Annie Tock Morrisette
Having recently returned from an excellent research trip to Fredericton and Saint John, New Brunswick, I have a few words of wisdom to offer the novice research tripper and archival neophyte. Of course, all our experiences will be as different as our topics, but sooner or later we all must venture out to unknown libraries and archives in search of our prey—historical evidence. Here is my top ten:
In another single-topic Digital Campus, we react to the news that Dan is headed to the Digital Public Library of America as its Executive Director (no tears, no tears) by forcing him to tell us all about it. Special guests on the podcast include Berkman Center and DPLA Technical Workstream member David Weinberger, author of Too Big to Know and Everything is Miscellaneous as well as Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows and The Big Switch. Issues raised include Internet centralization, the future of public libraries, and Mr. Potato Head.
Nicholas Carr, “The Library of Utopia,” MIT Technology Review, April 25, 2012. Available at http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/427628/the-library-of-utopia/
Running time: 49:45
Download the .mp3
I obviously did a lot of talking in 2012, but I also made a few things…
The evolution of QueryPic
At the start of 2012 QueryPic was a fairly messy Python script that scraped data from the Trove newspaper database and generated a local html file. It worked well enough and was generously reviewed in the Journal of Digital Humanities. But QueryPic’s ability to generate a quick visualisation of a newspaper search was undermined by the work necessary to get the script running in the first place. I wanted it to be easy and accessible for everyone.
In the meantime, I headed over the New Zealand for a digital history workshop and began to wonder about building a NZ version of QueryPic based on the content of Papers Past, available through the DigitialNZ API. The work I’d already done with the Trove API made this remarkable easy and QueryPic NZ was born.
Once the Trove API was publicly released I finished off the new version of QueryPic. Instead of a Python script that had to be downloaded and run from the command line, QueryPic was now a simple web form that generated visualisations on demand.
The new version also included a ‘shareable’ link, but all this really did was regenerate the query. There was no way of citing a visualisation as it existed at a certain point in time. If QueryPic was going to be of scholarly use, it needed to be properly citable. I also wanted to make it possible to visualise more complex queries.
And so the next step in QueryPic’s evolution was to hook the web form to a backend database that would store queries and make them available through persistent urls. With the addition of various other bells and whistles, QueryPic became a fully-fledged web application — a place for people to play, to share and to explore.
Headlines and history
Back in 2011 I started examining ways of finding and extracting editorials from digitised newspapers. Because the location of editorials is often tied up with the main news stories, this started me thinking about when the news moved to the front page. And of course this meant that I ended up downloading the metadata for four million newspaper articles and building a public web application — The Front Page — to explore the results.
The Front Page was also the first resource published on my new dhistory site (since joined by the Archives Viewer and QueryPic). dhistory — ‘your digital history workbench’ — is where I hope to collect tools and resources that have graduated from WraggeLabs.
In 2012 I also revisited some older projects. After much hair-pulling and head-scratching, I finally managed to get the Zotero translator for the National Archives of Australia’s RecordSearch database working nicely again. I also updated it to work with the latest versions of Zotero, including the new bookmarklet.
My various userscripts for RecordSearch also needed some maintenance. This prompted me to reconsider my hacked together alternative interface for viewing digitised files in RecordSearch. While the userscript worked pretty well, there were limits to what I could do. The alternative was to build a separate web interface… and so the Archives Viewer was born.
Stories and data
My favourite things
Two things I made in 2012 are rather special (to me at least). Instead of responding to particular needs or frustrations, these projects emerged from late night flashes of inspiration — ‘what if…?’ moments. They’re not particularly useful, but both have encouraged me to think about what I do in different ways.
The Future of the Past is a way of exploring a set of newspaper articles from Trove. I’ve told the story of its creation elsewhere — I simply fell in love with the evocative combinations of words that were being generated by text analysis and wanted to share them. It’s playful, surprising and frustrating. And you can make your own tweetable fridge poetry!
One night I was thinking about The Real Face of White Australia and the work I’d done extracting photos of people from the records of the National Archives of Australia’s database. I wondered what would happen if we went the other way — if we put the people back into RecordSearch. The result was The People Inside – an experiment in rethinking archival interfaces.
This past summer the main aspect of my job, aside from mundane work, was archiving old paper purchase orders. I would enter them into a system created by the company and then pack them in a box, and off they went to a warehouse to sit. (I would often sit at my desk day dreaming that the boxes were being carted to the back of a giant warehouse much like in Indiana Jones. Hey! How else is an intern supposed to pass the time?) I probably archived several hundred to over a thousand purchase orders and, of course, mistakes were made.
I’m deeply in love with the collections of the National Archives of Australia. They move me, they inspire me, they make me want to do something. How do I express my love? I’ve written stories about things like atomic bombs, progress, astronomy and weather forecasting — pursuing lives and events documented in the Archives’ rich holdings. I work on projects like Invisible Australians, hoping to bring the compelling remnants of the White Australia Policy to broader public attention. And I build things. I make tools that help other people explore, understand and use the Archives. I do this because these riches need to be used. They need to be shared. They need to be part of the fabric of our lives.
A few years ago I created a little script for Firefox that put a fresh face on the display of digitised records in the National Archives’ RecordSearch database. It’s publicly available and has been installed more than 500 times. Demonstrating this script at the ‘Doing our bit’ Build-a-thon a few weeks ago made me realise again both how useful it was and how much work it still needed.
One of the most exciting features when I first created the script was the ability to display the records on a ’3D wall’, courtesy of a Firefox plugin called CoolIris. But CoolIris uses Flash and is no longer being supported. Time for a new approach.
Say hello to the Archives Viewer (naming things isn’t really one of my strengths). Instead of rewriting my existing script I decided to create a completely new web application. Why? Mainly because it gave me a lot more flexibility. I could also make use of a variety of existing tools and frameworks like Django, Bootstrap, Isotope and FancyBox. Standing upon the code of giants, I had the whole thing up and running in a single weekend.
What does it do? Simply put, just feed the Archives Viewer the barcode of a digitised file in RecordSearch and it grabs the metadata and images and displays them in a variety of useful ways. It’s really pretty simple, both in execution and design.
Yep, there’s a wall. It’s not quite as spacey and zoom-y as the CoolIris version, but perhaps that’s a good thing. It’s just a flat wall of page image thumbnails with a bit of lightbox-style magic thrown in. But when I say just, well… look for yourself. There’s something a bit magical about seeing all the pages of a file at once, taking in their shapes and colours as well as their content. This digital wall provides a strangely powerful reminder of the physical object.
Of course you can also view the file page by page if you want. Printing is a snap — just type in any combination of pages or page ranges and hit the button. The images and metadata are assembled ready to print. No more wondering ‘which file did this print out come from?’.
But perhaps the most important feature is that each page has it’s own unique, persistent url. Basic stuff, but oh, so important. With a good url you can share and cite. Find something exciting? Tell the world about it! I’ve included your typical social media share buttons to help you along.
1891 draft of the Australian Constitution — with doodles. bit.ly/Qus4D5
— Tim Sherratt (@wragge) August 23, 2012
One disadvantage over the original userscript is that the viewer isn’t directly linked to RecordSearch. You probably don’t want to have to cut and paste the barcode every time you view a file. So I’ve also created a couple of connectors that ummm… connect things up.
The second connector is a bit smarter. It’s an enhanced version of another userscript I wrote to display the number of pages in a digitised file. It still does that, but now it also rewrites the links to the digitised files so that they automatically open in the Archives Viewer. It’s a bit harder to install. You need Chrome or Firefox and the add-ons Greasemonkey (for Firefox) or Tampermonkey (for Chrome). Then just go to the userscript page and hit the big ‘Install’ button.
You might be wondering about Zotero (at least I hope you are). My Zotero-RecordSearch translator lets you capture page images and metadata direct to your own research database, so what happens when you’re transported across to the Archives Viewer? Never fear, I’ve written a new translator that lets you save pages as you could in RecordSearch. Even better, you get a persistent, context-enriched url, and the ability to capture multiple pages at once. Yippee!
But that’s not quite all. Buried within the pages is some lovely Linked Open Data. To be truthful, it’s not really very ‘linked’ yet, but it does expose the basic metadata in a machine-readable form, borrowing from the vocabularies of projects like Locah and the Archival Ontology. It’s an experiment, as is the Archives Viewer itself. We can learn by doing.
— Tim Sherratt (@wragge) August 26, 2012
I’ve given quite a few talks over recent times encouraging people to take up their tools and start hacking away at the digital collections of our cultural institutions. Yes, I admit it, I’m an impatient historian (and a grumpy one at that). But it’s also because I think it’s important that we recognise that access is never just something you’re given. It’s something that we make through our stories, our projects, and our tools. It’s something that’s grounded in respect and powered by love.
A little hack to reveal faces in the archives.
We’re joined this week in our last episode before our traditional summer hiatus by Bethany Nowviskie, Director of Digital Research and Scholarship at University of Virginia Libraries and president of the Association for Computers in the Humanities. We mainly discuss what’s going on at UVA, agreeing that it’s a good thing we’re having nationwide discussions now about what universities are doing, have done, and should be doing in the digital age with regard to scholarship and learning, and wondering whether
the farmer and the cowman should be friends academics and businesspeople can find a common language. Back by popular demand is our old “pick of the week” segment, featuring UVA’s own ongoing archive of events taking place there.
Links mentioned on the podcast:
- Sullivan Resigns from UVa: Complete Coverage – The Chronicle of Higher Education
- reality bytes – Bethany Nowviskie
- Syllabus Journal
- Encyclopedia of Connecticut History
- Archive of Materials Relating to the Resignation of President Teresa Sullivan
Running time: 54:36
Download the .mp3