Looks Like the Internet: Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage Projects Succeed When They Look Like the Network

A rough transcript of my talk at the 2013 ACRL/NY Symposium last week. The symposium’s theme was “The Library as Knowledge Laboratory.” Many thanks to Anice Mills and the entire program committee for inviting me to such an engaging event.

cat When Bill Gates and Paul Allen set out in 1975 to put “a computer on every desk and in every home, all running Microsoft software” it was absurdly audacious. Not only were the two practically teenagers. Practically no one owned a computer. When Tim Berners-Lee called the protocols he proposed primarily for internal sharing of research documents among his laboratory colleagues at CERN “the World Wide Web,” it was equally audacious. Berners-Lee was just one of hundreds of physicists working in relative anonymity in the laboratory. His supervisor approved his proposal, allowing him six months to work on the idea with the brief handwritten comment, “vague, but exciting.”

In hindsight, we now know that both projects proved their audacious claims. More or less every desk and every home now has a computer, more or less all of them running some kind of Microsoft software. The World Wide Web is indeed a world-wide web. But what is it that these visionaries saw that their contemporaries didn’t? Both Gates and Allen and Berners-Lee saw the potential of distributed systems.

In stark contrast to the model of mainframe computing dominant at the time, Gates and Allen (and a few peers such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and other members of the Homebrew Computing Club) saw that computing would achieve its greatest reach if computing power were placed in the hands of users. They saw that the personal computer, by moving computing power from the center (the mainframe) to the nodes (the end user terminal) of the system, would kick-start a virtuous cycle of experimentation and innovation that would ultimately lead to everyone owning a computer.

Tim Berners-Lee saw (as indeed did his predecessors who built the Internet atop which the Web sits) that placing content creation, linking, indexing, and other application-specific functions at the fringes of the network and allowing the network simply to handle data transfers, would enable greater ease of information sharing, a flourishing of connections between and among users and their documents, and thus a free-flowing of creativity. This distributed system of Internet+Web was in stark contrast to the centralized, managed computer networks that dominated the 1980s and early 1990s, networks like Compuserve and Prodigy, which managed all content and functional applications from their central servers.

This design principle, called the “end-to-end principle,” states that most features of a network should be left to users to invent and implement, that the network should be as simple as possible, and that complexity should be developed at its end points not at its core. That the network should be dumb and the terminals should be smart. This is precisely how the Internet works. The Internet itself doesn’t care whether the data being transmitted is a sophisticated Flash interactive or a plain text document. The complexity of Flash is handled at the end points and the Internet just transmits the data.

480px-Internet_map_1024 In my experience digital cultural heritage and digital humanities projects function best when they adhere to this design principle, technically, structurally, and administratively. Digital cultural heritage and digital humanities projects work best when content is created and functional applications are designed, that is, when the real work is performed at the nodes and when the management functions of the system are limited to establishing communication protocols and keeping open the pathways along which work can take place, along which ideas, content, collections, and code can flow. That is, digital cultural heritage and digital humanities projects work best when they are structured like the Internet itself, the very network upon which they operate and thrive. The success of THATCamp in recent years demonstrates the truth of this proposition.

Begun in 2008 by my colleagues and I at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media as an unfunded gathering of digitally-minded humanities scholars, students, librarians, museum professionals, and others, THATCamp has in five years grown to more than 100 events in 20 countries around the globe.

How did we do this? Well, we didn’t really do it at all. Shortly after the second THATCamp event in 2009, one of the attendees, Ben Brumfield, asked if he could reproduce the gathering and use the name with colleagues attending the Society of American Archivists meeting in Austin. Shortly after that, other attendees organized THATCamp Pacific Northwest and THATCamp Southern California. By early-2010 THATCamp seemed to be “going viral” and we worked with the Mellon Foundation to secure funding to help coordinate what was now something of a movement.

But that money wasn’t directed at funding individual THATCamps or organizing them from CHNM. Mellon funding for THATCamp paid for information, documentation, and a “coordinator,” Amanda French, who would be available to answer questions and make connections between THATCamp organizers. To this day, each THATCamp remains independently organized, planned, funded, and carried out. The functional application of THATCamp takes place completely at the nodes. All that’s provided centrally at CHNM are the protocols—the branding, the groundrules, the architecture, the governance, and some advice—by which these local applications can perform smoothly and connect to one another to form a broader THATCamp community.

As I see it, looking and acting like the Internet—adopting and adapting its network architecture to structure our own work—gives us the best chance of succeeding as digital humanists and librarians. What does this mean for the future? Well, I’m at once hopeful and fearful for the future.

On the side of fear, I see much of the thrust of new technology today to be pointing in the opposite direction, towards a re-aggregation of innovation from the nodes to the center, centers dominated by proprietary interests. This is best represented by the App Store, which answers first and foremost to the priorities of Apple, but also by “apps” themselves, which centralize users’ interactions within wall-gardens not dissimilar to those built by Compuserve and Prodigy in the pre-aeb era. The Facebook App is designed to keep you in Facebook. Cloud computing is a more complicated case, but it too removes much of the computing power that in the PC era used to be located at the nodes to a central “cloud.”

On the other hand, on the side of hope, are developments coming out of this very community, developments like the the Digital Public Library of America, which is structured very much according to the end-to-end principle. DPLA executive director, Dan Cohen, has described DPLA’s content aggregation model as ponds feeding lakes feeding an ocean.

As cultural heritage professionals, it is our duty to empower end users—or as I like to call them, “people.” Doing this means keeping our efforts, regardless of which direction the latest trends in mobile and cloud computing seem to point, looking like the Internet.

[Image credits: Flickr user didbygraham and Wikipedia.]

For Your Listening Pleasure: History Conversations

A few years back I had the bright idea to launch a second podcast (Digital Campus being the first). It languished. In fact, I only ever managed to record three episodes. The last one was recorded in February 2008.

It’s time to retire the website, but I don’t want to lose what I believe is some valuable content, especially the conversation I had with friends shortly after Roy’s death. So, here it is. The entire run of History Conversations, “an occasional dialogue with historians and history lovers about their interests, their ideas, and their lives in history,” in a single post.

Hello, World

In this pre-inaugural episode of History Conversations, Tom tests out his software and explains a little of the rationale behind the show. Join us in a couple weeks for our first conversation.

Running time: 4:41
Download the .mp3

Episode 1 – Peter Liebhold

Tom kicks off the podcast with a conversation with Peter Liebhold, Chair and Curator of the Division of Work and Industry at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Tom asks Peter about his daily work at the Museum, his straight and not-so-straight road into history, and the role of public history … and pledges not to go another four months between episodes.

Running time: 29:29
Download the .mp3

Episode 2 – Roy Rosenzweig, In Memoriam

In Episode 2 we remember Roy Rosenzweig, friend, colleague and pioneer in all manner of public history. Guests Mike O’Malley (co-founder of the Center for History and New Media and Associate Professor of History at George Mason University), Steve Brier (Vice President for Information Technology and External Programs at the CUNY Graduate Center and co-founder the American Social History Project), and Josh Brown (Executive Director of the American Social History Project and Professor of History in the Ph.D. program at the CUNY Graduate Center) join Tom for a conversation about Roy’s life, work, and long commitment to democratizing history.

Running time: 32:22
Download the .mp3

Episode 3 – A Look Back at Braddock

This month the volunteer historians of the Look Back at Braddock project join Tom for a conversation about the challenges and opportunities posed by local history. Located near the center of Fairfax County, Virginia, Braddock District has changed rapidly in the 20th century, and members of the community have taken it upon themselves to document the changes. Working largely without funding, John Browne, Mary Lipsey, Gil Donahue, and their colleagues have produced a rich oral history collection, a successful book, and a new website. What does it take for a group of committed amateurs to launch and sustain a multi-year history project and what keeps them going? Find out here in Episode 3 of History Conversations.

Running time: 31:42
Download the .mp3

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.

Honest Abe

Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum & Library explores our ongoing fascination with Abraham Lincoln with 21st Century Abe. Launching officially on Lincoln’s bicentennial on February 12, 2009, the site will present reflections on Lincoln’s legacy by leading scholars and artists. More interesting is that between now and February, the project’s curators will also be using Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, a blog and other digital tools to collect public impressions of Lincoln in text, images, audio, and video. These popular impressions will sit alongside those of the scholars and artists on the website to present a fuller and ultimately more honest picture of what Lincoln really means to Americans two hundred years after his birth.

"Gone Too Soon"

More from the grocery check-out. I suppose I understand the pairing of John-John and Diana. But John Lennon and John Ritter?


Apple History Roundup

Like many enthusiast communities, the legion of Mac users seems particularly interested in its history and in the history of its cause: the Apple computer. This takes the form of both casual interest by ordinary users (e.g. “Early Apple sound designer Jim Reekes corrects Sosumi myth” and “Steve and Steve in 1976”) and also more dedicated research and collecting (e.g. This Day in Apple History, apple-history.com, The Apple Computer History Weblog, and especially The Mothership).

Obviously historical impulses aren’t limited to Mac users. Indeed, we’ve seen lots of non-Apple computer history right here at Found History, most recently Eric Lenevez’s fantastic timelines. But Mac users seem much more historically engaged than their PC-bound brethren. Admittedly it’s an imperfect experiment, but all of the top ten links in a Google search for “Apple history” are enthusiast websites, compared to only three for “Windows history” (five if you count the two Wikipedia articles that turn up). I can imagine several explanations for this. Perhaps Mac users are more creative and energetic. Perhaps they feel beleaguered and are desperate for attention. Perhaps it’s just a function of Apple’s relatively smaller marketing budget. Whatever the case, the wealth of amateur Apple history online certainly makes for good browsing.

P.S. If anyone knows of other examples of Apple enthusiast histories, I’d love to hear about them.

Late Update: I’m embarrased to admit that I neglected to mention probably the most successful amateur Apple history site of them all: Folklore.org. Thanks to Steve and Jeremy for pointing out the oversight.

Late Late Update (10/30/06): Here’s another: Low End Mac.

Fame! (I'm Gonna Live Forever) – kevo.com

If you get a chance, check out kevo.com, a new social networking site where users collaboratively profile their favorite celebrities, who are then ranked according to “fame” based on the number and reputation of members contributing to their pages (at least that’s what I gather from the site’s somewhat opaque FAQ pages). Paris Hilton, Natalie Portman, and 50 Cent figure prominently. But there are also well-drawn and active profiles of Napoleon, Einstein, and Martin Luther King.

In one sense the work that’s done at kevo isn’t very different from the kind of collaborative biographical authorship that occurs on Wikipedia. What’s different is the explicit recognition that social networks and robust communities of interest can be built around amateur historical work. This fact should be obvious to anyone who has ever been to a baseball card expo or seen a convention of Elvis impersonators, but it is the first time I’ve seen it put forward as the basis for a business plan. I’ll be interested to see how far it takes the operators of kevo.

Another thing that interests me about kevo is the concept of “fame” as applied to historic figures. Professional historians tend to assess past actors in terms of importance. Yet I suspect that the general public tends to think more in terms of fame or celebrity. Therefore, providing a space for collaborative biography isn’t the only way kevo enables amateur historical production. Through its fame rankings, kevo allows its users to make judgments about the relative historical importance of historic figures. In this way, over time, kevo’s profiles and fame rankings could provide not only the substance but also the interpretive contours of a real people’s history—that is, one written by the people. Let’s hope it succeeds.

Thanks again to Jeremy at Clioweb for the tip.

Profiles in Courage

In Mario Through the Years, GameDaily offers readers a several-thousand-word biography of Mario, twenty-six year veteran of Nintendo gaming, star of more than 100 games, and stalwart defender of Pauline’s virtue against Donkey Kong’s relentless advances.