Category Archives: thinking aloud

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!

research diary go

binding

Lately, I feel like I’m stuck in short-term thinking. While I hear “be in the moment” is a good thing, I’m overly in the moment. I’m having a hard time thinking long-term and planning out projects, let alone sticking to any kind of plan. Not that I have one.

A review of my dissertation recently went online, and of course some reactions to my sharing that were “what have you published in journals?” and “are you turning it into a book?” I graduated three years ago, and the dissertation was finished six months prior to that and handed in. This summer, I’ll be looking at four years of being “done” without much to show for the intervening time.

Of course, it’s hard to show something when you have a full-time job that doesn’t include research as a professional component. But if I want to do it for myself — and I do — that means that I need to come up with a non-job way to motivate myself and stay on track.

That brings me to the title of this post. My mother recently had a “meeting with herself” at the end of the work week to check in on what she meant to do and what actually happened. It sounds remarkably productive to me as a way to keep yourself 1) kind of on track, and 2) in touch with your own habits and aspirations. It’s easy to lose touch with those things in the weekly grind.

I decided I will have a weekend meeting with myself every week, and as a part of that, write a narrative of what I did. I’ll write it before I review my list of aspirations for the previous week and then when I compare, not necessarily beat myself up over “not meeting goals” but rather use it as an opportunity to refine my aspirations based on how I actually work (or don’t). As a part of that — to hold myself accountable and also to start a dialogue with others — I’ll be writing a cleaned-up version of that research diary once a week here. Don’t expect detailed notes, but do expect a diary of my process and the kinds of activities I engage in when doing research and writing.

I hope this can be helpful to a beginning researcher and spark some conversation with more experienced ones. While this is a personal journey of a sort, it is public, and I welcome your comments.

creativity, goals, and the dissertation

I’ve been consulting some books on art-making lately, that you could broadly say are on that nebulous idea of “creativity” itself. (Art and Fear is the most well known of them and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s the best tiny book you’ll ever own.) As I’ve read more, I have realized that they apply not only to my artistic life – my life outside of the “work” of research and writing – but also to my current writing project as well. In other words, writing a dissertation, essentially a non-fiction book, is a creative undertaking of great magnitude and can be considered with the same principles in mind as would a painting or a composition or a mathematical theory.  (Fill in your creative path here.)

This was a revelation for me, despite the fact that I engage in drawing, painting, and creative writing as a part of my life: why would non-fiction writing for my “real job” not be creative work as well, and best approached with the same attitudes? Why  not?

So one thing that comes out of this is the issue of the goal. Art and Fear talks about this one and I’d honestly never considered it before. The goal often sounds like this: have a solo show, or get a piece in MoMA, or get a book published, or whatever. The problem arises that when the artist is successful and meets that goal, art-making can often cease completely, forever, because the goal has been met and there is no direction anymore, and nothing to aim for.

This book in particular recommends that goals should be more along the lines of “find a group of like-minded artists and share work with them.” Things that won’t be attained in a single moment, but that continue for the rest of your life.

It made me realize that yes, as a scholar, I have an end goal right now, and that is finishing my dissertation. After that, it’s a few articles, a monograph. But then what? And I don’t have a good answer for that. Thus, I am at high risk for becoming the same as the writer who quits after her first bestselling novel, adrift without an ongoing goal.

I wonder how scholars deal with this (I may just go and ask a few of them), but I think for myself, I’ve found a seed of it in a digital humanities project I’m dreaming up but haven’t had time to start implementing yet. It’s one that is less about content and more about opening up possibilities for exploring questions in ways that didn’t exist before, and to experiment with new methodologies that wouldn’t have traditionally come from my discipline. Sure, it’s building a database. But then it’s what to do with that database that’s the real project.

At the same time, I think a huge issue both in the arts and the academic humanities is that of solitude. I am not saying anything new here. Right now, a colleague and I are planning on co-authoring an article and attempting to get it published (please cross your fingers for us). I think it may be in my best interests, more than anything else, to keep in close touch with this person who works on things that are similar to my own work, and to keep picking up those business cards I like to collect from people I meet at conferences who are interested in my research for some reason, and routinely emailing them. My database project is something I want to leave open source and twist others’ arms to take part in. So I’m thinking now, as I’m nearing the end of my PhD course, where to start with the idea of forming a like-minded group to continue to share and collaborate with. To keep the end goal always moving and yet always fulfilled, because it is within myself and other people, and not just about me and something outside of me.

post office as information central?

The future of the post office – and of snail mail generally – is a frequent topic these days. (Well, it has been for a while.) I listened to an excellent show from On Point the other week that had on several people, including someone with the post office. It was excellent in that the guests made several really strange points that were extremely thought-provoking, and I’d never heard them before. I think they deserve to be discussed widely: they broaden the conversation from just “post office or not?” and think about the actual role of this institution in serving its consituents. What is the point of the post office, anyway?

The post office delivers information, reliably (mostly) and often securely. It provides a way to get delivery confirmation and insurance on your stuff, rents out mailboxes (especially important for people in neighborhoods where mail delivery is unreliable, often due to the lack of safety and lack of access to mailboxes – and lack of maintenance by landlords). It lets you get stuff where it’s going, fast. I know that UPS and FedEx and DHL do these kinds of things too, but for general purpose information delivery, the post office is here to serve all of us, no matter where we are, no matter what. This is its mission.

As time goes on, demand and form of information changes, obviously. We’ve already had new technologies and new regimes of categorization that bave been developed to accommodate changing needs. I have only to look at pre-ZIP code letters to be reminded of this. Honestly, for someone who has grown up with ZIP codes, it’s shocking. Within my lifetime, moreover, the place of ZIP codes on the envelope has changed (no longer a need for a new line; in fact writing it along with the city and state is encouraged). We have even more, better technology for reading the messiest handwriting, for distinguishing that ZIP code (and now, a 4-digit code afterwards that means it’s your house) from the text written next to it. We’re getting pretty advanced, here, if you think about it.

So now there is the fairly dramatic change of declining mail volume, which has not been accompanied by a high enough increase in stamp prices to keep up with the times (really, every other country in which I’ve mailed a letter has been close to $1 for even domestic mail). We have a lot of people conducting their information needs online, even those bits of information that must be kept secure: banking, shopping, student financial aid and loan applications and processing, university business (I’m thinking of my own stuff here). We need secure document delivery, and we need it to be a lot better than it is now. Recent break-ins to companies that are holding customer and credit card information (ahem, SONY) are making this abundantly clear.

In light of this, do we need some kind of central, trusted authority that we can go to for secure document delivery?

I argue yes, and I argue that this is exactly a natural place for the post office to step in. I’m not talking about printing out PDFs and making sure they get securely to their destinations. I’m talking about a secure information infrastructure provided as a public service for all of us. No, it will not replace our banking or our insecure game network accounts. But don’t you think that this would be a great service, one that we can’t quite imagine now what it would look like… and one that exactly fits the mission and history of the post office?

Through any kind of calamity, no matter what, we will get your stuff securely and reliably to where it needs to be. We will make it available to you, no matter what.

This sounds a lot like the current mission that surrounds the delivery of paper mail and packages. I am not arguing that this should replace what they’re doing. Don’t close all the post offices and argue Internet for everything. There are still a lot of things that need to be delivered securely by post: you wouldn’t believe how few forms will take my secure Adobe digital signature on the PDF as the equivalent of a pen signature. Imagine being able to develop that pen signature (so easy to forge) into something more secure, in digital form. Would that not be awesome?

With the way things are going, I hardly think that anyone in government would consider this kind of natural evolution as worthy of supporting, as worthy of seed money for infrastructure. We are not so good at thinking outside the current narrow box of the status quo; we have blinders on that we can’t seem to remove. But the post office itself sees itself as needing a transformation for proceeding from here on out. If only innovation and creativity could win out, but I’m not holding my breath.

Incidentally, this whole post office closure thing? Most articles I read are about people complaining they would have to drive 6 miles to the nearest post office. Guess what. I have had to drive miles to the nearest post office my whole life, because I have been unlucky enough to grow up in the suburbs, then live in a city that thinks it’s a great idea to build their fancy new post office (and library!) miles away from our small but active downtown, and make it miles away from any public transit: you can’t walk either, because you’d need to get across several very dangerous freeway on and off ramps. Seriously.

phone destroys blog

When I have a hiatus (as I periodically do from online life, and especially something as intensive as a reflective blog such as this one), it can be due to all kinds of things. Real life nuisances take many forms: moving (sometimes transcontinental moves); frequent travel, back to back is even worse; getting bored of the Internet; someone visiting. Well, for the most part, it involves being overly mobile: I’m just not at the computer engaging with the world via Web browser, and that ends up killing my blog, Facebook activity (as though there’s a lot of that anyway), my nascent G+ activity, sometimes Twitter.

So what has destroyed my Internet life these days, outside of email and intermittent Twitter usage? It’s my phone! Being mobile kills again.

Here’s the work I do 90% of the time: teaching (which involves reading, writing, and talking), and reading/writing for my dissertation. This stuff doesn’t even use a computer.

More than half the time I don’t bring a laptop with me when I travel to and from school, or on little coffeeshop trips to work. Why? It’s because I have used my smartphone as an Internet substitute for so long that a laptop has become overkill for everything that isn’t computer-demanding work. Everything else gets done on my home desktop, and since I don’t bother to turn it on unless I need to Do Stuff.

Thus, my Blackberry has killed my blog. You may ask, how is it that you write pages-long email on that thing and can’t just write a blog post here and there? It’s much less to do with the Blackberry Web browser (which we all know sucks) and much more to do with the format itself.

Here’s the problem: a phone is great for doing one thing at a time; at best I bounce between 4 separate things. (Typically, Twitter, email, Web browsing, and weather – or substitute weather with “talking on the phone” more rarely, because I have Sprint and I can do all that stuff at the same time.)

When I’m writing things for the Internet? I have tabs open like they’re going out of style. I have different articles sitting there waiting for reference; I may be using a text editor or looking at dissertation notes; I am linking my photos from Flickr; I am posting the links to my new posts via Twitter, Facebook (which doesn’t work well on my phone), and G+ (which doesn’t work at all – it has no usable mobile site). I work in a flat and non-linear way. I wouldn’t call it multi-tasking; I would call it working. Rarely do any of us simply have one window open, doing one activity. That’s like having a blindfold on while you listen to music, and also carefully not allowing yourself food or drink, or mobility. That’s not how we live.

I’m not really specifically blaming my phone, or saying that if I had a bigger-screen, touch screen (ugh), or Android/iOS based phone that things would be different just because they are prettier and can render the Web more effectively. Actually, I wouldn’t get nearly as much writing done if I weren’t using the Blackberry – its ergonomics and keyboard are second to none. I would have even less of a Web presence if I didn’t have it with me.

But as long as I’m using a phone (or hey, if I were using a tablet down the road), the lack of true multi-tasking ability is going to prevent me from doing real work outside of constantly emailing. You might argue that with a big enough tablet, I’m basically working on my iBook. You’re right that the screen is similar, and that tablets try to be more than giant smartphones, but as long as they’re trending toward one-thing-at-a-time style usage, it’s never going to be more useful for me than a cell phone. In other words, useful for some daily communication (and so much so that I use it exclusively as my regular device for communicating), but totally inadequate for getting real work done.

Now that I remembered to charge both my laptops’ batteries and am getting back to doing lots of daily notes for work, that backlog of posts will start clearing out – but when real life interferes and I’m back on the phone, my online life will go silent again.

software installs that make me smile

Here’s two today that cheered me up. I’m installing a lot of software for workshops that I’m going to in the next couple of weeks (causing a minor panic attack over my laptop possibly not running any of it – turns out to be false attack). I also installed a great little application to help me clean out my hard drive. Face it, 40 GB seemed like a generous amount in 2005 but somehow it ran out fast.

The first is from a visualization package that I’m using this weekend. I love it because – well, you can’t go wrong no matter what system you have! They accommodate just about everyone.

Screenshot of an installation menu.

Second, there is the truly awesome license agreement for OmniDiskSweeper, which I also really recommend. It discovered that in my Volumes directory there were 3GB of total nonsense left behind by one of my external hard drives. I haven’t used that one in a year – so that’s how long this has been clogging up my computer! That explains a lot. I know 40GB isn’t much space, but given that I don’t store much of anything on this laptop except for text documents and applications (my music and photos are all on other drives), it was a little suspicious that I couldn’t delete enough things to get even more than 2GB free. Now I have 8GB, thanks to Omni. Now check out their call for feedback on the license agreement:

OmniDiskSweeper License Agreement

multilingual laziness

I’ve come across a few sites lately – commercial and academic – that offer “translation” into several languages. I click on them out of curiosity. The link does not take me to a translation.

It takes me to Google Translate!

I have a few things to say about this:

  1. It’s unprofessional. It looks unprofessional too. That bar at the top of the site that says it’s being translated by Google? Kind of ruins the effect.
  2. If you’re just sending your site text to Google, why not offer all languages? I just visited a site that offers about 7; another (Rakuten) offers a handful. Google can handle more than 7 languages.
  3. It’s deceptive. Listing only a few languages makes it look like you’re offering actual human translations that you made or commissioned yourself. In fact, this is what I thought about all of the sites that I’ve visited recently that “offer” translations via Google. There’s no button that says “powered by Google Translate,” only a few flags that the user assumes lead to a real translation. They don’t. They lead to Google.
  4. Last but not least – it’s laughable. The translations aren’t so much inaccurate as hilarious. The only reason I can use the English Rakuten.jp is that I know Japanese and can guess at the original phrasing that produced such funny English. I have to double-check everything with the original Japanese text that it helpfully supplies a link to.*

This is the impression that your “serious” commercial or academic site is leaving: you’re naive about machine translation; you’re too cheap or unimaginative to get your own local translations; you’re out to deceive your users; and you’re an Engrish generator.

Is this the impression you want to leave?

Machine translation isn’t here yet. It may never be. Machine translation is hard. At the very least, get a native speaker of each language to read each end of the translation. You can identify the parts that need to be fixed simply by watching them making funny faces.

Google Translate may be okay in a pinch if you need to, for example, order something from a storefront or service that isn’t in your language. If you want to be taken seriously, find a human.

—-

* The reason I use Rakuten’s international English site is to narrow down the stores to ones that ship internationally. I wish I could use the Japanese site with this filtering.

web travel

Regarding my last post, how to think about what “makes up” the web? Sites, paths, a combination? Something else?

Conceptually the way we typically think of the Web is in terms of “sites” – obviously, “Web site” (with “pages”, like so many leaves) is a commonly understood term. So with my emphasis on conceptualizing the Web as made up of infinitely many organic and spontaneous paths, rather than established and locatable sites, I have been thinking about words to use to describe this ephemeral thing.

How about Web journeys? Is this too cheesy? I think of a journey as sometimes having a destination, sometimes getting there, sometimes getting quite off track, and sometimes only having a vague idea of where it will take place. It traverses sites but is not made up of them.

some questions for the media

…to which I already know the answers. So don’t worry, I’m not looking for an explanation of the obvious.

I’d simply like to juxtapose some stories to think about.

First up – a kid is arrested in an FBI sting for attempting to detonate a car bomb in Portland, OR. (Note: I am on the side of the FBI in this one. From everything I’ve heard about the story, it seems about as far from entrapment as you can get and still be running a sting.) It’s front page news. Obviously. It should be.

So what isn’t front page news? What did I just have to spend over five minutes digging through CBSnews.com to find, under the “front page news” of the Unabomber’s Montana property going up for sale, and “how to feel sexy while aging” (answer: have lots of sex. not making that up.)?

Guy attempts to set mosque on fire in Corvallis, OR, days after the kid is arrested. Guy is arrested for doing so. He’s in jail. This isn’t even second-page news. This is comb-through-the-site-for-a-few-minutes news. Conduct-a-few-searches-because-I-can’t-find-it (even though it was sent to my cell phone via Google News a few minutes before) kind of news.

Should it be? I think you can guess what my answer would be to that question. I dare not even ask if it should be covered as “domestic terrorism” in the same way that say, the same action undertaken by a brown person with an accent. If I went and asked that, I’d have to keep asking about our shifting use of “terrorism” and why it never seems to apply to our most bountiful domestic terrorists, white power and violent anti-abortion groups.

Regardless of your views on any of this, wouldn’t it be nice for this kind of article to be a little closer to the top of the page? As opposed to, say, the media’s freak-out about new TSA screening procedures when it turned out that, as reported in the media, absolutely no freak-out actually occurred in reality despite their predictions? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a front-page story about something that happened, in addition to all that stuff that didn’t happen?

Oh well. Let’s move on.

Second story of the day is the continued “deliberation” over whether to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT). There has been a Pentagon study. General McMullen has repeatedly called for its repeal. Then the heads of the various military units call for it not to be “while we’re fighting.” (Conveniently for them, it doesn’t look like this will ever not be the case, so they’re kind of off the hook.) Sen. McCain goes into increasingly complex contortions to get out of admitting that there has been a large-scale study done that overwhelmingly concludes that the policy should be repealed. Other senators waffle. It is endless.

The question that comes up again and again is how active-duty personnel, especially in combat, think it would affect their ability to do their jobs. How will it impact the unit? How will it impact their own effectiveness? Morale?

So here’s a question I would like to hear asked, just once. Even once would be enough.

How do currently serving gay and lesbian personnel feel their effectiveness and morale is influenced by DADT? How would its repeal impact their ability to do their jobs, in combat, where they are already serving? How do the people directly impacted by DADT feel about it currently and how would they feel if it was done away with?

The questions that will never be asked. I’m allowed to dream, aren’t I?

killing time at the bookstore – not the library

A quick observation – while reading a New York Times article on the closing of Barnes & Noble stores, I was immediately struck by their first interviewee’s comment: I kill time at the bookstore.

The theme of the article is that bookstores are used in non book purchasing ways just as often, and that the demise of a brick and mortar store is saddening those who don’t buy anything on top of both employees and those who do enjoy purchasing while they browse.

Or just browsing, in general. Amazon does a fairly good job of this but it’s far from the real thing.

I couldn’t help thinking about this situation in terms of libraries: because that’s what libraries are for. I think rather than talking about libraries attempting to simulate the bookstore experience – comfortable furniture, events, coffee – we could think of this from the perspective of the large chain bookstore taking over the library’s role in the community.

When it’s far more convenient to get to a Borders or Barnes & Noble (and there are more of them, making it easier to just pop in wherever you are), why bother funding libraries? If they let you hang out and read as much as you want (again, the interviewee talks about reading a book a chapter at a time when he comes in with time to kill), what need are libraries fulfilling, other than letting you check the books out without paying something on top of your taxes?

Why not rethink this upsetting situation in which bookstores are closing as an opportunity for libraries to make their case as the original entities fulfilling this role, and as an essential part of the community?

It seems to me that “community” spaces are more and more private, commercial spaces in the US. The bookstore, the coffee shop, the gym. I can’t remember ever going to a community center in my entire life. And my local library in Ypsilanti is very isolated, a drive away from where I live downtown, and is not even on public transit (which I use most of the time rather than driving). It’s easier for me to wander into the Barnes & Noble or Borders (or three) that are on my local errand runs – and that are on multiple bus lines – than to take a trip out of my way to the library.

Instead of focusing on single focal points, why not a distributed form of libraries – small storefronts, if you will? I can’t think of anything that could serve a community better than more spread-out, accessible, convenient service that promotes itself clearly and loudly as an antidote to disappearing bookstores – and as an irreplaceable part of the private-but-public fabric of the community.