Review: Putting Stories to Work and Out On the Wire

Two books I’ve read recently make good points about stories that apply to data stories, without the books being about data: Shawn Callahan’s Putting Stories to Work and Jessica Abel’s Out On the Wire.

Strategic Use of Stories

In Putting Stories to Work, Shawn Callahan has a very pragmatic view of how stories can be used in business. In particular, he advocates the use of anecdotes and he insists that the stories you tell must be true and must be yours (and if not, you have to tell people so you don’t risk making a fool of yourself).

Callahan endeared himself to me early on in the book with his criticism of the overuse of the term story:

Everyone is talking about stories these days: ‘What’s the story of our business?’ ‘What’s the story of our product?’ ‘What’s my personal story?’ I even saw an advertisement in a shirt shop on Fifth Avenue in New York announcing the story of the shirts. But if you listen carefully, you’ll discover that many people who purport to share a story are not actually sharing one at all. It’s as if they think that if they are talking, they are telling a story.

The point of the book is to use stories to make a specific point: establish your credibility, get ahead of potential counterarguments, get people to listen rather than think of what to say next, etc. To do that, you have to mine for stories. That is easier than it seems, but it requires some process and practice. But it’s also useful, because it opens your eyes to the stories (and non-stories) around you.

This is a business book, but like Made to Stick it’s equal parts fascinating and fun to read. Callahan’s company isn’t called Anecdote for nothing, the book is filled with tons of stories that illustrate his points, thus also illustrating his overall point that stories are useful.

Telling Stories in Journalism

Jessica Abel’s Out on the Wire is a comic about how radio is made. If the idea of reading a serious comic puts you off, you haven’t read any good comics (serious or not). Abel’s book fits right in with great comics like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening, or Doxiadis et al.’s Logicomix.

She tells many stories about radio, in particular the NPR programs This American Life and Snap Judgment. There are many interesting insights into how they find and shape stories, how stories change as they develop, and how the agonizing creative process is playing out even in these well-known radio programs that have been going on for many years.

The book is very nicely structured and Abel works in many little details while focusing on a number of important messages. Perhaps the most interesting to me were the two key ways of expressing a story’s point. There is the story formula, which is a good test for many data stories:

I’m doing a story about X (the topic). And what’s interesting about it is Y (the story).

And perhaps more importantly, to make a compelling story, you need some sort of obstacle to overcome. This is expressed in the focus sentence:

Somebody does something because (motivation), but (challenge to overcome).

It’s interesting to think about how these things apply to what we like to call stories with data – and how most of them really don’t have these elements. Data stories for the most part just lay out information without a lot of structure – but more on that in another posting.

There are some radio-specific parts in the book that weren’t as interesting to me (though they’re fun to observe the next time you listen to a good radio program or well-produced podcast). The majority of the book is applicable to any form of structured narrative, however.

If you're interested in telling stories with data, these two books are going to give you a better understanding of how stories can work in specific contexts. Both are based on a wealth of expertise and experience, Callahan from the business side and Abel from the radio side. They're also very different, and very nicely complement each other.

Richard the Lionheart in Speyer

A major new exhibition devoted to Richard the Lionheart has recently opened in Speyer, to which the British Library is pleased to have loaned three of our magnificent medieval manuscripts. The books in question can be viewed in Richard Löwenherz: König-Ritter-Gefangener (Richard the Lionheart: King, Knight, Prisoner) at the Historisches...

Advocacy By Design: Moving Between Theory and Practice, part 1

I’m posting a short series of a lightly edited posts from of my keynote for the University of Maryland Library Research and Innovative Practice Forum. Slides and talk are available through DRUM. Below is Part One, with more posts to follow. — Purdom

I have been sitting with a sentence written by the editors of the journal Salvage, “The infrastructures against social misery have yet to be built.”

In 2014, the disappearance and murder of University of Virginia (UVA) undergraduate Hannah Graham, the Rolling Stone ‘After a Rape’ article, and the assault of UVA African American student leader, Martese Johnson, by two Alcoholic Beverage Control agents led to the development of Advocacy by Design. The cries of ‘how could this happen here?’ and ‘we had no idea!’ were discordant with the long history of sexual and racial violence at UVa.

Together with Professor Lisa Goff, the Scholars’ Lab team organized a digital archive to document this history at the university. Jeremy Boggs and I felt the archive must be feminist at the core, that feminist principles must be present at each stage-from collecting materials, to describing and organizing metadata, to the interface, to the ways in which the archive was shared. While we continued to work on Take Back the Archive, we felt this feminist mode of working could be extend to other projects.

Advocacy by Design articulates a shared understanding and practice that fronts questions of how people are represented in, or are subjects of, academic work; questions of who reads and uses our work as well as those who collaborate and contribute to our work. We articulate this advocacy through particular stances on a number of interrelated concepts, we call principles. Some principles are borrowed from Shaowen Bardzell’s Feminist HCI: Taking Stock and Outlining an Agenda for Design, while others grew out of our experiences with Take Back the Archive.

These principles include within them components and elements, such metadata, project management, and licenses, to better apply principles throughout a research inquiry. Advocacy is active–an attention-based practice of asking what are we doing to foster diverse voices? What do these practices look like face-to-face? What do they look like in the things we design, build, share?

Advocacy by Design begins with defining, seeking ‘the why’ and using that why as a guide through the research area. Defining the why enables us to identify which hows are critical. In the beginning stages of a research project or formation of a library committee, task force, or service, the hows should be platform agnostic. For example, centering the why opens up not just what the goals of a particular service or committee will be, but why those goals are important? In turn, the why drives ‘how’ that service or committee will work, how it will be legible to patrons or library colleagues.

As Frank Chimero points out, it is easier to ask “How do I paint this tree?” (or in our case “how do we organize a new committee?”) than to articulate why this tree or committee needs to be.  Defining the why clarifies the objectives of our work, something we can return to when the tasks pile up. For Advocacy by Design, the ‘why’ frames which principles should be fronted and how those principles can be enacted.

I lean on Bess Sadler and Chris Bourg’s Feminism and the Future of Library Discovery:

“Research libraries in particular have always reflected the inequalities, biases, ethnocentrism, and power imbalances that exist throughout the academic enterprise through collection policies and hiring practices that reflect the biases of those in power at a given institution.”

My ‘why’ is grounded in identifying and revealing practices that reinforce patterns of exclusion and inequality, the “how” flows from this beginning.

Advocacy by Design is not proscriptive, not a checklist, rather a way of practicing that invites return and reflection upon the why and how along with attention to the questions of who is represented in-and are subjects of-archives and academic work; questions of who reads and uses our work as well as those who collaborate and contribute to our work.

Principles for Advocacy by Design include transparency, openness, stewardship, temporality, an ethic of care, accessibility and usability, poly-vocalism, sustainability, interoperability, and collaboration. Today I would like to focus on Transparency, Poly-vocalism, and Collaboration ending with some reflection on the Ethic of Care. As you will see, the principles are interconnected and elements move across them. It is not meant to draw strict boundaries, rather to develop a vocabulary to frame our discussion. Elements are ways to make visible the principles of Advocacy by Design within our workflows, interactions, and research products. What follows are example projects to tease out how different elements could work to enact specific principles.

The interface for Take Back the Archive which aims for transparency and temporality:

The timeline is one way of showing stories persist over time. We are working to improve the timeline, but for now, the lines above the dots (which are sized according to how many materials are in the collection) indicate how these stories reappear over time. We want to visualize how these stories drop out of conversations or how often they are referenced.

This interface experiments with  Rich Prospect Browsing as outlined in Visual Interface Design for Digital Cultural Heritage. We used Rich Prospect Browsing as an element of transparency and poly-vocalism to show the extent of the collected materials for the archive, as well as a quick way of identifying the type of content. In this case, materials were designated as advocacy materials, policy reports, and journalistic accounts. Rich Prospect Browsing offers options for representing the full scope of materials with the goal of empowering users to understand the varied paths through the archival materials, that there is not one story, but many represented within. A major challenge to transparency is the ability to visualize absence–we know that many people do not report, particularly men and people from the LGBT community, so their stories do not appear in the archive. Can we better represent absence of materials to signal that this archive is incomplete or not fully representational?


The post Advocacy By Design: Moving Between Theory and Practice, part 1 appeared first on Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.

Corpse roads

In the last few years, I have been gathering information on early-modern ideas and folklore around so-called “corpse roads”, which date from before such things as metalled transport networks and the Enclosures. When access to consecrated burial grounds was deliberately limited by a Church wanting to preserve its authority (and burial fees), an inevitable consequence was that people had to transport their dead, sometimes over long distances, for interment. A great deal of superstition and “fake news” grew up around some of these routes, for example – as I shall be blogging shortly – the belief that any route taken by a bier party over private land automatically became a public right of way. They seem to have had a particular significance in rural communities in the North West of England, especially Cumbria.

The idea of the corpse road is certainly an old one. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck soliloquizes: Now it is the time of night/That the graves all gaping wide/Every one lets forth its sprite/In the church-way paths to glide.

In my view, corpse roads – although undoubtedly a magnet for the eccentric and the off-the-wall – are a testimony to the imaginative power of physical progress through the landscape at crux points in life (and death), and of the kinds of imperatives which drove connections through those landscapes. As Ingold might say, they are very particular form of “task-scape”. I am interested in why they became important enough, at least to some people, for Shakespeare to write about them.

Here is a *very* early and initial  dump of start and finish points of corpse roads that I’ve been able to identify, mostly in secondary literature. I hope to be able to rectify/georeference each entry more thoroughly as and where time allows.


Welcome new DH Developer Zoe LeBlanc!

We are delighted to announce that Zoe LeBlanc has accepted our DH Developer position!

Zoe rose to the top of an extremely strong pool of over 60 applicants. A History ABD at Vanderbilt University, she focuses on post-colonialist movements and media in Cairo and other capitals. She brings solid technical experience in the areas of front-end web design, text and image analysis, and mapping and data visualization, with skills including React, Redux, Elixir, and Postgres, and fluency in French and Arabic.

Zoe is a rising junior DH scholar, presenting on network analysis at a well-attended panel at DH2017 in Montreal, as well as through a DH2017 poster on an archival research app she learned to build in response to archival research challenges.

Her particular expertise and passion for making technically difficult DH methods accessible and enjoyable to all complements the SLab’s emphasis on pedagogy and mentorship. She balances the SLab’s literature scholars and complements our history scholars, both diversifying our areas of work to the Middle East and adding new expertise in archival research in countries with different archival practices and challenges from the U.S.

Come by the Lab once Zoe joins us in mid-October to say hi!

Digital Humanities and Ancient World postdoc positions open at the University of Helsinki

Jobs and Fellowships
Team 1 of The Centre of Excellence in “Ancient Near Eastern Empires” (ANEE) at the University of Helsinki is looking for postdocs in Digital Humanities and Ancient World The Centre of Excellence in “Ancient Near Eastern Empires” (ANEE) at the University of Helsinki will run from 2018-2025 and is...