Monday 9 June 2008

Making like a Tree

... and leaving.

Am going to be a little quiet over the next few weeks, as I'm on leave from UCL.  Posts may be few and far between, but I'll be back....

(Image, Piet Mondrian, Gray Tree, 1911, Oil on Canvas, Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague.) 

Tuesday 3 June 2008

UCL on iTunes

UCL has just launched a platform on iTunes, containing guest lectures, links to news, etc.

Is it ok to say I live in fear of hearing one of my lectures played back to me? I shall have to learn to watch my tongue in future, methinks...

Doing the Digital Archive

Ten years ago, I remember chatting to some of my historian chums who were undertaking doctoral research involving archival material. They would refer to it as "doing an archive": college would give them a small pot of cash, they would go somewhere for a couple of weeks and rout about an archive all hours of the day that they could, photocopying a huge stash of material, and getting boxes and boxes of facsimiles shipped back to read, analyse, and generally deal with later.

Five years or so ago, I remember researchers cackling with glee at the National Archives enlightened Digital Photography Policy: It became apparent that it was fine to take your own digital camera into TNA and create images of the documents that you needed. No scanners are allowed, for noise reasons. The reading rooms began to fill up with researchers undertaking their own mini-digitisation projects, effectively creating digital versions of material that TNA couldnt possibly digitise themself, due to issues of cost and time.

In the last couple of years, there have been some interesting developments in allowing individuals to share these resulting images, and knowledge, of archival material. Your Archives from TNA has been in beta for a while, providing a wiki based environment to allow users to submit their own material, or browse material posted by others, creating an expanding online resource. (a commercial, fee based website) combines original historical documents in a social networking environment, currently hosting 36.5 million images of historical documents online, submitted by the general public. Individual subscribers are encouraged to discuss, challenge, and share archival evidence.

A description of this shift towards large scale amateur digitisation, combined with social networking, was captured nicely in an article in last week's Boston Globe: Everyone's a Historian Now.

UNTIL RECENTLY, IF you were a historian and you wanted to write a fresh account of, say, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in World War II, research was a pretty straightforward business. You would pack your bags and head to the National Archives, and spend months looking for something new in the official combat reports.

Today, however, you might first do something very different: Get online and pull up any of the unofficial websites of the ships that participated in the battle - the USS Pennsylvania, for example, or the USS Washington. Lovingly maintained by former crew members and their descendants, these sites are sprawling, loosely organized repositories of photographs, personal recollections, transcribed log books, and miniature biographies of virtually every person who served on board the ship. Some of these sites even include contact information for surviving crew members and their relatives - perfect for tracking down new diaries, photographs, and letters.

Online gathering spots like these represent a potentially radical change to historical research, a craft that has changed little for decades, if not centuries. By aggregating the grass-roots knowledge and recollections of hundreds, even thousands of people, "crowdsourcing," as it's increasingly called, may transform a discipline that has long been defined and limited by the labors of a single historian toiling in the dusty archives.

The interesting question will be: how and when will academic historians start to routinely utilise these resources? The lone scholar in the ivory tower now needs good broadband.

Busted Tees

I'm loving this t-shirt from BustedTees.

Monday 2 June 2008

Microsoft changes tack

I have to say I'm making more use of Google Books and Google Scholar than I ever thought I would - usually as an adjunct search to the methodical, traditional, chase up references in articles and books and established, bonafide indexes. Sometimes just typing in a string of related words about what you are searching for brings up new and hitherto unreferenced articles on the subject (although you have to be careful about quality and provenance, obviously).

I've never used the Microsoft Book Search service, for no real reason other than I tend not to go near MSN search.

An article in last weeks NY Times claims that Microsoft is pulling out of its digitisation program, which was meant to rival Google Books and Google Scholar (MS has so far digitised 750,000 books and indexed 80 million journal articles). It also leaves a lot of libraries in the lurch who, rather than go with the Google model of restricting search results, had chosen to be in league with Microsoft, and the Internet Archive:
Microsoft’s decision also leaves the Internet Archive, the nonprofit digital archive that was paid by Microsoft to scan books, looking for new sources of support. Several major libraries said that they had chosen to work with the Internet Archive rather than with Google, because of restrictions Google placed on the use of the new digital files.
Interesting times. Google marches forth, again. Back to the drawing board (begging tin) for some institutions.