There are so many different types of objects that building a standard or an ontology that captures them all would absorb all of the team’s time. (“The special case is not as special as you’d think,” says Michael.) Instead, they need to scan scan scan, and capture some reasonable set of metadata, to which more metadata can accrete.

One of the ten Open Content Alliance book scanners.

“We’re going from collect and hide to scan and release,” says Tom. And in so doing, the until-now unpublished holdings are going not just from no value to some value. The digital group is in fact radically multiplying the value of the Boston Public Library’s holdings. And as we the recipients of this gift incorporate the images, adding information to them, and contextualizing them, we are further enriching the holdings, far beyond what any small group, no matter how intrepid, could manage.
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April 23, 2008

Tags vs. identity politics

Ike Piggott posts about the effect of tags ‘n’ such on identity politics. Nicely done. (And, if I may say be so self-centered he seems unknowingly to be channeling Everything Is Miscellaneous.)

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April 3, 2008

[topicmaps] Alex Wright

Alex Wright is keynoting the Topic Maps conference in Oslo. [I’m live blogging, getting things wrong, etc.]

Europe has been thinking about organizing information for a long, long time, he says. He goes basck to Thomas Aquinas who thought the two pillars of memory: Association and order. He likens “memory palaces” to topic maps. [Hmm. The associations weren’t topical, as I understand them.] He fast-forwards to Charles Cutter who invented a book cataloging system and foresaw in 1883 the day when clicking on a reference would retrieve the object. [Cutter numbers are routinely added to Dewey Decimal numbers in library catalogs.] H.G. Wells in 1938 foresaw an infrastructure for sharing info electronically. Teilhard de Chardin wrote about the “noosphere.” [It’s been a long time since I read him, but I recall the noosphere as a spiritual realm, not a tech realm. I could be entirely wrong.]

Alex points especialy to Paul Otlet, a Belgian who thought libraries were too fixed on books. Rather, we should be thinking about the structure of information within and across books. There’d be an underlying classification scheme, represented in index cards, pointing to books. He tried to actually build this, starting in 1921. He invented the “Uniersal Decimal Classification” scheme. The UDC was designed to classify the info inside of book. Auxiliary Tables marked relationships between topics, i.e., typed links. [The Web only succeeded because it let the typing of links be accomplished by the words around it.] He also had the idea of a social space around information.

Alex visited the Mundaneum — an Otlet museum — a few days ago and shows photos. Very cool. They’ve only managed to catalog a tenth of the collection in the past ten years.[Pretty good argument against Otlet’s idea. It doesn’t scale.] He shows pictographic representatives showing how info can be remixed and browsed.

Alex points to facetag, an Italian project that uses faceted classification that are established at the toplevel. Within that, users assign their own tags. Also vote-links puts meaning into hyperlinks.

Next Alex turns to Vannevar Bush and “How We May Think,” the essay that proposed the memex. In some ways, it was more sophisticated than the Web, he says. E.g., whe you made a link, it was visible in both directions. And the trails should be public so there could be collective intelligence.

Eugene Garfield was inspired by Bush and founded the Science Citation Index, which ranked citations. Doug Engelbart was also inspired by Bush. (He recommends Englebart’s “mother of all demos” demo, which is indeed truly amazing.) Engelbart was concerned with tools for group colaboration, process hierarchies, and multi-level nesting of organizational knowledge. He points quickly also to Xero PARC’s “note cards,” Apple’s Hypercards, Ted Nelson, Andries van Dam, and others. When the Web became dominant, Alex says, a lot of promising prior research dried up, which is a shame.

Thje Web that wasn’t” Tying top-down taxomonies with bottom up social space; two say linking; visible pathways; typed associations…

[Terrific talk. Great to hear some history. [Tags: ]


March 17, 2008

What tagging loses

Library of Congress Reference Librarian Thomas Mann has a long, detailed and fierce argument against the LC Working Group on the Future of BibliographicControl. He is quite specific about what will be lost to scholars with the Working Group’s more folksonomic approach.

Much of what I’ve read so far points to the huge amount of information contained in the existing LC Subject Headings and their cross references, and how well they can convey to a scholar a lay of the land she is researching. (I don’t know why we’d want to throw out the LCSH instead of supplementing them with yet more metadata.) I haven’t read the entire piece yet, but what I’ve seen is fascinating, learned and will, I hope, occasion a productive debate.

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TopicMaps in Oslo

April 2-4, I’m going to TopicMaps, a conference that may be particularly interesting (to people who are particularly interested in it, of course):

The basic idea is simple: the organizing principle of information should not be where it lives or how it was created, but what it is about. Organize information by subject and it will be easier to integrate, reuse and share – and (not least) easier for users to find. The increased awareness of the importance of metadata and ontologies, the popularity of tagging, and a growing interest in semantic interoperability are part and parcel of the new trend towards subject-centric computing.

The organizers have let it be known that there’s still room… [Tags: ]


February 2, 2008

Building our newspaper together

I’ve been playing with a little, and liking it a lot.

It’s a free site built by Marco Arment, who works at Tumblr (if I’m reading this right). You put the Instapaper “Read Later” button in your button bar, and click it if you’re on a site you want to read later. Go to and you’ll see a list of what you’ve clicked. Simplicity itself.

There seems to be just one more feature: Any text you’ve selected on the page your instapapering is taken as that page’s description.

That takes care of my temporary bookmarking needs, a feature I’ve wanted for a while. But I wonder what would happen if my instapaper page were public and pointable. Could we start to use instapaper to build a collaborative newspaper that pulls together the recommended reading of people you respect?

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January 25, 2008

The early tags are in at Flickr+Library of Congress (=Library of Congrss?)

Poking around the photos the Library of Congress has posted at Flickr shows some of the strengths and weaknesses of social tagging.

For example, take this 1940 photo of two kids gathering potatoes in Maine. There are about 80 tags, ranging from potato, maine, and boys to rural, bucolic, plaid, browen, and pommes de terre. The comments include people appreciating the aesthetics of the photo, recollecting their own lives on farms, and nattering on gaily about the cute hats the kids are wearing. For example:

I grew up in southern Minnesota in the 50s. I was probably 5-6 yrs. old. In the fall after the potato fields had been harvested, they allowed people to come in and collect the potatoes that the machines had missed. I can still remember the cold cloudy day, playing with my brothers in the furrows of the field, throwing clods of dirt at each other, instead of picking up potatoes, and getting yelled at by my Mom.


this ‘human interest’ is really ‘awesome’ during the world war ll eras, you can survive eating potatoes in the whole year, wthout rice. potato a native of pacific slopes of s. america, in 16th c., with roundish or oval starch containing tubers used for food. batata or sweet potato, is widely known in the philippine island, brought to table and used for food. biggest plantation of potato in the philippines is in northern luzon.

Three people have played with Flickr’s feature that lets you draw a box around a portion of a photo and add an annotation. All three are wastes o’ time (obviously in my opinion): “I love these barrels” is not worth the visual interruption. (You only see the boxes if you move your mouse over the photos.) So maybe Flickr will turn these off for the LC photos. Maybe not. We’ll see.

Nevertheless, this is some very cool stuff. Sure, some of the tags are oddball. So what? In the great wash of tags, they will lose significance. Meanwhile, that photo of two children harvesting potatoes, which had been locked away behind brick and paper walls, now is in the world, gathering meaning, memories, and connections.

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