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.

A Google Books Cautionary Tale

This one made the rounds of Twitter earlier today thanks to Jo Guldi. This month Wired Magazine tells a cautionary tale for those following the progress of Google Books. Entitled “Google’s Abandoned Library of 700 Million Titles,” the article reminds readers of Google’s 2001 acquisition of a Usenet archive of more than 700 million articles from more than 35,000 newsgroups. Incorporated today into Google Groups, the Wired article contends the archival Usenet material is poorly indexed and hardly searchable, rendering much of it practically inaccessible. The article concludes, “In the end, then, the rusting shell of Google Groups is a reminder that Google is an advertising company — not a modern-day Library of Alexandria.” Something to remember when considering the Google Books settlement and its implications.

Briefly Noted: Timetoast; Google Books Settlement; Curators and Wikipedians

Via Mashable, yet another timeline service: Timetoast.

Many readers will have seen this already, but Robert Darton’s February piece in The New York Review of Books is the most readable discussion I have seen of the Google Books settlement.

Fresh + New(er), the Powerhouse Museum’s always interesting blog, describes that museum’s recent open house for local Wikipedians and the common ground they found between expert curators and amateur encyclopedists.

Tragedy at the Commons

Nat Torkington at the O’Reilly Radar blog has news this morning that George Oates, Senior Program Manager in charge of Flickr Commons and an original member of the Flickr design team, has been laid off by Flickr’s parent company Yahoo! As the person at Yahoo! responsible for bringing together the energy and cultural resources of the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, the Powerhouse Museum, the National Library of New Zealand, the Library of Virginia, the Imperial War Museum, and, most recently, the New York Public Library, Oates has quietly done as much as anyone in the past several years to increase and improve online access to cultural heritage collections around the world. It’s sad enough just at that. But Oates’ layoff also raises some larger questions. Is this just one of those things we see in a bad economy, or is it a reason why cultural organizations should roll their own rather than using commercial services for online work?

Torkington believes that the enthusiasm and community Flickr Commons has attracted will sustain the project through the economic downturn and what at best is likely to be a period of neglect by Flickr and its parent. Let’s hope so. A less rosy scenario is that Yahoo! decides that in tough economic times the goodwill and visibility generated by hosting the educational and cultural heritage materials of public institutions isn’t worth the cost of bandwidth.

This story drove home to me a contradiction in my own rhetoric that I hadn’t noticed before. On the one hand I have been a proponent of Flickr Commons, university channels on Google’s YouTube, and the like, recommending them to partners and colleagues as an easy way to reach out to new audiences, build communities around content, and basically just get your stuff up without the hassle of software and sys admin. On the other hand, I have repeatedly criticized the enthusiasm some digital humanists have shown for Second Life, in large part on the basis of the fact that Linden Lab (SL’s parent company) could at any moment go under or simply decide to take another business direction—and in doing so take with them all the hard, largely publicly-funded work museums, libraries, and digital humanists have put into the platform. Only today, when I read of George Oates’ sacking, did I realize that what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander. While the long term prospects of Yahoo! and especially Google may be brighter than those of Linden Lab, nevertheless they are still big companies whose first responsibility is to their shareholders and the bottom line, not to cultural heritage, education, or the work of digital humanities.

My guess is that Flickr Commons will be just fine, and I still believe there is a lot of good in the idea. But the news about George Oates, someone who was universally well-regarded in our business and in the web business more generally, should give all of us pause. Specifically, it should let us ask again whether the benefits in ease, reach, and community of using commercial services for presenting cultural heritage collections and educational resources really outweigh the costs in storage, systems administration, and content segregation of rolling your own.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

History and the Long Tail

In an interview on the most recent Digital Campus, PublicDomainReprints.org founder Yakov Shafranovich notes that one of the most popular uses of his print-on-demand service for public domain Google and Open Content Alliance books is to supply out-of-print manuals to latter day blacksmiths, pigeon breeders, and others still working in ancient, but declining, trades. Last month also saw the launch of the Obsolete Skills Wiki, an idea originally proposed by journalist Robert Scoble, which preserves such knowledge as how to dial a rotary phone or how to use the eraser ribbon on a typewriter. The Internet has been said to serve “the long tail” of consumers, the multitudes of niche buyers whose needs are not served by mass marketing, mass media, and the big box stores. Here are two examples of how it’s serving history enthusiasts out on that long tail.

Google Timelines

On Monday Dave Lester pointed to the release of Google’s new timeline view of search results. Found History has often commented on the importance of timelines in public understanding of history and amateur historical practice, so this seems like it could be a big development in that space.

Google points out that the timeline view works best for people, places, and other similar searches and suggests Thomas Jefferson as a good example. As Dave points out, the software groups frequencies of events (search results) by decade, and at first glance the results seem pretty encouraging. Jefferson’s timeline, for example, has peaks in the 1770s and 1800s—just where you’d expect them:

Thomas Jefferson timeline

Being somewhat suspicious of the representativeness of Google’s hand-picked example, however, I tried a more obscure search for George Sarton, founder of history of science in America:

George Sarton timeline

To my pleasant surprise, Sarton’s timeline turned out to be nearly as good as Jefferson’s, peaking in the 1910s when Sarton was getting married, finishing his dissertation, founding his journal Isis, and relocating to America.

Nevertheless there are a few pretty significant problems with Google’s new timelines. To start the timelines only display the frequency with which certain dates appear in connection with a given search term rather than tying these dates to actual events in the life of the search subject. We don’t see what Sarton did in the 1910s. We only see that he did something (or more precisely that lots of people on the web have pointed out that he did something). Viewing this kind of timeline—i.e. one without named events—seems to me a little like watching an old time silent movie with your eyes closed. You know something is happening because the music gets louder or quicker, but you don’t know what.

In this regard a Google timeline is at best an activity map of a given historical actor’s life, demonstrating for instance that Jefferson did more and more important things in the 1770s than in the 1740s and 50s. If that’s the case, Google’s new visualization falls victim to Dan Cohen’s “big whoop” (my term, not Dan’s) criticism. Pointing to a visualization of the full text of the New Testament which showed (surprise!) that Jesus sits at the center of the narrative, Dan lamented that too many digital humanities visualizations “merely use computational methods to reveal the obvious in fancy ways.” Google’s Jefferson timeline is another case in point. Is anyone surprised that Jefferson did more in his 20s, 30s, and 40s than as an eight year old?

Despite these problems, however, I do see something new here. Google’s is one of the first projects I can think of that attempts to move beyond using computational means to answer factual historical questions (our H-Bot software has been doing this for a couple years now) and actually tries to provide something approximating historical interpretation, that tries to put factual information into a narrative framework—even if that narrative tells us little more than Sarton was busier in 1910 than in 1940 or that Jefferson did something in 1776 and nothing in 1752. If we all agree that the real work of history isn’t about names and dates, then the real work of digital history has to be more than that as well. Digital historians need to think about computational methods for producing historical narratives not just historical facts, for producing historical knowledge rather than merely uncovering historical information. I guess what I’m talking about is artificial historical intelligence, and although Google’s timelines aren’t that, they’re certainly a gesture in that direction. They’re certainly something to watch.

Place Names / Time

Yesterday software engineer Matthew Gray from Inside Google Book Search posted a mashup/geo-visualization demonstrating how place name frequency changed over the course of 19th century publishing history. Gray’s four maps—one each from the 1800s, 1830s, 1860s, and 1890s—clearly point to a growing publishing industry and broader shifts in center of gravity from Europe to North America and from East Coast to West Coast.

While Gray’s results are convincing and the whole project a good example of how digital tools are creating new avenues for amateur historical inquiry, we should also admit that it reinforces Dan Cohen’s recent point that “too many visualizations … merely use computational methods to reveal the obvious in fancy ways.” The question Dan wants us to ask is whether these visualizations teach us anything new. It’s a good question. Are we surprised that Denver is mentioned more frequently in print in 1890 than in 1830? Probably not. But another question we should ask is whether these visualizations can teach our students and publics anything new. I wonder if the obvious truths told by these maps, charts, and diagrams aren’t so obvious to people who don’t identify themselves as historians. I’m struck by the fact that both this example and the one Dan points to were both produced by and for non-professionals. I suspect the answer to Dan’s concern is that the best place for these things is not in research, but in teaching and public understanding.

Google, Miro, and Commemoration

I’m sure many of you noticed the recent controversy over Google’s use of Spanish surrealist Joan Miro’s work in a logo commemorating the 113th anniversary of the artist’s birth. Intended by Google as a “tribute” to Miro’s “extraordinary contribution,” the artist’s family and their representatives at the The Artists Rights Society nevertheless cried foul and demanded Google remove the logo. Without admitting any copyright violation, Google complied with the family’s request.

A lot has been made of the implications of this brouhaha for artistic freedom. But I’m worried about the implications for popular history-making. Commemoration is one of the most common and important ways the non-professional public produces and understands history. This is especially true among the business community, which should not be undervalued as a producer and disseminator of historical information. The “anniversary edition” and the “birthday sale” are among the most widespread and most visible forms of historical expression in contemporary culture.

Miro was not the first person Google chose to commemorate with a special logo. These commemorative logos bring a little bit of history to literally millions and millions of people in a single day, many more than professional historians can ever hope to reach. Next time it wants to honor someone from the past, will Google remember the Miro incident and pass? That would be a grievous instance of found history lost.