Potential Digital Humanities Fellowship at CHNM

The Center for History and New Media (CHNM, http://chnm.gmu.edu) at George Mason University invites expressions of interest to join the Center in applying to the National Endowment for the Humanities for one of NEH’s Fellowships at Digital Humanities Centers.

NEH Fellowships at Digital Humanities Centers (FDHC) support collaboration between digital centers and individual scholars. An award provides funding for both a stipend for the fellow while in residence at the center and a portion of the center’s costs for hosting a fellow. Awards are for periods of six to twelve months. The intellectual cooperation between the visiting scholar and the center may take many different forms and may involve humanities scholars of any level of digital expertise. Fellows may work exclusively on their own projects in consultation with center staff, collaborate on projects with other scholars affiliated with the center, function as “apprentices” on existing digital center projects, or any combination of these. The results of the collaboration may range from “proof of concept” to finished product.

The aims of the program are to 1) support innovative collaboration on outstanding digital research projects; 2) expand digital literacy and expertise; 3) promote the work of digital humanities centers; and 4) encourage broad and open access to the humanities. (For the full guidelines, see http://www.neh.gov/grants/guidelines/fdhc.html)

CHNM plans to select a scholar for its application by July 31, 2008. Interested scholars should send a CV and a 2-3 pp. description of 1) their general interest in the fellowship and the Center; 2) what specifically they would like to work on during the term of the fellowship; 3) any experience they might have that is applicable to this work; and 4) how this work dovetails with any current Center projects (e.g. the National History Education Clearinghouse, Zotero, Omeka, the Bracero History Archive, etc.) Send these two documents to chnm@gmu.edu with the subject line “NEH Fellowship” as soon as possible. Applications will be reviewed as they come in, through July 31. The selected scholar will be notified soon thereafter, and CHNM will work with that scholar to submit a grant application to NEH by September 15, 2008.

Omeka 1000

Omeka Just before the launch of the Omeka public beta in late February, my colleagues and I had a brief conversation about metrics for the project and what would constitute success. The number we settled on for the three year lifespan of our IMLS grant was 1000 downloads. A little modest maybe—10,000 was our pie-in-the-sky figure—but considering Omeka’s primary audience consists of cultural heritage institutions (as opposed to individual end users) we thought 1000 institutions in three years would constitute a fairly big splash.

Little did we know that we would reach our goal in matter of 10 weeks. By May we had passed our target of 1000 downloads, and our current count stands at more than 1300.

At the same time, we know that number of downloads isn’t a perfect measure of success. When it comes to assessing use of the software, just as important as how many is how well. We know we have to make sure that test installations don’t sit unused. In this regard, we are encouraged by the increasingly heavy traffic in our user forums, our Google Groups developers’ list, and our “sandbox” public test installation. People are really banging on the software, pushing it to its limits, finding and fixing lots of bugs. That means they are really using it, which is exactly what we want. Yet we also have to make sure that people are using those installations to full effect. Here we are working hard to improve our documentation, to provide a comprehensive set of screencast video tutorials, and to build and release a host of new, freely downloadable design themes and plugins. Finally, we are taking the tremendous amount of feedback we have received, both through these channels and through the many presentations and workshops we have given, and incorporating it into a major rewrite of the software itself—Omeka 0.10.0 is scheduled for release in late summer or early fall 2008.

In February I said that Omeka is intended for all. Some have said this is wishful thinking, that Omeka is still too complicated to be used by the smallest of institutions or individual enthusiasts, students, or scholars. Obviously I disagree, and I would make two arguments in response.

First, a big part of our plan is a hosted version of the software. Our model is WordPress. On the one hand, people with access to a server (or an account of one of dozens of shared hosting services) and some relatively modest technical skills can set up their own Omeka installation, just as they can download and install the WordPress server application. On the other hand, beginning in 2009, people without a server or the necessary skills will be able to sign up for an account at theirname.omeka.net and we will host the software for them, just as they can sign up for a hosted blog at theirname.wordpress.com.

Second, we’re going to try. We’re not willing to write small institutions off. To this end we are working one-on-one with small institutions such as the Laurel Grove School, which with our help will publish a document-based curriculum and virtual tour using Omeka. We are also reaching out more broadly through state humanities councils. Last month, for instance, I spent a day with Margie McLellan and Mark Tebeau at the Ohio Humanities Council presenting Omeka to a group of about 50 representatives from small and medium sized cultural heritage institutions from across the state. We are now engaged in further talks with the Council about ways to connect small institutions across Ohio with experienced Omeka users and developers in the state to form partnerships that will extend their capabilities. Our hope is that we develop a model that can be reproduced in states across the country, fostering not only wider use of Omeka and more professional online exhibitions, but also new partnerships between small cultural heritage institutions, humanities councils, local web designers, state colleges and universities, and others.

We don’t expect everyone to be able to use Omeka on his or her own. But collaboration has always been key to all digital humanities and cultural heritage work. Thus we’re working directly and indirectly to facilitate new models of collaboration around Omeka, and we hope these models will let let any institution or individual, in partnership with us or a third party and using the technologies and resources we make available, build standards-based, professional-looking, rich-content online collections and exhibitions.

That’s our goal and we’re sticking to it.

Briefly Noted for June 12, 2008

Geek meme: Command line history. For about a month during the spring, geeks everywhere were using

history|awk ‘{a[$2]++} END{for(i in a){printf “%5dt%s n”,a[i],i}}’|sort -rn|head

to post their top ten most used shell commands to the interwebs.

Samuel Pepys on Twitter. Good idea, but doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I have enjoyed the Pepys Diary blog over the years, and I’d like to see it done in 140 characters or less.

A few months ago I recorded an interview with UC Santa Barbara professor, Claudio Fogu for an article he is preparing for History and Theory. Over the course of an hour or so, Claudio and I discussed the September 11 Digital Archive, the history of CHNM, and other topics of possible interest to Found History readers. Claudio has kindly allowed me to post the full audio of the interview. I can’t wait to see the article.


Omeka at NYPL: Eminent Domain

ed-logo_800.jpg I’m pleased to announce the New York Public Library has released its first online exhibition using the Omeka platform. Eminent Domain is a photographic installation chronicling the changing nature of urban space in New York City today. NYPL Labs is planning a series of projects using Omeka and its developers have become very active on the Omeka forums and dev list. I think I can speak for the entire team and say we’re very grateful for their help and impressed with the results of their first foray with Omeka.

Six Tips for Hiring Good Programmers

1864823746_d6bb92c305.jpg There has been a useful discussion on Twitter (of all places!) among some of the THATCamp participants about how to write a good help wanted ad for programmers for digital humanities projects. Here are a few of the suggestions, mostly from the programmers in the bunch:

  • “All depends on what you’re looking for: a real programmer or just a code secretary? Good coders show up for fun real problems … code secretary = comes to meetings, takes orders, transcribes them into code without creative insight.”
  • “Regardless of the title, make clear if people will have the authority to use their own creativity and do things in new ways.”
  • “One suggestion is to get tied in to local user-group communities—especially ones that attract freelancers and learners.”
  • “But good programmers also get paid a bit better, and thrive on a community of other programmers (which means other area employers).”
  • “Another thing to tout is the ability to choose the technical stack, & freedom to explore new languages/frameworks, if true.”
  • “Also, is there any chance you could offer a referral bonus to univ employees? No better applicants than that.”

Good tips. Good use of Twitter.

[Thanks to Karin Dalziel, Adam Solove, and Ben Brumfield for allowing me to republish this conversation! Image credit: Matt Wetzler.]

Thoughts on THATCamp

2539671619_45e0d02289.jpg Last week CHNM hosted the inaugural THATCamp to what seemed to me like great success. Short for “The Humanities and Technology Camp,” THATCamp is a BarCamp-style, user-generated “unconference” on digital humanities. Structurally, it differs from an ordinary conference in two ways: first in that its sessions are organized by participants themselves (ahead of time through a blog, but mainly on the day of the conference) rather than by a program committee, and second in that everyone is expected to participate actively—to present a project, share some skill, and collaborate with fellow participants. We first started thinking about THATCamp as many as two or three years ago, and I was thrilled to see it finally get off the ground, thanks in large part to the extraordinary efforts and energy of Jeremy Boggs and Dave Lester, who will be presenting their own thoughts on the matter in a forthcoming episode of THATPodcast.

To begin with let me say the sessions were fantastic. I particularly benefited from conversations on F/OSS design and development processes, event standards, and sustainability. Nevertheless I have to admit I was just as interested in the process of THATCamp as I was in its products. Throughout the weekend I was paying as much attention to how THATCamp worked as to the work that was actually done there. I’d like to share three observations in this regard:

  • First and foremost, I think it is very important to stress that THATCamp was cheap. The cost of the weekend was around $3000. Total. That included a fairly lavish breakfast and lunch buffet on both days, lots of caffenated drinks, t-shirts for everyone involved, pretty badges and lanyards, office supplies (post-its, pens), room fees, and a couple student travel stipends. Those modest costs were paid through a combination of sponsorships (the GMU provost’s office, NiCHE, NYPL, and CHNM’s own Zotero project) and voluntary donations from THATCamp participants (we suggested $20 and passed a hat around on the first day). Most participants had to fund their own travel, but still.
  • Second, THATCamp was honest. Mills has already pointed out how the unconference sessions at THATCamp were so much more engaging than the standard “panelist reads at you” conference session model. That’s certainly true. But it wasn’t just the format that made these discussions more useful. It was the attitude. At most scholarly conferences, everyone seems to have something to prove—specifically, how smart they are. We have all seen people shouted down at conferences and how destructive that can be, especially to a young scholar (I have seen people in tears). But at THATCamp, instead of trying to out-smart each other, campers came clean about their failures as well as their successes, their problems as well as their solutions. By admitting, rather than covering up, gaps in their knowledge, campers were able to learn from each other. This honesty made THATCamp truly productive.
  • Third, THATCamp was democratic. In large part because Jeremy and Dave (both students as well as kickass digital humanists) did most of the work, but also because of the transparency, informality, and openness of the process and discussions, professional status didn’t seem to count for much at THATCamp. Full professors, associate professors, assistant professors, research faculty, museum and library professionals from big and small institutions at all levels, and graduate students seemed to mix easily and casually. More than once I saw a student or young professional challenge a more senior colleague. Even more often I saw the groups laughing, chatting, sharing ideas. That’s good for everybody.

I’m not going to lie. THATCamp was a ton of work, and it wasn’t perfect by any means. I’m not sure, for instance, how many publications will result from the sessions. But I do think it was a truly different and useful way of forging new collaborations, building a community of practice, making connections to people with answers to your questions, supporting student work and thought, and solving practical problems. The model is particularly appropriate for a very hands-on discipline like digital humanities, but the three observations above suggest it should and could easily be extended to other, more traditional disciplines. Mills has already called on the American Historical Association to dedicate 5% of its program THATCamp-style activities, and Margie McLellan is hoping to encourage the Oral History Association to do the same. I’d also encourage humanities departments, graduate student committees, and other research institutions to try. We all lament the lack of community and collegiality in our profession and decry the cutthroat competitiveness in our fields. It seems to me that THATCamp is a cheap and easy antidote.

[Image: “Dork Shorts” session sign-up board, credit Dave Lester.]

Twitter, Downtime, and Radical Transparency


Listeners to the most recent episode of Digital Campus will know that I’m a fairly heavy user of Twitter, the weirdly addictive and hard-to-describe microblogging and messaging service. But anyone who uses the wildly popular service regularly will also know that the company’s service architecture has not scaled very well. During the last month or so, as hundreds of thousands have signed up and started “tweeting,” it has sometimes seemed like Twitter is down as often as it’s up.

Considering the volume and complexity of the information they’re serving, and the somewhat unexpectedness of the service’s popularity, I tend not to blame Twitter for its downtime. As a member of an organization that runs its own servers (with nowhere near the load of Twitter, mind you), I sympathize with Twitter’s situation. Keeping a server up is a relentless, frustrating, unpredictable, and scary task. Yet as a user of Twitter, I still get pretty annoyed when I can’t access my friends’ tweets or when one of mine disappears into the ether.

It’s clear, however, that Twitter is working very hard to rewrite its software and improve its network infrastructure. How do I know this? First, it seems like some of the problems are getting better. Second, and more important, for the last week or so, Twitter has been blogging its efforts. The Twitter main page now includes a prominent link to the Twitter Status blog, where managers and engineers post at least daily updates about the work they’re doing and the problems they’re facing. The blog also includes links to uptime statistics, developer forums, and other information sharing channels. Twitter’s main corporate blog, moreover, contains longer posts about these same issues, as well as notes on other uncomfortable matters such as users’ concerns about privacy under Twitter’s terms of service.

Often, an organization facing troubles—particularly troubles of its own making—does everything it can to hide the problem, its cause, and its efforts to fix it. Twitter has decided on a different course. Twitter seems to have realized that its very committed, very invested user base would prefer honesty and openness to obfuscation and spin. By definition, Twitter users are people who have put themselves out there on the web. Twitter’s managers and engineers have realized that those users expect nothing less of the company itself.

As a Twitter user, the company’s openness about its difficulties has made me more patient, more willing to forgive them an occasional outage or slowdown. There is a lesson in this for digital and public historians. Our audiences are similarly committed. We work very hard to make sure they feel like we’re all in this together. We should remember this when we have problems, such as our own network outages (CHNM is experiencing one right now, btw) and technical shortcomings.

We are open with our successes. We should be open with our problems as well. Our audiences and partners will reward us with their continued loyalty and (who knows?) maybe even help.

Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives

I couldn’t be more excited to announce the launch of CHNM’s first major online exhibition for general audiences. Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives draws visitors into the Gulag’s history through bilingual exhibits (English and Russian), a rich archive, and other resources. Exhibits are presented with a thematic approach that illustrates the diversity of the Gulag experience through original mini-documentaries, images, and the words of individual prisoners. A searchable archive includes archival documents, photographs, paintings, drawings, and oral histories that give visitors the opportunity to explore the subject in much greater depth. The site also features a new blog and podcast, Episodes in Gulag History, and later this summer will include a virtual visit to the Gulag Museum at Perm 36.

Visitors to the site will quickly see that it is a product of the work of many, many talented people. Primary among these are Steven Barnes, the project’s lead historian; Stephanie Hurter, Gwen White, and Sheila Brennan, its project managers; and Jeremy Boggs and Misha Vinokur, the project’s technical producers. I’m honored to be part of this fine group and I encourage all of you to check out their amazing work.