Category Archives: libraries

thinking in functional programming

My internship this summer gives me the opportunity to get acquainted with and even use some XSLT – misleadingly the “stylesheets” of XML.

XSLT has been hard to wrap my head around, not least because “stylesheets” and “used to format XML” make me think of CSS, not – well, functional programming. It’s been a good many years since I got to play around in Lisp, let alone make something with it, and this has brought me back to those two great semesters of AI electives that introduced me to this way of thinking. It took a few weeks to get into it, but once I “got” how Lisp worked at a more intuitive level, I remember my impression: I am thinking in a different way. It wasn’t just about programming, it was about problem solving, and about a way of looking at the world.

Diving into a functional programming language again has got me thinking about that experience. Learning how XSLT works has of course made me remember a time when Lisp made sense, because XSLT is functional programming. If I had been introduced to it in that way at the outset, it would have clicked much sooner. Now it makes me yearn a little for the time when I didn’t just know that I was working in a different way, but when that way came to make sense and I was able to start going somewhere with it.

But when I learned Lisp in the context of an AI (artificial intelligence) class, I didn’t learn it as “functional programming” then either. I wasn’t introduced to it in the context of lambda calculus, which I came to find much later – last semester – in a natural language processing course. I knew it was different, but I didn’t know how on a bigger picture level.

Now that I have that bigger picture, I am appreciating this way of thinking more and more.

Why is functional programming “hard”? Why is it something that I had to get used to for a time before it clicked? I have an answer this time – because I have been doing imperative programming for so long, because that’s how I was introduced to programming (I didn’t attend MIT after all), and because that has become the natural and intuitive way for me to solve a problem. But imperative programming isn’t a more natural way of thinking about things. It’s a different way. Obviously, these two ways of approaching problems have different applications, but the elegant and concise ways of approaching problems that functional programming offers are perhaps even more appealing to me now.

Because I am not an expert, I write this not to make a profound statement about how to approach problem solving, but to share a great article about where functional programming came from, why it’s so appealing, and the things it makes possible. I give you,

“Functional Programming For the Rest of Us.”

Take the 10 minutes to read this and enjoy!

what can you do with a million (non-digitized) books?

I am growing into a scholar with a foot in literature and a foot in information science, I have a stake in asking and answering that newly liberated question: What can you do with a million books? What do you do with a million books?

It’s a question that’s being asked a lot in the past few years, and what’s more, so many answers are beginning to be offered in concrete terms rather than speculation. It’s an exciting and promising time for literature, for other humanistic fields. Digital humanities are here, and we finally have both the ready means and ready material to start interrogating texts in ways that were logistically not possible before now.

It’s a question that I’d like to offer my own answers to, in the form of experiments and projects, as so many others are now doing. But there is always another question nagging at me when I look, with real enthusiasm, at the kind of work that is being done to take humanistic inquiry to an unprecedented scale.

At first I asked the question that made me feel like an outsider, despite sharing the same desires and the same curiosity as those whose web sites I visit, and whose articles I read. I asked, why is this happening in the same departments, in the same fields? Why does it seem that this is limited not to a discipline, but to a time, to a place?

To be blunt, the vast majority of projects are dealing with texts in English or French, or more broadly in European languages, with the classics, and with texts from the early modern period through the early 20th century. Why did I read an article today whose very title asked “what is the place of digital humanities in English departments?”
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PORTA – at the National Diet Library

Did you know? (I didn’t.) The National Diet Library (NDL) has a digital archive portal, PORTA, which not only lets you search their own digital holdings but an amazing array of other databases, digital libraries, and archives in Japan.

What’s wonderful about this portal is that you can click to expand the list of resources it will search, and beside restricting your search to specific ones, you can also simply use it as a way to discover new online resources relating to Japan and beyond. I myself learned a lot from poking around PORTA in the past few days while looking at digital archives for a course at the School of Information.

I will write more about this portal later, but a quick link for those who would be interested in using it.

By the way, my favorite thing that I found is the Japanese version of the Wayback Machine, the Web Archiving Project (インターネット資料収集保存事業) at the NDL.

And yes, there is an English version of PORTA (accessed by clicking “English” at the top of the page) that provides English translations of the digital archive titles.

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.

thinking about google books and authorship

The more the Google Books project proceeds, the faster my thinking about it changes. You could say I have either the pleasure, or the misfortune, to be looking at these kinds of developments through a couple of frameworks: my scholarship in book history; my service as a librarian (both to my patrons – by making information accessible – and to rights holders); and my position as a creator of various kinds.

I think I’ve developed some kind of opinion about Google Books until I realize I have been thinking only through one or two of these, and when I begin to shift my frame of reference, I’m brought back down to earth. This is a complicated issue that I can’t even reconcile with myself. It’s no wonder no one else seems to be able to agree on it either.

Lately, though, as an author myself I have started to come down on the side of opposing Google Books much in the way Harvard’s library has. Robert Darnton – hero of book history and head of the library – made the decision to allow Google to scan only public domain (out-of-copyright) works from their library.

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