Category Archives: ideology

Using Collections – Virtually

I heard a remark the other day that struck a cord – or, churned my butter, a bit.

The gist of it was, “we should make digital facsimiles of our library materials (especially rare materials) and put them online, so they spark library use when people visit to see them in person, after becoming aware of them thanks to the digitized versions.”

Now, at Penn, we have digitized a couple of Japanese collections: Japanese Juvenile Fiction Collection (aka Tatsukawa Bunko series), Japanese Naval Collection (in-process, focused on Renshū Kantai training fleet materials), and a miscellaneous collection of Japanese rare books in general.* These materials have been used both in person (thanks to publicizing them, pre- and post-digitization, on library news sites, blogs, and social media as well as word-of-mouth), and also digitally by researchers who cannot travel to Penn. In fact, a graduate student in Australia used our juvenile fiction collection for part of his dissertation; another student in Wisconsin plans to use facsimiles of our naval materials once they’re complete; and faculty at University of Montana have used our digital facsimile of Meiji-period journal Hōbunkai-sui (or Hōbunkai-shi).

These researchers, due to distance and budget, will likely never be able to visit Penn in person to use the collections. On top of that, some items – like the juvenile fiction and lengthy government documents related to the Imperial Navy – don’t lend themselves to using in a reading room. These aren’t artifacts to look over one page at a time, but research materials that will be read extensively (rather than “intensively,” a distinction we book history folks make). Thus, this is the only use they can make of our materials.

The digitization of Japanese collections at Penn has invited use and a kind of library visit by virtue of being available for researchers worldwide, not just those who are at Penn (who could easily view them in person and don’t “need” a digital facsimile), or who can visit the library to “smell” the books (as the person I paraphrased put it). I think it’s more important to be able to read, research, and use these documents than to smell or witness the material artifact. Of course, there are cases in which one would want to do that, but by and large, our researchers care more about the content and visual aspects of the materials – things that can be captured and conveyed in digital images – rather than touching or handling them.

Isn’t this use, just as visiting the library in person use? Shouldn’t we be tracking visits to our digital collections, downloads, and qualitative stories about their use in research, just as we do a gate count and track circulation? I think so. As we think about the present and future of libraries, and people make comments about their not being needed because libraries are on our smartphones (like libraries of fake news, right?), we must make the argument for providing content both physically and virtually. Who do people think is providing the content for their digital libraries? Physical libraries, of course! Those collections exist in the real world and come from somewhere, with significant investments of money, time, and labor involved – and moreover, it is the skilled and knowledgable labor of professionals that is required.

On top of all of this, I feel it is most important to own up to what we can and cannot “control” online: our collections, by virtue of being able to be released at all, are largely in the public domain. Let’s not put CC licenses on them except for CC-0 (which is explicitly marking materials as public domain), pretending we can control the images when we have no legal right to (but users largely don’t know that). Let’s allow for free remixing and use without citing the digital library/archive it came from, without getting upset about posts on Tumblr. When you release public domain materials on the web (or through other services online), you are giving up your exclusive right to control the circumstances under which people use it – and as a cultural heritage institution, it is your role to perform this service for the world.

But not only should we provide this service, we should take credit for it: take credit for use, visits, and for people getting to do whatever they want with our collections. That is really meaningful and impactful use.

* Many thanks to Michael Williams for his great blog posts about our collections!

blog link: the inferiority of blackness as a subject

I don’t do nearly enough (or any) linking to other inspiring blog posts. Today that will change. I came across an eloquent and inspiring (not to mention blood-pressure-raising) post today critiquing a Chronicle of Higher Education blog post that clearly should never have been published – which attacked doctoral students’ dissertation titles as a statement on the illegitimacy of black studies departments as a whole. Seriously. Picking on PhD students, by someone with no graduate education, as though black studies is a complete waste of time because it doesn’t meet the writer’s standards of legitimate, relevant topics. By the way, did you know that racism is dead? We’ve got a black president! Clearly studies that focus on race are no longer relevant. Especially topics in black studies that are written on by, you know, black scholars.

Anyway, what I will link to is not that offensive and – hey – less than worthwhile post. I link to a much better one.

“The Inferiority of Blackness as a Subject” at Tressiemc <– Click that link; read and weep for humanity. Get mad. Sign the petition. Share to your own audience. Let’s not put up with this kind of thing being posted at Chronicle of Higher Ed.

disciplinarity and undergraduate education

I have a quick comment on a recent blog post I read: “The Politics of Disciplinarity at the Undergraduate Level” (Natalia Cecire) This is adapted and expanded from a lengthy comment I left at said blog.

I have an admission to make: I was a naive, stereotypical computer science major. How so? I looked down, so very much, on the humanities – on what I perceived to be the humanities. Soft, vague, insular, self-interested, and ultimately irrelevant to my (or anyone else’s) life. “Learning for learning’s sake” was my hobby, but somehow it seemed ridiculous as a university course. How would humanities majors get jobs? Perhaps it’s partly my humble background, but majoring in something that didn’t have a definable endpoint in a career that would make up for the investment in a college education just seemed worse than pointless. It seemed irresponsible and naive.

Yet I was the one who was naive, along with my fellow CS majors who mocked MBAs and even the information science students. They were the ones who couldn’t hack it, right? If you’re not in a hard science or engineering (and we counted ourselves among them), you’re just playing around; you can’t make it to our league.

Who was I kidding? Myself.

I am now, as you know, in a humanities PhD program. I’m in an area studies department but study the history of the book, and came to it via literature (and before that, via a very social-science oriented history department, which is also partly the explanation for my attitude toward things like cultural studies and other vague humanities, including history departments with this bent).

It’s been a hard road, admittedly, for me to come to terms with this. I’ve never felt fully at home in the humanities and it’s because of the carryover of this attitude. And yet at the same time I’ve been doing a dual degree in information science, the very discipline I used to mock along with my CS buddies as for the kids who couldn’t hack our program, who couldn’t move from pseudocode to real programming, to real work.

And as you may guess, I’ve changed my mind in that I’ve become less naive (I would hope) and much more broad-minded about what can mean. Of course it’s more difficult to get a job that translates directly from a humanities degree to something concrete – but that doesn’t mean that one’s degree isn’t widely applicable and doesn’t prepare one for a variety of life paths. I know that’s often considered a platitude uttered by career counselors at universities everywhere (not to mention tenured professors who don’t understand undergrads’ lack of appreciation for “learning for learning’s sake”) but it’s true.

One of the things that was lacking from my CS education was a strong dose of critical thinking. It wasn’t until a few years into my humanities PhD program that I could think critically about the science discipline that I had come from, about  the inability to be truly objective but rather the ability to recognize and be aware of one’s own biases, and about how the questions we are able to ask, the problems we are able to pose, are not self-evident. Thinking critically about code, about programming, about application design from the very concept of applications to the endpoint of execution, was not in my DNA until I had already left the field and joined the legions of critical thinkers that inhabited another.*

The blog post referenced above speaks to the implications of politics at the “academic” level about disciplinarity having perhaps unintended consequences for attitudes at the undergraduate level, and so I’m sharing my undergraduate attitude, and gradual attitude change, above. Below, I’d like to address another consequence that the author brings up: the possibility of differential undergraduate tuition that could reflect perceived value of various “hard” versus “soft” majors. This is what I had to say in my comment on her blog:

One school, at least, has already implemented the policy of differential undergrad tuition: University of Michigan (where I am currently a student). The tuition varies by college, with Engineering being the best example, but since Computer Science is in the college of Arts & Sciences but veers toward the money-making assumption about engineering, it also gets differential (higher) tuition at the upperclassmen level.

I was a computer science major as an undergrad, and this kind of system would have strongly discouraged me from pursuing the degree. As a woman who was often the only woman, or one of perhaps two or three, in a class of 40-60 students, this has serious implications for the demographics of the major, which are already an issue. I also have to say that as a computer science undergrad with a double major in history, I held that unfortunate attitude: CS is “real work” whereas history is something fun I did on the side, something not really relevant to anything but history and academia itself.

I’m now a PhD candidate in the history of the book (within an area studies department – humanities, in other words), and I see now the patronizing and narrow-minded attitude I have. But it is so prevalent that even I – and I naively considered myself broad-minded – held it for a long time, and actively mocked those outside the “hard” sciences because of it.

It’s so pervasive, and I’m glad that you addressed the fact that what is often written off as academic squabbles and pissing matches impact undergrads profoundly as well.


* That’s not to say that everyone who majors in the humanities ends up being able to think critically. I meet many who get by completely unable to do so. But here I speak from my own experience and say that it is what allowed me to do so.

the tradeoff: elegance vs. performance

Oh snap – I just fixed this by turning on caching in the Cocoon sitemap. Thanks Brian Pytlik Zillig for pointing out that this is where that functionality is useful! And note to self (and all of us): asking questions when you’re torn between solutions can lead to a third solution that does much better than either of the ones you came up with.

With programming or web design, “clean and elegant” is a satisfaction for me second only to “it’s working by god it’s finally doing what it’s supposed to.”  So what am I to do when I’ve got a perfectly clean and elegant solution – one that involves zero data entry and only takes up a handful of lines in my XSLT stylesheets – that crunches browser speed so hard that it takes nearly a minute to load the homepage of my application?

I’ve got a choice here: Two XML files (one for each problem area) that list all of the data that I’d otherwise dynamically be grabbing out of all files sitting in a certain directory. This is time-consuming and not very elegant (although it certainly could be worse). The worst part is that it requires explicit maintenance on the part of the user. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to give my application to any person who has a directory of XML files without any need for them to hand-customize it, even just a small part?

On the other hand, I can’t expect Web users to sit there and wait at least 30 seconds for TokenX to dynamically generate its list of texts, an action that would take a split second if it were only loading the data out of an XML file. I already have all the site menu data stored in XML for retrieval, meaning that modifications need only take place once and that nested menus can be easily entered without having to worry about the algorithm I’m using to make them appear nested on the screen in the final product.

You can tell from reading my thought process here what the solution is going to be. It’s too bad, because aiming for elegance often ends up leading you to better performance at the same time. Practicality vs. idealism: the eternal question to which we already know the answer.

arbitrary categorization: temporal boundary installment

An arbitrary annoyance of mine has piqued a strange and obsessive interest, and perhaps you could say, a one-woman mission to rethink the way we cut off time.

A fancy way of saying this: as midnight approaches (well beyond my bedtime on a school night), I look at the clock in the playground below my balcony. And I think, it’s almost tomorrow.

But why is it almost tomorrow? Why mark the day with midnight, why that arbitrary division? Not that any division won’t be arbitrary, that any border or category of “day” and “hour” and any other subdivision won’t be, but that I wonder – why not the dawn?

Surely, one can protest, it is fluid and doesn’t remain constant on every day. It ruins, as Benedict Anderson put it, homogenous, empty time. Is time homogeneous, even for those of us who live in supposed modernity? I argue that it is not, although that’s not much of an argument. I state that is not. I put forward that we give great meaning to temporal boundaries, that those meanings change day today, season to season, year to year. Those boundaries can, and are, meaningful markers, no matter how arbitrary.

As a technical Catholic (there is no escape; trust me, I tried), I reflected recently on my idea to spend Christmas as a vacation, to indulge my atheism. And then it hit me – perhaps I could enjoy a really spectacular Christmas in finding an opulent Catholic church and attending midnight mass.

Midnight mass. What an example. I’ve got my own intellectual issues with Anderson. They are legion. I can’t think of a better example to contradict his argument about time and modernity. Midnight mass is a technicality, like so much in the Catholic faith (and I say that with the utmost good will), a way to get in an obligation just-in-time, before getting off the hook for the commercial and gustatory hedonism that is Christmas Day. It’s predicted “just-in-time” delivery of business services by, well, as long as it’s existed. Something tells me that’s quite longer than the 1990s.

Back to my proposition, which is this: forget this day change at midnight. What is the point? We sleep through it. (Well, some of us. We should. And we don’t.) We can’t directly experience our social marking of the boundaries of the day. There is, really, no social marking, save for those on the night shift or those who are rushing to finish a project that was due tomorrow one minute, then today the next. Midnight projects an air of sadness, loneliness, and sometimes one of panic.

I’m on a one-woman mission to change this. From now on, I call for a universal change of marking the passage of one day to the next. My choice is 5 am. I’d love dawn. But our homogeneous empty time seems to call for an arbitrary number. 5 am. This is what I want.

Anyone with me?

moratoria: “western” edition

Some of you who know me well (academically) will probably not be surprised by this post, but here I go anyway. I just need to vent a little.

I am typing up handwritten notes right now, getting organized. I am typing some words over and over (used by the authors of the things I took notes on, not me): “western,” “european” and their “influence”.

Okay, I am officially calling you out on this, scholars. This, as far as I am concerned, is about as INTELLECTUALLY LAZY as you can get.
Continue reading moratoria: “western” edition