Archive for category libraries

[2b2k] Four things to learn in a learning commons

Last night I got to give a talk at a public meeting of the Gloucester Education Foundation and the Gloucester Public School District. We talked about learning commons and libraries. It was awesome to see the way that community comports itself towards its teachers, students and librarians, and how engaged they are. Truly exceptional.

Afterwards there were comments by Richard Safier (superintendent), Deborah Kelsey (director of the Sawyer Free Library), and Samantha Whitney (librarian and teacher at the high school), and then a brief workshop at the attendees tables. The attendees included about a dozen of Samantha’s students; you can see in the liveliness of her students and the great questions they asked that Samantha is an inspiring teacher.

I came out of these conversations thinking that if my charter were to establish a “learning commons” in a school library, I’d ask what sort of learning I want to be modeled in that space. I think I’d be looking for four characteristics:

1. Students need to learn the basics (and beyond!) of online literacy: not just how to use the tools, but, more important, how to think critically in the networked age. Many schools are recognizing that, thankfully. But it’s something that probably will be done socially as often as not: “Can I trust a site?” is a question probably best asked of a network.

2. Old-school critical thinking was often thought of as learning how to sift claims so that only that which is worth believing makes it through. Those skills are of course still valuable, but on a network we are almost always left with contradictory piles of sifted beliefs. Sometimes we need to dispute those other beliefs because they are simply wrong. But on a network we also need to learn to live with difference — and to appreciate difference — more than ever. So, I would take learning to love difference to be an essential skill.

3. It kills me that most people have never clicked on a Wikipedia “Talk” page to see the discussion that resulted in the article they’re reading. If we’re going to get through this thing — life together on this planet — we’re really going to have to learn to be more meta-aware about what we read and encounter online. The old trick of authority was to erase any signs of what produced the authoritative declaration. We can’t afford that any more. We need always to be aware the what we come across resulted from humans and human processes.

4. We can’t rely on individual brains. We need brains that are networked with other brains. Those networks can be smarter than any of their individual members, but only if the participants learn how to let the group make them all smarter instead of stupider.

I am not sure how these skills can be taught — excellent educators and the communities that support them, like those I met last night, are in a better position to figure it out — but they are four skills that seem highly congruent with a networked learning commons.


Library as starting point

A new report on Ithaka S+R‘s annual survey of libraries suggests that library directors are committed to libraries being the starting place for their users’ research, but that the users are not in agreement. This calls into question the expenditures libraries make to achieve that goal. (Hat tip to Carl Straumsheim and Peter Suber.)

The question is good. My own opinion is that libraries should let Google do what it’s good at, while they focus on what they’re good at. And libraries are very good indeed at particular ways of discovery. The goal should be to get the mix right, not to make sure that libraries are the starting point for their communities’ research.

The Ithaka S+R survey found that “The vast majority of the academic library directors…continued to agree strongly with the statement: ‘It is strategically important that my library be seen by its users as the first place they go to discover scholarly content.'” But the survey showed that only about half think that that’s happening. This gap can be taken as room for improvement, or as a sign that the aspiration is wrongheaded.

The survey confirms that many libraries have responded to this by moving to a single-search-box strategy, mimicking Google. You just type in a couple of words about what you’re looking for and it searches across every type of item and every type of system for managing those items: images, archival files, books, maps, museum artifacts, faculty biographies, syllabi, databases, biological specimens… Just like Google. That’s the dream, anyway.

I am not sold on it. Roger cites Lorcan Dempsey, who is always worth listening to:

Lorcan Dempsey has been outspoken in emphasizing that much of “discovery happens elsewhere” relative to the academic library, and that libraries should assume a more “inside-out” posture in which they attempt to reveal more effectively their distinctive institutional assets.

Yes. There’s no reason to think that libraries are going to be as good at indexing diverse materials as Google et al. are. So, libraries should make it easier for the search engines to do their job. Library platforms can help. So can as a way of enriching HTML pages about library items so that the search engines can easily recognize the library item metadata.

But assuming that libraries shouldn’t outsource all of their users’ searches, then what would best serve their communities? This is especially complicated since the survey reveals that preference for the library web site vs. the open Web varies based on just about everything: institution, discipline, role, experience, and whether you’re exploring something new or keeping up with your field. This leads Roger to provocatively ask:

While academic communities are understood as institutionally affiliated, what would it entail to think about the discovery needs of users throughout their lifecycle? And what would it mean to think about all the different search boxes and user login screens across publishes [sic] and platforms as somehow connected, rather than as now almost entirely fragmented? …Libraries might find that a less institutionally-driven approach to their discovery role would counterintuitively make their contributions more relevant.

I’m not sure I agree, in part because I’m not entirely sure what Roger is suggesting. If it’s that libraries should offer an experience that integrates all the sources scholars consult throughout the lifecycle of their projects or themselves, then, I’d be happy to see experiments, but I’m skeptical. Libraries generally have not shown themselves to be particularly adept at creating grand, innovative online user experiences. And why should they be? It’s a skill rarely exhibited anywhere on the Web.

If designing great Web experiences is not a traditional strength of research libraries, the networked expertise of their communities is. So is the library’s uncompromised commitment to serving its community’s interests. A discovery system that learns from its community can do something that Google cannot: it can find connections that the community has discerned, and it can return results that are particularly relevant to that community. (It can make those connections available to the search engines also.)

This is one of the principles behind the Stacklife project that came out of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab that until recently I co-directed. It’s one of the principles of the Harvard LibraryCloud platform that makes Stacklife possible. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been touting a technically dumb cross-library measure of usage. These are all straightforward ways to start to record and use information about the items the community has voted for with its library cards.

It is by far just the start. Anonymization and opt-in could provide rich sets of connections and patterns of usage. Imagine we could know what works librarians recommend in response to questions. Imagine if we knew which works were being clustered around which topics in lib guides and syllabi. (Support the Open Syllabus Project!) Imagine if we knew which books were being put on lists by faculty and students. Imagine if knew what books were on participating faculty members’ shelves. Imagine we could learn which works the community thinks are awesome. Imagine if we could do this across institutions so that communities could learn from one another. Imagine we could do this with data structures that support wildly messily linked sources, many of them within the library but many of them outside of it. (Support Linked Data!)

Let the Googles and Bings do what they do better than any sane person could have imagined twenty years ago. Let libraries do what they have been doing better than anyone else for centuries: supporting and learning from networked communities of scholars, librarians, and students who together are a profound source of wisdom and working insight.


[2b2k] Digital Humanities: Ready for your 11AM debunking?

The New Republic continues to favor articles debunking claims that the Internet is bringing about profound changes. This time it’s an article on the digital humanities, titled “The Pseudo-Revolution,” by Adam Kirsch, a senior editor there. [This seems to be the article. Tip of the hat to Jose Afonso Furtado.]

I am not an expert in the digital humanities, but it’s clear to the people in the field who I know that the meaning of the term is not yet settled. Indeed, the nature and extent of the discipline is itself a main object of study of those in the discipline. This means the field tends to attract those who think that the rise of the digital is significant enough to warrant differentiating the digital humanities from the pre-digital humanities. The revolutionary tone that bothers Adam so much is a natural if not inevitable consequence of the sociology of how disciplines are established. That of course doesn’t mean he’s wrong to critique it.

But Adam is exercised not just by revolutionary tone but by what he perceives as an attempt to establish claims through the vehemence of one’s assertions. That is indeed something to watch out for. But I think it also betrays a tin-eared reading by Adam. Those assertions are being made in a context the authors I think properly assume readers understand: the digital humanities is not a done deal. The case has to be made for it as a discipline. At this stage, that means making provocative claims, proposing radical reinterpretations, and challenging traditional values. While I agree that this can lead to thoughtless triumphalist assumptions by the digital humanists, it also needs to be understood within its context. Adam calls it “ideological,” and I can see why. But making bold and even over-bold claims is how discourses at this stage proceed. You challenge the incumbents, and then you challenge your cohort to see how far you can go. That’s how the territory is explored. This discourse absolutely needs the incumbents to push back. In fact, the discourse is shaped by the assumption that the environment is adversarial and the beatings will arrive in short order. In this case, though, I think Adam has cherry-picked the most extreme and least plausible provocations in order to argue against the entire field, rather than against its overreaching. We can agree about some of the examples and some of the linguistic extensions, but that doesn’t dismiss the entire effort the way Adam seems to think it does.

It’s good to have Adam’s challenge. Because his is a long and thoughtful article, I’ll discuss the thematic problems with it that I think are the most important.

First, I believe he’s too eager to make his case, which is the same criticism he makes of the digital humanists. For example, when talking about the use of algorithmic tools, he talks at length about Franco Moretti‘s work, focusing on the essay “Style, Inc.: Reflections on 7,000 Titles.” Moretti used a computer to look for patterns in the titles of 7,000 novels published between 1740 and 1850, and discovered that they tended to get much shorter over time. “…Moretti shows that what changed was the function of the title itself.” As the market for novels got more crowded, the typical title went from being a summary of the contents to a “catchy, attention-grabbing advertisement for the book.” In addition, says Adam, Moretti discovered that sensationalistic novels tend to begin with “The” while “pioneering feminist novels” tended to begin with “A.” Moretti tenders an explanation, writing “What the article ‘says’ is that we are encountering all these figures for the first time.”

Adam concludes that while Moretti’s research is “as good a case for the usefulness of digital tools in the humanities as one can find” in any of the books under review, “its findings are not very exciting.” And, he says, you have to know which questions to ask the data, which requires being well-grounded in the humanities.

That you need to be well-grounded in the humanities to make meaningful use of digital tools is an important point. But here he seems to me to be arguing against a straw man. I have not encountered any digital humanists who suggest that we engage with our history and culture only algorithmically. I don’t profess expertise in the state of the digital humanities, so perhaps I’m wrong. But the digital humanists I know personally (including my friend Jeffrey Schnapp, a co-author of a book, Digital_Humanities, that Adam reviews) are in fact quite learned lovers of culture and history. If there is indeed an important branch of digital humanities that says we should entirely replace the study of the humanities with algorithms, then Adam’s criticism is trenchant…but I’d still want to hear from less extreme proponents of the field. In fact, in my limited experience, digital humanists are not trying to make the humanities safe for robots. They’re trying to increase our human engagement with and understanding of the humanities.

As to the point that algorithmic research can only “illustrate a truism rather than discovering a truth,” — a criticism he levels even more fiercely at the Ngram research described in the book Uncharted — it seems to me that Adam is missing an important point. If computers can now establish quantitatively the truth of what we have assumed to be true, that is no small thing. For example, the Ngram work has established not only that Jewish sources were dropped from German books during the Nazi era, but also the timing and extent of the erasure. This not only helps make the humanities more evidence-based —remember that Adam criticizes the digital humanists for their argument-by-assertion —but also opens the possibility of algorithmically discovering correlations that overturn assumptions or surprise us. One might argue that we therefore need to explore these new techniques more thoroughly, rather than dismissing them as adding nothing. (Indeed, the NY Times review of Uncharted discusses surprising discoveries made via Ngram research.)

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with Adam’s critique I’ve also had with some digital humanists. Adam thinks of the digital humanities as being about the digitizing of sources. He then dismisses that digitizing as useful but hardly revolutionary: “The translation of books into digital files, accessible on the Internet around the world, can be seen as just another practical tool…which facilitates but does not change the actual humanistic work of thinking and writing.”

First, that underplays the potential significance of making the works of culture and scholarship globally available.

Second, if you’re going to minimize the digitizing of books as merely the translation of ink into pixels, you miss what I think is the most important and transformative aspect of the digital humanities: the networking of knowledge and scholarship. Adam in fact acknowledges the networking of scholarship in a twisty couple of paragraphs. He quotes the following from the book Digital_Humanities:

The myth of the humanities as the terrain of the solitary genius…— a philosophical text, a definitive historical study, a paradigm-shifting work of literary criticism — is, of course, a myth. Genius does exist, but knowledge has always been produced and accessed in ways that are fundamentally distributed…

Adam responds by name-checking some paradigm-shifting works, and snidely adds “you can go to the library and check them out…” He then says that there’s no contradiction between paradigm-shifting works existing and the fact that “Scholarship is always a conversation…” I believe he is here completely agreeing with the passage he thinks he’s criticizing: genius is real; paradigm-shifting works exist; these works are not created by geniuses in isolation.

Then he adds what for me is a telling conclusion: “It’s not immediately clear why things should change just because the book is read on a screen rather than on a page.” Yes, that transposition doesn’t suggest changes any more worthy of research than the introduction of mass market paperbacks in the 1940s [source]. But if scholarship is a conversation, might moving those scholarly conversations themselves onto a global network raise some revolutionary possibilities, since that global network allows every connected person to read the scholarship and its objects, lets everyone comment, provides no natural mechanism for promoting any works or comments over any others, inherently assumes a hyperlinked rather than sequential structure of what’s written, makes it easier to share than to sequester works, is equally useful for non-literary media, makes it easier to transclude than to include so that works no longer have to rely on briefly summarizing the other works they talk about, makes differences and disagreements much more visible and easily navigable, enables multiple and simultaneous ordering of assembled works, makes it easier to include everything than to curate collections, preserves and perpetuates errors, is becoming ubiquitously available to those who can afford connection, turns the Digital Divide into a gradient while simultaneously increasing the damage done by being on the wrong side of that gradient, is reducing the ability of a discipline to patrol its edges, and a whole lot more.

It seems to me reasonable to think that it is worth exploring whether these new affordances, limitations, relationships and metaphors might transform the humanities in some fundamental ways. Digital humanities too often is taken simply as, and sometimes takes itself as, the application of computing tools to the humanities. But it should be (and for many, is) broad enough to encompass the implications of the networking of works, ideas and people.

I understand that Adam and others are trying to preserve the humanities from being abandoned and belittled by those who ought to be defending the traditional in the face of the latest. That is a vitally important role, for as a field struggling to establish itself digital humanities is prone to over-stating its case. (I have been known to do so myself.) But in my understanding, that assumes that digital humanists want to replace all traditional methods of study with computer algorithms. Does anyone?

Adam’s article is a brisk challenge, but in my opinion he argues too hard against his foe. The article becomes ideological, just as he claims the explanations, justifications and explorations offered by the digital humanists are.

More significantly, focusing only on the digitizing of works and ignoring the networking of their ideas and the people discussing those ideas, glosses over the locus of the most important changes occurring within the humanities. Insofar as the digital humanities focus on digitization instead of networking, I intend this as a criticism of that nascent discipline even more than as a criticism of Adam’s article.


[2b2k] In defense of the library Long Tail

Two percent of Harvard’s library collection circulates every year. A high percentage of the works that are checked out are the same as the books that were checked out last year. This fact can cause reflexive tsk-tsking among librarians. But — with some heavy qualifications to come — this is at it should be. The existence of a Long Tail is not a sign of failure or waste. To see this, consider what it would be like if there were no Long Tail.

Harvard’s 73 libraries have 16 million items [source]. There are 21,000 students and 2,400 faculty [source]. If we guess that half of the library items are available for check-out, which seems conservative, that would mean that 160,000 different items are checked out every year. If there were no Long Tail, then no book would be checked out more than any other. In that case, it would take the Harvard community an even fifty years before anyone would have read the same book as anyone else. And a university community in which across two generations no one has read the same book as anyone else is not a university community.

I know my assumptions are off. For example, I’m not counting books that are read in the library and not checked out. But my point remains: we want our libraries to have nice long tails. Library long tails are where culture is preserved and discovery occurs.

And, having said that, it is perfectly reasonable to work to lower the difference between the Fat Head and the Long Tail, and it is always desirable to help people to find the treasures in the Long Tail. Which means this post is arguing against a straw man: no one actually wants to get rid of the Long Tail. But I prefer to put it that this post argues against a reflex of thought I find within myself and have encountered in others. The Long Tail is a requirement for the development of culture and ideas, and at the same time, we should always help users to bring riches out of the Long Tail


Linked Data for Libraries: And we’re off!

I’m just out of the first meeting of the three universities participating in a Mellon grant — Cornell, Harvard, and Stanford, with Cornell as the grant instigator and leader — to build, demonstrate, and model using library resources expressed as Linked Data as a tool for researchers, student, teachers, and librarians. (Note that I’m putting all this in my own language, and I was certainly the least knowledgeable person in the room. Don’t get angry at anyone else for my mistakes.)

This first meeting, two days long, was very encouraging indeed: it’s a superb set of people, we are starting out on the same page in terms of values and principles, and we enjoyed working with one another.

The project is named Linked Data for Libraries (LD4L) (minimal home page), although that doesn’t entirely capture it, for the actual beneficiaries of it will not be libraries but scholarly communities taken in their broadest sense. The idea is to help libraries make progress with expressing what they know in Linked Data form so that their communities can find more of it, see more relationships, and contribute more of what the communities learn back into the library. Linked Data is not only good at expressing rich relations, it makes it far easier to update the dataset with relationships that had not been anticipated. This project aims at helping libraries continuously enrich the data they provide, and making it easier for people outside of libraries — including application developers and managers of other Web sites — to connect to that data.

As the grant proposal promised, we will use existing ontologies, adapting them only when necessary. We do expect to be working on an ontology for library usage data of various sorts, an area in which the Harvard Library Innovation Lab has done some work, so that’s very exciting. But overall this is the opposite of an attempt to come up with new ontologies. Thank God. Instead, the focus is on coming up with implementations at all three universities that can serve as learning models, and that demonstrate the value of having interoperable sets of Linked Data across three institutions. We are particularly focused on showing the value of the high-quality resources that libraries provide.

There was a great deal of emphasis in the past two days on partnerships and collaboration. And there was none of the “We’ll show ‘em where they got it wrong, by gum!” attitude that in my experience all too often infects discussions on the pioneering edge of standards. So, I just got to spend two days with brilliant library technologists who are eager to show how a new generation of tech, architecture, and thought can amplify the already immense value of libraries.

There will be more coming about this effort soon. I am obviously not a source for tech info; that will come soon and from elsewhere.


Aaron Swartz and the future of libraries

I was unable to go to our local Aaron Swartz Hackathon, one of twenty around the world, because I’d committed (very happily) to give the after dinner talk at the University of Rhode Island Graduate Library and Information Studies 50th anniversary gala last night.

The event brought together an amazing set of people, including Senator Jack Reed, the current and most recent presidents of the American Library Association, Joan Ress Reeves, 50 particularly distinguished alumni (out of the three thousand (!) who have been graduated), and many, many more. These are heroes of libraries. (My cousin’s daughter, Alison Courchesne, also got an award. Yay, Alison!)

Although I’d worked hard on my talk, I decided to open it differently. I won’t try to reproduce what I actually said because the adrenalin of speaking in front of a crowd, especially one as awesome as last night’s, wipes out whatever short term memory remains. But it went very roughly something like this:

It’s awesome to be in a room with teachers, professors, researchers, a provost, deans, and librarians: people who work to make the world better…not to mention the three thousand alumni who are too busy do-ing to be able to be here tonight.

But it makes me remember another do-er: Aaron Swartz, the champion of open access, open data, open metadata, open government, open everything. Maybe I’m thinking about Aaron tonight because today is his birthday.

When we talk about the future of libaries, I usually promote the idea of libraries as platforms — platforms that make openly available everything that libraries know: all the data, all the metadata, what the community is making of what they get from the library (privacy accommodated, of course), all the guidance and wisdom of librarians, all the content especially if we can ever fix the insane copyright laws. Everything. All accessible to anyone who wants to write an application that puts it to use.

And the reason for that is because in my heart I don’t think librarians are going to invent the future of libraries. It’s too big a job for any one group. It will take the world to invent the future of libraries. It will take 14 year olds like Aaron to invent the future of libraries. We need supply them with platforms that enable them.

I should add that I co-direct a Library Innovation Lab where we do work that I’m very proud of. So, of course libraries will participate in the invention of their future. But it’ll take the world — a world that contains people with the brilliance and commitment of an Aaron Swartz — to invent that future fully.


Here are wise words delivered at an Aaron Hackathon last night by Carl Malamud: Hacking Authority. For me, Carl is reminding us that the concept of hacking over-promises when the changes threaten large institutions that represent long-held values and assumptions. Change often requires the persistence and patience that Aaron exhibited, even as he hacked.


[annotation][2b2k] Neel Smith: Scholarly annotation + Homer

Neel Smith of Holy Cross is talking about the Homer Multitext project, a “long term project to represent the transmission of the Iliad in digital form.”

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

He shows the oldest extant ms of the Iliad, which includes 10th century notes. “The medieval scribes create a wonderful hypermedia” work.

“Scholarly annotation starts with citation.” He says we have a good standard: URNs, which can point to, for example, and ISBN number. His project uses URNs to refer to texts in a FRBR-like hierarchy [works at various levels of abstraction]. These are semantically rich and machine-actionable. You can google URN and get the object. You can put a URN into a URL for direct Web access. You can embed an image into a Web page via its URN [using a service, I believe].

An annotation is an association. In a scholarly notation, it’s associated with a citable entity. [He shows some great examples of the possibilities of cross linking and associating.]

The metadata is expressed as RDF triples. Within the Homer project, they’re inductively building up a schema of the complete graph [network of connections]. For end users, this means you can see everything associated with a particular URN. Building a facsimile browser, for example, becomes straightforward, mainly requiring the application of XSL and CSS to style it.

Another example: Mise en page: automated layout analysis. This in-progress project analyzes the layout of annotation info on the Homeric pages.


[2b2k] Cliff Lynch on preserving the ever-expanding scholarly record

Cliff Lynch is giving talk this morning to the extended Harvard Library community on information stewardship. Cliff leads the Coalition for Networked Information, a project of the Association of Research Libraries and Educause, that is “concerned with the intelligent uses of information technology and networked information to enhance scholarship and intellectual life.” Cliff is helping the Harvard Library with the formulation of a set of information stewardship principles. Originally he was working with IT and the Harvard Library on principles, services, and initial projects related to digital information management. Given that his draft set of principles are broader than digital asset management, Cliff has been asked to address the larger community (says Mary Lee Kennedy).

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Cliff begins by saying that the principles he’s drafted are for discussion; how they apply to any particular institution is always a policy issue, with resource implications, that needs to be discussed. He says he’ll walk us through these principles, beginning with some concepts that underpin them.

When it comes to information stewardship, “university community” should include grad students whose research materials the university supports and maintains. Undergrads, too, to some extent. The presence of a medical school here also extends and smudges the boundaries.

Cliff then raises the policy question of the relation of the alumni to the university. There are practical reasons to keep the alumni involved, but particularly for grads of the professional schools, access to materials can be crucial.

He says he uses “scholarly record” for human-created things that convey scholarly ideas across time and space: books, journals, audio, web sites, etc. “This is getting more complicated and more diverse as time goes on.” E.g., author’s software can be part of that record. And there is a growing set of data, experimental records, etc., that are becoming part of the scholarly record.

Research libraries need to be concerned about things that support scholarship but are not usually considered part of the historical record. E.g., newspapers, popular novels, movies. These give insight into the scholarly work. There are also datasets that are part of the evidentiary record, e.g., data about the Earth gathered from sensors. “It’s so hard to figure out when enough is enough.” But as more of it goes digital, it requires new strategies for acquisition, curation and access. “What are the analogs of historical newspapers for the 21st century?” he asks. They are likely to be databases from corporations that may merge and die and that have “variable and often haphazard policies about how they maintain those databases.” We need to be thinking about how to ensure that data’s continued availability.

Provision of access: Part of that is being able to discover things. This shouldn’t require knowing which Harvard-specific access mechanism to come to. “We need to take a broad view of access” so that things can be found through the “key discovery mechanisms of the day,” beyond the institution’s. (He namechecks the Digital Public Library of America.)

And access isn’t just for “the relatively low-bandwidth human reader.” [API's, platforms and linked data, etc., I assume.]

Maintaining a record of the scholarly work that the community does is a core mission of the university. So, he says, in his report he’s used the vocabulary of obligation; that is for discussion.

The 5 principles

1. The scholarly output of the community should be captured, preserved, organized, and made accessible. This should include the evidence that underlies that output. E.g., the experimental data that underlies a paper should be preserved. This takes us beyond digital data to things like specimens and cell lines, and requires including museums and other partners. (Congress is beginning to delve into this, Cliff notes, especially with regard to preserving the evidence that enables experiments to be replicated.)

The university is not alone in addressing these needs.

2. A university has the obligation to provide its community with the best possible access to the overall scholarly record. This is something to be done in partnership with research libraries aaround the world. But Harvard has a “leadership role to play.”

Here we need to think about providing alumni with continued access to the scholarly record. We train students and then send them out into the world and cut off their access. “In many cases, they’re just out of luck. There seems to be something really wrong there.”

Beyond the scholarly record, there are issues about providing access to the cultural record and sources. No institution alone can do this. “There’s a rich set of partnerships” to be formed. It used to be easier to get that cultural record by buying it from book jobbers, DVD suppliers, etc. Now it’s data with differing license terms and subscription limitations. A lot out of it’s out on the public Web. “We’re all hoping that the Internet Archive will do a good job,” but most of our institutions of higher learning aren’t contributing to that effort. Some research libraries are creating interesting partnerships with faculty, collecting particular parts of the Web in support of particular research interests. “Those are signposts toward a future where the engagement to collect and preserve the cultural records scholar need is going to get much more complex” and require much more positive outreach by libraries, and much more discussion with the community (and the faculty in particular) about which elements are going to be important to preserve.

“Absolutely the desirable thing is share these collections broadly,” as broadly as possible.

3. “The time has come to recognize that good stewardship means creating digital records of physical objects” in order to preserve them and make them accessible. They should be stored away from the physical objects.

4. A lot goes on here in addition to faculty research. People come through putting on performances, talks, colloquia. “You need a strategy to preserve these and get them out there.”

“The stakes are getting much higher” when it comes to archives. The materials are not just papers and graphs. They include old computers and storage materials, “a microcosm of all of the horrible consumer recording technology of the 20th century,” e.g., 8mm film, Sony Betamax, etc.

We also need to think about what to archive of the classroom. We don’t have to capture every calculus discussion section, but you want to get enough to give a sense of what went on in the courses. The documentation of teaching and learning is undergoing a tremendous change. The new classroom tech and MOOCs are creating lots of data, much of it personally identifiable. “Most institutions have little or no policies around who gets to see it, how long they keep it, what sort of informed consent they need from students.” It’s important data and very sensitive data. Policy and stewardship discussions are need. There are also record management issues.

5. We know that scholarly communication is…being transformed (not as fast as some of us would like â?? online scientific journals often look like paper versions) by the affordances of digital technology. “Create an ongoing partnership with the community and with other institutions to extend and broaden the way scholarly communication happens. The institutional role is terribly important in this. We need to find the balances between innovation and sustainability.


Q: Providing alumni with remote access is expensive. Harvard has about 100,000 living alumni, which includes people who spent one semester here. What sort of obligation does a university have to someone who, for example, spent a single semester here?

A: It’s something to be worked out. You can define alumnus as someone who has gotten a degree. You may ask for a co-payment. At some institutions, active members of the alumni association get some level of access. Also, grads of different schools may get access to different materials. Also, the most expensive items are typically those for which there are a commercial market. For example, professional grade resources for the financial industry probably won’t allow licensing to alumni because it would cannibalize their market. On the other hand, it’s probably not expensive to make JSTOR available to alumni.

Q: [robert darnton] Very helpful. We’re working on all 5 principles at Harvard. But there is a fundamental problem: we have to advance simultaneously on the digital and analog fronts. More printed books are published each year, and the output of the digital increases even faster. The pressures on our budget are enormous. What do you recommend as a strategy? And do you think Harvard has a special responsibility since our library is so much bigger, except for the Library of Congress? Smaller lilbraries can rely on Hathi etc. to acquire works.

A: “Those are really tough questions.” [audience laughs] It’s a large task but a finite one. Calculating how much money would take an institution how far “is a really good opportunity for fund raising.” Put in place measures that talk about the percentage of the collection that’s available, rather than a raw number of images. But, we are in a bad situation: continuing growth of traditional media (e.g., books), enormous expansion of digital resources. “My sense is…that for Harvard to be able to navigate this, it’s going to have to get more interdependent with other research libraries.” It’s ironic, because Harvard has been willing to shoulder enormous responsibility, and so has become a resource for other libraries. “It’s made life easier for a lot of the other research libraries” because they know Harvard will cover around the margins. “I’m afraid you may have to do that a little more for your scholars, and we are going to see more interdependence in the system. It’s unavoidable given the scope of the challenge.” “You need to be able to demonstrate that by becoming more interdependent, you’re getting more back than you’re giving up.” It’s a hard core problem, and “the institutional traditions make the challenge here unique.”


[2b2k] Library as platform

Library Journal just posted my article “Library as Platform.” It’s likely to show up in their print version in October.

It argues that there are reasons why libraries ought to think of themselves not as portals but as open platforms that give access to all the information and metadata they can, through human readable and computer readable forms.


[2b2k] Crowdsourcing transcription

[This article is also posted at Digital Scholarship@Harvard.]

Marc Parry has an excellent article at the Chronicle of Higher Ed about using crowdsourcing to make archives more digitally useful:

Many people have taken part in crowdsourced science research, volunteering to classify galaxies, fold proteins, or transcribe old weather information from wartime ship logs for use in climate modeling. These days humanists are increasingly throwing open the digital gates, too. Civil War-era diaries, historical menus, the papers of the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham—all have been made available to volunteer transcribers in recent years. In January the National Archives released its own cache of documents to the crowd via its Citizen Archivist Dashboard, a collection that includes letters to a Civil War spy, suffrage petitions, and fugitive-slave case files.

Marc cites an article [full text] in Literary & Linguistic Computing that found that team members could have completed the transcription of works by Jeremy Bentham faster if they had devoted themselves to that task instead of managing the crowd of volunteer transcribers. Here are some more details about the project and its negative finding, based on the article in L&LC.

The project was supported by a grant of £262,673 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, for 12 months, which included the cost of digitizing the material and creating the transcription tools. The end result was text marked up with TEI-compliant XML that can be easily interpreted and rendered by other apps.

During a six-month period, 1,207 volunteers registered, who together transcribed 1,009 manuscripts. 21% of those registered users actually did some transcribing. 2.7% of the transcribers produced 70% of all the transcribed manuscripts. (These numbers refer to the period before the New York Times publicized the project.)

Of the manuscripts transcribed, 56% were “deemed to be complete.” But the team was quite happy with the progress the volunteers made:

Over the testing period as a whole, volunteers transcribed an average of thirty-five manuscripts each week; if this rate were to be maintained, then 1,820 transcripts would be produced every twelve months. Taking Bentham’s difficult handwriting, the complexity and length of the manuscripts, and the text-encoding into consideration, the volume of work carried out by Transcribe Bentham volunteers is quite remarkable

Still, as Marc points out, two Research Associates spent considerable time moderating the volunteers and providing the quality control required before certifying a document as done. The L&LC article estimates that RA’s could have transcribed 400 transcripts per month, 2.5x faster than the pace of the volunteers. But, the volunteers got better as they were more experienced, and improvements to the transcription software might make quality control less of an issue.

The L&LC article suggests two additional reasons why the project might be considered a success. First, it generated lots of publicity about the Bentham collection. Second, “no funding body would ever provide a grant for mere transcription alone.” But both of these reasons depend upon crowdsourcing being a novelty. At some point, it will not be.

Based on the Bentham project’s experience, it seems to me there are a few plausible possibilities for crowdsourcing transcription to become practical: First, as the article notes, if the project had continued, the volunteers might have gotten substantially more productive and more accurate. Second, better software might drive down the need for extensive moderation, as the article suggests. Third, there may be a better way to structure the crowd’s participation. For example, it might be practical to use Amazon Mechanical Turk to pay the crowd to do two or three independent passes over the content, which can then be compared for accuracy. Fourth, algorithmic transcription might get good enough that there’s less for humans to do. Fifth, someone might invent something incredibly clever that increases the accuracy of the crowdsourced transcriptions. In fact, someone already has: reCAPTCHA transcribes tens of millions of words every day. So you never know what our clever species will come up with.

For now, though, the results of the Bentham project cannot be encouraging for those looking for a pragmatic way to generate high-quality transcriptions rapidly.