Sunday, June 28, 2009

What Happens at THATCamp...

...gets Tweeted all over the world. (So watch yourself.)

I have just finished up at THATCamp, "a user-generated 'unconference' on digital humanities organized and hosted by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University." It was a heady two days of presentations, debates, discussions and twittering about digital history with some of the most interesting people in the field. There was so much content and so many ideas it is hard to know what to blog. So rather than explore any one thing from the conference, I thought I would explain the "unconference" format of THATCamp and how it worked.

[And by the way, I hope THATCampers who read this will use the comments to correct me or make additions. I want this post to be a resource for next year's ThatCampers.]

Attendance at THATCamp is by application--you write a few paragraphs about what you will bring to share at THATCamp in terms of skills, experience, projects, or whatever, and also what you hope to learn. If you are accepted you receive an email with details about conference lodging and so on and als
o a user account to the THATCamp blog.

The blog is where the "user generated" part begins. People are encouraged to post their ideas on the blog and to use it to organize sessions. Many of us were not clear on this (and by "many of us" I mean myself) and participation on the blog was perhaps not what it should have been, but we did kick around some initial ideas. Here is my post.

On Saturday we came together at George Mason for breakfast. Along with coffee and baked goods there were three tables covered by large sheets of paper and handfuls of sharpies. The paper was divided into three large columns: Session Topic, Leaders, Attendees. The organizers had grouped the blog ideas into sessions and put down the names of the most voluble posters as the session leaders. We were encouraged to add ourselves as attendees or leaders or even to add new sessions.

We did this for half an hour and went to a sort of welcoming discussion. Twenty minutes later the staff had worked up a schedule for the weekend. We all bookmarked it on our iPhones and netbooks and filtered out to our sessions. (I thought about suggesting a printed copy but something told me that this just isn't done.)

The sessions were great. You know how at a regular conference you sit through the overly-long papers, checking your email and hoping that people stick to the time limit so you can get to the discussion? We skipped the papers. The sessions were extended discussions on digital history topics with people who are on the front lines of the digital revolution (and me).

Technology suffused the conference. The rooms were wired and included wireless signal. Usually someone would plug in a laptop to the digital projector and people would jump up to display a website or digital tool as it came up in the conversation. And there were power strips to plug in! More strips than there are snakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Another thing that made the conference different was the use of Twitter, which was encouraged by the organizers. At THATCamp Twitter serves as a social organizer, a platform for exchanging information, and most of all a back channel of communication during the sessions. Nearly everyone had a computer or cell phone at hand and as we talked about digital history a second conversation was happening online. By using the hash tag #thatcamp in our tweets we could customize a Twitter feed (if you have a Twitter account you can see the conversation here, or visit an archive of all the 2500+ THATCamp tweets here). Many followed the conversation online using the free application Tweetdeck. It might sound odd to anyone unaccustomed to the technology but Twitter really was an effective and natural tool for enhancing the conversations. Occasionally someone would say "Now Susan just made a good point in her tweet [paraphrases Susan] what do we think of that?"Another interesting effect of Twitter is that quite a few digital humanists not at the conference took part in the Twitter conversations.

One additional innovation was the series of three minute presentations during lunch, which were lovingly titled "Dork Shorts." People signed up to give three-minute presentation of their digital projects. It was enough time to give a taste of the project but short enough that everyone who wanted to could show off their work.

The one other thing worth mentioning about the conference format was the variety of attendees. We had people from museums and libraries as well as academics, and undergraduates and graduate students mixed with university faculty and staff. It was very democratic and welcoming.

The "unconference" format of THATCamp gave me a lot of food for thought. The format was not perfect. Some of the conversations wandered too much, a few of the session organizers spoke a bit longer than necessary, and it took half a day for everyone to get in the groove of the unconference. But it was so much better than any other conference I have attended lately. I walked away from THATCamp not only with a lot of new knowledge and ideas but with a sense of having made meaningful connections with a bunch of digital history people. One of my goals is to bring the Pacific Northwest History conference to Spokane one year (oh God, did I just say that?) and I like the idea of adapting some of the unconference techniques to a regional history conference.

THATCampers--what did you think of the format? What did I miss?

[The picture of the Dork Shorts board is from CHNM director Dan Cohen's blog, Found History, which has his end-of-conference impressions of the event.]

Thursday, June 25, 2009

"Lick This": LOC, Flickr, and the Limits of Crowd Sourcing

[Update: This post has provoked quite the discussion over at the Flickr Commons board.]

In January of 2008 the Library of Congress and the photo-sharing web service Flickr announced a unique partnership. The Library of Congress Flickr Pilot Project put 3000 historic LOC photographs on the website Flickr and invited the public to view, annotate, tag, and generally mess with them. This was perhaps the LOC's first foray into the world of Web 2.0 and generated a tremendous buzz. "In the first 24 hours after launch, Flickr reported 1.1 million total views on our account, with 3.6 million views a week later," according to this LOC report on the project. The project--"a match made in photo heaven" according to the LOC blog--has been praised everywhere from the New York Times to the popular community weblog Metafilter.

The goals of the project are to "increase awareness of the Library and its collections; spark creative interaction with collections; provide LC staff with experience with social tagging and Web 2.0 community input; and provides leadership opportunities to cultural heritage and government communities." Especially talked about was the second goal--sparking interaction with the collections. The idea was that visitors to Flickr could add useful metadata LOC images, such things as the names of people in the photographs, locations, models of cars or other machinery, etc.

The project may well be a success overall, but as a way to add useful metadata to historical documents, the Library of Congress Flickr Pilot Project is a disappointment. Let me explain...

Above is a screen shot of this photograph, from the very popular 1930s-40s in Color photograph set. This iconic photograph is also used as the cover image on the LOC's Final Report Summary for the project. This one photograph, and the user-generated metadata attached to it, demonstrate the problems with inviting the general public to contribute to a historical collection.

One of the most innovative features of Flickr is the ability of visitors to add notes to the pictures. You can create a rectangular box over some portion of an image and add a text note. This is especially useful for identifying individuals in group photos or pointing out specific details.

So what sort of metadata have users added to supplement the sparse LOC identification ("
Bransby, David,, photographer. Woman aircraft worker, Vega Aircraft Corporation, Burbank, Calif. Shown checking electrical assemblies, 1942 June ") of the photo?

There are 20-30 notes on the photograph and not one contains useful historical information to give context or help us understand the photograph. Most are throw-away jokes or comments, "I love this fabric!" by Flickr user Mrelia and "Lick this" by user HeatherrFalk (referring to the woman's forehead!). Most of the rest of the notes refer to the woman's appearance or the composition of the picture. Almost useful is a little nested debate about the authenticity of the photograph--how staged was it?--but the discussion is hard to follow, requiring hovering the mouse over each box to see the comment.

Flickr users may also add comments and tags to images, and organize them together into sets. But here again the crowdsourced noise overwhelms the signal of useful historical information. There are over 100 comments attached to this one photograph, all but a few devoted to the picture's composition (well it is a photography website after all) or how pretty the woman is or posting just to post something. Within the chaff there are a few grains of wheat--as when user BeadMobile adds some pencil drawings made by his grandmother when she worked in a factory during World War Two. But you really have to dig.

What about tagging? User tagging is often presented as a simple and powerful way to crowdsource metadata in online archives. There are 71 user-generated tags for this image. Some are obvious and useful--"1942" and "rosie the riveter." Many others however are odd ("everyone did their part") or cryptic ("sfv" "LF").

And the sets? How have Flickr users organized this image with others? Well the woman in the picture should be proud that she is in the "Nation Of Domination. (We Rule The Universe)" photo pool and the "cable porn" pool.

The above might seem like a lot of text to bash on one image and its metadata, but the problems extend to all of the other images in the project. The notes are mostly smart-ass remarks, the comments are empty, the tags are idiosyncratic. The frustrating thing is that there really is some crowd sourced gold withing the flood of junk, such as the transcriptions of hand-lettered signs in the windows of the Brockton Enterprise newspaper office in this photo.

The most useful comment I found in this project? User Catskills Grrl's comment: "Gee, I wish the stupid, smart-ass notes would be deleted off these photos."

I will pick up the topic of crowd sourcing again in a future post, pointing towards some archives that I believe are doing it correctly.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

"What is Black and White and Red All Over?"

From the Daily Show, this cruel and funny visit to the New York Times seemed to continue the line of thought in my earlier post, The Death of Scholarly Publishing? [Disclaimer: I am a subscriber to the NY Times.]

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
End Times
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorNewt Gingrich Unedited Interview

[Hat-tip to Facebook friend Katrina Gulliver.]

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Road Trip #1: Moore-Turner Heritage Gardens

Yesterday I visited the historic Moore-Turner Heritage Gardens on the lower South Hill of Spokane. The gardens were established by the wealthy Senator George Turner and his wife Bertha. Over the years they terraced and landscaped and planted the steep basalt hillside behind their mansion into the most beautiful and elaborate gardens in the inland northwest. But George Turner died in 1932, the bank foreclosed, the house was eventually demolished and gardens overgrown and forgotten. The city acquired the tract at some point but the land was left vacant--even serving as a dumping site for debris carried away from Havermale Island as it was readied for Expo '74.

Below are the pictures I took--click here to see the full images with captions.

Then things got interesting.

In 1998 an ice storm damaged many of the trees on the site. When the lot was being cleared of downed brush the workers noticed the long-forgotten terraces and stairs. Spokane Parks employees and others researched the history of the site and soon an effort was underway to restore the historic gardens. (The effort was documented in a documentary by local public television station KSPS, "Hidden Garden," briefly mentioned here and partly available on YouTube.)

Today the gardens are magnificently restored to resemble as closely as possible the gardens of a century ago. Working with with the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture and other experts, the restoration team did painstaking research to find period photographs, plant lists, and newspaper information about the gardens and how they were used. It will take a few years for the site to reach its full potential--the rose bushes and climbing vines need time to grow--but the site is already a delightful addition to the city parks. And it may be the only historic garden of its type still in existence in the area. The garden opened to the public in 2007.

To Get There: The Moore-Turner Heritage Gardens are directly adjacent to the Corbin Arts Center at 507 West Seventh Ave (Google map directions). According to the city the gardens "are open to the public weekends in May beginning Saturday, May 16, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. During the summer, June through August, the Gardens will be open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (closed Monday & Tuesday). For additional information please call the Corbin Art Center at (509) 625-6677."

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"I never intended to kill him": Exploring the Plateau Peoples' Web Portal

Plateau Peoples' Web Portal: "This portal is a gateway to the cultural materials of Plateau peoples that are held in Washington State University's Libraries, Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections (MASC), the Museum of Anthropology and by national donors. The collections represented here here have been chosen and curated by tribal consultants working in cooperation with University and Museum staff."

This is an exciting new site that already has a lot of content. The idea--to create a single portal for multiple institutions with materials about Plateau Indians--is a good one. And the execution is superb. The site is nicely designed and easily navigable.

The best thing about the project is the way that it seems to have been designed with the full input, cooperation, and most importantly control by the native peoples. According the the website: "The materials in the portal have been chosen and curated by the tribes. Tribal administrators, working with their tribal governments, have provided information and their own additional materials to the portal as a means of expanding and extending the archival record." Tribal administrators can add content, flag items that are culturally sensitive and should not be displayed, and add tags and other metadata to create "a rich and complex foundation for the exploration of Plateau peoples' histories."

Currently the Umatilla, Yakama, and Couer D'Alene tribes are part of the project, Each is represented by a tribal "path" that brings together all the information for that tribe under a set of nine categories (such as "Land," "Language," etc.). It is pretty clear from the architecture of the site that the plan is to bring in other native groups as well.

So let's go exploring in the site!

The title of my post comes from this letter from 1858, written by George Wright at a "Camp near Sacred Heart Mission." Wright writes: "I have determined to release the old chief Polatkin." He explains that "I never intended to kill him, or hurt him in any way. I only wanted to bring him to the mission in order that he might see how I treated the Indians here." Though Wright does admit that he hanged an unnamed Indian, one of Polatkin's friends or allies, along the way. "I hung the man taken with the chief because he had murdered two miners April last, and besides that man was at Ft Walla Walla with Father Ravelli and professed great friendship for us, and then came up here and joined the hostile Indians."

If you look at the item page for this dramatic letter you can see some of the sophisticated interactive features at this site. Registered users may flag an item as culturally sensitive, transcribe an item, or add comments either as text, audio, or video.

The Plateau Peoples' Web Portal is a model digital history project. It combines an appreciation of the sensitivity of its materials, cooperation with diverse groups, and some state-of-the-art Web 2.0 features. All of us working in digital history and archives should take note of the site.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Kalispel Encampment to Commemorate David Thompson

As part of an ongoing commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the initial encounter between explorer David Thompson and the native peoples of the northwest, there will be a Kalispel Encampment [PDF] June 24th through the 27th near the site of the original Kullyspel House in northern Idaho.

The four-day event will feature a teacher's workshop, educational activities, demonstrations of traditional skills, and a scholarly symposium titled “Tribes and Traders.”

For more details read the press release for the event or go to to sign up.

Image: Detail from "Kalispel encampment with tepees among scattered trees" from the UW Digital Collections.]