Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Religion and the Record

Specialists in religious history recently surpassed all other topical categories in our annual look at AHA members, raising interesting questions about what is attracting fresh interest in the field. …

A number of the specialists noted that social historians had highlighted the interests of common people and cultural historians had supplied the tools for studying the influence of religion, but until recently, much of the work treated religion as aberrant. There was a perception that this left a significant opening for new research that treated religion on its own terms.

William Taylor (Univ. of California at Berkeley) encapsulated the observations of a number of respondents on this point, noting that he had come to the subject because it was so prevalent in the documentary evidence. “I came to recognize that [expressions of faith] were woven into just about every aspect of life, not separate subjects I could leave for another time or someone else. My ongoing research and writing about religious matters continues to be carried out in this spirit—not as a field apart, but as integral to my reckonings with how people then understood their lives and acted upon those convictions.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Google Scholars, Books, and Digits

Earlier today, I read the Christian Science Monitor article “The E-Book, the E-Reader, and the Future of Reading,” in which the engineering director of Google Book Search is paraphrased as saying this:
Imagine, Clancy suggests, that a scholar is digging for information to weave into a new paper. In the past, the scholar would spend hours running circles through the stacks of the university library, perhaps emerging with three texts. The perspectives, angles, and arguments offered in the three texts would necessarily constrain the breadth of analysis as compared with what that same scholar is able to access today by clicking through millions of texts, searching each volume for phrases or words that correspond to the area of interest.
Well, I spent a good bit of time running circles around the bibliographical records of Google Books today and emerged with a few PDFs. I’m searching for more than verbal links, but I wonder what kind of textual analysis can be done with this:

(I have commented on these digital issues before, here and here.)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Francis Bacon on Antiquities: Some Remnants of History Which Have Casually Escaped the Shipwreck of Time

Antiquities, or remnants of histories, are (as was said) like the spars of a shipwreck; when, though the memory of things be decayed and almost lost, yet acute and industrious persons, by a certain persevering and scrupulous diligence, contrive out of genealogies, annals, titles, monuments, coins, proper names and styles, etymologies of words, proverbs, traditions, archives and instruments as well public as private, fragments of histories scattered about in books not historical,— contrive, I say, from all these things or some of them, to recover somewhat from the deluge of time: a work laborious indeed, but agreeable to men, and joined with a kind of reverence; and well worthy to supersede the fabulous accounts of the origins of nations, and to be substituted for fictions of that kind; entitled however to the less authority, because in things which few people concern themselves about, the few have it their own way.

See The Advancement of Learning in volume 8 of Bacon’s Works below (423f.).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Libraries and Digital Scholarship

In “It’s the Content, Stupid,” Steven Escar Smith and Holly Mercer discuss the role of libraries in digital scholarship (i.e., “digital monographs and journals as well as … scholarly websites, online archives, blogs, wikis, and other outlets for research”).

According to a 2008 report from the Association of Research Libraries, Current Models of Digital Scholarly Communication, the existence and influence of “new model” or “new media” publications of digital scholarly communication are “no longer hypothetical but increasingly part of the everyday reality of research and scholarship.” But there is resistance to the transition from older to newer forms of scholarship. Smith and Mercer quote from the Modern Language Association’s 2007 Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion, which found it necessary to make this distinction: “scholarship should not be equated with publication, which is, at bottom, a means to make scholarship public. … Publication is not the raison d’ĂȘtre of scholarship; scholarship should be the raison d’ĂȘtre of publication.”

Smith and Mercer discuss many of the reasons for resistance and highlight one issue which, they claim, “has not been sufficiently considered”:
longstanding biases about the value of certain kinds of work in relation to others. This is a problem because much of the content that has so far proven most amenable to the web has long been regarded as second tier scholarship at best, academic scutwork at worst—the online equivalents of author or subject guides, critical editions, bibliographies, encyclopedias, indexes, concordances, or collections of letters or manuscripts.
The authors’ principal argument is that libraries have an important role in the transition to and sustainability of digital scholarship:
In general terms, there is still great value in doing what we have always done: selecting resources based on their current and future value to scholars, describing those resources so they can be located and studied, and managing collections so they are available for the long term. More specifically, we must continue to work to improve our ability to preserve the scholarly record in digital form.
Most individual faculty lack the time, resources, or expertise to ensure preservation of their own scholarly work even in the short term and clearly can’t do it in the long term that extends beyond their careers; the long term can only be addressed by an organizationally based strategy.
Historically, the library has been the organizationally based strategy for both immediate and long-term access: “Libraries are a central part of the scholarly communication system and have taken responsibility for preserving scholarship in analog formats for centuries.” (Earlier in the article, in the context of discussing data curation in the sciences, the authors point out that, “Primary materials … are typically gathered and preserved by archivists and librarians.”) “Libraries have curatorial experience needed for digital preservation,” Smith and Mercer write, therefore “libraries as traditional and trusted stewards should assert their roles in the preservation continuum” and concern themselves with preserving non-traditional forms of scholarship.

To begin:
Abby Smith recommends short-term actions scholars can take to ensure their digital scholarship is sustainable, including working with librarians when beginning a project, using standards and nonproprietary formats, declaring the intended use and audience for the work, and declaring the work’s intended longevity. These steps make it easier for librarians to act as responsible stewards by providing additional context for digital works. For repositories—libraries—she recommends working with data creators during all phases of creation and declaring policies and capabilities for archiving differing formats. She further recommends libraries take custody of new media publications for preservation experiments.
For a view of the whole range of activities involved in digital curation, see the Digital Curation Center Curation Lifecycle Model.

Finally, consider what is at stake:

David Rumsey Map Collection

For the first time since its launch in 1999, the website has been completely redesigned and updated. … More.

The State of the United States Archives

In his first State of the Archives address, Archivist of the United States David Ferriero quoted Robert Digges Wimberly Connor, the nation’s first archivist, on the state of country’s records in 1934:
…45.0 per cent of the total are infested with silverfish, cockroaches, and other insects, rats, mice, and other vermin, and exposed to such hazards as dirt, rain, sunlight, theft, and fire. More than…46.0 per cent of the total were in depositories that were dark, dirty, badly ventilated, crowded, and without facilities for work. Typical was the case of valuable records relating to Indian affairs which were found on dust-covered shelves mingled higgledy-piggledy with empty whiskey bottles, pieces of soap, rags, and other trash. In another depository crowded with the archives of the Government the most prominent object to one entering the room was the skull of a dead cat protruding from under a pile of valuable records. If a cat with nine lives to risk in the cause of history could not survive the conditions of research in the depositories of our national archives, surely the poor historian with only one life to give his country may be excused if he declines to take the risk.
Ferriero said, “we are at a similar crossroads in the history of the Archives in the challenges we face with the electronic records of the agencies we serve.”

Related to NARA, there is this from “Founders Early Access” at AHA Today:
Last year, Congress encouraged the National Archives to create an online forum that would make these documents more accessible to the public and historians alike. Working with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities’ Documents Compass, “a nonprofit organization designed to assist in the digital production of historical documentary editions,” the National Archives recently released their newest project, Founders Early Access, through the Rotunda (the University of Virginia Press’ site for the publication of original digital scholarship). Founders Early Access features “digital editions of the papers of many of the major figures of the early republic are presented in a fully searchable and interoperable online environment.” 

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Present of the Present

Google used to index the past; now it is indexing the present, too:
we're introducing new features that bring your search results to life with a dynamic stream of real-time content from across the web. Now, immediately after conducting a search, you can see live updates from people on popular sites like Twitter and FriendFeed, as well as headlines from news and blog posts published just seconds before. When they are relevant, we'll rank these latest results to show the freshest information right on the search results page.
For example, if one searches right now on Kirkus Reviews (which is history), here are the results:

But if one selects “show options” and “latest,” here are the results:

Saturday, December 12, 2009

New Value in Old Books

This article—“All That's Old is New Again”—discusses the market for print-on-demand copies of rare books. What is most interesting about this is the acknowledgment of consumer interest in particular features of specific editions (e.g., early illustrated editions) and even particular copies of books (e.g., association copies). From the article:
Consider this curious example. In December 2008, Titles Bookstore at McMaster created a very plain text slim volume of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. With very simply formatted text and a “no frills” cover much like the “no name” brand packaging style, this slim volume was made available for retail sale at the cost of printing, which was $2.50. At the same time, a McMaster Library replica version (a scanned replica of one of the first print runs of the timeless Dickens classic, complete with original illustrations, publisher ads, and which was about three times the size of the thinner volume) was produced and retailed for $14.99.

Last December, over 40 copies of the more expensive original edition replica were sold, while the more affordable version that tells the exact same story has still not sold a single copy. The good news is that the replica versions include a “fund-raising” proceeds fee, allowing the campus library to generate revenue. So while customers benefit from having access to a rare edition of a book for the first time, the library is also able to raise operating funds from the sale of that material.
Speaking of Dickens, have a look at his draft of A Christmas Carol (courtesy the Morgan Library and Museum and The New York Times).

Friday, December 11, 2009

Time Traveling Online

Here is an interesting presentation about Memento, a project that seeks to add a temporal dimension to searching the internet. From the abstract:
Remnants of the past Web are available, and there are many efforts ongoing to archive even more Web content. It's just that the past Web is not as readily accessible as today's. For example, if you want to see an archived version of, you can go to the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine and search for it there. Or if you want to see an old version of the Wikipedia page about—say—clocks, you can go to the current page and from there follow a link to one of the many prior versions. And, if you are interested in stories that featured on the BBC news site on your last year's birthday, you can explore the archive that Matthew Somerville set up in his spare time.

But doesn't doing so feel more like walking to a library, than using the Web the way you usually do? Wouldn't it be much easier if … you could activate a time machine in your browser or bot?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

“I’ve now also painted a woman reading a novel.”

A very impressive digital collection of van Gogh’s correspondence, complimenting the publication of a new critical edition of them, is available from

From The Economist review of the book:
The publication of the six volumes is cause for celebration. To have all the artist’s words together with all those images is like being given a pair of super-special 3D spectacles. The resulting self-portrait has a depth that would not exist were this a collection only of images or only of words. This could be the best autobiography of an artist yet to appear anywhere.
Image: Detail from a letter to Willemien van Gogh, Arles, circa 12 November 1888.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Archives and the Absurd

In the latest issue of the American Archivist (72:2) Scott Cline argues that, since archives presuppose “that there will be a future and generations to which archives will matter,” the archival profession is a “faith-based profession.” A commitment to a long-term view of human existence, Cline suggests, is absurd. (For some suggestions about the absurdity of this belief, see the mashup of apocalyptic scenarios below.) With Kierkegaard, Cline claims, “we can live in this world only on the strength of the absurd, which … [one] ‘grasps by faith.’” Through faith archivists embrace the absurd and “toil in the preservation of the past for the benefit of the present and ‘an indefinite future.’” (“‘To the Limit of Our Integrity’: Reflections on Archival Being,” 334.)

Video via Larry Cebula over at Northwest History, who was kind enough the other day to draw attention to my repository.

The Royal Society: Past, Present and Future

To celebrate its 350th anniversary, the Royal Society created an interactive timeline, Trailblazing, which offers access to the most influential, inspiring, and intriguing papers published by the society.