Impermanence and archives in the information era

I have been thinking a lot lately about the ideas of impermanence, flexibility, retention, and change. Apart from the aesthetics or poetics of impermanence, it does in a very real sense pose problems to a digital record. We have access to more voices, more information, more possibilities than ever before, yet in some ways we have less. As projects and web spaces necessarily evolve, history and documentation can be lost. Sometimes it is refined, but sometimes it is simply replaced.

As I began a discussion today about digital humanities resources, completion, and evolution, I realized data fragility on that level is something to return to at another time. Here, and now, the concern is on a more immediate possibility of a different kind of record loss.

The broader web and digital records pose challenges that archivists have been debating since the beginnings of the Internet—how rapid, how impermanent a space for communications and public discourse. But it is also a place for public access to many kinds of records, and none seem more important right now than government data. In an era of looming uncertainty about transparency and access to information, the preservation activities of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine seem suddenly radical.

Archivists as activists have been a topic of interest for some time, but it is often in relation to hidden histories or underrepresented communities that such discussion develops. It is a strange twist, indeed, to suddenly view government documents archivists and scientific communities as activists. But as the fear that certain politically unpopular documentation—websites, datasets, papers, reports, communications—may start to disappear, a frantic effort to collect and archive seems like just that.

Business Insider explains this in an article articulating concerns about the possibility of climate change data being wiped from both servers and web spaces.

Tech.Co similarly explains three ways scientists are frantically preserving this data.

The University of Toronto Guerrilla Archiving Event: Saving Environmental Data from Trump was initiated by faculty fearing data loss and the tamping down on access to information. The End of Term Presidential Harvest, an initiative of several university and government offices, took on a tone this year that seems more urgent, more immediate, and more important than in the past. As though data—and history—may actually be erased, not just updated or misplaced.

There are undertones not simply of the usual transience and carelessness in the management and access to information, but of malicious intent. This is put forth, forcefully, in the language of the Internet Archive’s See Something, Save Something initiative. Sure, it’s about anyone pitching in to help preserve websites and digital content, but co-opting and playing on the language of the See Something, Say Something campaign to combat terrorism through heightened public awareness is not a subtle message that the willful “disappearance” of information from public spheres is something against which people must remain vigilant.

Further, digging out and tweeting this 1946 educational film on despotism seems an unequivocal declaration that Internet Archive is watching the political and social arenas and guarding access to information for the future of an informed citizenry:

Despotism
Encyclopedia Britannica Films
1946

Archival activism is alive and more essential than ever, and the task of vigilant preservation and advocating for public spheres just became even more immediate. The message on the part of a great many groups is clear: knowledge isn’t just power, it’s a basic human right.

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Exhibit test materials and learning some new software

Cinderella images

A test background for an upcoming exhibit on Cinderella.

Four Cinderella images

Cinderella test image for exhibit background.

I have been working with the Smathers Libraries Digital Humanities Library Learning Group on an interesting project to learn techniques and tools related to digital humanities work. As part of the exhibits committee I am working with a group of librarians to curate and create an online exhibit using children’s books from the Special Collections Department. The two images above are test backgrounds for a new exhibit on Cinderella and Ashenputtel, the French and German versions of the classic story.

I have been working with Omeka a lot lately (you can see the basics of my first forays into using that CMS from a few years ago in this earlier post), and I have had the chance to experiment with the exhibit creation tools in ways I have not tried in the past. This includes using Neatline, a timeline and geospatial imaging plugin. I am testing the process of using this plugin to create image-driven narrative content (as opposed to map- and timeline-based), which has great potential to create engaging displays.

I will make a longer post detailing more of my process later on, but for now I have posted the above images in order to have base layer images available online; I am still working out sizing and layout details, so nothing is finalized yet. So far the experiments have been exciting, and of course I always love building graphics! I look forward to adding more reflections soon.

Capturing the essence of a visual work

It’s not too often that one has the chance to muse that art and cataloging librarianship have a lot in common, and yet when it comes to describing the emotional impact of visual material they can. I have thought a lot about emotional meanings from an image retrieval perspective over the past few years, ever since reading JungWon Yoon’s article, Searching for an Image conveying connotative meanings: An exploratory cross-cultural study. I am reminded of it now, as I play with the Kiasma Museum’s Tunteella app, which is designed to measure your mood as assigned to images and then recommend a work from the Finnish National Gallery to view based on the emotional profile it has gathered. It’s clever, of course a bit gimmicky, and a fun little exercise. It’s meant to be a quick foray into art engagement, but it also brings up much larger questions of meaning and interpretation, and the limits of the app spotlight a real tension that exists between image retrieval and connotation in imagery.

Connotative meanings and image retrieval
First, it is worth noting that in Yoon’s study she discusses the problem of indexing materials—in this case images—in a way that describes the meaning and emotional content of the work. It’s easier to describe the more concrete attributes, and yet she notes that most often users want an image to fulfill a search based on more than just denotative criteria. A sunlit sky with dark clouds, for example, could convey a sense of ominous impending storm or optimism associated with the clouds parting after a beneficial rain, a lonely and isolated landscape or a beautiful untouched wilderness—trite example, maybe, but it gets at the way experiences and moods inform the way images are seen. And yet, in searching behavior users often want to find an image that conveys a certain mood or emotion, not just a scene. This interpretation, however, is influenced by many factors, including (to name just a few) one’s own mood while viewing at a particular moment, one’s general disposition, and cultural factors, the latter of which Yoon looks at in her study.

But as artists and art historians, we already know that. We interpret visual material and encourage others to consider and find meaning. There is uneasiness in the multiplicity of possibilities, but the expansiveness is also a reminder of the complexity of human experience and the desire to understand things through various lenses. We can index and catalog imagery to a certain point, but there is often something left unaccounted for as soon as minimal labels are applied.

Tunteella
This brings me back around to Tunteella, which relies on a viewer’s emotional interpretations of nine randomly selected works to gauge the prevailing mood through which they are seeing the world. By interpreting your assignment of one of eight different terms meant to express mood, the app decides on your prevailing world view and suggests a work of art you should look at.

Tunteella app screen

Result screen from my interpretation of nine randomly selected works in Tunteella.

The point I discussed above about the subjectivity of describing visual imagery is best illustrated here by two points; first, the same word choices are available for all images and second the same images make it into multiple conflicting categories of the “top ten” list of all the mood options. Case in point, Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s video piece The Annunciation appears at a varying rank in five different categories: irritating, crazy, threatening, voluptuous, and mystical. These indicate, in some cases, wildly divergent experiences of the same piece—threatening and mystical might generally be understood—though not always—as divergent concepts. This is fascinating and perfectly exemplifies the complexity of human emotional responses. We simply can’t describe most visual material in terms of connotative meanings with words that will be universal. The best that we can strive for is finding broad categories and trends for this area of indexing.

Read more about my thoughts on the potential problems associated with defining broad emotional categories for users in a related blog post on my other blog, Writing It All Down.

Directions

I began this blog during my library school studies as an assignment to complete a portion of the original 23 Things program. This is a popular and ongoing LIS assignment because the original concept was so brilliantly conceived. Countless spin-offs arose from nearly every corner of the field, updating with new technologies, eliminating the outdated content, and expanding to pull in resources specific to archives or to information literacy or any other number of topics. Structured exploration is valuable for skill building, but also for cultivating the habit of curiosity and connection—these programs undoubtedly encourage people who would not seek out new technologies to explore and also provide a ready source for those who are naturally curious to see elements that they might have missed in their own expeditions. Either way, the programs are a great asset to the field of librarianship.

For the purposes of this blog I have extended the “things” I chose to cover with specific reflections about the ways they can be used in information literacy instruction or library outreach and programming. Now that I am back to writing in this space, I am shifting my focus ever so slightly. I will still be exploring new social media and technologies and the ways that these can be leveraged in the library environment, but I am departing from following any formalized “things” program—there are too many great resources that I use to artificially limit the process and sometimes the various programs are slow to respond to rapid technological changes. A case in point is the ambitious addition of intermediate and advanced sections to the original 23 Things for Archivists program, neither of which has ever be completed—though the resources that are there are still largely very useful elements. The newest version (which is being updated) is located at a new site, and has a less demanding schedule of additions.

So, as the title suggests, this blog is about a journey. It began in graduate school and is now extending beyond that into my professional life. With that, it is evolving beyond the original thematic confines, though still focusing on the exploration of technological tools and reflections about potential use in the library field. I look forward to my explorations and to the interactions that will happen along the way!

20140926_113329

It’s been awhile…

Funny how time often slips by so quickly. Despite good intentions, I have been neglecting this and my other blog, Writing It All Down, for quite some time–well, to be exact it’s going on close to three years now. That isn’t to say I haven’t been just as engaged with exploring new social media resources, figuring out ways to incorporate them into library and information literacy practices, and design work. To the contrary, I have actually been involved with some very exciting work, but my energy has been focused on the planning, research, articles, presentations, deliverables, and social media use specific to those projects.

Despite my hiatus having dragged on a bit longer than originally anticipated–and let’s face it, there are plenty of well-intentioned but unfinished and abandoned personal and institutional resources out there–I am back with renewed excitement and many things to share.

First, I thought I’d jump in with a micro update on my new activities so I am including some links to recent library projects:

Stereographs of the Panama Canal:

Loading Drill-Holes with Dynamite. Preparatory to Blasting – Near Empire on the Panama Canal Route. Keystone View Company. 1909. Panama Canal Museum Collection, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida. http://ufdc.ufl.edu/PCMI003509/00001.


In my work with the Panama Canal Museum Collection at the University of Florida, I wrote a grant proposal to digitize a set of important resources from the collection. This grant provided funds to scan (front and back–trust me, scanning the back is important and was often not done in the past), process, enhance metadata, run OCR, create animated gif files (a huge thanks goes to Jimmy Barnett for the creation of these), and create associated educational resources.
Sub-collection of stereographs:
http://ufdc.ufl.edu/ps

Grant proposal:
http://ufdc.ufl.edu/IR00003179/00001
Panama and the Canal:
Some of the day-to-day work I perform includes selecting and digitizing, or sending for digitization, important materials from the collection to build the digital library space. Much of this work includes enhancing the metadata and creating original records and finding aids for the archival collection.

Panama and the Canal digital library:

Panama Canal Centennial Celebration:Much of the work I currently do is tied up in a museum-library merger, a part of which is the cultivation and partnership of a dedicated museum community. A huge part of that has been planning for a Panama Canal Centennial Celebration weekend, which was held in late August and included exhibits, lectures, museum family days, and performances.

Photos and information from the museum day:
http://cms.uflib.ufl.edu/PanamaCanalCentennial/PCZDay

Just a few of the exhibits:
I curated and installed this exhibit in the Education Library at UF: The Everyday and the Extraordinary: Molas and Ritual Objects of the Kuna People:

My colleagues Lourdes and Amara and I co-curated and installed Panama: Tropical Ecosystem at the Florida Museum of Natural History:
    It's been awhile...It's been awhile... It's been awhile...

I will save other projects for a later time, but having given a capsule review here it’s time to move on! I’m looking forward to connecting and re-connecting to discuss, debate, and share all kinds of new things. Next up: a bit of redesign and redirection.

Final Reflections

This journey has reminded me that social media tools are as useful as you choose to make them. Sometimes they offer immense, but underutilized possibilities while at other times too much functionality–or fluff–can lead to utter distraction. Through this 23 Things exercise I have explored new ways to use old standbys and encountered creative solutions that incorporate emerging or unfamiliar resources. I have at times been excited by the breadth of available networks and at other times overwhelmed while trying to think about how to incorporate every possible resource into my life and into an information literacy context.

This latter point has perhaps been the best learning experience of all. Thinking about the available Web 2.0 tools and selecting those that most conveniently deliver the content to meet my needs in different situations closely mirrors the selection that is necessary in information literacy endeavors. Some resources meet needs better than others; some are better designed or written, more authoritative, or more in-depth; others have brevity and simple language in their favor. What works best depends on the particular need and context. More isn’t always better, nor is complexity. The key is in the proper assessment and selection of tools, just as of information resources. This has been my own lesson in evaluation and selection and is one that I will try to carry forward when deciding which Web 2.0 tools to use, to teach, and to discard.

Of course, when I began this blog I also noted that the 23 Things for Archivists program was interesting precisely because it looked to the future. The program has many more stages that the Reference, Access, and Outreach Section of the Society of American Archivists has yet to expand and I look forward to seeing the remainder of the intermediate and advanced lists when they are completed. The latter has been left open to the evolving nature of Web resources, indicating with the caption 47-∞ that indeed this project is a living, growing process. I am summarizing my thoughts on my experiences here, but this in no way indicates that the learning process is done. As the list indicates, change is constant with technological tools and staying connected requires constant awareness and exploration.

Thing # 26: LibraryThing

You may remember that in an earlier post I used my LibraryThing account to create a customized widget for this blog, so I am obviously already familiar with this social network. In the spirit of how I began this blog, however, I am ending it with a deeper look into a web resource that I have only used in a minimal capacity. There are clearly more sophisticated uses for LibraryThing, and learning more about them has transformed a mildly entertaining platform into a potentially useful tool. In the spirit of deeper exploration, this is what I have found.

LibraryThing Basics
Ease of use is the first notable component of LibraryThing because it allows books to be cataloged simply by adding titles to a list. Once a user adds a book the remainder of the cataloging metadata is added automatically when LibraryThing imports records information from library catalogs. MARC and Dublin Core metadata can be imported from a number of prestigious sources such as the Library of Congress, British Library, and Yale University. Given this capability, the suggestion in the 23 Things article that small libraries are using LibraryThing as a cataloging tool makes sense. Since users can specify the source of the metadata, libraries can ensure that the records they create are the highest quality possible. An additional perk is that LibraryThing allows social functions, including tagging, so it is possible to use both formalized data such as authorized subject headings and folksonomies, which can increase the return rate when users search. These tags also offer a way for people to easily browse resources on similar subjects.

The scale and scope of LibraryThing is also notable. The site statistics indicate that there are 1,321,097 members, with 61,555,555 books cataloged, 74,860,118 tags added, 6,029,197 unique works, and 1,370,340 reviews; chances are, if your library owns it, it’s already cataloged in here. This makes the site a wealth of information about books, which could be extremely useful to libraries or archives as a research tool, regardless of whether an institutional account is maintained. Also, the price is certainly right–at free up to 200 books, $10 a year for more, or $25 for a lifetime unlimited membership, it should be an easy expenditure for any library to justify.

LibraryThing for Libraries is an additional resource that can integrate LibraryThing into an existing OPAC, providing popular features such as cloud tags, recommendations, the ability to write reviews, etc. This adds a much-needed social dimension to library catalogs, which run the risk of seeming opaque and dated when users are accustomed to retrieving extra metadata from places like Amazon.com. The ACRL blog provides a description of how this has been incorporated into the Claremont College Library OPAC. In short, the features include similar book recommendations, user tags, and reviews, all of which make it easier for users to find resources. These are good tools for information literacy instruction because educating users as to how tags can help identify resources in easy-to-understand language is important. So too is explaining the differences between authority headings and natural language, both which have retrieval strengths and come together in this system. Using the widget feature is also a good way to showcase favorite or new books in the collections.

Social Aspects
In addition to library accounts and plugins for an OPAC system, individual user accounts on LibraryThing offer research possibilities. For starters, organizing titles that you have read gives a good review of what you have already covered in your research. This is especially true since titles can be organized in different ways, including lists of books already, books you’d like to read, books you’ve shared with others, etc. More importantly, just like resources such as CiteULike, it is possible to identify quality users and learn from their library selections. Simply clicking a book in my collection reveals other users that have selected the same book. I can then check out their selections to see if they have identified resources that I might find helpful; using the “similar library” feature can function in the same way. Once I identify a great user I can follow them to see additional recommendations as they are added.

It is also possible to identify additional resources by following tag links. I tried this out by searching the topic art conservation, which revealed 106 books. I clicked on The Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art and got a user list, LibraryThing similar book recommendations, and a tag cloud. Clicking on conservation broadened my resource list, which was both useful and overwhelming. This action returned over 6,000 titles, many of which were focused on natural resources and animals; sifting through, however revealed that some titles not returned in my initial search were useful. This is a key feature of tagging since narrowing and broadening searches can reveal different types of resources, and clicking tags offers some direction for users that can’t think of additional search terms.

Applications for Information Literacy
LibraryThing is a more powerful search tool than I had previously realized. For information literacy instruction it would be useful to have students create an account and follow a class library list, with collections dedicated to information literacy, research, and related topics. Students could in turn collect titles related to their own research project and follow appropriate users to identify additional sources; they could also be assigned to follow the lists of classmates covering similar topics. The groups feature could be utilized as well as a means of instituting a mandatory discussion forum centered around books.

This community of classroom users could post responses and share resources. Of course, I noticed many of the groups on LibraryThing are dormant while others are quite active. That’s how it goes with social networks. In order to make a LibraryThing group related to a class successful, it would need to take the place of other possible social network group tools (too much of a good thing) and be mandatory. The fact is that students get busy and often forget about voluntary participation. Even so, incorporating a public group organized around a class could leave a quality record of insightful discussion. This could then be continued or shared with later classes.

So what did I learn here?
First, I have learned that I am not using even a quarter of the potential that LibraryThing offers in terms of research and instructional possibilities. However, this is a broader issue with social networking tools. Over the course of working through the 23 Things list I have realized the importance of using a variety of tools that Web 2.0 technologies have made available and have explored ways to enhance those that I am already using. These networks and programs really do offer sophisticated solutions for acquiring resources and creating content. However, as exciting as any new resource may be, I have had to remind myself that there is a limit to the time I can spend participating. Some resources are simply better for some tasks, and wise selection is the key to avoiding information overload.