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Clio Wired: Week 5 Reflection

What I thought of the reading:

The key concept of this week’s readings is crowdsourcing.  The authors explore how the power of the crowd can be harnessed in order to create and improve history content on the web.  This decentralized method of doing history involves many complex issues in the realms of scholarship, human psychology, and technology:  Can crowdsourced history be high quality?  How can we motivate users to perform large amounts of tagging or transcription?  How do institutions learn to trust anonymous users?  How can we create intuitive, effective, and easy-to-use tools for a projects’ volunteers?

For me, the most useful reading this week is by Trevor Owens, whose blog addresses many of these questions.  Owens very usefully breaks down the term “crowdsourcing,” emphasizing that users are not really an undifferentiated crowd, but rather engaged, enthusiastic volunteers and amateurs–in other words, the type of people that museums and libraries have been relying on for years.  Moreover, “sourcing” should not be defined as labor or exploitation, but as meaningful work.  Importantly, the main motivator for users is that the task speaks to their personal identities and gives them a sense of purpose.  Rose Holley, in addition to addressing users’ feeling of purpose, speaks about more concrete types of motivation, such as progress bars, top user rankings, rewards, leveling-up, etc.

Motivational tools on oldweather.org

Motivational tools on Old Weather

Owens also makes an important distinction between types of crowdsourcing projects:  “Human Computation” projects require users to perform short, discrete tasks which are more easily accomplished by a human than a computer. “Wisdom of Crowds/Why Wasn’t I Consulted” projects, on the other hand, require users to present knowledge in a more free-form manner, like in the encyclopedia project Wikipedia.  In my mind, the major distinction between these types of projects is that the former improves access to existing content, while the latter creates new content altogether.  From the projects I’ve sampled this week, I have gathered that Human Computation projects tend to deal with primary source materials provided by a centralized, authoritative institution, while Wisdom of Crowds projects create secondary historical content in a democratized fashion.  The article in History News on “radical trust” presents reactions from institution employees on letting go of some authority by soliciting crowdsourced data; while some interviewees seem thrilled by the prospect, others wished to hold more tightly to the reigns of authority.

The discomfort that some institutions might feel in allowing anonymous users to provide metadata for their digital collections is echoed in scholarly concerns about the validity of Wikipedia.  This debate over Wikipedia has been raging for a long time now.  Wikipedia’s problems (errors, inconsistent coverage, bias toward the subject at hand, and poor writing) are perhaps old news at this point.  However, as Rozensweig points out, Wikipedia’s model of open access and collaboration provides an important example for future digital history projects, and challenges traditional scholarship’s insistence on individualism and hiding behind a pay wall.  Rosenzweig makes a very shrewd recommendation when he implores those who despise Wikipedia to make their own content as easily accessible to users.

Trying it out myself:

I tried my hand at many of the crowdsourcing projects mentioned in the readings this week.  Some like NYPL’s What’s on the menu? and GalaxyZoo are fun and quick.  The tools are easy to use, and the actual transcribing or identifying does not require much skill or practice.  The experience of transcribing Papers of the War Department felt like a completely different animal.  In fact, I consider the experience a bit high stress!  Deciphering handwriting is not an easy task and can by very time-consuming; also, for this project in particular, I felt a lot of responsibility.  Since these letters are of Great Historical Importance, it feels like making a mistake would be doing a very terrible disservice to American history.  On the other hand, if I mistakenly identify a disc-shaped galaxy as round, life will probably go on.

Easy transcription tool on NYPL's "What's on the menu?"

Easy transcription tool on NYPL’s “What’s on the menu?”

Although editing Wikipedia is also a big responsibility, at least I have complete control over what I write and there isn’t much chance of making an accidental mistake.  I can also see how for a scholar, editing or creating a Wikipedia page might not hold much appeal, since Wikipedia’s NPOV policy and prohibition against original material prevents adding anything much beyond factual or commonly-known information.

Public history website review:

Cleveland Historical lets users explore Cleveland’s history in a non-linear, non-narrative fashion.  The site’s informational content in presented in the form of Stories, which also make up various Tours.  A Story consists of a specific location, like Hough Bakery, while a Tour like “Cleveland Food Traditions” points users to Hough Bakery, and other food locales.  There are two ways to access Stories and Tours from the homepage:  Either from the left column list of Tours, or from the navigation bar across the top which offers direct access to both Tours and Stories.

Cleveland Historical homepage

Cleveland Historical homepage

The ability to access Stories through a unifying Tour or from a list offers the user many options for exploring the site.  A framing narrative like “Cleveland Food Traditions” might appeal to some users, while being able to browse and stumble upon information on Hough’s Bakery might appeal to others.

The site’s blue and gray palette, fonts, and graphics are attractive, as is the layout of its Tour and Story pages.  These pages have a clear and logical three column format, with informational text sandwiched between two columns of photos, audio files, and tags.

Cleveland Historical story page

Cleveland Historical Story page

These pages make each Story not only approachable but rich in content.  Being able to read a reasonable amount of text and then having the option to view photographs and listen to oral histories allows the user to customize his or her learning experience.   The Geolocation map is a unique feature, which should jive well with the mobile versions of the site.

The self-guided aspect of the site and the casual feel of the design makes it fun and entertaining.  The user feels in control of the experience, while at the same time, one’s trust in the site’s scholarly credentials is not lost.  This site reflects more modern conceptions of presenting history to the public.  Rather than presenting a one-path, one-perspective, all-encompassing grand narrative, Cleveland Historical lets users play in a historical sandbox, following their own interests and drawing their own conclusions.  My only criticism of the site is that it does not allow users to add their own comments or content.  It would make more sense for a historical site with such a sandbox feel to gives users the opportunity to share reminiscences, opinions, photos, etc.  This would not only give users even more ability to control their experience with this site, but would also enrich the content by drawing on crowdsourced (and of course moderated) material.



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Clio Wired: Week 4 Reflection

This week’s readings get down to the nitty gritty of creating webpages, with concrete advice on what to do and what not to do.  The surprising, and frankly comforting, aspect of these readings is that the authors do not condone throwing away all tenets of good design from non-digital media.  In fact, Cohen and Rosensweig specifically point to print and book design as important examples for functional and appealing web design.  Legible print, manageable column width, attractive colors, judicious use of images, thematic unity, and even clear organization– these are all lessons that we do not have to create out of thin air, but which we can draw from our extensive experience with print media.   In fact, while Cohen and Rosensweig do extol the benefits of audio, video, high quality images, and the capabilities of hypertext, they caution against using all available technology just because you can.  Rather, use of technological capabilities should be as thoughtfully chosen as the words themselves.  Just as one would ask, “Do I need this rhetorical flourish, or would my writing be clearer without it?” one should also ask, “Do I need this Flash video, or would my site be cleaner/clearer/more accessible without it?”

Although the principles of good design were fairly universally shared between the authors this week, one major point of contention was the debate about long form writing on the web.  Cohen and Rosensweig come down on the side of appropriately used lengthy prose, emphasizing that giving in to the impulse for short “chunked” text further shortens internet-readers’ attention spans, creating a vicious cycle that does not allow serious scholarship to be presented on the web.  Steven Krug, in his sardonically titled book Don’t Make Me Think, purports to have a more realistic view of internet-users’ behavior.  For Krug, true internet use involves scanning and “satisficing”– clicking on the first thing that looks good, rather than taking the time to find the optimal information.  While I agree this is most likely the behavior used on commercial or business websites, I think that the emergence of scholarly writing on the web does in fact require long form essays, and that users who are serious about accessing this information will muster up the patience to read.

For the practicum this week, the principles of good design discussed by the authors were at the forefront of my mind.  I took a bit of an non-traditional approach for this practicum, not comparing two completely different sites, but actually comparing two iterations of one site.  I compared the relaunched website of The Phillips Collection with its old site, which I accessed through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.  Surprisingly, I liked the Phillips’s old website a lot more; I find their new site overcrowded, over-stimulating, and busy.  Here is a shot of the old site:

The Phillips Collection's former homepage

The Phillips Collection’s former homepage

For me, this site is ideal.  You can view the entire homepage without scrolling down, the navigation is simple and self-explanatory, there is easily accessible key information about the museum, and there is even a representative photo of what you will experience in the galleries.  The homepage’s minimalistic design with a subtle and limited color palate speaks to the museum’s mission of displaying modern art masterpieces, may of which emphasize color, line, and geometry.  To me, this site is “distinctive, natural, brand-appropriate, subtly memorable, and quietly but unmistakably engaging,” in the words of Jeffrey Zeldman.  In other words, it exudes “Phillips Collection.”

Unfortunately, while the new site offers more content, I do not believe it lives up to Zeldman’s tenets.  Unlike the old site, I feel that this new design is forgettable and does not uniquely identify the Phillips.  It has a large, corporate feel which does not evoke the Phillips’s clean, intimate museum space or the qualities of its art collection.  Moreover,  the homepage requires a lot of scrolling before you can access the information, and has dizzying juxtaposition of rotating images in the background and top banner:

The Phillips Collection new hompage

The Phillips Collection new homepage

As you can see, the banner takes up so much space that there is barely any informational content above the “fold.”  Once you scroll down, however, there are so many blocks of text and images that there is nowhere to rest your eye; it is difficult to concentrate and find the information you want.

Lower half of the new Phillips Collection homepage

Lower half of the new Phillips Collection homepage

This layout seems more applicable to a newspaper homepage, and is also probably difficult to use for the visually impaired using a screen reader, or for those with a slow internet connection.  This new website might be more flashy and up with the times, but I think good design and brand-awareness was sacrificed.  The designers of this new site seem to have used web capabilities just because they could–not because it enhanced the quality of the webpage.  The Phillips Collection is a wonderful institution, and it deserves to have a website that fits its intimate, artistic, and non-commercial personality.  While the information architecture of these two sites was not significantly different (the new site has more pages cascading off of sub-pages rather than the homepage, and has more pages in general), the design choices make all the difference.


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Clio Wired: Week 3 Reflection

This week’s readings introduce key concepts in digital humanities, attempting to both define digital history (or digital humanities, or new media) and tease out its limitations, possibilities, and successes.  Susan Hockey presents a somewhat straightforward history of the digital humanities, from its inception in the 1950s with Father Busa’s concordance of Aquinas, to the technological limitations which existed through the 1990s, to the medium’s proliferation beyond concordances, dictionaries, etc. Hockey pinpoints the personal computer and the Internet as key drivers of the digital humanities’ popularly and capabilities, both in the realm of scholarly communication (collaboration over ListServ, email, blogs) and in presenting cultural heritage to academics and the public.

Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig offer a brief history of the digital humanities as well, but delve more deeply in the problems and possibilities of the genre.  They point out an important distinction in types of history web resources:  Archival websites, which seek to make troves of primary sources accessible and searchable, and websites that act as secondary sources—those which offer interpretations of primary source material.  For Cohen and Rosenzweig, the capabilities offered by the web and hypertext have not always been fully realized; many of these secondary source websites are simply recapitulations of something already written in print.  In other words, they maintain the linear narrative form, do not encourage free form browsing, or encourage true interactivity.  Cohen and Rosenzweig urge those undertaking a digital history project to become familiar with digital history’s best practices and to seriously consider the project’s audience and goals.

William Cronnon’s focus is not primarily on digital history, yet his recommendations for improving history PhD programs include the exhortation that new media products be “branded” in some way to certify scholarly rigor and excellence.  He emphasizes that the history PhD should not primarily be a gate-keeping tool, but rather a means through which future historians learn history’s best practices, immerse themselves in a wide-range of study, and gain excellence in reading, writing, and teaching.  The kind of intellectual collaboration and community-building that Cronnon recommends, as well as his emphasis on learning to teach many audiences (such as the public or undergraduates) has implications for the field of new media which are picked up in other readings:  For example, the importance of creating digital history projects which have a targeted audience in mind, and allowing digital and/or collaborative works to count toward tenure awards.  That new media is sometimes-slowly, but surely being adopted by historians is made clear by Robert Townsend’s survey of 4000 historians; is it essential, then, that formal channels for judging new media works be put in place.

The discussion moderated by the Journal of America History brings up these issues and many more.  Although the speakers discuss a breadth of topics and ideas, two in particular stood out for me:  First, the distinction between interactivity as entertainment and interactivity as intellectual exchange or engagement.  The ability for a new media project to be a legitimate form of scholarship rests on this distinction.  Moreover, this will be even more crucial as the ability to include moving graphics, sound, and multimedia increases.  Related with this quality is the importance of breaking out of linear, didactic narratives in favor of provocative, problematizing, and free-flowing interactivity.  The other key point for me was the speakers’ emphasis on open-source and open-access projects.  Not only does open-source allow a greater segment of historians to employ new media, it also increases the capabilities of digital scholarship.  Although many scholars have traditionally feared making their work “free,” the panelists in this discussion emphasize that works that are not hidden behind gates or walls actually increase a scholar’s impact and recognition.  Bound up in this discussion of open-access is the need for new avenues for peer-review and scholarly recognition of new media projects.

Tim Sherratt’s blog about his project on “Invisible Australians” provides a great example of the power of new media and emphasizes its ability to be a democratizing force.  In his project, Sherratt manipulated the digitized archives of the National Archive of Australia; taking pre-digitized documents, he arranged them for his own purposes and was able to shed the constraints, biases, and organizational decisions of the archive.  Sherratt shows the power of creating new, parallel interfaces or finding aids to construct a new narrative of the past.

Two other new media projects I examined are the Medici Archive Project http://documents.medici.org/medici_index.cfm and Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts (National Library of the Netherlands) http://www.kb.nl/manuscripts/.  My judgment of these archival sites was based on the following criteria: ease and effectiveness of search function; overall interface; metadata; and unique or helpful features.

The Medici Archive Project is a work in progress with the goal of making available the entire works of the Medici Granducal Archive in Florence.  This project is clearly useful for anyone studying the Medici family, Florence, art, science, etc. during the 15th through 18th centuries.  The search interface allows researchers to search for places, named people, and specific documents or volumes.  Within each category, one can use a keyword search, or select various drop-downs, such as “gender” or “occupation” in the people search.  In the places category, one can specify the “link type,” which is a very clever feature:  For example, if a user enters “London,” she can specify whether this location is linked with a sender location, recipient location, death or birth place.  The search capability is bilingual, in Italian or English, and is generally intuitive; for questions about appropriate search terms, there are good explanations linked with question marks besides each field.  The interface is also quite intuitive and helpful, letting the user sort search results, mark results, or refine searches.  The metadata provided for each entry is very thorough, and includes the date of the document, the correspondents and their locations, people referenced in the document, a synopsis in English with an excerpt of the original Tuscan, and topics or keywords.  The site is also generally attractive, with nice selections of images from the archive.  There is also a form to submit feedback.

Record metadata from Medici Archive Project

Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts is a database or catalog of 11,000 illuminations from illuminated manuscripts in the National Library of the Netherlands.  These images are divorced from the texts that accompany them, so are mainly useful for visual or iconographical analysis.  For a more general user, the browse function would be most useful, as it allows one to drill down by topic to useful and interesting categories.  The advanced search feature is also useful in that indexes of subject terms are provided; however, it might take a more serious scholar to dedicate the energy to perusing these indexes.  There is also a unique categorization feature called Iconclass, which assigns alphanumeric codes to certain topics for greater searching accuracy; again, this would require greater than average dedication to searching the site.  One major downside to the search function is lack of capability for using Boolean operators.  The overall interface can be a bit clunky in that some links direct the user away from the database itself onto the general library website, so navigation can be confusing.  However, there is a very nice feature of blowing up selected images, with the option to zoom in and save details.  Metadata for each image is limited to its manuscript of origin and a short description; however, metadata for entire manuscripts is much more detailed, and even contains a bibliography of literature about the manuscript.  Both this site and the Medici Archive site are very rich, useful archives of primary sources which could be used to develop scholarly, educational, and interactive interpretive sites.

Works discussed:


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