Friday, January 29, 2010

History is the Study of Dead People

The title of this post is a seven-word definition of history formulated by Jill Lepore, a Harvard history professor and regular New Yorker contributor. In the January 25 issue of The New Yorker, Lepore turns her attention to someone who wishes to conquer death—and thus has “an argument with history”—the founder of the cryonics movement (“The Iceman”).

Our earliest repositories were for seeds (or they may have been wine libraries). At the Cryonics Institute, Lepore was reminded of a library “or, more, of an archive, a place where people deposit their papers—the contents of their heads—when they’re dead, so that someone, some future historian, can find them and bring them back to life.” Near the end of the article, she observes the neglected paper-based library and archives at this place of cryopreservation (“Someone should have put labels on these things,” the founder mutters.).

Lepore’s 24-second “complete technical description” of history includes records and archives, and her work uses these in interesting ways.

In Blindspot (2008), a novel Lepore wrote with historian Jane Kamensky, the main text is followed by a note in which the authors write:
while the names, characters, places, and incidents related herein are the fruits of our imagination, or have been used by us fictitiously, a great deal of our story is taken from eighteenth-century letters, newspapers, account books, diaries, sermons, novels, poems, riddles, portraits, philosophical treatises, and legal records; in sum, from the delightful miscellany of ancient documents housed in the libraries, archives, and museums of Cambridge, Boston, Edinburgh, and London.  Novelists seek truth in the Book of Life, but there is scarce a character, action, or painting in these pages which we have not also taken from the Book of History.
In The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity (1998), Lepore considers the “literall advantage” of record-creating Europeans in the New World; in Encounters in the New World: A History in Documents (1999), she presents a selection of primary sources—“the raw material of history”—from the age of encounters; in A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States (2002), she explores the role of literacy and communication technologies (from alphabets to transmitting instruments) in the early republic; and in New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (2005), she discusses the asymmetry of evidence regarding a largely undocumented slave rebellion.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Web, The Humanities, and The Law

Cathy Davidson, over at HASTAC, argues that without the humanities our current information age would be like the Industrial Revolution without the steam engine. Here’s why: 
without the humanities, virtually everything about the World Wide Web is a muddle. All of the key issues of how knowledge is exchanged, how it is created, what its role is in the world, how it functions and changes, how one kind of idea influences another, how knowledge travels, leads to a complex History of Ideas the likes of which we have not seen before.  We need the equivalent of all of the resources of histoire du livre—history of the book—to understand all of the relations of producers, consumers, distributors, systems of literacy and education, access, divide, and on and on. …

[Tim Berners-Lee] wanted from earliest age to make a computer that could be like the human brain. The World Wide Web approximated that because it is based on a human, social, interactive, creative, associational concept of thought and humanity. It is rooted in a view of human nature and is designed to facilitate that human nature. There was a sense of humans as learners and as seekers of knowledge, and a sense that the WWW had to be as unregulated as possible because, if you allow humans to contribute, they will.
And they do. Here is a fascinating story from NPR about social media and history: “The Face Of A Famous Skull Found On Flickr.”

But there is a problem. See Lawrence Lessig in “For the Love of Culture: Google, Copyright, and our Future”:
the problem here is not just antitrust; it is not just privacy; it is not even the power that this (enormously burdensome) free library will give this already dominant Internet company. Indeed, the problem with the Google settlement is not the settlement. It is the environment for culture that the settlement will cement. …

The law has always set limits on the freedom of property owners to allocate their property as they want. Families in Britain wanted to control how estates passed down the family line. At a certain point, their wants became way too complicated. The response was rules--such as the Rule Against Perpetuities--designed to enhance the efficiency of the market by limiting the freedom of property owners to place conditions on their property, thus making it possible for property to move more simply. That is precisely the impulse I wish to recommend here: that we limit the freedom of lawyers to craft infinitely complicated agreements governing culture, so that access to our culture can be preserved. …

we need an approach … that crafts the balance that any culture needs: incentives to support a diverse range of creativity, with an assurance that the creativity inspired remains for generations to access and understand.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Moving Special Collections Forward

Presentations and reports from ARL’s October 2009 forum, “An Age of Discovery: Distinctive Collections in the Digital Age,” are available online. This forum “highlighted the opportunities special collections provide to engage users and realize the teaching, learning, and research missions of libraries and universities.”

The summary report identifies three major themes from the forum:

  1. Use Drives Special Collections Activity: Materials need to be findable, open for creative use, and “user contribution should be harnessed to enrich future research” (11).
  1. Special Collections Are Central to the Academic Enterprise: Special collections need to be aligned with the teaching, learning, and research missions of academic institutions—“integrated into ‘the fabric of the curriculum’” (12). Special collections are teaching spaces where primary materials can be used to support “inquiry-based learning, hands-on exploration of meaning, and inquisitive habits of mind” (13). When an institution archives student work (e.g., in an institutional repository), students become aware of the whole research cycle. To be aligned better with institutional goals, special collections need to be integrated “into the main information-management and discovery workflows in the research library” (14).
  1. Digital and Collaboration Are Necessary: “Digitization and digital curation are no longer specialized activities; they are a part of the life-cycle management of special collections.” Special collections thus depend on sustainable digital programs (not projects) and solid infrastructures. And these depend on collaboration “within and across institutions and between institutions and collections users” (15).
The report concludes: “The opportunity to engage the learning process via the raw materials of knowledge, rare objects, and primary sources, is greater than ever before” (16).

Friday, January 8, 2010

Questions for 2010

John Brockman's Edge question for 2010 asks over a hundred intellectuals, "Is the Internet changing the way you think?"... more

Inside Higher Ed has a report on yesterday’s AHA panel “Is Google Good for History?” Dan Cohen, whose full remarks are available at his blog, said: 
While it seems that an obsessive book about Google comes out every other week, where are the volumes of criticism of ProQuest or Elsevier or other large information companies that serve the academic market in troubling ways? These companies, which also provide search services and digital scans, charge universities exorbitant amounts for the privilege of access. They leech money out of library budgets every year that could be going to other, more productive uses.
Finally, what should one put on the Tombstone Generator?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What Is a Book?

If you search Google for “book” right now, this is what you get:

About the Aughts

Reflecting on the first decade of the 21st century (“What Do You Call It?”), Rebecca Mead writes: 
There was the ascent of the digital realm—with the happy surrender, on the part of hundreds of millions, to the congenial omniscience and possibly less congenial omnipotence of Google, and the perplexingly popular appeal of making available online all manner of information of the sort formerly considered private. Who would have dreamed, at the decade’s outset, not only that something like Facebook would exist but that, thanks to it, anyone would be able to view photographs of the company’s C.E.O., Mark Zuckerberg, in pajama bottoms and with red-eye uncorrected, lounging in an armchair and clutching a Teddy bear to his chest? Or that anyone would want to?