It looks like the theme of this week’s Briefly Noted post is Substack. I didn’t intend it, but each of the following is taken from the platform:
Substack is launching a new “letters” feature to support epistolary blogging. Like most things Substack, I love the idea, but I hate the paywall, and I worry about long term preservation and access. Epistolary scholarship has a long tradition in the humanities (St. Paul is a pretty decent example), and like blogging, I’m glad to see it making a comeback, just not on a proprietary platform.
Did you know Gettysburg still invites confederate reinactors to march in its Remembrance Day parade, battle flags and all? Neither did I. Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory writes: “Every year Confederate reenactors are invited to march alongside United States soldiers in Gettyburg’s Remembrance Day Parade, which commemorates Lincoln’s famous address. That’s right. On the same day that the community gathers to reflect on Lincoln’s words, Confederate flags are marched through the streets.”
Kareem Abdul-Jabar is the best. Here he is on forgiveness: “I see people constantly saying, ‘I forgive but I don’t forget,’ which they think makes them both moral and tough. Actually, they are neither. The phrase means the exact opposite of forgiving. To forgive is to forget the transgression in order to start fresh.”
I’m brand new to Mastodon. Many of us are. This might suggest that we shouldn’t have opinions. But I think the opposite is true. If Mastodon is truly a decentralized platform, if it’s truly designed to support distinctive communities and their distinctive needs, then we, as a community of humanists, should decide how we’re going to use it. We should start doing it now, before it gets away from us.
Deciding how we want to use it—what Mastodon will mean to us—means not putting too much stock in the “norms” and “rules” that other communities have established on the site. That is not to say we should be bulls in the porcelain shop (or as Shawna Ross tooted, we “don’t want to go all Kool-Aid man”), or that we should be disrespectful to other, more established communities and their needs and concerns. As always, we should approach our work, our tools, and our public engagements with humility. But it’s legitimate for us to use the technology to meet our needs and concerns, needs and concerns that have for too long gone unmet by Twitter, needs and concerns that may not be the same as other, older Mastodon communities.
In that spirit, here are a few early thoughts on how I think we should use Mastodon to build a supportive, inclusive, interesting, and useful thing for the humanities community.
First, you should join a server (e.g. hcommons.social) where a lot of other humanists can be found, and spend most of your time in your “local” or “community” timeline/tab. It is all well and good to follow people from other servers, and you should keep up with friends and happenings in those other places. But if you’re on the right server, your main source of serendipity, delight, information, and community will come from that local timeline. If your server’s local timeline is not delivering those things, find another server.
Second, and relatedly, you should mostly avoid the “the fediverse” (i.e. the feed of posts aggregated from across Mastodon’s servers found in the “federated” or “all” tab in your app). It seems to me that in time this aggregated feed will just reproduce Twitter, in all its disorienting chaos and vitriol. It probably won’t be quite so bad because it won’t have an algorithm pushing ads and outrage down your throat. But there’s bound to be plenty of ugly distraction nonetheless.
Third, and this is bound to be controversial, but don’t be too fussed about content warnings (CW’s), except insofar as you think members of your local server will appreciate them. That is, I wouldn’t be too worried about sticking to the “norms” or “best practices” that other, earlier communities on Mastodon have established. I appreciate that these norms are in place because Mastodon has been a refuge for marginalized BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other communities—and I think we want to be a refuge for members of those communities too. But we shouldn’t simply adopt the practices of the early adopters because they say we should. We should decide the ways in which we want to use the tools Mastodon gives us to support our aims, including, but not limited to, our aims of diversity, equity, and inclusion. So, for example, I think it’s totally fine to use the CW feature to truncate and expand a long toot. One of the distinctive features of the humanities community is its tolerance for difference. Another is its longwindedness. It’s OK to use the tool to support both things!
Fourth, let’s start blogging again. One of the great things about early #DH Twitter was that we were all still blogging. Twitter became a place where we could let a wider audience know that we blogged something and then support a discussion around that something that was more freeflowing than the blog’s own comments thread could support. Let’s bring that practice back! One easy step would be to stop posting long, narrative threads (i.e. tweets “1/27”) to social media. Instead just post a title, a one sentence description, a link to your post with a #blogpost hashtag, and an invitation to discuss. If we could use Mastodon to reinvigorate the culture of humanities blogging, that would be an amazing success.
Fifth, keep politics to a minimum. It’s not that we should never talk about politics, but reworking takes that one can get elsewhere in the media (cable news, the op-ed pages, Twitter, etc.) isn’t going to make this a nicer place to be. If you’re going to get political, clearly tie it to your research, teaching, public humanities practice, or something else that connects you to the community that your local server is intended for. Otherwise, set up another account on another, more clearly political server, and post there.
Those are just some early thoughts. I’ll probably follow up in the next week or so with some more. In the meantime, I’d love to hear yours.
There is a scene from the first season of the television spy drama, Chuck, that takes place in a library. In the scene, our hero and unlikely spy, Chuck, has returned to his alma mater, Stanford, to find a book his former roommate, Bryce, has hidden in the stacks as a clue. All Chuck has to go on is a call number scribbled on a scrap of paper.
When he arrives in the stacks, he finds the book is missing and assumes the bad guys have beat him to it. Suddenly, however, Chuck remembers back to his undergraduate days of playing tag in the stacks with Bryce with plastic dart guns. Bryce had lost his weapon and Chuck had cornered him. Just then, Bryce reached beneath a shelf where he had hidden an extra gun, and finished Chuck off. Remembering this scene, Chuck reaches beneath the shelf where the book should have been shelved and finds that this time around Bryce has stashed a computer disk.
I like this clip because it illustrates how I think most people—scholars, students, geeks like Chuck—use the library. I don’t mean as the setting for covert intelligence operations or even undergraduate dart gun games. Rather, I think it shows that patrons take what the library offers and then use those offerings in ways librarians never intended. Chuck and his team (and the bad guys) enter the library thinking they are looking for a book with a given call number only to realize that Bryce has repurposed the Library of Congress Classification system to hide his disk. It reinforces the point when, at the end of the scene, the writers play a joke at the expense of a hapless librarian, who, while the action is unfolding, is trying to nail Chuck for some unpaid late fees. When the librarian catches up with Chuck, and Chuck’s partner Sarah shouts “Run!” she is not, as the librarian thinks, worried about late fees but about the bad guys with guns standing behind him. Chuck and his friends don’t care about the library. They use the library’s resources and tools in their own ways, to their own ends, and the concerns of the librarians are a distant second to the concerns that really motivate them.
In some ways, this disconnect between librarians (and their needs, ways of working, and ways of thinking) and patrons (and their needs and ways of working) is only exacerbated by digital technology. In the age of Google Books, JSTOR, Wikipedia, and ever expanding digital archives, librarians may rightly worry about becoming invisible to scholars, students, and other patrons—that “nobody cares about the library.” Indeed, many faculty and students may wonder just what goes on in that big building across the quad. Digital technology has reconfigured the relationship between librarians and researchers. In many cases, this relationship has grown more distant, causing considerable consternation about the future of libraries. Yet, while it is certainly true that digital technology has made libraries and librarians invisible to scholars in some ways, it is also true, that in some areas, digital technology has made librarians increasingly visible, increasingly important.
To try to understand the new invisibility/visibility of the library in the digital age let’s consider a few examples on both sides.
The invisible library
Does it matter that Chuck couldn’t care less about call numbers and late fees or about controlled vocabularies, metadata schemas, circulation policies, or theories collections stewardship? I’m here to argue that it doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that these things don’t matter or that the library should be anything but central to the university experience. But to play that central role doesn’t mean the library has to be uppermost in everyone’s mind. In the digital age, in most cases, the library is doing its job best when it is invisible to its patrons.
What do I mean by that? Let me offer three instances where the library should strive for invisibility, three examples of “good” invisibility:
Search: We tend to evaluate the success of our web pages with metrics like numbers of page views, time spent per page, and bounce rate. But with search the metrics are reversed: We don’t want people looking at lots of pages or spending a lot of time on our websites. We want the library web infrastructure to be essentially invisible, or at least to be visible for only a very short period of time. What we really want with search is to allow patrons to get in and get out as quickly as possible with just what they were looking for.
APIs and 3rd party mashups: In fact, we may not want people visiting library websites at all. What would be even better would be to provide direct computational access to collections databases so people could take the data directly and use it in their own applications elsewhere. Providing rich APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) would make the library even more invisible. People wouldn’t even come to our websites to access content, but they would get from us what they need where they need it.
Social media: Another way in which we may want to discourage people from coming to library websites is by actively placing content on other websites. To the extent that a small or medium-sized library wants to reach general audiences, it has a better chance of doing so in places where that audience already is. Flickr Commons is one good example of this third brand of invisibility. Commentors on Flickr Commons may never travel back to the originating library’s website, but they may have had a richer interaction with that library’s content because of it.
The visible library
The experience of the digital humanities shows that the digital can also bring scholars into ever closer and more substantive collaboration with librarians. It is no accident that many if not most successful digital humanities centers are based in univeristy libraries. Much of digital humanities is database driven, but an empty database is a useless database. Librarians have the stuff to fill digital humanists’ databases and the expertise to do so intelligently.
Those library-based digital humanities centers tend to skew towards larger universities. How can librarians at medium-sized or even small universities library help the digital humanities? Our friend Wally Grotophorst, Associate University Librarian for Digital Programs and Systems at Mason, provides some answers in his brief but idea-rich post, What Happens To The Mid-Major Library?. I’ll point to just three of Wally’s suggestions:
Focus on special collections, that is anything people can’t get from shared sources like Google Books, JSTOR, LexisNexis, HathiTrust. Not only do special collections differentiate you from other institutions online, they provide unique opportunities for researchers on campus.
Start supporting data-driven research in addition to the bibliographic-driven kind that has been the traditional bread and butter of libraries. Here I’d suggest tools and training for database creation, social network analysis, and simple text mining.
Start supporting new modes of scholarly communication—financially, technically, and institutionally. Financial support for open access publishing of the sort prescribed by the Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity is one ready model. Hosting, supporting, and publicizing scholarly and student blogs as an alternative or supplement to existing learning management systems (e.g. Blackboard) is another. University Library/University Press collaboration, like the University of Michigan’s MPublishing reorganization, is a third.
In an information landscape increasingly dominated by networked resources, both sides of the librarian-scholar/student relationship must come to terms with a new reality that is in some ways more distant and in others closer than ever before. Librarians must learn to accept invisibility where digital realities demand it. Scholars must come to understand the centrality of library expertise and accept librarians as equal partners as more and more scholarship becomes born digital and the digital humanities goes from being a fringe sub-discipline to a mainstream pursuit. Librarians in turn must expand those services like special collections, support for data-driven research, and access to new modes of publication that play to their strengths and will best serve scholars. We all have to find new ways, better ways to work together.
So, where does that leave Chuck? Despite not caring about our work, Chuck actually remembers the library fondly as a place of play. Now maybe we don’t want people playing dart guns in the stacks. But applied correctly, digital technology allows our users and our staff to play, to be creative, and in their own way to make the most of the library’s rich resources.
Maybe the Chucks of the world do care about the library after all.
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.
And not entirely unrelated, Mark Bauerlein considers the problems of “publish or perish” in Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own [.pdf]. Asking “Do any major works or authors lack editors, interpreters, theorists, reviewers, and teachers?” Bauerlein answers “the ‘coverage’ project is complete” and suggests departments turn back to teaching. “We need honest and open public acknowledgment that the scholarly enterprise has lost its rationale,” he concludes, “that central parts of the humanities are in real trouble, and that the surest way to restoration lies in a renewed commitment to the undergraduate student.” I can’t say I always agree with Bauerlein (see, for example, www.dumbestgeneration.com) but he’s invariably worth reading.
Along with “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” “release early and often” is something of a mantra around CHNM, especially when it comes to software and web application development. For a variety of reasons, not least the invaluable testing and feedback projects get when they actually make it into the wild, CHNM has always been keen to get stuff into users’ hands. Two good statements of likeminded philosophy: Eric Ries’ Lessons Learned: Continuous deployment and continuous learning and Timothy Fitz’s Continuous Deployment.
Last month on the Digital Campus podcast, Mills, Dan, and I offered our take on the top ten stories of 2008 and our predictions for the biggest stories of 2009. As we readily acknowledge, the “top ten” device is a crude one, but it remains a perennial favorite, both among Digital Campus listeners and across the library, museum, and digital humanities blogosphere, as the following roundup of the new year’s “top” lists attests:
Let me join the choruses celebrating WordCamp Ed, which makes its debut in Fairfax on November 22, 2008. Organized by CHNM and the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown (but mainly by our own Dave Lester), WordCamp Ed will bring together teachers of all stripes to talk about educational uses for the WordPress blogging platform. Building on the success of last spring’s THATCamp, the one-day event will feature a morning of pre-planned speakers and a barcamp-style afternoon of smaller discussion sessions. Registration is free at the WordCamp Ed blog. We only have space for about 100, so get your name in early.