good interface + bad metadata =

well, not really bad metadata.  More like the wrong metadata.

Dipity lets you build interactive timelines. You can pull in all kinds of information sources — video, text, images — and display them in a nice, linear timeline. The interface is easy to navigate. Each item in the timeline can be viewed within the timeline, and each item has a handy “next event” button to make navigation easier.

Sample Dipity timeline about the Beatles

Anyway, I have some ideas for how to use this interface and if I ever get time to try them, I’ll post about it more.  But that’s the thing – putting this stuff together does take time.  If you choose the browse timelines option on the dipity site – there are a LOT of timelines with no events, with 2 events, with 4 events.  I’d imagine a fair number of them will never be finished.

So the other day I noticed this – Time Tube – a mashup that puts the Dipity timeline interface together with YouTube.  Same cool interface, but you just have to keyword search a topic and your timeline will be populated with YouTube videos a few minutes later.  It’s created a fair amount of buzz over the last couple of days, most of it positive because it’s fun to use and some of the timelines are pretty interesting.

But – the timelines are based on the date the video was uploaded.  If all you want is a nice browsing interface this is okay – as another way to display the results of a YouTube keyword search.  But as a way of visualizing information, if what you want is to add some kind of meaning or context to the videos, it’s only useful for a very narrow set of topics.

Compare this “Beatles” timeline to the one above –

TimeTube for \"The Beatles\" - 1 year span

It doesn’t look too bad, but there’s no real meaning there.  Not even a spike when Across the Universe was released.

TimeTube lets you pick a longer timespan – here’s fifty years.  This really shows the limitations.

TimeTube for \"The Beatles\" - 50 year span

Everything clustered in the middle because YouTube didn’t exist until a short time ago.  The fact that they let you open out your range to 20, 50, 100 years suggests that the upload date might not always be the way these things are generated?  Or maybe it’s just a holdover from the original Dipity interface.  The timelines created are dynamic and there’s no way to save them.  There’s no account to create so you can’t find timeline buddies either.

Where this is useful now is for topics, like “olympic torch protests” where people upload their videos right away after an event happens.  Or to track the zeitgeist when something emerges out of nowhere to become the next big thing.  Or as a fun browsable interface for a YouTube keyword search.

More on why “peer review” isn’t code for “awesome”

There’s an interesting conversation going on at Historiann’s blog about peer review.  It’s especially interesting to librarians I think as a peek behind the curtain of academic publishing – at least a glimpse of what it’s like in certain disciplines.

I have always wondered how closely my experiences writing in the peer-reviewed library science literature match the reality of publishing in other disciplines – and I’ve assumed that they don’t match that well.  It’s a little heartening to see some of my frustrations echoed here – especially where she says “Journals also seem to have no shared rules or system of peer review.”  The amount and type of peer review I’ve gotten for my articles has varied pretty dramatically, and the extent to which I have been able to see and incorporate the reviewers’ thoughts has varied as well.

This is my favorite part – even though most of the post is about why this is an idealistic picture of a  process that doesn’t look like this very often:

What’s not to like, with a fair and humane group of supportive senior scholars freely sharing their wisdom with their (usually junior) colleagues?  Furthermore, having one’s work reviewed by supportive senior scholars is a really great way of making new friends and influencing influential people.  I’ve had that experience a few times–and I’m truly grateful to the people who lent their time and expertise to make me a better historian.

I like this because I think it’s easy to forget this reason for the peer review process.  At this point, with a huge structure of scholarly publishing, employment and reputation that both supports and relies upon our faith in the peer review process as a guarantor of quality – I think it’s easy to forget the “peer” part of peer review.  And I also think that remembering it can help us as we figure out how to talk about peer review in a time where the landscape of scholarly communication is changing.

Right after I read this, I read the Tenured Radical’s lovely post remembering Charles Tilly, who died on April 29th.  The whole piece is a wonderful tribute.  This segment particularly struck me after reading Historiann’s description of ideal peer review as “a fair and humane group of supportive senior scholars freely sharing their wisdom with their (usually junior) colleagues?”

I didn’t know that at that moment in time you got Chuck and Louise as a package, and that once you fell into their orbit you never really left. You became part of this network of astonishing people with capacious intellects who came in and out of town, moving through offices that were a hive of activity, research and ideas. Looking at something I had written one day, Chuck said, “Theda Skocpol is coming through next week — let’s have her take a look at it and pick her brain.” Chuck ran a proseminar on the state which was my principle intellectual context during my final years in graduate school: one fall, in the first meeting, I walked in and sitting around the table were E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, Bridget Hill, and Eric Hobsbawm.

What’s not to like, indeed?

Scholarship on the participatory web – a quick take on the OAH

I don’t know that I have anything really insightful to say about this example of scholarship on the read/write web, but when I clicked over to HNN’s Highlights from the 2008 OAH Convention this morning I didn’t have high expectations.

(For non-historians, OAH = Organization of American Historians. This is one of the two main US-based scholarly associations in history. The OAH is for any scholar who studies American History. The other one, the American Historical Association, is for any American historian, no matter what they study. Both organizations have made some great uses of the emerging web to promote scholarly communication.).

I like the idea of following conferences I can’t attend via blogs, but in practice I rarely find that it works for me. Liveblogs of conference sessions are usually similar to class-notes type writing, more reporting than analysis and idiosyncratic reporting at that. And I definitely get why – no one has time to write an account of what was said and an analysis of what it means at the same time. And at best, liveblogged analysis can’t go past gut, immediate reactions — ideas that might develop and change with time for reflection. But the analytical, more personalized “what I thought was good, bad and important” writing — that takes time. I know that even when I want to write up a conference later, I don’t get to it before the next conference comes along.

Which is why I enjoyed this coverage so much. Rick Shenkman, HNN editor, reported on the sessions he saw, placed the arguments in context, and told us what he thought of the sessions, the speakers, the reactions/discussions and the papers. It reads like one person’s account, but that’s one of the things I liked best about it – it didn’t have that blandness of objectivity. Best of all, almost every session and talk discussed is supplemented with a YouTube video from the session itself. So one guy’s analysis, and the opportunity to see for yourself.

Here’s Manning Marable:

Which is why this is the kind of coverage I think could be really useful for students new to the discipline to really get a sense of what goes on in a discipline, in a scholarly community. The videos alone, even if the quality was better than YouTube, wouldn’t do that — non-experts need the context and the analysis. The context and analysis wouldn’t be enough either — too much one person’s view. If there was a better discussion in the comments, that’d be ideal, but that doesn’t seem to be happening yet. Maybe next year.

cool stuff that’s fun to look at!

For reasons I won’t go into, I recently spent way too much time on the internet looking for magazine scans. (Anyone going to Online NW might soon be able to piece together why). Looking for those I ran across some other things I thought were awesome, even if I’m not always clear on what to do with them.

The Book Scans database

  • I’m linking to the main page – the database page is on the left. I probably lost an hour going through these. The site design is a little old-school, and navigating can be kind of clunky. The site is also intended for the collector community, so it might be perfectly organized for their needs and only clunky for non-collectors. Oddly there’s no notes anywhere about what one can do with these images, or actually anything at all intellectual property-related.

Steven Hill’s Movie Title Screens Page

  • Again, more a browsing space than a searching one, and initially I was like “why would I want to browse this.” Thirty minutes later I still wasn’t sure but I couldn’t stop. These are screengrabs of the title shots from a whole lot of movies. I almost didn’t include this one when I couldn’t find All About Eve, but this one from The Awful Truth was entirely charming so I left it in —

Title shot from The Awful Truth

Vintage Vanguard

  • A big collection of scans of old Vanguard record albums. Both front and back material, which is awesome. I love these because you can see how old they are.

And I also found magazine scans galore — these were my two favorite sites:

The Conde Nast Store

And finally this – cute mid-century French stuff. I’m not sure how to categorize this, but how could I not include it?


historians harnessing the web 2.0

I saw this on the American Historical Association blog today – the AHA is maintaining an archives wiki – a clearinghouse of information for researchers with everything they need to know before heading off to a new archive. I went there expecting to see the usual just-launched wiki with more promise than content and I was blown away by how much information is already there.

Here’s the entry for the archive where I researched a substantial part of my undergraduate honors thesis. What is not included there is any mention of the nice man who fed me soup on the day when I forgot to bring a lunch, and decided to skip eating because I only had one day that weekend to spend in the archive and I didn’t have the time to spare looking for food. But then, because I am very old and my undergraduate years were so long ago – he’s probably not there any more.

The idea of the AHA blog and the Archives wiki is kind of funny to me, given how much some of my professors used to insist that they didn’t ever want to use computers, especially not for email. On the other hand, it’s really not that surprising. Way back in the day, when you had to learn Unix commands and I still had a reference book for Archie and Veronica on my desk, the one killer app I could use to convince just about the most entrenched of old-school scholars that this Internet thing had some merit was — Hytelnet.

Does anyone remember Hytelnet? The thing it did was make it relatively easy to search other libraries’ catalogs. It would tell you where to go, and give you the login information you would need. If you want to see what it used to look like – this is pretty close. But it was about one thing — the one thing you don’t want to do when you have to go somewhere else to get the stuff, is waste your time. So this wiki just reminded me of that – and what a great use of a wiki it is.

Crowdsourcing history?

I ran across a new social community/networking site today, and I’m not sure what I think about it.  Well, I know I love the idea of it — but I’m not sure how to use it or what it means.

It’s called WereYouThere, and it’s a site intended to let people share their memories about people, places and events.  Obviously, most of the images, stories and categories already on the site are about the big events of history — the things lots of people will have stories about.  But there’s also room for people from a particular school or organization to share memories, families to share memories about a loved one, or individuals to reflect on their own lives.  Comments are enabled on most posts, and there’s a discussion board for groups to form for more informal memory-sharing.

From the site:

WereYouThere is
designed to bring people together through shared experience, whether
reuniting old friends or connecting strangers whose paths once crossed.
But we’re much more than just another social network. Instead, each and
every member is a contributor to an ongoing digital history project,
weaving their memories into a searchable database of rich historical

The About section lists the site’s founder as Jonathan Hull, "former Time magazine bureau chief and bestselling author" — which should give it a certain reliability in some people’s minds.

Stories can be uploaded in video, image or text (or a combination), and they are broadly sorted into several categories:  events, places, people, eras, schools, military, organizations and reflections.

Anyway, as soon as I saw it I knew that this was potentially the kind of thing that could become the hugest timesuck in the history of timesucks for me.  I mean, the chance to read first-hand accounts like "the first time I heard Bob Dylan" or the 1955 World Series, or reflections on television-watching in the 1960’s — from a lot of people in one place?  Seriously, I could do that all day (or, more likely, all night).

And it’s a really exciting concept — on the Internet, where you could potentially reach people across geographical boundaries — reading or watching people’s memories about something like the moon landing from all over the world?  It’s easy, at least for me, to get excited about a project using something so natural — individual people’s desire to tell their own stories — that could build a body of knowledge. 

And build a body of knowledge out of sources that have traditionally been so difficult to capture.  Oral history is relatively new, compared to other research methods, and so far only the tiniest of percentages of stories have been captured. Diaries, letters, and other private texts give a peek into this kind of personal memory, but they’re catch as catch can in terms of availability, and lots of people don’t decide to write about the same thing on a day to day basis.  Which is another interesting thing about a project like this – the extent to which it lets you look at and compare memory against history – how events, people, etc. are changed in our minds by looking back on them.

But there are a lot of stories out there that can only really be told by collecting individual memories.  I was looking for information on life on the homefront in the U.S. during World War II a few years ago, and while I found a little, I didn’t find a lot, historiographically speaking.  Reconstructing a documentary record of something like that to use in writing histories is painstaking, labor-intensive and based at least in part on luck  — and it shows.

(At least in the U.S. where we didn’t have people collecting data, on the streets, through the whole period as a collective anthropology project).

But can this kind of crowdsourcing approach work as history?   Here’s the homefront page right now at WereYouThere?  As you can see, it’s empty.  And to be fair, this is the very early stages.   But, of course, crowdsourcing anything can only work if there is a crowd. 

And it’s hard to tell if this site is going to generate the kind of mass participation it would need to be viable.  So far, most of the posts have been made
in the "events" category, which isn’t surprising.  And it seems that
the "where were you when Kennedy was assassinated" is still the big
shared-memory question of our time, because that is the topic with the
most posts (18).  9/11 is a close second. 

Interestingly, the topic I
saw with the most views was Princess Diana’s death, but there are no
posts there yet.  Part of me wants to jump in and start writing down
what I remember — which is good for shorter things like the type of
"where were you" memories.  If a lot of other people feel that too then
there could be a lot of content quickly, which is absolutely essential
for a project like this.  But for the longer reflections, I think it might be more difficult to
get the kind of critical mass that would make this project really
exciting.  We’ll  have to wait and see.

And there’s also the question of how to treat information gathered and created in a project like this as a historian. I’m pretty good at seeing the potential of new forms of knowledge creation, and I’m a pretty good relativist to a point, but I have trouble thinking of how a wisdom of crowds approach like this can help the reader/watcher evaluate these stories. This project isn’t like Wikipedia – you can’t demand source citations on personal stories.  By definition these stories are idiosyncratic and individual. 

Even if I remember something wrong, that’s still my memory.  That’s still interesting that I remember it that way.  Unless I’m making it all up.  On a project like PostSecret, the making it up part is still interesting — the fact that some of this stuff isn’t "true" doesn’t make it less compelling, at least to me.  But with historical memory, it feels different.  It does matter if I’m just reading someone’s historical fiction.  And I know there are people out there who can make stuff up really well. And what does that mean for what we can do with these stories beyond the time-suck factor?  I’m not sure.

But, I know I’ll be watching this site develop, so at this point that’s probably the most important thing.  What it means for history can come later.

Faculty should mean more than that…

Steven Bell has a post on ACRL Log today about tenure, librarians and faculty status.  I reacted to it fairly strongly and I need to tease out why.  Many of the individual things he said didn’t bother me, but taken in aggregate — well, there’s a lot here that’s not making sense to me.  So I’m going to do what I do when I can’t make sense of something — try to write it out.

Those who know me know that I reserve the right to change my mind about stuff as I go along …

Bell’s basic point seems to be that librarians, even when they have faculty status, are not "real faculty" because they don’t work with students in the same way that "real faculty" do:

To my way of thinking, what separates the real faculty from librarian faculty is the relationship with students.

While this may seem simple, and even obvious, I’m having real problems with it. 

I’m going to leave aside his use of the term "real faculty" because it seems clear that he’s being intentionally provocative with that and focus on the other assumption in the sentence – that real faculty is someone determined by one single thing and one single thing alone and that that is the nature and quality of contact with students in the disciplines.   (I know this quotation above doesn’t mention the disciplines – I’ll deal with that below).  Basically, I think he’s just being way too narrow.  With this incredibly limited view of what it is that makes ‘real faculty’ Bell’s throwing out more than faculty librarians.  Not only do I think that’s a naive and problematic view of the academy, but I think if we were to accept it, it would make what we do as librarians a whole lot harder.

Off the top I should definitely say that contact with students, supporting them through the learning process, is what got me into higher education to start — first as a student in the disciplines (history) and then as a librarian.  That’s what I want to do – that’s the part of faculty culture that appeals to me.  And I don’t disagree even a little bit that my contact and work with students as a librarian is profoundly different than it was as a teaching assistant or teaching associate in the disciplines.  My problem isn’t with the idea that contact with students should be one of our core values in higher ed, or that teaching faculty do it differently – it’s with the flying leap to the conclusion that this student work, then, is the sum of what being faculty means.

As I said, I started out in the disciplines with every intention of becoming a professor.  And the reason that I didn’t end up becoming a history professor was largely because I believed then, as I still do now, that the kind of teaching I wanted to do — I could do better as a librarian.  When I was a historian, my main focus was helping students develop the skills they needed to become lifelong learners and informed citizens.   I simply did not have the focus on the disciplinary content to be a great history professor – if they got the dates 500 years off, but still "got" the significance of the connections between the events I was happy.  If they made smart connections between the oral history transcript we’d just read and the secondary monograph we read last week, but got the subject’s name wrong – I didn’t have enough of a problem with that. If they took me off on a tangent unrelated to the topic the professor wanted them to write about, but they had learned something important about how to do history – I hated marking them down.  When I started working in the public library and teaching at the reference desk, I realized that this — THIS was the kind of teaching that I wanted to do.

Directly helping students develop those lifelong learning, critical thinking skills that will help them engage in public life for the rest of their lives. 

And the hardest transition I’ve had to make as a librarian has been losing that week-to-week or even day-to-day contact with students that you get in the disciplines. I frequently use the analogy:

emergency medicine is to family practice what library instruction sessions are to credit courses

I was a really good history teacher at the end there, and I’m still figuring out how to do this one-shot thing. As a graduate teaching assistant in history I can point to student after student upon whom I know I made a direct and lasting intellectual impact.  But here’s the thing – that didn’t make me faculty then.  And it’s not what does or doesn’t make me faculty now. 

What bothers me about Bell’s post isn’t that I don’t value what he says he values in this post — it’s that according to his thinking — an awful lot of other people aren’t "real faculty" either.

And I suspect there are few tenure-track academic librarians who develop relationships with students in the discipline of the type and at the level that occur between students and the real faculty

First, in this post he seems to be valuing the teaching in the disciplines above all other kinds of faculty teaching.  I can say from experience, that he’s leaving out a lot of insanely good teachers, who are also some of the most student-focused faculty members in the business by doing this. Here’s the thing — faculty, even teaching focused faculty, aren’t all motivated by the same thing.

When I was in graduate school, and in the years since, it has become really clear to me that there are two kinds of teaching-focused faculty (of course, this is a deep oversimplification – go with it).  There are those of us whose passion is the brand-new scholars — our excitement and passion for teaching comes from helping students make that transition into academic thinking, scholarship, research, and expertise.  We like to help the first- and second-year students take their first steps at creating new knowledge for themselves.  My friend Mark and I had a long conversation about this when I was working at the University of Portland libraries.  He was talking about why he loved teaching (Poli Sci) at an institution like UP so much – more than he thought he would at a school that focused on graduate study, or even at a highly selective school where he would be spending most of his time working with advanced undergraduate majors.  That just wasn’t for him, and it wasn’t for me.  Not like working with the first-years was.

Then there are the scholars and researchers who really want to work with advanced majors and help those students move from creating new knowledge for themselves, to creating new knowledge — full stop.  They want to teach major seminars, capstone courses, advise theses, they love the relationships they build with their advisees… my husband is one of these teachers.  We knew in graduate school that while on the surface we were both teaching- and student-focused academics, we had this difference in what really excited us about academic teaching. 

And then there are those, and there are a lot of them, who get into the academic game for the research.  To create new knowledge themselves.  They might like working with graduate students, or the occasional talented undergrad, with whom they can engage with the big questions of their own tiny subset of the disciplines — or they might not even want that.  They go into academia and they end up teaching because it is part of the price of admission for doing research for a living — or they end up as research scholars on the tenure track and they don’t teach at all.  So are all of us — the foundational teachers, the teachers in the disciplines, the researchers — faculty?  I think so. 

The interesting thing to me here is that Bell is reflecting a very typical attitude about what should be valued in higher education – and that’s an attitude that inherently devalues what librarians, and writing faculty, and basic math instructors, and tutors, and gen-ed teachers with mostly undeclared students, and a lot of other people on our campuses do.  The idea that the teaching in the disciplines is the "real teaching" is exactly what leads to the devaluing of the undergraduate core.  It’s what leads to huge general education courses taught by harried adjuncts and graduate assistants.  It’s what leads to students who lack the basic skills – and I do count information literacy as one of those basic skills – to really succeed in their academic life.   And it’s what leads to students who never get the help they need to develop those skills because those skills don’t have a strong disciplinary home. 

In other words, I think there are a lot of people that would agree that teaching in the disciplines is what "real faculty" do – but I think that they’re wrong and not only wrong but destructive when it comes to my goals of creating lifelong learners, critical thinkers and informed citizens.

Larry Hardesty is the place to start when it comes to librarians understanding faculty culture.  And where Hardesty is most useful, in my deeply personal and idiosyncratic opinion, is in the how he clarifies this concept  – the focus on the disciplines is, in a crucial way, one of the key barriers keeping foundational skills like information literacy (and writing, and basic numeracy) from being supported as institutional goals should be:

Faculty culture emphasizes research, content and specialization. It de-emphasizes teaching, process and undergraduates – even at the liberal arts colleges where I have spent most of my career." (Hardesty, 1999, p. 244) Faculty do not think in terms of setting goals and objectives to measure development of "the independent lifelong learner" (Hardesty, 1995, p. 356). 

Basically, if developing relationships with students was every "real" faculty member’s main goal, then I think our job as librarians would be a lot easier.  And  think it would be a lot easier for us to think of ourselves as "real" faculty.  A lot of our faculty don’t have that as a goal because it is not valued by those who have power over them professionally (most of them don’t get tenure because of their work with students) and a lot of our faculty members don’t have that as a goal, because that’s not why they got into the game in the first place.  And while that’s not me, I don’t have a problem with that. 

Our colleges and universities are in the business of knowledge creation — and some of our scholars don’t do that with students.  They’re not good at it, or they don’t value it.  That doesn’t make them less faculty members.  Some of our campuses have teaching loads that leave their faculty working with 30 to 40 students a year, with TA’s to do the grading.  Some of them have teaching loads that bring them together with several hundred.  Some departments have teaching/research loads skewed at 80/20 — some the exact opposite.  My campus has extension faculty who work entirely with the broader community.  The point is, all of these people are faculty. By telling librarians that because they don’t do everything typical teaching faculty in the disciplines do they aren’t "real faculty" Bell is lumping librarians in with everyone else who doesn’t do what typical teaching faculty in the disciplines do — and I just don’t think we want to be making the case that none of these people are faculty.  It’s a too-narrow view of what higher ed does, and a too-narrow view of librarians’ role within the academy.

And then I totally agree with Bell’s conclusion – that academic librarians should take the time to read faculty blogs.  (But I think we should be reading research blogs as well as those that talk about teaching and work with students.)

The key difference between us is that where he seems to think we should read them so that we can understand how we are not real faculty, I think we should read them to see what we have in common, across the academy.  What better way to find new partners, and new ways of talking to those partners, than to listen to their voices?  The great thing about this was, I have been trying to figure out a way to fit this blog post in to one of my posts and now I can.

This is an academic blogger who wrote a post recently on why she, at a particular kind of school with particular kinds of students, thinks it is important to teach literature.  This post really resonated with me as a librarian because I think she’s talking about those things I value – how what she does gives her students the foundational skills and understanding they need to engage in public life.

(Full disclosure – my husband decided to riff on this post in his own blog – I think it’s also well worth reading on this topic)

Like Stephen Bell, I don’t really care about the titles.  I don’t call myself an assistant professor now except in cases, like my dossier, where I have to.  When I started at OSU I was a "professional faculty" rank employee, and now I am a tenure track faculty member, but the way I approach my own work hasn’t changed at all. I’m fine with being "librarian faculty" because I think we’re all real faculty — all of us different kinds of faculty who are engaged in the business of teaching, learning and knowledge creation.

YouTube & me

The Royal Family apparently started a YouTube channel about two months ago, but I don’t think many people over here noticed it until it came time for the Queen’s annual Christmas message.  At least, I don’t remember seeing anything about it two months ago, but I’ve seen it mentioned on three or four blogs this week.

I’m trying to figure out why I think this is such a good idea.  If the Bush Administration suddenly started a YouTube channel, I wouldn’t think anything good about it.  And I don’t think that’s entirely partisan.  I don’t see myself watching 20 minutes of old Clinton home movies on the morning after Christmas either.  But this morning, that’s what I found myself doing with the Royal Channel.  An old movie depicting events from the death of King George to Elizabeth’s coronation, followed by a silent movie about the Queen Mother’s wedding and all of a sudden it was 20 minutes later.

Interestingly, they’ve disabled embedding.

I think there’s some aspect of admiration for whoever in the Royal Household had the idea of putting video proof of charitable acts and royal family events out "where the people are," to use that tired phrase — but I don’t think that by itself explains why I’m taken with this idea.  I think that combined with the kind of information the royal family has available to broadcast in this way — those old videos, the historical stuff — is what makes this seem right to me.  Most of the time that’s where I end up losing time on YouTube.  Thirty minutes searching for Mario Savio talking about the machine, two hours of old Olympic coverage.  This is where my actual time has actually gone in the last year.

So that leads me to the question – is this just the historian in me?  Am I taken with the royal family channel because it’s way to see historical artifacts I wouldn’t otherwise easily see?  Or is this a more objectively cool example of the right medium for the right message?