‘An (even briefer) history of open cultural data’ at GLAM-Wiki 2013

These are some of my notes for my invited plenary talk at GLAM-Wiki 2013 (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums & Wikimedia, #GLAMWiki), held at the British Library on April 12-13, 2013. I don’t think I stuck that closely to them on the day, and in the interests of brevity I’ve left out the ‘timeline’ bits (but you can read about some of them in a related MuseumID article, ‘Where next for open cultural data in museums?‘) to focus on the lessons to be learnt from changes so far. There were lots of great talks and discussion at the event, you can view some of the presentations on Wikimedia UK’s YouTube channel.

A (now very) brief history of open cultural data

Firstly, thank you for the invitation to speak… This morning I want to highlight some key moments of change in the history of open cultural data – a history not only of licenses and data, but also of conversations, standards, and collaborations, of moments where things changed… I’ve included key moments from funders, legislative influences and the commercial sector too, as they create the context in which change happens and often have an effect on what’s considered possible. I’ll close by considering some of the lessons learnt.

[Please help improve this talk]

A caveat – there may well be a bias towards the English-speaking world (and to museums, because of my background). If you know of an open GLAM (gallery, library, archive, museum) data source I’ve missed, you can add it to the open cultural data/GLAM API wiki… or Lotte’s Belice‘s list of open culture milestones  timeline.

Definitions

‘open cultural data’ is data from cultural institutions that is made available for use in a machine-readable format under an open licence. But each word in open, cultural, data is slightly more complicated so I’ll unpack them a little…

Open

Office clerks, FNV. Voorlichting.

While the degree of openness required to be ‘open’ data can be contentious, at its simplest, ‘open’ refers to content that is available for use outside the institution that created it, whether for school homework projects, academic monographs or mobile phone apps. ‘Open’ may refer to licences that clarify the permissions and restrictions placed on data, or to the use of non-proprietary digital technologies, or ideally, to a combination of both open licences and technologies.

Ideally, open data is freely available for use and redistribution by anyone for any purpose, but in reality there are often restrictions. GLAMs may limit commercial use by licensing content for ‘non-commercial use only’, but as there is no clear definition of ‘non-commercial use’ in Creative Commons licences, some developers may choose not to risk using a dataset with an unclear licence. GLAMs may also release data for commercial use but still require attribution, either to help retain the provenance of the content, to help people find their way to related content or just because they’d like some credit for their work. GLAMs might also release data under custom licences that deal with their specific circumstances, but they are then difficult to integrate with content from other openly-licensed datasets.

Hybrid licensing models are a pragmatic solution for the current environment. They at least allow some use and may contribute to greater use of open cultural data while other issues are being worked out. For example, some institutions in the UK are making lower resolutions images available for re-use under an open licence while reserving high resolution versions for commercial sales and licensing. Or they may differentiate between scholarly and commercial use, or use more restrictive licences for commercially valuable images and release everything else openly.

I think this type of access is better than nothing, particularly if organisations can learn from the experience and release more data next time. Because these hybrid models are often experimental, their reception is important, and it’s helpful for GLAMs to be able to show they’ve had a positive impact and hopefully helped create relationships with groups like Wikipedia.

Cultural

Cultural data is data about objects, publications (such as books, pamphlets, posters or musical scores), archival material, etc, created and distributed by museums, libraries, archives and other organisations.

Data

It’s a useful distinction to discuss early with other cultural heritage staff as it’s easy to be talking at cross-purposes: data can refer to different types of content, from metadata or tombstone records (the basic titles, names, dates, places, materials, etc of a catalogue record), to entire collection records (including data such as researched and interpretive descriptions of objects, bibliographic data, related themes and narratives) to full digital surrogates of an object, document or book as images or transcribed text. Some organisations release open metadata, others release all their data including their images. If you can’t do open data (full content or ‘digital surrogates’ like photographs or texts) then at least open up the metadata (data about the content) as e.g. CC0 and the rest with another licence. Releasing data may involve licensing images, offering downloads from catalogue sites; ‘content donations’, APIs and machine-facing interfaces; term lists, etc. Much of the data that isn’t images isn’t immediately interesting, and may be designed for inter-collections interoperability or mashups rather than media commons.

Why is open cultural data important?

Before I go on, why do we care? Open cultural data is the foundation on which many projects can be built. It helps achieve organisational goals, mission; can help increase engagement with content; can create ‘network effect’ with related institutions; can be re-used by people who share your goals around access to knowledge and information – people like Wikipedians.

Some key moments in open cultural data

Events I discussed included the founding of Wikimedia, Europeana and Flickr Commons, previous GLAM-Wiki conferences, changes in licences for art images, library catalogue records and museum content, GLAM APIs and linked data services and the launch of the Digital Public Library of America next week.

Lessons learnt

Many of the changes are the results of years of conversation and collaboration – change is slow but it does happen. GLAMs work through slow iterations – try something, and if no-one dies, they’ll try something else. We are all ambassadors, and we are all translators, helping each domain understand the other.

Contradictory things GLAMs are told they must do

  • Give content away for the benefit of all
  • Monetise assets; protect against loss of potential income; protect against mis-use of collections; conserve collections in perpetuity; protect the IP of artists; demonstrate ROI on digitisation

It’s not easy for GLAMs to release all their data under an entirely open licence, but they don’t do it just to be annoying – it’s important to understand some of the pressures they’re under.  For example, GLAMs usually need to be able to track uses of their data and content to show the impact of digitising and publishing content, so they prefer attribution licences.

The issue of potential lost income – imaginary money that could be made one day if circumstances change, or profit that someone else makes off their opened data – is particularly difficult as hard to deal with [and here I ad-libbed, saying that it was like worrying about failing to meet the love of your life because you got on a different tube carriage – you can’t live your life chasing ghosts]. Ideally, open data needs to be understood as an input to the creative economy rather than an item on the balance sheet of an individual GLAM.

GLAMs worry about reputational damage, whether appearing on the front page of a tabloid newspaper for the ‘wrong’ reasons, questions being asked in Parliament, or critique from Wikipedians.  Over time, their mindset is changing from keeping ‘our data’ to being holders, custodians of our shared heritage.

Conversations, communities, collaborations

Conversations matter… we’re all working towards the same goal, but we have different types of anxieties and different problems we have to address.

GLAMs are about collections, knowledge, and audiences. Unlike most online work, they are used to seeing the excitement people experience walking through their door – help GLAMs understand what Wikipedians can do for different audiences by making those audience real to them. GLAMs are also used to being wined and dined before you lay the hard word on them. Just because you don’t need to ask for permission to use content doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start a conversation with an organisation. There are lots of people with similar goals inside organisations, so try to find them and work with them. Trust is a currency, don’t blow it!

Being truly collaborative sometimes means compromising (or picking your battles) and it definitely means practising empathy. Open data people could stop talking about open data as something you *do* to GLAMs, and GLAMs could stop thinking open data people just want to make your life difficult.

The role of higher powers

Government attitudes to open data make a big difference and they can also change the risks associated with publishing orphan works.  Governments can also help GLAMs open up their content by indemnifying them against the chance that someone else will monetise their data – consider it not a failure of the GLAM but a contribution to the creative and digital economy.

Things that are better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick

  1. Kittens (and puppies)
  2. Cultural data that’s available online but isn’t (yet) openly licensed
  3. Cultural data online that is licensed for non-commercial use

Yes, the last two aren’t ideal, but they are great deal better than nothing.

Into the future…

GLAMs and Wikipedians may move at different paces, and may have different priorities and different ways of viewing the world, but we’re all working towards the same goals. Not everything is as open, but a lot more is open than it used to be. I sensed yesterday [the first day of the conference] that there are still some tensions between Wikimedians and GLAMers, moments when we need to take a deep breath and put empathy before a pithy put down, but I loved that Kat Walsh’s welcome yesterday described how Wikipedia used to focus on how different from others but now focuses on reaching out to others and figuring out how we’re the same.

GLAMs and Wikipedians have already used open cultural data to make the world a better place. Let’s celebrate the progress we’ve made and keep working on that…

GLAM-WIKI 2013 Friday attendees photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net).

Congratulations to everyone who helped make it a great event, but particularly to Daria Cybulska and Andrew Gray (@generalising) for making everything work so smoothly, and Liam Wyatt (@wittylama) for the original invitation to speak.

Notes from THATCamp Feminisms West #tcfw

I’m just back from ten days in the US where I attended two events, both closely related to digital history, feminist digital humanities and women’s history (whether intellectual, science, education, etc related). I’m posting to mark the moment and to collect some links – I think I’m still digesting the many conversations and moments of insight.

THATCamp Feminisms West #tcfw

A THATCamp is a technology+humanities unconference, a format much loved in the digital humanities world. This one was conceived from a twitter conversation and organised by the wonderful Jacque Wernimont of Scripps College in Claremont, California for March 14-15. Two other THATCamp Feminisms were held simultaneously in the south and east. I was invited over to do a workshop, and thought ‘data visualisation as a gateway to programming‘ would be useful – I prepared two exercises, one of which involved thinking about how to match visualisation types to the structure of the selected content in ManyEyes, while the other was more about learning about how code works by playing with a pre-coded (and heavily, chattily commented) working visualisation that used SIMILE’s JavaScript libraries – ‘view source’ and save the file to your hard drive to get started. It was a good chance to talk about the issues that messy humanities data create for generic visualisation tools, the risks in the ‘truthiness’ of visualisations, the importance of thinking critically about algorithms and issues around primary sources and women’s history, etc, with people who’d thought deeply about some of these issues and could make their own contributions to the workshop.
The day started with the #tooFEW Wikipedia editathon (storify of results), which gave everyone a chance to learn and try out something new before the THATCamp had even officially started. It was a nice way to ease into things and achieve something together before working out the THATCamp programme as a group.
Over the day and a half I went to sessions including Feminist digital pedagogy and Feminist Collaboration. After a week of further travel across the US and another conference, the sessions are blurring into one, but overall they were a great chance to think about what a feminist digital humanities might be like (see for example Transformative Digital Humanities projects or read Toward an Open Digital Humanities from an earlier THATCamp for things to move towards or be careful of), to ask questions like ‘what would a feminist Digging into Data look like?’, to ask ‘does it matter if feminist projects are made with people who don’t share their politics’? (Probably not, though academic work might be attractive to people who value work/life balance.)  What’s the right mix of openness and shared authority, how collaborative can a class be, and how can we help students fail safely in the cause of experimenting (especially when using public technologies like YouTube or Twitter)? It’s important to remember that, as Alex Juhasz said, feminism is about process (or praxis), doing and making things, which in turn made me realise that one reason I value teaching coding is that it gives people DIY tools to make things that suit their own research needs and styles (see ‘Why learning to code isn’t as important as learning to build something‘ but please also read Code: Craft and Culture and the comments below it). I also loved Alex’s statement that she’s ‘less interested in feminism that starts from danger than feminism that starts from agency’ and being fearless about taking up space.

The value of meeting in person was an underlying theme of the event, and eventually a conversation about Building a DH Regional Hub, and the difficulties in collaborating between institutions and organising in-person meetings with the huge geographic coverage of the Los Angeles area lead to the invention of Mindr: ‘Grindr for travelling DHers – who’s nearby and what do they want to chat about?’, or as @laurenfklein described it, a ‘geo-aware interface to DH Answers‘, an app that lets you know when someone with similar scholarly interests is nearby and might be up for a chat.  I would *love* this to actually happen, and who knows, if someone is able to shepherd the enthusiasm for it, it might.

Beyond the value in the discussion, just being surrounded by people who were digitally savvy and were also aware of the effects of implicit biases and tech-as-a-meritocracy, the role of disciplinary gatekeepers, assumptions about gendered work, emotional labour and the pressure to be ‘nice’ as well as the peculiarities of academia was brilliant. It was also a bit intimidating at first as I don’t feel hugely qualified to comment on feminist issues (it’s a long time since I’ve been caught up on theory and ‘feminism’ online has probably made it sound scarier than it really is) unless conversation moved to ‘women in tech’ issues or I could contribute observations on my experience of academia and workplaces in the UK. Perhaps that’s one reason I was encouraged by discussion about possible models of feminist scholarship and mentoring (including asking male allies for help) – I don’t have to figure this out on my own. That said, as Anne Cong-Huyen said:

‘At an event like this one, where we come together to address or at least share about gender and sexual equality in dh and the academy it leaves us to ask: Where does the burden of addressing that inequity fall? […] And how about those of us who are junior faculty, adjuncts, or graduate students (like myself) who have even less power within the academy?’

Or in Amanda Phillips’ words:

In this way, THATCamp Feminisms felt a bit different than other THATCamps I’ve attended. The infectious enthusiasm of DH was tempered here by the political, professional, and market realities that disproportionately affect marginalized communities.

I think it’s important that those realities are widely understood and shared, or some of the promise of the digital humanities will have failed to blossom. Creating space for those hard questions perhaps highlights how positive, supportive and constructive the environment at THATCamp Feminisms West was.  I don’t have a witty or concise conclusion, except to say that I met a bunch of amazing women and came away encouraged and inspired, and you should definitely go to a THATCamp Feminisms if you ever get a chance. Or run one yourself and see what happens. To quote Alex Juhasz again:

To me it is was less the DH, or even the digital, that made this conversation matter, but the feminist: because we shared values, the will and capacity to be critical as well as intellectual while being supportive and trying to distribute authority and voice around the room all the while working, quick.

Other posts:

(For the clarity, my personal definition of feminism is something like ‘working to create a world in which the choices available in your life aren’t determined by your gender’ – of course, ideally the same would be true for ethnicity, nationality or class, and they’re all inter-related, and they all work to create a better life for all genders. I shouldn’t have to offer a definition of feminism as ‘equality of opportunity’ but somehow the term has been twisted to mean all sorts of other things, so there you go.)

From Claremont I made my way back to LA, then over to DC, then Philly, catching up with or meeting various ace people before heading to Bryn Mawr for Women’s History in the Digital World, but I’ve run out of time and space so I’ll have to post about that later.

New challenges in digital history: sharing women’s history on Wikipedia – my talk notes

I’m at The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education at Bryn Mawr College for the inaugural Women’s History in the Digital World Conference. Since I’m about to speak and ask historians to share their research and write history in public, I thought I should also be brave and share my draft talk notes (which I’ve now updated with formatted references, though Blogger is still re-formatting things slightly oddly).

Introduction: New challenges in digital history: sharing women’s history on Wikipedia

[slide – title, my details]
Hi, I’m Mia. I’m actually doing a PhD on scholarly crowdsourcing, or collaboratively creating online resources, and, thinking about the impact of digitality on the practices of historians, so this paper is indirectly related to my research but isn’t core to it.
I proposed this paper as a deliberate provocation: ‘if we believe the subjects of our research are important, then we should ensure they are represented on freely available encyclopedic sites like Wikipedia’. Just in case you’re not familiar with it, Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia ‘that anyone can edit.’ It contains 25 million articles, over 4 million of them in English, but also in 285 other languages, and has 100,000 active contributors[1].

‘Brilliant Women’ at the National Portrait Gallery

The genesis of this paper was two-fold. The 2008 exhibition ‘Brilliant Women: 18th Century Bluestockings‘ at the UK National Portrait Gallery, made the point that ‘Despite the fact that ‘bluestockings’ made a substantial contribution to the creation and definition of national culture their intellectual participation and artistic interventions have largely been forgotten’. As a computer programmer, reinventing the wheel and other inefficient processes drive me crazy, and I began to think about how digital publishing could intervene in the cycle of remembering and forgetting that seemed to be the fate of brilliant women throughout history. How could historians use digital platforms to stop those histories being lost and to make them easy for others to find?

[Screenshot – Caitlin Moran quote from How to be a woman: ‘Even the ardent feminist historian, male or female – citing Amazons and tribal matriarchies and Cleopatra – can’t conceal that women have done basically f*ck-all for the last 100,000 years’]
A few years later, by then a brand-new PhD student, I attended the Women’s History Network conference in London in 2011 and learnt of so many interesting lives that challenged conventional mainstream historical narratives of gender. I wished that others could hear those stories too. But when I asked if any of these histories were available outside academia on sites like Wikipedia, there was a strong sense that editing Wikipedia was something that other people did. But who better to make a case for better representation of women’s histories than the people in that room? Who else has the skills, knowledge and the passion? Some academic battles may have been won regarding the importance of women’s histories, but representing women’s histories on the sites where ordinary people start their queries is hugely important. The quote on this slide illustrates why – even if it was meant in jest, it represents a certain world view.

WikiWomen’s Collaborative

[slide – logos from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiWomen%27s_History_Month http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/WikiWomen%27s_Collaborative ]
Of course, I’m not the first, and definitely not the most qualified to make this point. I would also like to acknowledge the work of many groups and individuals, particularly within Wikipedia, that’s preceded this.[2]

[slide – Scripps editathon, #tooFEW]
Things move fast in the digital world and we’re at a different moment than the one when I proposed this paper. Gender issues on Wikipedia had been discussed for a number of years but there’s been a recent burst of activity, including the #tooFEW (‘Feminists Engage Wikipedia’) editathons – ‘a scheduled time where people edit Wikipedia together, whether offline, online, or a mix of both’ – [3], held online and in person across four physical sites.[4] [5] I was going to be provocative and ask you to create Wikipedia entries about the histories you’ve invested so much in researching, but some of that is happening already. As a result, this is version 2 of this paper, but my starting question remains the same – assuming we believe that women’s history is important, what’s wrong with our current methods of research dissemination and dialogue?

The case of the Invisible Scholarship

[slide – outline of section]
Cumulative centuries of archival and theoretical work have been spent recovering women’s histories, yet much of this inspiring scholarship might as well not exist when so few people have access to it. Sadly, it’s currently the case that scholarship that isn’t deliberately made public is invisible outside academia. The open access movement, with all its thorny complications, is one potential solution. Engaging in new forms of open scholarship and disseminating research on sites where the public already goes to learn about history is another.

If it’s not Googleable, it doesn’t exist.

[slide – screenshot of unsuccessful search for Ina von Grumbkow]
Most content searches start and end online. The content and links available to search engines inform their assumptions about the world, and they in turn shape the world view presented on the results screen. If the name of a historical figure doesn’t show up in Google, how else would someone find out about them? While college students might be heavy users of Google’s specialist Google Scholar search, it’s unlikely that people would come across it accidentally, not least because there’s a ‘semantic gap’ between the language used in academia and the language used in everyday speech. Writing for Wikipedia means writing in everyday language, and the site is heavily indexed by search engines – it doesn’t take long for content created on Wikipedia – even on a user’s talk page and not the main site – to show up in Google results. So one reason to take history on Wikipedia seriously is that it affects what search engines know about the world.

‘Did you mean… hegemony?’

Search for ‘Viscountess Ranelagh’, Google says ‘Did you mean Viscount’. No. 

[slide – screenshot  of search for ‘Viscountess Ranelagh and the Authorisation of Women’s Knowledge in the Hartlib Circle’, Google says ‘Did you mean Viscount’. No.]
Scholarship and sources contained in specialist online archives and repositories are often off-limits to the Google bots that crawl the web looking for content to index. Because search engines normalise certain assumptions about the world, getting more content about women’s histories in publically accessible spaces will eventually have an effect in the algorithms that determine suggestions for ‘did you mean’ etc. Contributions to sites like Wikipedia can eventually become contributions to the ‘knowledge graphs’ that determine the answers to questions we ask online.

If it’s behind a paywall, it only exists for a privileged few

[Slide – Screenshot of blocked attempt to access ‘Wives and daughters of early Berlin geoscientists and their work behind the scenes’]
Specialist users will be able to find academic research via Google Scholar, but any independent scholars in attendance will be able to speak to the difficulties in gaining access to journal articles without membership of an institutional library. Journal articles obviously have a lot of value within academic communities, but the research they represent is only available to a privileged few.

Why does Wikipedia matter?

[slide: For some, Wikipedia is the font of all wisdom]
Wikipedia is one of the most visited websites in the world. As one commentator said, ‘people turn to Wikipedia as an objective resource’ but ‘ it’s not so objective in many ways.'[6]

However, as the free online encyclopedia ‘that anyone can edit’, it also provides the ability to take direct action to fix the under-representation of women’s history. President of the AHA, William Cronon said, ‘Wikipedia provides an online home for people interested in histories long marginalized by the traditional academy'[7] – this may not be entirely true yet, but we can hope.

Wikipedia is not yet encyclopedic

[Slide – Ina screenshot]
The English version of Wikipedia has over 4 million articles but it still has some way to go to become truly encyclopedic. Martha Saxton has noted the absence of women’s history content on Wikipedia and was distressed by ‘its superficiality and inaccuracies when present [8]’. Just as female assistants, secretaries, collectors, illustrators, correspondents, translators, salonists, cataloguers, text book writers, popularisers, explorers, pioneers and colleagues have been left out of traditional academic histories and gradually reclaimed by historians, they are often still invisible on Wikipedia. This may be partly because not enough women edit Wikipedia – as Wikipedia User Gobonobo says, ‘editors often contribute to topics they are familiar with and that concern them […] This systemic bias has the potential to exacerbate an historical record that already gives undue emphasis to men.’ [9]

The under-representation of women’s history undermines Wikipedia’s claim to be encyclopedic. Issues include missing entries or omissions in coverage for existing topics, entries with inaccurate content, a failure to represent a truly ‘neutral point of view’, and a representation of ‘male’ as the default gender.

Many notable women have been buried in pages titled for their husbands, brothers, tutors, etc. In 1908 Ina von Grumbkow undertook an expedition to Iceland. She later made significant contributions to the field of natural history and wrote several books but other than passing references online and a mention on her husband’s Wikipedia page, her story is only available to those with access to sources like the ‘ Earth Sciences History’ journal[10][11].

[Slide: ‘Main articles: List of Fellows of the Royal Society and List of female Fellows of the Royal Society ‘.]
Some of the categories used in Wikipedia posit the default gender as male. For example, there’s a ‘ List of Fellows of the Royal Society  and ‘ List of female Fellows of the Royal Society.

Wikipedia and the challenges of digital history

Writing for Wikipedia encapsulates many, but not all, of the challenges of digital history.

New forms of writing

Writing for Wikipedia calls upon historians to write engaging, intellectually accessible, succinct text that still accurately represents its subject. It not only means valuing the work and skills in writing public history, it requires the ability to write history in public.

Writing for a ‘neutral point of view’ – one of the key values of Wikipedia – is challenging for historians. Many may find difficult to believe that it’s even possible, and it’s difficult to achieve [12].

Unlike traditional historical scholarship, characterised by ‘possessive individualism’ [13] and honed to perfection before publication, Wikipedia entries are considered a work in progress, and anyone who spots an issue is asked to fix it themselves or flag it for others to review.

It won’t advance your career

While it might have a large public impact, editing Wikipedia is work that isn’t credited in academia, and it takes time that could be used for projects that would count for career advancement. More importantly from Wikipedia’s point of view, you can’t promote your own work on the site, so writing about your own research interests is not straightforward if not many people have published in your area of expertise.

“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a professor”

In a comment with ‘pointers for academics who would like to contribute to Wikipedia’ on a Chronicle article, commentator ‘operalala’ said, ‘”On the internet nobody knows you’re a professor.” If you’re used to deferential treatment at your home institution, you’ll be treated like everybody else in the Wide Open Internet.'[14] Or in William Cronon’s words, you must ‘give up the comfort of credentialed expertise’.[15] Anyone can edit, re-shape or even delete your work.

Just like academia, Wikipedia has ways of establishing the credibility and reputation of a contributor, and just like any other community, there are etiquettes and conventions to observe. As newcomers to the community, Claire Potter warns that it’s important not to think of Wikipedia as ‘another realm for intellectuals to colonize and professionalize’.[16]

The opportunities and challenges of women’s history as public history on Wikipedia

Opportunities

#WomenSciWP editathon at the Royal Society

Wikipedia uses red links to represent entries that could be created but don’t yet exist. Women’s history editathons often create lists of red-linked names as suggested topics that could be created [17] . Projects on and outside Wikipedia, and events at institutions like the Smithsonian and Royal Society and just last weekend at three THATCamps across the United States might be part of a critical mass of people learning how to edit Wikipedia to better include women’s history.

Compared to the lengthy process of writing for academic publication, a new Wikipedia entry can be created in a few hours, allowing for time to structure the content and format the references as necessary to pass the first quality bar. An existing entry can be corrected in minutes. Each editathon or personal edit improves the representation of women’s history, and there’s something very satisfying about turning red links blue.

Ina von Grumbkow’s name red-linked on her husband’s Wikipedia page

Adding the brackets that turn a piece of text into a red link, suggesting the possibility of an entry to be created is a small but potentially powerful intervention. Red links can render the gaps and silences visible.

Resistance

Creating or editing entries on women’s history may be relatively easy, but making sure they stay there is less so. There are countless examples of women having to fight to keep changes in as other editors revert them, argue about their choice of sources, the significance or notability of their topic. Wikipedians are zealous in preventing spammers and crackpots polluting the quality of the site, which explains some of the rapid ‘nominations for deletion’, but some pockets of the site are also hostile to women’s history or to women themselves.

Saxton said editing Wikipedia is ‘not for the faint of heart’ and ‘a lesson in how little women’s history has penetrated mainstream culture’. There’s work to be done in sharing and normalising an understanding of the historical circumstances and cultural contexts that created difficulties for women. We might know that, as Janet Abbate said, ‘The laws and social conventions of a given time and place strongly shape the kinds of technical training available to women and men, the career options open to them, their opportunities for advancement and recognition’ [18] but until other Wikipedians understand that, there will continue to be issues around ‘notability’. Having those conversations as many times as necessary might be tiring and uncomfortable or even controversial, but it’s part of the work of representing women’s history on Wikipedia.

Tensions

‘Reliable sources’

Wikipedians may have different definitions of ‘reliable sources’ than scholarly researchers. As one academic discovered:
“Wikipedia is not ‘truth,’ Wikipedia is ‘verifiability’ of reliable sources. Hence, if most secondary sources which are taken as reliable happen to repeat a flawed account or description of something, Wikipedia will echo that.”‘ [19]

The same gatekeepers matter

As some academics have found, ‘Wikipedia differs from primary-source research, from scholarly writing, and how it privileges existing rather than new knowledge’ [20] [21] Wikipedia is not the place to redress fundamental issues with silences in the archives or in the profession overall, not least because on Wikipedia, primary research is bad and secondary sources are good [22] . This puts the onus back on to traditional academic publishing in peer-reviewed journals and books that can be cited in Wikipedia articles, though other published works such as ‘credible and authoritative books’ and ‘reputable media sources’ can also be cited.

‘Notability’

‘A person is presumed to be notable if he or she has received significant coverage in reliable secondary sources that are independent of the subject. […] the person who is the topic of a biographical article should be “worthy of notice” – that is, “significant, interesting, or unusual enough to deserve attention or to be recorded” within Wikipedia as a written account of that person’s life.’ [23] ‘The common theme in the notability guidelines is that there must be verifiable, objective evidence that the subject has received significant attention from independent sources to support a claim of notability.’ [24] This creates obvious difficulties for some women’s histories.

It’s also difficult to judge where ‘notability’ should end. When does focusing on exceptional women become counter-productive? When do we risk creating a new canon? When does it stop being remarkable that a woman became prominent in a field and start being more accepted, if still not expected? [25] At what point should writing shift from individual entries to integration into more general topics?

Conclusion

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether Wikipedia lags behind academia’s acceptance and general integration of women’s history into mainstream history or whether it is representative of the field’s more conservative corners. Recent digital history projects are doing a good job in explaining some of the issues with key sources for Wikipedia like the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [26] , and I’d hope that this continues. As Martha Saxton said, ‘integrating women’s experience into broad subjects’ is ‘both more challenging intellectually and ultimately, more to the point of the overall project of bringing women into our acknowledged history’. [27]

But it’s also clearly up to us to make a difference. If it’s worth researching the life and achievements of a notable woman, it’s worth making sure their contribution to history is available to the world while improving the quality of the world’s biggest encyclopaedia. And it doesn’t mean going it alone. It’s still just Women’s History Month so it’s not too late to sign up and join one of the women’s history projects, or to plan something with your students. [28] [29] [30]

I’d like to close with quotes from two different women. Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, Sue Gardner: ‘Wikipedia will only contain ‘the sum of all human knowledge’ if its editors are as diverse as the population itself: you can help make that happen. And I can’t think of anything more important to do, than that.’ [31]
 
And to quote Laura Mandell’s keynote yesterday: ‘Let’s write and publish about each other’s projects so that future historians will have those sources to write about. … Nothing changes through thinking alone, only through massive amounts of re-iteration’. [32]

[Update: based on questions afterwards, you may want to get started with Wikipedia:How to run an edit-a-thon, or sign up and say hello at Wikipedia:WikiProject Women’s History. You could also join in  the Global Women Wikipedia Write-In #GWWI on April 26 (1-3pm, US EST), and they have a handy page on How to Create Wikipedia Entries that Will Stick.

And update April 30, 2013: check out ‘Learning to work with Wikipedia – New Pages Patrol and how to create new Wikipedia articles that will stick‘ by the excellent Adrianne Wadewitz.

Update, June 9: if you’re thinking of setting a class assignment involving editing Wikipedia, check out their ‘For educators‘ and ‘Assignment Design‘ pages for tips and contact points.  June 18: see also Nicole Beale’s ‘Wikipedia for Regional Museums‘.

Update, August 21, 2013: content on Wikipedia appears to have had an additional boost in Google’s search results, making it even more important in shaping the world’s knowledge. More at ‘The Day the Knowledge Graph Exploded‘.

New link, February 2014: Jacqueline Wernimont’s Notes for #tooFEW Edit a thon based on a training session by Adrianne Wadewitz are a useful basic introduction to editing.]


References

[1] Various. ‘Wikipedia’. 2013. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia.
[5] Barnett, Fiona. 2013. ‘#tooFEW – Feminists Engage Wikipedia’. HASTAC. March 11. http://hastac.org/blogs/fionab/2013/03/11/toofew-feminists-engage-wikipedia.
[6] Gobry, Pascal-Emmanuel. 2011. ‘Wikipedia Is Hampered By Its Huge Gender Gap’. Business Insider. January 31. http://www.businessinsider.com/wikipedia-is-hampered-by-its-huge-gender-gap-2011-1#.
[7] Cronon, William. 2012. ‘Scholarly Authority in a Wikified World’. Perspectives on History, American Historical Association. February 7. http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2012/1202/Scholarly-Authority-in-a-Wikified-World.cfm.
[8] Saxton, Martha. 2012. ‘Wikipedia and Women’s History: A Classroom Experience’. Writing History in the Digital Age. http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/crowdsourcing/saxton-etal-2012-spring/.
[9] Gobonobo. 2013. ‘User:Gobonobo/Gender Gap Red List’. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Gobonobo/Gender_Gap_red_list
[10] Various.. ‘Hans Reck’. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Reck
[11] Mohr, B. A. R. 2010. Wives and daughters of early Berlin geoscientists and their work behind the scenes. Earth Sciences History 29 (2): 291–310.
[12] As commenter Operalala suggested, one challenge is recognising ‘the difference between the plurality of academia and the singularity of a Wikipedia article’. Comment http://chronicle.com/article/The-Undue-Weight-of-Truth-on/130704/#comment-437781354 on Messer-Kruse, Timothy. 2012. ‘The “Undue Weight” of Truth on Wikipedia’. The Chronicle of Higher Education. February 12. http://chronicle.com/article/The-Undue-Weight-of-Truth-on/130704/.
[13] Rosenzweig, Roy. 2006. ‘Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past’. The Journal of American History 93 (1) (June): 117–46. https://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=42
[14] Operalala on Messer-Kruse, 2012 [15] Cronon, 2012.
[16] Potter, Claire. 2013. ‘Looking for the Women on Wikipedia: Readers Respond’. The Chronicle of Higher Education. March 14. http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/tenuredradical/2013/03/looking-for-the-women-on-wikipedia-readers-respond/
[18] Janet Abbate, “Guest Editor’s Introduction: Women and Gender in the History of Computing,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 4-8, October-December, 2003
[19] Messer-Kruse, 2012.
[20] Anderson, Jill. 2013. ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll (Probably) Never Do Again’. True Stories Backward. http://girlhistorian.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/a-supposedly-fun-thing-ill-probably-never-do-again/
[21] Messer-Kruse, 2012.
[22] Various. 2013. ‘Wikipedia:No Original Research’. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:No_original_research
[23] Various. 2013. ‘Wikipedia:Notability (people)’. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Notability_(people)
[24] Various. 2013. ‘Wikipedia:Notability’. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:NOTE
[25] Or as Christie Aschwanden says when proposing the ‘Finkbeiner test’ for contemporary journalism about women in science, ‘treating female scientists as special cases only perpetuates the idea that there’s something extraordinary about a woman doing science’. Aschwanden, Christie. 2013. ‘The Finkbeiner Test’. Double X Science. March 5. http://www.doublexscience.org/the-finkbeiner-test/
[26] For a recent example, see ‘An Entry of One’s Own, or Why Are There So Few Women In the Early Modern Social Network?’ 2013. Six Degrees of Francis Bacon. March 8. http://sixdegreesoffrancisbacon.com/post/44879380376/an-entry-of-ones-own-or-why-are-there-so-few-women-in and ‘Gender and Name Recognition’. 2013. Six Degrees of Francis Bacon. March 20. http://sixdegreesoffrancisbacon.com/post/45833622936/gender-and-name-recognition
[27] Saxton, 2012
[29] Potter, Claire. 2013. ‘Prikipedia? Or, Looking for the Women on Wikipedia’. The Chronicle of Higher Education. March 10. http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/tenuredradical/2013/03/prikipedia-looking-for-the-women-on-wikipedia/
[30] For advice, see: Wikimedia Outreach. 2013. ‘Education Portal/Tips and Resources’. Wikipedia Outreach Wiki.  http://outreach.wikimedia.org/wiki/Education_Portal/Tips_and_Resources
[31] A comment on Gardner, Sue. 2010. ‘Unlocking the Clubhouse: Five Ways to Encourage Women to Edit Wikipedia’. Sue Gardner’s Blog. November 14. http://suegardner.org/2010/11/14/unlocking-the-clubhouse-five-ways-to-encourage-women-to-edit-wikipedia/
[32] Mandell, Laura. 2013. “Feminist Critique vs. Feminist Production in Digital Humanities.” Keynote presented at the Women’s History in the Digital World conference, Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania March 22 2013

If an app is the answer…

…what was the question?*  And seriously, what questions should museums ask before investing in a mobile or tablet app?

First, some background. In We’re not ‘appy. Not ‘appy at all., Tom Loosemore of the Government Digital Service (GDS) gives examples of the increases in mobile traffic to UK government sites, including up to 60% mobile visits to site with complex transactions like booking driving tests.

For a cultural heritage perspective: as part of the Culture24 Let’s Get Real project, I looked at the percentage of mobile visits (and visitors) to 22 cultural websites for Jan 1, 2012 – September 2, 2012 (an extended time to try and reduce the effect of the Olympics) and found that on average, museums and arts organisations were already seeing an average of 20% mobile visits.  I also reported the percentage change from the same period last year so that people could get a sense of the velocity of change: on average there was a 170% increase in mobile visits to cultural websites compared to the same period in 2011.

We’ll re-run the stats when writing the final report in July, but in the meantime, there’s a recent significant increase in web traffic from tablet devices to take into account.  In BBC iPlayer: tablet viewing requests nearly double in two months the Guardian reported BBC figures:

“Tablets’ share of total iPlayer requests grew from just 6% (TV only: 7%) in January 2012 to 10% (12%) in November and 15% (18%) last month. Smartphone requests have seen similar growth from 6% (TV only: 6%) of the total a year ago to 16% (18%) in January. [… ]A spokesman said it is thought the rise of the “phablet” – smartphones that are almost as big as a tablet, such as the Samsung Note – that have driven the surge.”

Some museums are reporting seeing 40-50% increases in tablet traffic in the past few months. So, given all that, are apps the answer?  Over to Loosemore:

“Our position is that native apps are rarely justified. […] Apps may be transforming gaming and social media, but for utility public services, the ‘making your website adapt really effectively to a range of devices’ approach is currently the better strategy. It allows you to iterate your services much more quickly, minimises any market impact and is far cheaper to support.”

Obviously there are exceptions for apps that meet particular needs or genres, but this stance is part of their Government Digital Strategy:

“Stand-alone mobile apps will only be considered once the core web service works well on mobile devices, and if specifically agreed with the Cabinet Office.” 

So if your cultural organisation is considering an app, perhaps you should consider the questions the GDS poses before asking for an exemption to the requirement to just build a responsive website:

  1. Is our web service already designed to be responsive to different screen sizes? If not, why not?
  2. What is the user need that only a native/hybrid app can meet?
  3. Are there existing native/hybrid apps which already meet this user need?
  4. Is our service available to 3rd parties via an API or open data? If not, why not?
  5. Does meeting this need justify the lifetime cost of a native or hybrid app?
What questions should we add for cultural heritage, arts and educational organisations?  (My pet hate: are you creating amazing content that’s only accessible to people with the right device?) And since I know I’m being deliberately provocative – what exceptions should be allowed? What apps have you seen that could only work as an app with current technology?

* I can’t claim credit for the challenge ‘if an app is the answer, what was the question’, it’s been floating around for a while now and possibly originated at a Let’s Get Real workshop or conference.

Notes from ‘The Shape of Things: New and emerging technology-enabled models of participation through VGC’

I’ve just spent two days in Leicester for the ‘The Shape of Things: New and emerging technology-enabled models of participation through VGC’ conference at the school of Museum Studies, part of the AHRC-funded iSay project focusing on Visitor-Generated Content (VGC) in heritage institutions. There will be lots of posts on the conference blog, so these are just some things that struck me or I’ve found useful concepts for thinking about my own museum practice.

I tweeted about the event as I headed to Leicester, and that started a conversation about the suitability of the term ‘visitor-generated content’ that continued through the event itself. I think it was Giasemi who said that one problem with ‘visitor-generated content’ is that the term puts the emphasis on content and that’s not what it’s about. Jeremy Ottevanger suggested ‘inbound communications’ as a possible replacement for VGC.

The first keynote was Angelina Russo, who reminded us of the importance of curiosity and of finding ways to make museum collections central to visitor engagement work. She questioned the value of some comments left on museum collections other than the engagement in the process of leaving the comment. Having spent too much time reviewing visitor comments, I have to agree that not all comments (particularly repetitive ones) have inherently valuable content or help enhance another visitor’s experience – a subject that was debated during the conference. A conversation over twitter during the conference with Claire Ross helped me realise that designing interfaces that respect and value the experience of both the commenter and reading is one of the interesting challenges in digital participation.

She then used Bourdieu’s ideas around ‘restricted cultural production’ to characterise the work of curators as producers who create cultural goods for other producers, governed by specific norms and sanctions, within relatively self-contained communities where their self-esteem depends on peers. However, this creates a tension between what curators think their role is and what museums need it to be in an age when museums are sites of large-scale cultural production for ‘the public at large’, driven by a quest for market share and profits. Visitor-generated content and the related issues of trust, authority, or digitisation highlight the tensions between these models of restricted or large-scale cultural production – we need to find ‘a pathway through the sand’. Angelina suggested that a version of Bourdieu’s ‘gift economies’, where products are created and given away in return for recognition might provide a solution, then asked what’s required to make that shift within the museum. How can we link the drive for participation with the core work of museums and curatorial scholarship? She presented a model (which I haven’t gone into here) for thinking about ‘cultural communication’, or communication which is collection-led; curiosity-driven; is scholarly; experiential; and offers multi-platform opportunities for active cultural participation, engagement and co-creation.

Carl Hogsden from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and University of Cambridge talked about the Reciprocal Research Network and moving beyond digital feedback to digital reciprocation. This project has been doing innovative work for a long time, so it was good to see it presented again.

Jenny Kidd from Cardiff University posed some useful questions in ‘VGC and ethics – what we might learn from the media and journalism’ – it’s questionable how much VGC (or user-generated content, UGC) has actually changed journalism, despite the promise of increased civic engagement, diversity, more relevant news and a re-framing of the audience as active citizens rather than consumers. One interesting point was the impact of the ‘Arab Spring’ on UGC – content that couldn’t be verified couldn’t be shown by traditional media so protesters started including establishing shots and improving the quality of their recordings. This was also the first of several papers that referenced ‘Whose cake is it anyway‘, a key text for conversations about visitor participation and museums and Jenny suggested that sometimes being seen to engage in participatory activity is currently possibly end goal in itself for a museum. She presented questions for further research and debate including: is the museum interested in quality of process or product of VGC and do creators feel the same? How does VGC fit in workflow models of museums?

Giasemi Vavoula‘s paper on ‘The role of VGC in digital transformations in Museum Learning’ (slides) was fascinating, particularly as it presented frameworks for audience engagement taken from learning theory that closely matched those I’d found from studies of citizen science and engagement in heritage and sport (e.g. cognitive engagement model – highest is theorising, then applying, relating, explaining, describing, note-taking, memorising… Good visitor experiences get most visitors to use the higher engagement level processes that the more focused visitors use spontaneously). I love learning from Learning people – in museum learning/visitor studies, social interaction facilitates learning; visitors negotiate the meanings of exhibits through conversation with their companions. Giasemi called for museums to weave VGC into the fabric of visitors social contexts; to scaffold and embed it into visiting experience; and to align with visitors and organisations’ social agendas.

In ‘A Tale of Two WorkhousesPeter Rogers and Juliet Sprake spoke of ‘filling in the gaps rather than being recipients of one-way information flow’, which tied in nicely with discussion around the role of curiosity in audience participation.

In the afternoon there was a Q&A session with Nina Simon (via skype). A number of the questions were about sustainability, designing for mixed contexts, and the final question was ‘where next from here?’. Nina advised designing participatory experiences so that people can observe the activity and decide to take part when they’re comfortable with it – this also works for designing things that work as spectator experiences for people who don’t want to join in. Nina’s response to a question about ‘designing better questions’ – ‘find questions where you have genuine interest in what the visitor has to say about it’ – resonated with wider discussion about meaningful visitor participation. Nina talked about the cumulative effect of participatory work on the museum itself, changing not only how the museum sees itself but how others see it – I wonder how many museums in the UK are engaging with visitor participation to the extent that it changes the museum itself? Nina also made the point that you tend to have either highly participatory process to make conventional product, or conventional process to make highly participatory product, and that not everything has to be wholly participatory from start to finish, which is useful for thinking how co-creative projects.

On Friday morning I gave a keynote on ‘crowdsourcing as productive engagement with cultural heritage’. My slides for ‘Crowdsourcing as productive engagement with cultural heritage‘ are now online. I partly wanted to problematise the power relationships in participatory projects – whose voice can affect change? – and to tease out different ways of thinking about crowdsourcing in cultural heritage as productive both in terms of the process (engaging in cultural heritage) and the product (the sheer number of items transcribed, corrected, etc). I’ve been going back to research on motivations for volunteering in cultural heritage, working on open source projects and reviewing discussions with participants in crowdsourcing projects, and I hope it’ll help people design projects that meet those altruistic, extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. Thinking about my paper in the context of the other presentations also got me thinking about the role of curiosity in audience engagement and encouraging people to start researching a subject (whether a ship’s history, an individual or a general topic) more deeply. On a personal note, this paper was a good chance to reflect on the different types of audience engagement with museum collections or historic sources and on the inherent value of participation in cultural heritage projects that underpin my MSc and PhD research and my work in museums generally.

Areti Galani presented research she’d done with Rachel Clarke (Newcastle University), and asked ‘how can accessible technology lead to inaccessible participation paradigms?’. I was really interested in the difference between quality of the visitor contributions in-gallery vs online (though of course ‘quality’ is a highly subjective term), a question that surfaced through the day. Areti’s research might suggest that building in some delay in the process of contributing in-gallery could lead to better quality (i.e. more considered) contributions. The novelty of the technology used might also have an effect – ‘pen-happy visitors’ who used the technology for the sake of interacting with it but didn’t know what to do after picked up the pen.

The paper from Jeremy Ottevanger (Imperial War Museums) on “Social Interpretation” as a catalyst for organisational change generated more discussion on possible reasons why online comments on museum sites tend to be more thoughtful than in-gallery comments, with one possible reason being that online commenters have deliberately sought out the content, so already have a deeper engagement with those specific items, rather than just coming across them while moving through the physical gallery. Jeremy talked about the need for the museum to find an internal workflow that was appropriately responsive to online comments – in my experience, this is one of the most difficult issues in planning for digital projects. Jeremy presented a useful categorisation of online contributions as personal (emotional, opinion, personal information, anecdotes, family history), requests and queries (object info, valuation, family history, digitisation and licencing, offering material, access, history, general/website), and informational (new information, corrections) and looked at which types of contribution were responded to by different departments. He finished with a vision of the IWM harnessing the enthusiasm and knowledge of their audiences to help serve the need of other audiences, of connecting people with expertise with people who have questions.

Jack Ashby talked about finding the right questions for the QRator project at the Grant Museum of Zoology – a turtle is a turtle, and there’s not a lot of value in finding out what visitors might want to call it, but asking wider questions could be more useful. Like the wider Social Interpretation project, QRator always raises questions for me about whether museums should actively ‘garden’ visitor interactives, pruning out less relevant questions to create a better experience for other visitors.

Rolf Steier and Palmyre Pierroux discussed their findings on the role of the affordances of social media and visitor contributions in museums. Rosie Cardiff talked about the Tate’s motivations for participatory projects with audiences, and audience motivations for participating in Tate’s projects. She presented some considerations for organisations considering participatory projects: who is the audience? What motivations for visitor and for organisation? What platform will you use? How will the content be moderated? (Who will do it?) Where will it sit in relation to organisational space online or in-gallery? How long will it run for? What plans for archiving and maintaining content beyond lifetime of project? How will you measure success? How will you manage audience expectations about what’s going to happen to their work? This last point was also picked up in discussions about audience expectations about how long museums will keep their contributions.

The final presentation was Ross Parry‘s keynote on ‘The end of the beginning: Normativity in the postdigital museum. Based on new research into how six UK national (i.e. centrally funded, big, prestigious museums) have started to naturalise ‘digital’ into their overall museum vision, this paper gave me hope for the future. There’s still a long way to go, but Ross articulated a vision of how some museums are integrating digital in the immediate future, and how it will integrated once the necessary stage of highlighting ‘digital’ in strategies, organisational structures and projects has given way to a more cohesive incorporation of ‘digital’ into the fabric of museums. It also makes sense in the context of discussions about digital strategies in museums over the past year (e.g. at the Museums Assocation and UK Museums on the Web (themes, my report) conferences).

I had to leave before the final session, so my report ends here, but I expect there’ll be more reports on the project blog and I’ve saved an archive of isayevent_tweets_2013_02_01 (CSV).

I think the organisers, Giasemi Vavoula and Jenny Kidd, did a great job on the conference programme. The papers and audience were a well-balanced combination of academics and practioners – the academic papers gave me interesting frameworks to think with, and the case studies provided material to think about.

Finding museum, digital humanities and public history projects and communities online

Every once in a while I see someone asking for sources on digital, participatory, social media projects around museums, public history, social history, etc but I don’t always have a moment to reply.  To make it easier to help people, here’s a quick collection of good places to get started.

I think the best source for museums and digital/social media projects is the site and community around the Museums and the Web conference, including ‘Best of the Web’ nominations and awards (2012-1997)  and conference proceedings: 201220112010-1987.

Other projects might be listed at the new Digital Humanities Awards (nominations closed on the 11th so presumably they’ll publish the list of nominees soon) or the (US) National Council on Public History Awards. The Digital Humanities conferences also include some social history, public history and participatory projects e.g. DH2012, as did the first Digital Humanities Australasia conference and the MCG’s UK Museums on the Web conference reports.

To start finding online communities, look for people tweeting with #dhist, #digitalhumanities, #lodlam, #drinkingaboutmuseums, #musetech (and variations) or join the Museums Computer Group or the Museum Computer Network lists (or check their archives).

I’d like to add a list of museum bloggers (whether they focus on social media, technology, education, exhibition design, audience research, etc) but don’t know of any comprehensive, up-to-date lists (or delicious etc tags).  (Though since I originally posted @gretchjenn pointed me to the new ‘Meet a museum blogger‘ series and @alexandrematos told me about Cultural blogging in Europe which includes a map of the European cultural blogging scene.) Where do you look for museum bloggers?

This is only a start, so please chip in!  Add any resources I’m missing in the comments below, or tweet @mia_out.

Keeping corridors clear of dragons (on agency and digital humanities tools)

A while ago I posted ‘Reflections on teaching Neatline‘, which was really about growing pains in the digital humanities. I closed by asking ‘how do you balance the need for fast-moving innovative work-in-progress to be a bit hacky and untidy around the edges with the desires of a wider group of digital humanities-curious scholars [for stable, easy-to-use software]? Is it ok to say ‘here be dragons, enter at your own risk’?’ Looking back, I started thinking about this in terms of museum technologists (in Museum technologists redux: it’s not about us) but there I was largely thinking of audiences, and slightly less of colleagues within museums or academia.  I’m still not sure if this is a blog post or just an extended comment on those post, but either way, this is an instance of posting-as-thinking.

Bethany Nowviskie has problematised and contextualised some of these issues in the digital humanities far more elegantly for an invited talk at the MLA 2013 conference. You should go read the whole thing at resistance in the materials, but I want to quickly highlight some of her points here.

She quotes William Morris: ‘…you can’t have art without resistance in the material. No! The very slowness with which the pen or the brush moves over the paper, or the graver goes through the wood, has its value. And it seems to me, too, that with a machine, one’s mind would be apt to be taken off the work at whiles by the machine sticking or what not’ and discusses her realisation that:

“Morris’s final, throwaway complaint is not about that positive, inherent resistance—the friction that makes art—which we happily seek within the humanities material we practice upon. It’s about resistance unhealthily and inaccessibly located in a toolset. … precisely this kind of disenfranchising resistance is the one most felt by scholars and students new to the digital humanities. Evidence of friction in the means, rather than the materials, of digital humanities inquiry is everywhere evident.”

And she includes an important call to action for digital humanities technologists: “we diminish our responsibility to address this frustration by naming it the inevitable “learning curve” of the digital humanities. Instead, we might confess that among the chief barriers to entry are poorly engineered and ineptly designed research tools and social systems”. Her paper is also a call for a more nuanced understanding and greater empathy from tool-builders toward those who are disenfranchised by tools they didn’t create and can’t hack to fit their needs. It’s too easy to forget that an application or toolset that looks like something I can happily pick up and play with to make it my own may well look as unfathomable and un-interrogable as the case of a mobile phone to someone else.

Digital humanities is no longer a cosy clubhouse, which can be uncomfortable for people who’d finally found an academic space where they felt at home. But DH is also causing discomfort for other scholars as it encroaches on the wider humanities, whether it’s as a funding buzzword, as a generator of tools and theory, or as a mode of dialogue. This discomfort can only be exacerbated by the speed of change, but I suspect that fear of the unknown demands of DH methods or anxiety about the mental capabilities required are even more powerful*. (And some of it is no doubt a reaction to the looming sense of yet another thing to somehow find time to figure out.) As Sharon Leon points out in ‘Digital Methods for Mid-Career Avoiders?‘, digital historians are generally ‘at home with the sense of uncomfortableness and risk of learning new methods and approaches’ and can cope with ‘a feeling of being at sea while figuring out something completely new’, while conversely ‘this kind of discomfort is simply to overwhelming for historians who are defined by being the expert in their field, being the most knowledgable, being the person who critiques the shortfalls of the work of others’.

In reflecting on March 2012’s Digital Humanities Australasia and the events and conversations I’ve been part of over the last year, it seems that we need ways of characterising the difference between scholars using digital methods and materials to increase their productivity (swapping card catalogues for online libraries, or type-writers for Word) without fundamentally interrogating their new working practices, and those who charge ahead, inventing tools and methods to meet their needs.  It should go without saying that any characterisations should not unfairly or pejoratively label either group (and those in-between).

Going beyond the tricky ‘on-boarding’ moments I talked about in ‘Reflections on teaching Neatline‘, digital humanities must consider the effect of personal agency in relation to technology, issues in wider society that affect access to ‘hack’ skills and what should be done to make the tools, or the means, of DH scholarship more accessible and transparent. Growing pains are one thing, and we can probably all sympathise with an awkward teenage phase, but as digital humanities matures as a field, it’s time to accept our responsibility for the environment we’re creating for other scholars. Dragons are fine in the far reaches of the map where the adventurous are expecting them, but they shouldn’t be encountered in the office corridor by someone who only wanted to get some work done.

* Since posting this, I’ve read Stephen Ramsey’s ‘The Hot Thing‘, which expresses more anxieties about DH than I’ve glanced at here: ‘Digital humanities is the hottest thing in the humanities. … So it is meet and good that we talk about this hot thing. But the question is this: Are you hot?’.  But even here, do technologists and the like have an advantage? I’m used to (if not reconciled to) the idea that every few years I’ll have to learn another programming language and new design paradigms just to keep up; but even I’m glad I don’t have to keep up with the number of frameworks that front-end web developers have to, so perhaps not?

Clash of the models? Object-centred and object-driven approaches in online collections

While re-visiting the world of museum collections online for some writing on ‘crowdsourcing as participation and engagement with cultural heritage’, I came across a description of Bernard Herman’s object-centred and object-driven models that could be useful for thinking about mental models designing better online collections sites.

(I often talk about mental models, so here’s a widely quoted good definition, attributed to Susan Carey’s 1986 journal article, Cognitive science and science education:

‘A mental model represents a person’s thought process for how something works (i.e., a person’s understanding of the surrounding world). Mental models are based on incomplete facts, past experiences, and even intuitive perceptions. They help shape actions and behavior, influence what people pay attention to in complicated situations, and define how people approach and solve problems.’

CATWALKModel House FaceTo illustrate a clash in models, when you read ‘model’ you might have thought of lots of different mental pictures of a ‘model’, including model buildings or catwork models, and they’d both be right and yet not quite what I meant:

And now, back to museums…)

To quote from the material culture site I was reading, which references Herman 1992 ‘The Stolen House’, in an object-centred approach the object itself is the focus of study:

“Here, we need to pay attention to the specific physical attributes of the object. The ability to describe the object – to engage, that is, with a list of descriptive criteria – is at the forefront of this approach. A typical checklist of the kinds of questions we might ask about an object include: how, and with what materials, was the object made? what is its shape, size, texture, weight and colour? how might one describe its design, style and/or decorative status? when was it made, and for what purpose?”

In object-driven material culture:

“the focus shifts toward an emphasis on understanding how objects relate to the peoples and cultures that make and use them. In particular, ideas about contextualisation and function become all important. As we have already noted, what objects mean may change through time and space. As products of a particular time and place, objects can tell us a great deal about the societies that gave birth to them. That is, they often help to reflect, or speak to us, of the values and beliefs of those who created them. At the same time, it is also important to remember that objects are not simply ‘passive’ in this way, but that they can also take on a more ‘active’ role, helping to create meaning rather than simply reflect it.”

It seems to me that the object-centred approach includes much of the information recorded in museum catalogues, while the object-driven approach is closer to an exhibition.  Online museum collections often re-use content from catalogues and therefore tend to be object-centred by default as catalogues generally don’t contain the information necessary to explain how each object relates ‘to the peoples and cultures that make and use them’ required for an object-driven approach.  If that contextual information is available, the object might be sequestered off in an ‘online exhibition’ not discoverable from the main collections site.

A complicating factor is the intersection of Herman’s approaches with questions about the ways audiences think about objects in museums and other memory institutions (as raised in Rockets, Lockets and Sprockets – towards audience models about collections?).  The object-centred approach seems more easily applicable to individual objects but the object-driven approach possibly works better for classes of objects.  I’m still not sure how different audiences think about the differences between individual objects and classes of objects, so it’s even harder to know which approach works best in different contexts, let alone how you would determine which model best suits a visitor when their interaction is online and therefore mostly contextless.  (If you know of research on this, I’d love to hear about it!)

I’d asked on twitter: ‘Can mixed models make online collections confusing?’  John Coburn suggested that modes of enquiry online might be different, and that the object-driven attributes might be less important.  This was a useful point, not least because it helped me crystallise one reason I find the de-materialisation of objects online disconcerting – attributes like size, weight, texture, etc, all help me relate to and understand objects.  Or as Janet E Davis said, ‘I automatically try to ‘translate’ into the original medium in my head’.   John answered with another question: ‘So do we present objects via resonant ideas/themes/wider narrative, rather than jpg+title being “end points”?’, which personally seems like a good goal for online collections, but I’m not the audience.

So my overall question remains: is there a potential mismatch between the object-driven approach that exhibitions have trained museum audiences to expect and the object-centred approach they encounter in museum collections online?  And if so, what should be done about it?