Category Archives: online resources

digital surrogates and utility

As someone who studies the history of the book, often as an object in itself, my research tends to require that I go look at books in person. However, I use the Kindai Digital Library quite regularly as a way to survey what exists (although I fully realize how incomplete Kindai is), and indeed, I would never have found my research topic without being able to preview books using this digital library.

The point is, I previewed the books using Kindai, and then got on a plane to Japan to actually study the books for my research. I had to locate a physical copy and literally get my hands on it, in order to understand how it was made, what impression it would make on readers, and its intended audience. (For example, how well-made is it? Does it have color illustrations or text? What’s the quality of the paper like? Does it feel or look cheap? How is the binding? None of these questions can be answered from the black-and-white copy in Kindai.)

The history of the Kindai Digital Library is interesting: it’s a digitization project undertaken by the National Diet Library and based in the same collection as the Maruzen Meiji Microfilm: books microfilmed and owned by the NDL. Neither covers the entire collection of Meiji books that the NDL owns, it’s not clear if Kindai and Maruzen are coextensive (to me anyway), and the NDL’s collection does not contain every book published in the Meiji period. So, yes, it has limitations – it’s not every book from the Meiji period, and it’s scanned microfilm in black-and-white, not grayscale.

But the Kindai Digital Library, unlike the Maruzen microfilm collection, is being added to continuously, and out-of-copyright books from the Taisho and Showa periods (1912-1989) are also being scanned and included in the collection. For the newer books, they themselves are being digitized, rather than having microfilm as an intermediate step. Check out the difference between these two books by Wakamatsu Shizuko, published in 1897 (color) and 1894 (black and white):

Sure, there is a big impressionistic difference in seeing a full-color cover illustration versus a black-and-white scan of what used to be a color cover. But you can see from these images that it’s very difficult to tell the quality and condition of the monochrome image, versus the higher-quality color image that captures things like discolorations on paper and the quality of the cloth binding (not pictured here).

This makes all the difference for someone doing my kind of research: if I had scanned copies of the anthologies I study that are as good as the color book above, it’s likely that I could still do decent research – if incomplete – without going to Japan to look at these books in person. With the higher-quality color image, the digital surrogate has become a usable surrogate for me, a reasonable facsimile if you will. It provides me with enough information to be able to draw conclusions about more than just the content of the book.

This matters for more than book historians, however. One reason that Kindai Digital Library is so great is that it provides digital surrogates of the full text of books, not just their covers. Every page that is available is scanned, either from microfilm or from the book itself, and provided for viewing online – and, if you have the patience, as a PDF download a few pages at a time. Yet compare these images, again from the 1897 and 1894 books introduced above. Click to view the full size so you can see the quality of the text in each. They are both at 25% zoom in Kindai’s page viewer.

 

Here, you can appreciate the difficulty of reading the monochrome text – and this is an exceptionally clear one. The books I have read (with difficulty) excerpts from on Kindai are typically much lower quality and many characters are difficult to make out. Zooming in doesn’t help, because the quality of the image itself is relatively low.

On the other hand, you have the newer additions with higher-quality surrogates such as this color book. Of course, it’s not necessary to have color pages to read a text that was originally printed in black and white, but the inclusion of values other than straight black or white increases readability by allowing for a higher quality image. It also allows for clearer text when zooming out, viewing at say, 33% (a percentage where the monochrome text would look terrible).

As you can see, the point is that the newer Kindai texts are more usable than the older ones, not just prettier. They express the idea that there is a point where a digital surrogate becomes a usable surrogate, where it becomes “good enough” to live up to its name. Of course, “usable” depends on the purpose, but I think we can agree that if “reading” is the purpose, these new scans are far closer to the goal than the old ones.

Kindai should be commended for this commitment to higher quality in new additions to the library; I only wish there were the resources to re-digitize everything in the library at this standard.

Why is it important to? It’s not just because it would be an even more convenient resource for myself and my colleagues, an even more usable one. It’s because of the very real danger of losing some of these books. There are few, if any, copies of many of them left outside of the NDL’s collection, and many of them can no longer be viewed at the NDL in any format other than microfilm. It’s not clear to me whether the originals are being protected from the public, or if NDL actually only owns the microfilm, with the original lost to time at some point. Regardless, for many books, the Kindai scan (or NDL microfilm, its source) is the only copy of the book available. If it’s not even fully readable – the most basic level of utility beyond knowing from search results that it exists – then we have failed in our task of preservation, and in our task of creating a digital surrogate in the first place. A surrogate can’t take the place of the original if it can’t mimic it in the most basic ways. Given the fragility of Meiji and Taisho (and early Showa) sources, it’s crucial that we make available the highest-quality digital surrogates we can, and as soon as possible, before we no longer can.

*The first few editions of The Complete Works of Higuchi Ichiyo, which feature prominently in my dissertation, are a case of this. I never found a physical copy of the very first edition, actually, even outside of NDL.

digital resource: JAIRO

Today I’d like to introduce a digital resource that I’ve found phenomenally helpful in the past: Japan Institutional Repositories Online, or JAIRO.

This is exactly what it sounds like: a federated search for Japanese institutional repositories (IRs), with (of course) downloadable PDF full text of all the works that are in the database.* What’s amazing (to me) about JAIRO is that, unlike my stereotype of IR, it contains not only academic papers but theses and dissertations (which are also included in University of Michigan’s Deep Blue and many other American IRs), entire books, pieces of software, datasets, presentations, conference papers, and various types of bulletin and technical papers. Check it out:

The number of institutions involved in JAIRO is similarly mind-blowing. There’s no total listed on the page, but it’s well over a hundred, including universities ranging from Okinawa Christian Junior College to Waseda University. JAIRO also provides a separate full list of all IRs in Japan, 200 long, with links to each.

The content tends toward the scientific, but I’ve certainly found a large number of humanities resources. It’s great to have so many “departmental bulletin papers,” as they’re called, because the length and content of these is comparable to a “normal” journal article and they’re both current research and much, much easier to get in digital form. I’ve used several in my research already and have found them to be, hands down, the most valuable sources on the topics they cover.*

JAIRO has both a simple and advanced search, and it’s quite easy to use and browse through. Because it’s a site run by the National Institute of Informatics (NII) it also has some analysis of data about its own contents; additionally, that analysis is used to provide links to popular and new materials on the front page.

In comparison to the IRs I’ve used in the past, JAIRO’s interface is a miracle of both utility and usability (again, leave it to NII to create something this good): it’s powerful, easy to use, and quickly delivers you the content that you want. And it adds significant value by including even items as small as a list of frequently downloaded material or their (admittedly small) list of papers related to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

JAIRO is a project that falls under the umbrella of NII Institutional Repositories Program, which also includes the fascinating NII Institutional Repositories Database Contents Analysis with detailed statistics, graphs, and downloadable TSV files of data on IRs in Japan. JAIRO is also a search target of PORTA, the National Diet Library (NDL)’s digital archive search portal, which I’ve written about previously.

So my question to my readers is this: Is there anything like this resource for American or other English-language IRs? Anything like the PORTA digital archive federated search and portal? These are amazing resources and I only wish that I could search American universities’ IRs in the same powerful way.

* A caveat: I have no idea if it’s searching these multiple databases in real time or if it’s indexed and cached everything for search. (Reader question: does it still count as federated search if it’s not real-time?) Regardless, JAIRO retrieves results that would otherwise have to be accessed from over a hundred separate databases on their own individual sites.

** Two that come to mind are on the Meiji revival of Ihara Saikaku, and the posthumous reception of Kitamura Tōkoku.

programming practice problems

One of the hardest things for me about learning a new programming language is not getting an understanding of the syntax or overarching concepts (like object-oriented programming or recursion), but rather a lack of opportunity for practice. It’s one thing to read a few books about Python, and quite another to look at others’ nontrivial code, or write nontrivial code yourself.

However, I’m often at a loss for ideas when I try to come up with programming projects for myself. Call me uninspired, but I just don’t have many needs for writing programs in my daily life, especially complex ones. And I don’t have any big creative ideas, either. I don’t even have uncreative ideas. So what to do?

It turns out there are a few good resources online for practice programming problems. They’re language-agnostic, presenting a problem and asking you for its solution. Unfortunately, there are only a few resources for this, but I thought I’d share the ones I found.

The first is the Association for Computing Machinery’s International Collegiate Programming Contest. This provides the contest problems from 1974 to the present! Talk about a treasure trove of programming challenges.

Second, UVa Online Judge. This site contains hundreds of programming problems, some simple and some complex. They have volume upon volume of problem sets. You could spend the rest of your life doing the problems on this site.

Does anyone have additional resources to add?

fans, collectors, and archives

In the course of my research, I’ve been studying the connection between the first “complete works” anthology of writer Ihara Saikaku, his canonization, and the collectors and fans who created the anthology – a very archival anthology. (I say this because it has information about the contemporary provenance of the texts that make it up, among other things. It names the collector that contributed the text to the project on every title page!)

It’s struck me throughout this project that the role of fans – which these people were – and their connection with collectors, as well as their overlap, is of crucial importance in preserving, in creating archives and maintaining them, in creating resources that make study or access possible in the first place. They do the hard work of searching, finding, discovering, buying, arranging, preserving, and if we’re lucky, disseminating – through reprinting or, now, through making digital resources.

As I’ve become more acquainted with digital humanities and the range of projects out there, I can’t help but notice the role of collectors and fans here too. It’s not so much in the realm of academic projects, but in the numbers of Web sites out there that provide images or other surrogates for documents and objects that would otherwise be inaccessible. These are people who have built up personal collections over years, and who have created what would otherwise be called authoritative guides and resources without qualification – but who are not academics. They occupy a gray area of a combination of expertise and lack of academic affiliation or degree, but they are the ones who have provided massive amounts of information and documentation – including digital copies of otherwise-inaccessible primary sources.

I think we can see this in action with fandoms surrounding contemporary media, in particular – just look at how much information is available on Wikipedia about current video games and TV shows. Check out the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages and other similar wikis. (Note that UESP began as a Web site, not a wiki; it’s a little time capsule that reflects how fan pages have moved from individual labors of love to collective ones, with the spread of wikis for fan sites. A history of the site itself – “much of the early details and dates are vague as there are no records available anymore” – can be found here.)

I’m not a researcher of contemporary media or fan culture, but I can’t help but notice this and how little it’s talked about in the context of digital humanities, creating digital resources, and looking at the preservation of information over time.

Without collectors like Awashima Kangetsu and fans like Ozaki Kōyō and Ōhashi Otowa, we may not have Ihara Saikaku here today – and yet he is now among the most famous Japanese authors, read in survey courses as the representative Edo (1600-1867) author. He was unknown at the time, an underground obsession of a handful of literary youths. It was their collecting work, and their dedication (and connections to a major publisher) that produced The Complete Works of Saikaku in 1894, a reprinted two-volume set of those combined fans’ collections of used books. Who will we be saying this about in a hundred years?

For my readers out there who have their feet more in fandom and fan culture than I do, what do you think?

copyright infringement: my guide to shime-machi

Update: They were totally reasonable and although it’s being taken down from the site because no JETs are currently living in the town, they’ve promised to add attribution when it gets put in the site archive. Phew.

I hate googling anything that I’ve done and having it come up on a site that isn’t mine. The worst is with no attribution at all, and no link back to the original. This is regarding my photos on Flickr 99% of the time, and although I want attribution in text (that’s my CC license, after all – these aren’t public domain), a link is still better than nothing.

Well, trying to find the kanji for the name of a burial mound I took a picture of in Shime, Fukuoka, a few years ago, I ran across a guide to the town that I wrote just after living there in 2003-2004. It’s on a Fukuoka JET web site, and guess what it says on it? Not my name, of course. It says “Copyright 2012 Fukuoka JET.”

Right!

Anyway, if you want to read a guide to my old town, you can see it here: http://www.fukuokajet.com/regions/fukuoka/shime-machi

I’ve sent an email to the administrator of the site, and have my fingers crossed that they are just reasonable people and will agree to my request for attribution. Sigh.

new magazine: yū

I came across a new magazine online recently that, as always, makes me wish I were still in Japan so I could grab a copy of myself. It’s called Yū 幽, or spirit in my translation – and by spirit I mean the supernatural.

In case you can’t guess, it’s all about the supernatural and ghostly, and is your typical “literary” magazine in Japan – some fiction (short enough for a single issue, usually), plus essays and other relevant short non-fiction. When in Japan (and now, through my sizeable collection of back issues) I consumed these kinds of magazines regularly. I would say voraciously, but it makes for some somewhat slow reading given that it’s literary fiction not in my native language. Still, I love magazines, and I love this type in particular. (Some of my favorites in Japan are Bungakkai and Yom Yom.)

Best of all, Yū has a fantastic web site: Web Yoo. It has a number of blogs, including by authors that write for the magazine, about related books, and ones that have news about current and upcoming issues. They even have their own supernatural fiction prize, 幽怪談文学賞. (Never quite sure how to translate that one; I like to use “weird” as in “weird tales” of the early 20th century here in the US.)

Please check it out, especially if you’re in Japan and can get ahold of it. At the very least, you’ll be treated to great content and some seriously fantastic images and typography on the web site.

nhk and tbs radio podcast apps for android

Here’s another short post about some apps I found for Android that are really helpful for getting ahold of Japanese content – and, of course, learning and practicing Japanese.

NHK news is notoriously difficult to listen to. I’m not going to argue there. But I still enjoy listening to it, and even more to TBS’s various podcasts, so I was delighted to find a very simple RSS app for my phone that lets me download and play individual NHK news broadcasts (7 am, noon, 7 pm, 10 pm, and sometimes midnight). Once in a while (about once or twice a week) you’ll get the “news journal” at midnight, which is an hour long and has breaking news such as there being garbage at Mt. Fuji. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

I don’t listen to TBS podcasts as much – and there are more comedy and entertainment shows there, although you can find news as well – so I haven’t evaluated that app, but it’s by the same developer and is the same idea. By the way, you can subscribe to these same TBS podcasts on iTunes, and I’ve enjoyed doing that so far. This is just one step more toward convenience!

If you are learning Japanese or want to stay in practice – or just like listening to NHK news – please give this a try. I haven’t had it crash on me yet and it’s done its simple function very well!

Here are links to NHK Radio News and TBS Podcast Radio on Android Market. Enjoy!

android slashdot reader: 和英コメントで言語学び!

Now that I have an Android phone and have found some pretty great things on the Android Market for getting ahold of Japanese content, I would like to start sharing with you all what I’ve been using and whether it’s worth downloading.

First up is my favorite new find: Slashdot Reader. Yeah. It’s an RSS feed reader for Slashdot. Why so great?

Well, can you imagine my reaction when I read its description and saw images of posts from slashdot.org and slashdot.jp showing up all mixed in together? Then I read the description: “just a feed reader, nothing more” – for both Japanese and English Slashdot.

It’s like I found an app made by my doppelganger. Really.

If you don’t want one or the other of the languages, it allows you to toggle both, Japanese only, and English only.

Because it’s a feed reader, you only get the headlines and leads from Slashdot, but can easily click through to the full story, and therein lies the amazing language learning tool that somehow never really occurred to me.

All of these years, I could have been learning Japanese through Slashdot comments! That’s right. Of course it’s not textbook Japanese. I already know how trolls (荒らし) talk after just a minute or two of reading. How nerds talk. (They always use が and never けど, although they do use ね sparingly for emphasis. A certain language teacher from several years ago who forbid us from using けど in class for an entire semester would be proud.) And how random users talk.

I also know how they’re basically saying exactly the same things that commenters do on Slashdot in English, only they’re saying it in Japanese. (open source != free as in beer, anyone? I seriously just read this. 無償 is free as in beer, and note that it’s not the same as the widely-used word for “free” 無料 – so I just learned something new about software licensing.) So if you’re a Slashdot reader, this is going to help you immensely. It’s all about context.

Yes, so there are people out there who would disparage the idea of learning language from internet comments. But I counter that with: it’s real language! And this is a specific forum where you know what is coming: some nerdspeak, some posturing, some trolls, some reasonable people, talking about a rather limited set of topics. So you are going to learn voices, not just “Japanese.” You are going to learn what people say in a certain situation, and also what not to say. I can’t think of anything more helpful than that!

And here you go: Slashdot Reader for Android (this takes you to Android Market).

podcast: 学問のススメ

New podcast for me, and best podcast ever in my opinion. Especially for learning! And you have to love the title. It is…

学問のススメ – “Special Edition” (ラジオ版) (Gakumon no susume – radio)

(Why is the title great? Because Fukuzawa Yukichi, who was all about enlightenment, published a book in the 1870s called “Gakumon no susume.” In other words (and in my words), “The furthering of knowledge/study.” This podcast takes the same name, somewhat sincerely and somewhat tongue-in-cheek.)

The mission: Learn things that you either didn’t learn in school, or that you forgot. The format: Interviews with a variety of interesting people, from authors to reporters to photographers to athletes. Why? It’s interesting, you’re exposed to many different fields, and for Japanese learners, it’s fast-paced but obviously a great source of vocabulary on different topics and practice listening to “real Japanese” at native speed, intended for the average layperson. And best of all, it’s free!

You can download individual episodes, or subscribe via the Japanese iTunes store. (You don’t need an account or Japanese credit card to download episodes that are free – just change your location to “Japan” at the bottom of your iTunes Store home screen and search for the title. If you’d like to find more podcasts, just browse away by topic!)

Click here for 学問のススメ!