Briefly Noted for October 29, 2009

Prep School Library Drops Books in Favor of KindlesCushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts (not far from where I grew up) is in the process of deaccessioning the books in its library in favor of Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader. According to USA Today (hat tip @BryanAlexander), instead of checking out books, from now on Cushing’s students will check out Kindles, pre-loaded with the books they require. Interesting, but I can’t help thinking it’d make more sense to give each kid a Sony Reader or Barnes & Noble Nook and have them download the books they need themselves. Many—if not most—of the book high schoolers need are in the public domain and available on the Sony and B&N devices as free EPUBs from Google Books.

Ubuntu 9.10 — The latest release of the Ubuntu Linux distribution (Version 9.10 “Karmic Koala”) is now available for download. Among the new goodies: 2 GB of free online file storage for syncing through Ubuntu One. I know what I’m doing this weekend.

Verizon Droid, Android 2.0, and Why Early Adopters May Get Burned — Anyone who has read this blog or listened to the Digital Campus podcast knows that I’m an Android fan and optimist. I know I should be cheering the release of the Motorola Droid for Verizon, which—with the help of Android 2.0—looks like it’ll give the iPhone a run for its money. Unfortunately, it looks like the original Android phone, the T-Mobile G1, of which I am a proud (if not always 100% satisfied) owner, may not be able to run the 2.0 version of Android. I understand the importance of improving the Android experience to attract converts, but early adopters should see those improvements as well as the newcomers. Burning your loyal user base doesn’t seem good business. Then again, maybe the Android folks know that many of us will just suck up the extra couple hundred bucks to break our contracts to get our hands on the slick new hardware.

Briefly Noted for October 27, 2009

Big Copyright’s History of Anti-Innovation — Ars Technica has an interesting account of the movie studios, music companies, and other large content owners’ historical antipathy to new content delivery mechanisms. Some of the new technologies on the list: the player piano, the television, the .mp3 player, and the digital video recorder.

What the $%@! is Net Neutrality? — Confused about the “net neutrality” issue. The Public Knowledge website has a good intro video. Via @james3neal.

White House Switches to Drupal — The Obama administration has made the switch to Drupal, the open source content management system, for Hat tip Rick Shenkman.

Briefly Noted for October 25, 2009

The Material Culture of Mad Men — Via Steve Lubar, an intriguing interview with the prop master of Mad Men, a hit television drama set in early 1960s New York and acclaimed for its realism and attention to historical detail.

Enough Wave, Improve Google DocsGoogle Wave may be all the rage among the trendy kids, but I agree that Google Should Stop Playing Around With Wave and spend its energy improving Google Docs … both for its own sake and ours.

Real Time Web Search is Here — You may have read that both Microsoft’s Bing and Google have reached agreements with Twitter to make user updates (“tweets”) searchable. (The Bing Twitter Search is live; Google’s effort is on the way.) The O’Reilly Radar blog has a good overview of why this is important news.

Utah State OpenCourseWare in Trouble — Budget cuts at Utah State have put the University’s OpenCourseWare program in jeopardy. Other outlets have reported the story as the “closing” of Utah State’s OpenCourseWare project. But the Univeristy’s OpenCourseWare website is still live, and just because the project has formally ended, the program doesn’t necessarily have to go away. It’s my hope at least that the site can remain up and running through central IT and faculty efforts, despite the project’s $120,000 annual budget line having been eliminated and its director having been let go.

Briefly Noted for October 23, 2009

Open Access to AHA Directory Until End of October — The American Historical Association’s (AHA) Directory of History Departments and Organizations is now online and available to all until October 31, 2009. After the trial period, the full directory will be available to members and institutional subscribers. A limited version will remain available to the general public.

Museum in a Day — Mike Ellis and Dan Zambonini are trying to build a Museum In A Day. Follow their progress as they document the work of building a fully functional museum website in 12 hours. At press time, the two had collectively spent £6.39 and about an hour building the project. I’m happy to report that Omeka (along with Joomla, Drupal, and WordPress MU) is still in the running to serve as the site’s content management platform.

An Unexpected Honor

Yesterday I received a letter from Google addressed to Robert T. Gunther at Found History. As founder of the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford, where I did my doctoral work, and a major figure in my dissertation, I am very honored to welcome Dr. Gunther to the Found History staff. Despite having passed away in 1940, it is my hope that Dr. Gunther will make significant contribution to this blog’s coverage of the history of scientific instrumentation.

3 Innovation Killers in Digital Humanities

Here’s a list of three questions one might overhear in a peer review panel for digital humanities funding, each of which can kill a project in its tracks:

  • Haven’t X, Y, and Z already done this? We shouldn’t be supporting duplication of effort.
  • Are all of the stakeholders on board? (Hat tip to @patrickgmj for this gem.)
  • What about sustainability?

In their right place, each of these are valid criticisms. But they shouldn’t be levied reflexively. Sometimes X, Y, and Z’s project stinks, or nobody uses it, or their code is lousy. Sometimes stakeholders can’t see through the fog of current practice and imagine the possible fruits of innovation. Sometimes experimental projects can’t be sustained. Sometimes they fail altogether.

If we are going to advance a field as young as digital humanities, if we are going to encourage innovation, if we are going to lift the bar, we sometimes have to be ready to accept “I don’t know, this is an experiment” as a valid answer to the sustainability question in our grant guidelines. We are sometimes going to have to accept duplication of effort (aren’t we glad someone kept experimenting with email and the 1997 version of Hotmail wasn’t the first and last word in webmail?) And true innovation won’t always garner broad support among stakeholders, especially at the outset.

Duplication of effort, stakeholder buy in, and sustainability are all important issues, but they’re not all important. Innovation requires flexibility, an acceptance of risk, and a measure of trust. As Dorthea Salo said on Twitter, when considering sustainability, for example, we should be asking “‘how do we make this sustainable?’ rather than ‘kill it ‘cos we don’t know that it is.'” As Rachel Frick said in the same thread, in the case of experimental work we must accept that sustainability can “mean many things,” for example “document[ing] the risky action and results in an enduring way so that others may learn.”

Innovation makes some scary demands. Dorthea and Rachel present some thoughts on how to manage those demands with the other, legitimate demands of grant funding. We’re going to need some more creative thinking if we’re going to push the field forward.

Late update (10/16/09): Hugh Cayless at Scriptio Continua makes the very good, very practical point that “if you’re writing a proposal, assume these objections will be thrown at it, and do some prior thinking so you can spike them before they kill your innovative idea.” An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure … or something like that.

Briefly Noted for October 15, 2009

Dan Brown Gets Smithsonian History Right and Wrong in "The Lost Symbol" — Smithsonian Magazine’s Around the Mall blog has a nice “fact or fiction” run down of claims made about the Institution by Dan Brown in his latest thriller, The Lost Symbol, which is set in Washington, DC.

Curator Now Online — Via @NancyProctor comes news that Curator: The Museum Journal has launched a new website. Unfortunately, it looks like only subscribers can access full text articles, but I love that the journal is using WordPress to manage the content.

The Tweeting University Administration: How Much is Too Much?Inside Higher Ed is reporting that George Washington University administrators use Twitter more heavily than colleagues at other universities, with an average of 57.7 tweets per day. The entire study by contains some potentially more interesting and more useful data, including rankings by number of followers and number of offical accounts. From a quick scan, my own university, George Mason, doesn’t seem to appear on any of the lists. I’m trying to decide whether that’s a good thing or not.

Harvard-Yenching to be Digitized — The Harvard College Library and the National Library of China have launched a project to digitize all 51,000 volumes in Harvard-Yenching Library’s rare book collection. The project will take six years, and apparently the results will be made available under open access terms.

Google Books Settlement: Sergey, Smoke — I’m a week or so late on this, but anyone who hasn’t done so already should read Sergey Brin’s response to critics of the Google Books settlement in the New York Times. Brin makes a good case for benefits the settlement will bring, but doesn’t directly address many of the more subtle criticisms of the deal, a point made effectively, if a little snarkily, in a Slate article entitled “Sergey Brin Blows Smoke Up Your Ass.”

Briefly Noted for October 14, 2009

BBC and Neil Gaiman Launch Collaborative Storytelling Experiment on Twitter — This week the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) teamed up with Neil Gaiman (author of Neverwhere and other latter day science fiction and fantasy classics) and thousands of Twitter followers to draft what will become an original audiobook. Gaiman tweeted the first line yesterday and invited followers to continue the story with replies to @BBCAA and hashtag #bbcawdio. When approximately 1000 tweets are logged, editors at the BBC will compile and edit the accumulated tweets into an audiobook script and recording.

Briefly Noted for October 12, 2009

ArchivesNext on Modes of Social Media InteractionKate Theimer at ArchivesNext has an excellent post detailing four approaches archives and other cultural heritage institutions can take in inviting users to interact with their collections via social media. The four interactive modes or “places” are described according to their relative openness and the kinds of social behaviors they explicitly or implicity support, the “social contracts created by them.” Written partially in response to some worries I voiced about’s use of social media in connection with its NARA Holocaust collection, Kate’s provides a much more nuanced, much more firmly grounded analysis of the question than I could hope to do. I’m eagerly awaiting her promised thoughts on the broader issue of NARA’s private digitization partnerships, the other issue I raised in an embarrasingly off hand manner in the same post.

Email: Dead or Alive? — An article in the Wall Street Journal titled “The End of Email” is making the rounds this morning. The piece argues that social media services stand ready to displace email as the “king of communications.” Not so fast, argue many other observers, including Dwight Sliverman of the Houston Chronicle, who points out that 54 percent of companies still ban the use of social media. Indeed, in general the commentary on the story is better and more balanced than the story itself, which—with its hyperbolic title—seems designed more as link bait than as thoughful analysis.

Trust the Cloud? Better Backup — The interwebs were alight this weekend with news of how T-Mobile and Microsoft lost data their Sidekick smartphone users had stored with the companies in “the cloud.” According to T-Mobile “the likelihood of a successful [recovery] is extremely low.” I use Google’s cloud services as the primary location for all my email, contacts, and calendar data. I am downloading Mozilla’s Thunderbird and Sunbird as I type and will be backing up everything locally anon.