Hey you! Come to THATCamp NCPH

Here is a partial list of places an easy workday’s drive from Pensacola, FL:

  • Athens, GA
  • Atlanta, GA
  • Auburn, AL
  • Baton Rouge, LA
  • Beaumont, TX
  • Biloxi, MS
  • Birmingham, AL
  • Chattanooga, TN
  • Gainsville, FL
  • Hattiesburg, MS
  • Huntsville, AL
  • Jackson, MS
  • Jacksonville, FL
  • Knoxville, TN
  • Lake Charles, LA
  • Macon, GA
  • Memphis, TN
  • Mobile, AL
  • Montgomery, AL
  • Nashville, TN
  • New Orleans, LA
  • Orlando, FL
  • Oxford, MS
  • Savannah, GA
  • Shreveport, LA
  • Tallahassee, FL
  • Tampa, FL

If you live in or near one of these places, or if you plan to be at the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting next month, or if you just happen to be in Pensacola on the 5th  of April, then you should come to THATCamp NCPH. It is open to everyone—not just people attending NCPH and not just public historians. Anyone with an interest in the humanities, technology, or both can attend for lots of creative unconference goodness. Registration closes tomorrow (March 15th), so hurry up and nab your seat.

Stuff Digital Humanists Like: Defining Digital Humanities by its Values

[A very rough transcript of my talk at the CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative on December 1, 2010. The DHI’s theme for this semester’s program was “What is Digital Humanities?” This is my attempt to answer—or dodge—that question. Many thanks to Matt Gold and all my friends at CUNY for a great event and a thought-provoking discussion.]

Our colleague Bethany Nowviskie might scold me if I didn’t preface this conversation by saying there are different strains of digital humanities. Bethany might define those strains as “old” and “new.” I’d probably divide things along more disciplinary lines, looking to a tradition of digital humanities that comes out of literature and one that comes out of public history. If I had to place myself along these axes I’d probably land where the “new” and “history” strains meet. There are, of course, lots of other ways to slice the pie.

But instead of exploring the genealogies of digital humanities any further, I’d like to switch gears and instead talk about digital humanities as community, or more precisely, as a set of overlapping personal communities, each one centered around individual, self-identified digital humanists. Thought of this way, digital humanities starts to look a lot like a social network. Indeed, in some ways digital humanities increasingly is a social network built, for better or worse, on Twitter’s platform. What follows is a description of digital humanities as seen from my vantage point as a node in that social network.

In as much as digital humanities is an Internet-based social network, it should come as no surprise that digital humanities looks a lot like the Internet itself. Digital humanities takes more than tools from the Internet. It works like the Internet. It takes its values from the Internet.

Jonathan Zittrain does a good job of describing these values in his excellent book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. Among the values Zittrain says are hard coded into the very architecture of the Internet are something he calls the “procrastination principle” and something he calls the “trust your neighbor approach.”

The procrastination principle (or “end-to-end argument”) is a design principle that states that most features of a network should be left to users to invent and implement, that the network should 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.

There is an analogous value in digital humanities. Innovation in digital humanities frequently comes from the edges of the scholarly community rather than from its center—small institutions and even individual actors with few resources are able to make important innovations. Institutions like George Mason, the University of Mary Washington, and CUNY and their staff members play totally out-sized roles in digital humanities when compared to their roles in higher ed more generally, and the community of digital humanities makes room for and values these contributions from the nodes.

Zittrain points out that the procrastination principle necessarily implies a second principle he dubs the “trust your neighbor approach.” In order to permit innovation from the nodes, the network has to trust that those innovations are benign. Moreover, the network requires one server to pass along another’s packets: when I send an email to a colleague in Australia, I have to trust that my data packets will be passed along by other machines on the network in the several hops they will have to take to get to their destination. The Internet assumes assumes people will be good citizens.

Digital humanities makes some similar assumptions in its commitments to open access, open source, and collaboration. As Bethany has said elsewhere, “how many other academic disciplines or interdisciplines work so hard to manifest as ‘a community of practice that is solidary, open, welcoming and freely accessible’ — a ‘collective experience,’ a ‘common good?'” We allow allow all comers, we assume that their contributions will be positive, and we expect that they will share their work for the benefit of the community at large.

Thus in some important respects, the values of digital humanities proceed directly from the design decisions made by the original architects of the Internet. Surely we don’t always live up to these ideals, but we value them just the same.

Or at least this is the direction my theorizing of the question “What is Digital Humanities?” increasingly takes me. But in the end, I’m not sure that theorizing this question is particularly useful. Fortunately, thinking of digital humanities as a social network provides another vector along which to define it: the stuff around which it coalesces.

Most of you will already have groked the not-so-hidden reference to the Stuff White People Like blog in my title today. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this blog, it was started in 2008 by a blogger named Christian Lander and later turned into a bestselling book by the same title. Along the way, it was imitated by hundreds of other “stuff * like” blogs.

As you can see from this list, the “stuff * like” concept is by now pretty cliched. But the fact that it has been so successful as an Internet meme points to its utility: it is often easier, more comprehensible, and more productive to define diverse and diffuse communities—especially Internet communities—in terms of the things to which they gravitate rather than the abstract conceptual boundaries that separate them from other communities.

Indeed, this insight is not unique to “stuff * like” bloggers. In its current sorry state we forget how successful MySpace once was, but it became for a time the dominant social network largely on the strength of this insight, by identifying music as one of most important things around which social groups congregate. In many respects, MySpace was community or set of overlapping communities built around bands and shared music tastes. IMDB does something similar with movies. Digg does it with web links. Yelp does it with restaurants. Even Apple is directly trying to capitalize on MySpace’s original insight with its dubiously successful new music centered social network, Ping.

It follows, therefore, that if digital humanities is a social network, then one of the things that will help us understand it better is looking at the things around which the network coalesces, the stuff digital humanists like. In this I’d also make one possibly more controversial claim: not only do we like these things better than their alternatives, we like them better than their alternatives because they work better than their alternatives in the real world.

Here are five to start us off:

  • Like: Twitter / Don’t like: Facebook. The first thing we have to mention, which we have mentioned a few times already, is Twitter. The reasons we like Twitter are complex and I won’t pretend to understand them all, but I’ll throw out a few suggestions. First, its “follow” rather than “friend” model is more open, allows for the collaboration and non-hierarchy that the Internet and digital humanities values. Second, and related to this, Twitter is the place where content-creators—journalists, writers, artists, web developers, etc.—tend to hang out. We overlap with those communities, or at least seek to overlap with them, in productive ways. They are the distant nodes from which we hope new innovations will come. Third, Twitter, in the way we use it, is mostly about sharing ideas whereas Facebook is about sharing relationships. Scholars are good at ideas, maybe less so at relationships.
  • Like: Agile development / Dislike: long planning cycles. The second thing I’ll mention is agile development, the philosophy of “releasing early and often,” which we do not only with software/code but also with our ideas and writing when we Tweet, blog, and chat. We do this as good neighbors but also in the hope that releasing our code and ideas will improve with contributions from end points of our networks.
  • Like: DIY / Dislike: Outsourcing. Most of the most successful digital humanities projects are those done by scholar/technologists not those imagined by scholars and implemented by technologists. Likewise, the most successful digital humanists are scholars who know the technology, often those who are self-taught, not ones who seek a client-vendor relationship with technologists. We take this insight to heart in our hiring at CHNM, looking for people with formal training in the humanities and self-taught tech skills.
  • Like: PHP / Dislike: C++. Fourth, and following from the last point, we like PHP not C++. This is another way of saying we like the transparent, easy-to-learn, and simple (if sometimes ham-handed) technologies of the Web more than the more powerful, more sophisticated, more elegant, but less approachable compiled code of the desktop. A focus on getting the most out of simple, transparent, vernacular technologies allows us to keep the door to the field open to new entrants.
  • Like: Extramural funding / Dislike: Intramural funding. In one respect, this may seem obvious: everybody likes grants. In another respect it’s probably going a little too far to say we don’t like intramural funding: it is essential to building and maintaining capacity for our centers and staff. But it seems to me the most successful digital humanities projects are those that result from competitive grant making processes, especially the federal grant making process. Why is this? I can point to at least three reasons: 1) Attracting grant money keeps us innovating, which, like it or not, is a premium in our business. Grants are given for new work, not for more of the same. 2) Writing grants and serving on panels keep us in conversation with the field. We have to keep current and keep in touch with one another to justify our projects to grantmakers and to recommend others’ projects for funding. Increasingly, funding guidelines themselves require collaboration. 3) Unlike much traditional scholarship, which often requires one big deliverable (a book) after years of close-kept study, research, and writing, grant work requires defining and meeting a set of closely timed, concrete deliverables, a mode of work which encourages the kind of agile development so valued by the Internet and digital humanities community.

These things represent a set of shared interests, map onto a set of shared values, and in doing so they identify and define a community. We could identify lots of other things that digital humanists like and dislike. In fact your list may be very different than mine—please let me know in comments. As I said at the outset, this is just the view from my node in the network.

I haven’t “defined” digital humanities beyond defining my community and its values today and I don’t think I need to go any further than that at this point. Elsewhere I have suggested that perhaps digital humanities doesn’t have to answer questions, at least not yet. Likewise I’m not sure we have to define digital humanities yet beyond describing a community and a set of shared values. Our job for now is to continue to work together, and the rest will take care of itself.

Digital rocking the public history job market

Things are looking up for digitally minded public historians. At least six new media focused tenure-track academic public history positions are open this fall, including:

Happy hunting!

Omeka and Its Peers

As an open source, not-for-profit, warm-and-fuzzy, community service oriented project, we don’t normally like to talk about market rivals or competitive products when we talk about Omeka. Nevertheless, we are often asked to compare Omeka with other products. "Who’s Omeka’s competition?" is a fairly frequent question. Like many FAQs, there is an easy answer and a more complicated one.

The easy answer is there is no competition. 😉 Omeka’s mix of ease of use, focus on presentation and narrative exhibition, adherence to standards, accommodation for library, museum, and academic users, open source license, open code flexibility, and low ($0) price tag really make it one of a kind. If you are a librarian, archivist, museum professional, or scholar who wants a free, open, relatively simple platform for building a compelling online exhibition, there really isn’t any alternative.

digital_amherst

[Figure 1. Digital Amherst, an award-winning Omeka powered project of the Jones Library in Amherst, MA.]

The more complicated answer is that there are lots of products on the market that do one or some of the things Omeka does. The emergence of the web has brought scholars and librarians, archivists, and museum professionals into increasingly closer contact and conversation as humanists are required to think differently and more deeply about the nature of information and librarians are required to play an ever more public role online. Yet these groups’ respective tool sets have remained largely separate. Library and archives professionals operate in a world of institutional repositories (Fedora, DSpace), integrated library systems (Evergreen, Ex Libris), and digital collections systems (CONTENTdm, Greenstone). Museum professionals operate in a world of collections management systems (TMS, KE Emu, PastPerfect) and online exhibition packages (Pachyderm, eMuseum). The humanist or interpretive professional’s online tool set is usually based around an off-the-rack web content management system such as WordPress (for blogs), MediaWiki (for wikis), or Drupal (for community sites). Alas, even today too much of this front facing work is still being done in Microsoft Publisher.

The collections professional’s tools are excellent for preserving digital collections, maintaining standardized metadata, and providing discovery services. They are less effective when it comes to exhibiting collections or providing the rich visual and interpretive context today’s web users expect. They are also often difficult to deploy and expensive to maintain. The blogs, wikis, and off-the-rack content management systems of the humanist (and, indeed, of the public programs staff within collecting institutions, especially museums) are the opposite: bad at handling collections and standardized metadata, good at building engaging experiences, and relatively simple and inexpensive to deploy and maintain.

Omeka aims to fill this gap by providing a collections-focused web publishing platform that offers both rigorous adherence to standards and interoperability with the collections professional’s toolkit and the design flexibility, interpretive opportunities, and ease of use of popular web authoring tools.

omeka_tech_ecosystem

[Figure 2. Omeka Technology Ecosystem]

By combining these functions, Omeka helps advance collaboration of many sorts: between collections professionals and interpretive professionals, between collecting institutions and scholars, between a "back of the house" and "front of the house" staff, and so on.

omeka_user_ecosystem

[Figure 3. Omeka User Ecosystem]

In doing so, Omeka also helps advance the convergence and communication between librarians, archivists, museum professionals, and scholars that the digital age has sparked, allowing LAM professionals to participate more fully in the scholarship of the humanities and humanists to bring sophisticated information management techniques to their scholarship.

Which brings us back to the short answer. There really is no competition.

One Week | One Tool: Interim Report

As promised on Twitter, I’m sharing the report (with a few minor copyedits and corrections) I submitted this week to NEH on One Week | One Tool. This is an interim report, which means there are plenty of questions that remain unanswered. The grant continues for another year, during which time the One Week | One Tool crew will be working to support and extend their work together. I’m sure I’ll be blogging about their progress as we go, but at the very least I’ll post again with the final report next summer.

Executive Summary

One Week | One Tool represents a groundbreaking experiment in digital humanities training and digital humanities tool building. Culminating with the institute held July 25 – July 31, 2010 at the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University and the institute participants’ successful construction and release, in seven days, of a completely new open source software product, One Week | One Tool has made significant strides in proving its central claims: 1) that learning by doing is an important and effective part of digital humanities training; 2) that the traditional NEH summer institute can be adapted to accommodate this kind of practical digital humanities pedagogy; and 3) that digital humanities tools can be built more quickly and affordably than common practice would suggest. The second year of the project will seek to reinforce these claims and continue to advance participant learning through ongoing engagement and further development of the tool that was built during their week at CHNM—Anthologize.

Recruitment

The first task of the One Week | One Tool team was to publicize the institute. After dates were chosen, we developed a simple website in the style of an Old West poster to call for proposals. The call for proposals was issued in early February and closed in mid-March. To publicize the call, we leveraged CHNMs extensive outreach networks among digital humanities bloggers and on Twitter, where the announcement generated significant attention and excitement. Applicants were asked to answer three questions: 1) What skills/experiences/interests you think are most important to building a successful tool? 2) Which of these skills/experiences/interests you will bring to the barn raising? 3) What you think you will get out of attending that will help you in future pursuits? From this call, we received 48 formal applications and approximately another dozen serious expressions of interest.

The selection process was remarkably difficult. At least 35 of the 48 applicants were perfectly qualified to attend. To differentiate among them, we stuck to the criteria we outlined in our original proposal and laid out in the call. Applicants were chosen not on the basis of specific qualifications (e.g. a higher degree or particular skill set), but on evidence of teamwork, patience, flexibility, and resourcefulness (such as a history of picking up a programming language on one’s own). We were also looking to assemble a diverse group who together would possess the entire range of skills necessary to conceive, manage, build, and disseminate a tools project. The final group represented a broad range of scholars, students, librarians, museum professionals, developers, user interaction designers, bloggers, and project managers. They were also relatively diverse in terms of gender (4 women, 8 men) and seniority (ranging from a recently graduated college student to a tenured faculty member). Given the importance of intra-team dynamics to the success of software development projects, we took pains to introduce participants to one another via Twitter in the weeks after their acceptance so that they could begin establishing a sense of camaraderie ahead of their intense week of working together in July.

The Institute

Institute participants arrived on Sunday, July 25, 2010 for a kick-off meeting at George Mason University’s brand new Mason Inn and Conference Center, which served as the participants’ home away from home during One Week | One Tool. Participants’ transportation and lodging were arranged and paid ahead of time, with an additional $1000 stipend provided to each participant as an honorarium and to cover any incidentals. After a round of personal and professional introductions, project director Tom Scheinfeldt provided a brief introduction to CHNM and some of the core values CHNM brings to its open source software development work. Particular emphasis was placed on the value of "use," that the best measure of a tool’s success is its uptake and actual use by its intended audience. The first evening concluded with a brief discussion of participant and organizer expectations and an exhortation to get a good night’s sleep.

Monday was originally designed as the "teaching" phase of One Week | One Tool, during which CHNM staff members would provide participants with some lessons in software development best practices. This was ultimately the least successful portion of the program. Although introductory talks on technical aspects of software development (Jeremy Boggs), outreach mechanisms and community building (Trevor Owens), and the state of the art of digital humanities tools (Dan Cohen) were well received, participants were eager to get down to brass tacks, and we made a strategic decision to cut short the lectures and begin brainstorming tool choices a half day early on Monday afternoon.

Brainstorming continued through Monday evening and into Tuesday morning. By mid-morning on Tuesday, the group had proposed dozens of possible directions for the week’s tool building. By lunchtime, it had distilled those ideas down to six possible candidates. Over lunch, the group asked followers on Twitter to vote on the six choices. Well over 50 outside observers recorded their preferences. Taking this outside feedback into account, the group conducted two rounds of voting of its own, making a final consensus decision by mid-afternoon on Tuesday.

Work then turned to choosing roles and responsibilities. With guidance from CHNM staff, by Tuesday evening, participants had arranged themselves into three teams: Development, User Experience, and Outreach. Work began immediately, with developers making choices about encoding and architecture, user experience team members outlining potential use cases, and outreach staff researching the competitive marketplace and writing website copy.

Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday were each long days of code, design, and writing. The group quickly established a daily routine, which started with an all-project check-in meeting at CHNM’s offices at 10:00 a.m., was punctuated by a return to the Mason Inn at about 6:00 p.m., and ended with yet more work
at the hotel bar, usually until well past closing. Communication, leadership, and even membership among the teams were fluid, with teams spontaneously reconfiguring as particular skills were required for particular tasks. Moreover, throughout this "doing" phase, Tom, Dan, Jeremy, and Trevor encouraged additional CHNM staff—including Sharon Leon, Sheila Brennan, Ammon Shepherd, and John Flatness—to be available to help participants solve problems and make tough decisions. By Saturday morning, the One Week | One Tool team had designed and built the software; established an open code repository, a ticketing and bug tracking system, and a set of open source community development channels; and mounted an outreach and marketing campaign that consisted of an original name, logo, and website, as well as promotional bookmarks and stickers, a CafePress storefront, a formal press release, a media contact sheet, a set of public use cases, an FAQ page, and other end-user support channels.

During the course of the week, several members of the team "live blogged" and Tweeted (using the hashtag #oneweek) about this process, but they did so without giving away the final choice of tool, which served to create a buzz about the launch among potential users in the digital humanities community. Between July 25th and August 1st, hundreds of tweets were tagged #oneweek, mostly by outside observers, a measure of the extent to which One Week | One Tool captured the imagination of the digital humanities community. The tool the group produced, Anthologize, was launched on Tuesday, August 3, 2010 with a live video episode of CHNM’s popular Digital Campus podcast. More than 125 people took time out of their work day to tune in to the live announcement. In the days following the announcement, One Week | One Tool and the Anthologize were featured by Atlantic.com, Read Write Web, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and dozens of digital humanities blogs. As one external commentator put it, Anthologize and One Week | One Tool experiment had "set the DH world abuzz."

Anthologize

Anthologize is a free, open-source plugin that transforms WordPress 3.0 into a platform for publishing electronic texts. Anthologize lets users grab posts from their WordPress blog, import feeds from external sites, or create new content directly within Anthologize. Users can then outline, order, and edit their work, crafting it into a single volume for export in several formats, including PDF, ePUB, and TEI. Among Anthologize’s projected users are scholars (to edit anthologies of thematically related blog posts or publish conference proceedings), teachers (to edit student class work into e-portfolios or organize course reading packs), and cultural institutions (to publish exhibit books or donor gift books). Directions for future development include additional export formats, improved importing of external web content, footnote support, and integrating blog comments into the Anthologize editorial workflow.

Learning Outcomes

We are still collecting survey responses and assessing the results, but early on it is clear that One Week | One Tool was a positive learning experience for the participants. Unlike many curriculum-based institutes, the experiences and therefore the learning outcomes at One Week | One Tool varied widely among the participants depending on their team membership and on the skills they brought to the institute. Nevertheless, an initial analysis of participant survey responses reveals some commons themes. Among them:

  • Most participants responded that they learned about collaboration, leadership, and team building. Doug Knox pointed to the "self-taught lessons in group dynamics for a team of pragmatic collaborative autodidacts" he took from One Week | One Tool. As one participant responded, those lessons included "the kind of flexibility, trust, humility, and perseverance that is necessary to take on a relatively big project in a short period of time." In a post titled "Unexpected leadership," Boone Gorges echoed these lessons, writing "leadership doesn’t work without humility and trust." Effie Kapsalis described that same lesson plainly on the Smithsonian 2.0 blog: "Trust. Period."
  • Related to this were the lessons in decision making and calculated risk that most participants said they took away. As one participant wrote, "the experience really made me understand how much fear of acting alone can stall development and how trusting the emergent properties of the system can really lead to fantastic results." Jana Remy wrote in a related vein on her blog, "…one of the most important things we’ve learned through this workshop is the importance of calculated risk. It’s risky to forge forward with a digital project without months of planning, coding, and testing. It’s risky to trust near-strangers to deliver on such a tight deadline…. Our team selected one of the more daring choices available for our project. We were ready to be bold and to dream big. Even if the rest of the world doesn’t see our tool’s potential to be as earthshaking as we do, the process of manifesting our vision for this tool has been a valuable lesson in and of itself, and will certainly carry through to our future endeavors."
  • Several participants responded that they learned about outreach methods, marketing, and dissemination of digital humanities products. As one participant said, "I really found the information on how to manage publicity and outreach extremely useful, and I was completely stunned by the results…."
  • Several participants said they learned particular technologies (e.g. WordPress and Git) and practical lessons in open source software development best practices: "I also think I came to understand a bit more about how agile methodologies really work," remarked one participant.
  • Some participants pointed to their improved understanding of "what constitutes a full end-to-end development cycle." Experienced programmers and project managers, even those who entered the week with hundreds of thousands of lines of code under their belts and long track records of successful digital humanities work, responded that they learned about the differe
    nces between building a tool "from conception to roll-out" as they did at One Week | One Tool and the ad-hoc or task-specific development they do in the normal course of their work.

Every participant that responded to our survey said that One Week | One Tool met or exceeded his or her expectations, that it met its stated goals, that the experience would advance his or her career objectives, and that the model of learning by doing was effective. There were, however, at least two criticisms that were repeated by several participants. First, as mentioned above, most participants would have preferred to cut the Monday lecture portion of the program shorter, something we addressed on the spot and will keep in mind for any possible repeat events. Second, at least two people wanted to see more learning from fellow team members. The fast paced development cycle too often forced participants to keep their noses to the grindstone and opportunities for cross-pollination and peer-to-peer learning were sometimes missed. In any repeat performance of One Week | One Tool we will take seriously one participant’s observation that "…the group itself would have benefited from a more concerted effort to mix up knowledge multilaterally. There was some tension between working in small teams to get work done and making sure we had informal chances to share a sense across groups about the state of progress and the development of our sense of purpose. There were in fact essential unplanned lateral communications in all directions, and the bar was especially important in that. It worked, but there could be room to make it a more reflective process. We should have been teaching our strengths as well as contributing them, and apprenticing in our less-strong areas."

Yet in discussing One Week | One Tool’s learning outcomes, it is also important to note that, perhaps unlike more traditional institutes, the learning appears to have extended well beyond the twelve participants who traveled to Fairfax. This possibly unique aspect of One Week | One Tool results from the fact that: 1) it was an event, and 2) it produced a product for widespread distribution and use. As Tim Carmody posted on Snarkmarket, One Week | One Tool was a "generative web event," an "ongoing communal broadcast." Because it took place over a limited and clearly delineated time period, because it posited a provocative, easy-to-grasp, and unlikely challenge (academics build something in a week?), because it maintained an air of secrecy, and because it was widely publicized, One Week | One Tool was able not only to create "buzz" but to provoke conversation and discussion of serious issues among a broad range digital humanities scholars who could use their common experience of One Week | One Tool as a touchstone for debate. Two examples of this kind of broader discussion are ongoing exchanges about the nature of electronic writing and its relationship to the printed page and about the relative merits of pre- versus post-launch user studies.

Next Steps

Over the next year, the original group of twelve participants will continue to develop the tool from remote locations around the country, forming the core of an open source developer and user community that they will build and support. Indeed, the team has already developed and released a "point release" version 0.4 in the time since they left Fairfax. During the next ten months, the group will fix bugs in the software and add new features. It will continue to disseminate the software through online outreach and in-person conference presentations. As part of the group’s training in digital humanities software sustainability, it will also work with staff at CHNM to write grant proposals for additional funding and implement cost recovery mechanisms where appropriate. In June 2011, the group will travel back to Fairfax for THATCamp 2011 to assess the progress of the past year, gather additional feedback from community members, and make decisions about future development and support of Anthologize.

Conclusion

Overall, we are pleased with the progress of the One Week | One Tool project. The main learning objective of the project was to teach software development and deployment skills to a group of diverse group of digital humanists. As explained to participants on the first evening of the institute, we believe the best measure of the success of a tool is its use by and usefulness to its intended audience. By extension, the best measure of whether a group of people have learned to build successful tools is whether the tool they built is actually useful to and used by its audience. Early indications are good. In less than ten days the Anthologize website has received 232,000 hits, 75,000 page views, and 13,000 unique visitors, and the Anthologize software has been downloaded more than 2,500 times. We have high hopes for the coming year, and we will continue to keep track of these numbers and follow the projects that use Anthologize.

Lessons from One Week | One Tool – Part 3, Serendipity

Over the past few months, several people—including several participants themselves—have asked me how we chose the One Week | One Tool crew. We had about 50 applicants. Nearly all of them were perfectly qualified to attend. This made the selection process exceedingly difficult. I have no doubt we could have ended up with another group of twelve and been equally successful. Indeed, I have often joked that with the applicant pool we got we could easily have done "Three Weeks | Three Tools."

In the end, the uniformly high quality of our applicant pool meant we had to make our choices on largely subjective criteria. Who showed the most enthusiasm? Who showed the most willingness to collaborate? Who seemed open minded? Whose writing style showed clarity of thought and energy? Who seemed like the hardest workers? Who seemed eager to learn? Whose seemed like a quick study?

One important thing to note is that we didn’t pick for particular technical skills. Of course we wanted a good mix: a team full of UI specialists or outreach experts wouldn’t have worked. But we didn’t select for PHP, Ruby, Java, TEI, or any other technology. We assumed that if we picked good people with a range of skills, even if those skills were all over the map, we’d end up with something interesting. I think we have.

As it turns out, we have ended up with something even more interesting because of that diversity of skills. Boone said something very telling at the bar on Thursday night: Anthologize probably couldn’t have been built without One Week | One Tool. A single shop wouldn’t have had the necessary range of skills to do it. I know CHNM couldn’t have done it alone. Sure, we have the PHP and JavaScript chops (although not the intimate knowledge of WordPress Boone brought to the table). But we certainly don’t have deep knowledge of TEI and XSLT the team needed to produce Anthologize’s rich, clean outputs. Nor, I suspect, would we even have hit upon TEI as a solution to that particular problem.

There are lessons here for hiring. Pick the smartest people. The best writers. The hardest workers. Pick people with proven track records of working well in teams. People with lots of energy. People who approach heavy workloads with clear thinking and good humor. People who’ve shown aptitude for picking up new technical skills on their own.

These people may not know what you need them to know on Day 1. But they will work hard to learn it. They’ll also bring a host of additional skills you didn’t think you needed, but will be happy to have once they’re there. Having these additional skills on tap may even let you take your work in directions you couldn’t have otherwise imagined.

#oneweek #buildsomething

Lessons from One Week | One Tool – Part 2, Use

For all the emphasis on the tool itself, the primary aim of One Week | One Tool is not tool building, it’s education. One Week | One Tool is funded by NEH under the the Institutes for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities (IATDH) program. IATDH grants “support national or regional (multistate) training programs for scholars and advanced graduate students to broaden and extend their knowledge of digital humanities.” Thus training is the criteria by which One Week | One Tool will ultimately be judged.

A key argument of One Week | One Tool is that learning digital humanities consists primarily in doing digital humanities, that digital humanities is a hands-on kind of thing, that to learn tool building you have to do some tool building. At the same time, we recognize that there’s a place for instruction of the hands-off sort. To that end, the first 18 hours or so of One Week | One Tool (essentially from Sunday night until mid-afternoon on Monday) were reserved for presentations by CHNM staff. Jeremy offered a practical introduction to software development best practices and tools. Trevor described the range of outreach strategies we have employed on projects like Zotero, Omeka, and the National History Education Clearinghouse. Dan provided the view from 30,000 feet with thoughts on the state of the art and near future of digital humanities software development. I kicked things off on Sunday with a brief introduction to CHNM and our tool building philosophy. Several strains of thought and practice inform our work at CHNM—public history, cultural history, radical democracy, dot.com atmospherics, and more—but to keep things simple I summed up our tool building philosophy in one word: use.

Here is more or less what I told the crew.

At CHNM we judge our tools by one key metric above all others: use. Successful tools are tools that are used. The databases of Sourceforge and Google Code are littered with interesting, even useful, but unused open source tools. Academic software projects are no exception. Every year NSF, NIH, and now NEH and IMLS award grants for scholarly software development. In recent years, the funding guidelines have stipulated that this software be made freely available under open source licenses. Much of the software produced by these programs is good and useful code. But little of it is actually used.

There are several reasons for this. Many efforts are focused narrowly on the problems of a particular researcher or lab. While the code produced by these researchers proves useful for solving their particular problems, even when released, it hasn’t been designed to be generally applicable to the needs of other researchers in the field. It is, in effect, a one-off tool released as open source. But open source code alone does not constitute an open source project.

Other projects build generalized tools that may be of potential use to other researchers. But few make the necessary investment in outreach and, yes, marketing to make potential users aware of the tool. It is for this reason, among others, that we see so much duplication of effort and functionality in scholarly software projects.

Building a user community is the first prerequisite to building a successful open source software project. The success of software is judged by its use. The universal assessment that iTunes is a hit and Zune is a flop is not based on the quality of the code or even the elegance or potential usefulness of the experience. It’s based on the fact that everybody uses iTunes and nobody uses Zune. This is not to say that software has to have millions of users to be successful. But it is to say that successful software is used by large swath of its potential users. To be sure, the total population of potential users of cultural heritage mapping tools is much smaller than the total population of potential users of digital media playback software. But any open source software project’s goal should be use by as many of its potential users as possible. In any case, we should aim to have our software used by as many cultural heritage institutions and digital humanists as possible.

Moreover, a large and enthusiastic user base is key to a successful open source software project’s continued success. If people use a product, they will invest in that product. They will provide valuable user testing. They will support the project in its efforts to secure financial support. They will help market the product, creating a virtuous circle. Sustainability, even for free software, is grounded in a committed customer base.

Related to building a user community is building an open source developer community. Some number of users will have the inclination, the skills, and the commitment to the project to help on the level of code. This percentage will be very small, of course, less than one percent, which is another reason to build a large user base. But this small group of code contributors and volunteer developers forms the core of most successful open source projects. They find and fix bugs. They provide end user support. They write documentation. They add new features and functionality. They provide vision and critical assessment. They constitute a ready-made pool of job candidates if a core paid developer leaves a project.

This developer community is a project’s best chance at sustainability, and collaboration at the developer level, rather than collaboration at the institution or administrator level, is usually key to a scholarly open source project’s lasting success. Getting provosts, deans, and directors from partner institutions to commit FTE’s and other resources to a project is very welcome—we’d love some commitments of this sort for the tool we built last week. But it’s not where the strength of a collaboration will be located. Individual developers, who commit their time, effort, ideas, code, heart and soul to a project, are the ones who will keep something going when money and institutional interest runs out.

A developer community does not develop on its own, of course. It requires support. First and foremost, a developer community needs open communication channels—an active IRC channel and listserv, for example—something which, in the case of a university of library-based project, means a group of responsive staff developers on other end. Community developers need profitable access to the project’s development roadmap so they know where best to contribute their efforts. They need well-documented and thoughtfully-designed APIs. They need technical entry points, things such as a plugin architecture where they can hone their chops on small bits of functionality before digging into the core code base. Most importantly, community developers need a sense of community, a sense of shared purpose, and a sense that their volunteer contributions are valued. All of this has to be planned, managed, and built into the software architecture.

This philosophy of use is core to CHNM’s vision of open source software for scholarship and cultural heritage. The tool the crew of One Week | One Tool developed—like Omeka and Zotero before it—should be case in point. It was chosen with clear audiences in mind. It was built on approachable technologies and engineered to be extensible. It’s outreach plan and feedback channels are designed to encourage broad participation. When it’s released tomorrow, I think you’ll see it is a tool to be used.

#oneweek #buildsomething

Lessons from One Week | One Tool – Part 1, Project Management

Three days into One Week | One Tool, I’m beginning to see that one of the nice things about running an NEH Summer Institute as a practicum rather than a classroom is that the organizers learn as much as the participants. For me, this week has reinforced and clarified an important set of related lessons about decision making, leadership, and team building in digital humanities. (I’ve learned some other lessons as well, and I’ll talk about those in subsequent posts over the course of the week.) As you can imagine, things are a little busy around here, so here they are in short.

  1. Snap decisions are good. When faced with a choice between A and B, it often pays simply to pick one and move on. It’s tempting to think that hours of study and deliberation will yield the “right” answer. But the truth is most project management questions don’t have right answers. Furthermore, no amount of research will insure that everyone will be happy with your decision. At the end of the day, some of your stakeholders or team members are going to be disappointed with your decision, and time spent purely in hopes that you can satisfy everyone is time wasted. Finally, no matter how much prior study and deliberation, decisions are always and inevitably made in the moment. Put another way, the moment of decision always involves a snap judgment. You’ll never know if the decision you’ve made is a good one until after you’ve made it. Bottom line: when faced with tight deadlines, do just enough research to understand the consequences of A or B, pick one, and then deal with those consequences.
  2. Leadership is momentum-making. It may seem obvious, but the job of a leader is to move people forward. To keep people with you have to be constantly in motion. This is the importance of snap decisions. People will forgive a leader a bad decision. They can’t forgive indecision. Like a ship, leaders create a wake that pulls people along. If you stop, they will drift away.
  3. Collaboration is shared doing. We tend to think of collaboration as shared decision making. But more important is shared accomplishment. Consensus on a project is certainly important, but strong collaborations aren’t forged in talking, they’re forged in working. As noted above, one or more team members will always be unhappy with every decision that’s made on a project . Trying to understand and accommodate their concerns will help mend any hurt feelings or disappointments, but what’s really going to bring them back into the fold is getting down to work on the task they had previously opposed. Getting people to invest some time in a decision they opposed initially is the quickest way to help them see its merits and reengage their coworkers. Helping them contribute to the team is the best way to make them feel valuable and valued again.

More to come. #oneweek #buildsomething

OAH, AHA, NCPH Approve Recommendations on Evaluating Public History for Tenure and Promotion

The boards of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the National Council on Public History have approved a single set of best practices for evaluating public history scholarship in history departments. The advice is outlined in a new report [.pdf] entitled Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian. Acknowledging that public history work is generally and unfairly overlooked in academic settings, the report provides practical advice to review committees on how best to consider public history and to candidates on how best to conduct and present public history in the tenure and promotion process. A supporting white paper [.pdf] by the report’s authors provides background and discusses the issues presented in the report in greater detail. Yours truly contributed a “case study” on digital history to the white paper, which suggests a set of both internal (audience, content, design, and process) and external (funding, publications, reviews, and awards) criteria for evaluating history websites.

New Wine in Old Skins: Why the CV needs hacking

Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins are ruined. Rather, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins. – Mark 2:22

Since the time of my first foray into digital humanities as a newly minted graduate working on a project to catalog history museum websites (yes, in 1996 you could actually make a list of every history museum with a website, about 150 at the time), most discussions about careers in digital humanities have centered around questions of how to convince more traditional colleagues to accept digital work as scholarship, to make it “count” for tenure and promotion, that is, to make it fit into traditional structures of academic employment. This has been a hard sell because, as Mills has pointed out, the kind of work done by digital humanists, no matter how useful, interesting, and important, often just can’t be made to fit the traditional definitions of scholarship that are used to determine eligibility for academic career advancement. No amount of bending and squeezing and prodding and poking is going to help the new square pegs of digital humanities fit the old round holes used to assess traditional textual scholarship.

Having seen their older colleagues struggle though stages of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, a new generation of digital humanists (some of us) is coming to accept this situation. Rather than fighting to have its work credited within the existing structures of academic career advancement, it has instead decided to alter those structures or replace them with ones that judge digital work on its own merits. This new generation is hacking the academy to create new structures more natively accepting of digital work. These new structures—as imperfect and tenuous as newly forked code—can be seen in the job descriptions and contract arrangements of many in the alt-ac crowd.

Yet however much we have hacked academic employment to better accommodate digital work, at least one structure has remained stubbornly intact: the CV or curriculum vitae. For the most part our CV’s look the same as our analog colleagues’. Should this be? Isn’t this pouring new wine into old wineskins? Aren’t we setting ourselves up for failure if we persist in marketing our digital achievements using a format designed to highlight analog achievements? The standard categories of education, awards, publications, and so on (see this fairly representative guide from MIT [.pdf]) sets us up for failure. If we are going to market our work effectively we need to come up with a new vehicle for the construction of professional identity.

There is nothing immutable about the CV. As far as I can tell from a few hours research, the CV in its current form emerged in the late 19th century and early 20th century, right around the time our modern disciplines were consolidating the academy. The OED dates the first use of “curriculum vitae” to mean “a brief account of one’s career” to the turn of the last century (“Anciently biography was more of a mere curriculum vitæ than it is now,” New Internat. Encycl. III. 21/2, 1902). The British term, “vita,” appears just about the same time. A quick search of the “help wanted” pages of a few major American newspapers yields a similar result for the first use of the term. A December 3, 1908 advertisement in The Washington Post asks:

HELP WANTED—MALE: IN A PATENT OFFICE—YOUNG GERMAN, HAVING passed schools in Germany; salary $30 to start, gradually increasing. Send curriculum vitae to G. DITTMAR, 702 Ninth st. nw.

Considering its importance in shaping the modern academy and constructing the modern notion of the scholar, there is little (very little, in fact; I couldn’t find anything) written on the CV. Yet even from this very cursory bit of research we can say one thing definitively: the CV is a social and historical construct. It hasn’t always existed, and it is not an essential ingredient for the successful creation and dissemination of scholarship. Erasmus didn’t have one, for example.

I’m ready to accept that the successful operation of the academy requires a vehicle, even a standardized vehicle, for constructing and communicating scholarly identity. But it doesn’t have to be, and hasn’t always been, the CV—certainly not the one we were told to write in grad school. The CV is a platform for constructing and communicating professional achievement and identity, and like any platform, it’s hackable.

So, I say we need, and can build, a new CV, or whatever you want to call it. But what does this new CV look like? Here are at least some of the criteria a new vision for the professional identity document should meet (I use the word “document” here simply as a shorthand, not to suggest the format or material existence this new thing should take):

  1. Its primary presentation should be digital. A print version of the document may exist, but it should be born digital to make best use of the special qualities of digital media, which undoubtedly will do a better job of representing digital work than the analog technologies of print. We should look to discussions around the notion of e-portfolios in the educational technology community for ideas.
  2. It should eschew the visual hierarchies that privilege print scholarship in the traditional CV. Specifically, the vertical orientation that inevitably puts digital work below analog work should be eliminated.
  3. It should adequately represent collaborative work. You should be able to put a collaborative product (a website, a software project, an exhibit) on your CV without diminishing your colleague’s contributions but also without feeling guilty about listing it under your name. We need a better way to represent group work.
  4. It should credit processes as well as products. Put another way, we need to elevate activities previously relegated to the category of “service” in our career presentations. Much of the real work of digital humanities involves project management, organization, partnership building, network building, curation, and mentoring, and these processes need to be credited accordingly. The development and implementation of new ways of working constitute significant achievements in digital humanities. New methods should be credited equally with new modalities of scholarship.
  5. It should be used. If digital humanists create these new documents, but persist in using their old paper CV’s to apply for jobs, it will be doomed to fail.

There are surely other criteria this new document should meet. Let’s brainstorm in comments and start helping help ourselves.