Ideas + News
In conjunction with the launch of the DPLA, metaLAB at Harvard is pleased to share Library Observatory, a web-native graphical search tool for discovering the DPLA’s growing collection of millions of digital books, images, maps, and archival treasures. It’s available at libraryobservatory.org, as well as through the DPLA’s App Library.
The DPLA Library Observatory enables users to browse the collections of the DPLA, learn how those collections relate to each other, and find resources of particular interest. Through a nested, interactive collections graph, the DPLA’s offerings are visualized by relative size, format, and type of object. Users can discern at a glance the scope and makeup of the DPLA’s growing repository, which includes the collections of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, ARTstor, and the Internet Archive’s Open Library. Find an item of interest, and a click takes the user to the original record at its home institution.
Library Observatory not only offers a novel search experience for the DPLA. It is also intended to help us understand how its collections of collections is put together, and how an initiative like the DPLA helps libraries, archives, and other institutions talk to one another, learn from one another, and make our common cultural heritage accessible and interoperable for all.
This graphic search tool is the first in a series of instruments for analysis and discovery that we’re planning for the Library Observatory. The app first took shape at the DPLA AppFest hosted in November 2012 at the Chattanooga Public Library; its ongoing development is supported by a DPLA Sprint grant.
We hope you’ll climb into the Library Observatory and use it to find great things. New features in design and functionality will be appearing in the weeks and months to come; any feedback you can offer us in this regard is welcome. We’re especially interested in places where the search trail runs cold—where data artifacts interrupt the flow of search and discovery—so we encourage you to let us know where you run into interesting, inscrutable, or erratic results. The easiest way to do that is by taking a screenshot of the result and posting it to our library observatory tumblr, or get in touch with us directly at metaLAB.
Beginning last week, Boston hosted four days of digital-humanities doing, thinking, and making: on Friday and Saturday at Simmons College, Digital Humanities: the Next Generation brought scholars, librarians and archivists, and technologists together for presentations and hands-on learning; on Monday and Tuesday, the Days of DH offered further opportunity for learning and sharing ideas at Wentworth Institute of Technology and Northeastern’s new multi-disciplinary, multimodal program, The NULab for Maps, Texts, and Networks. These events are two bright stars in a constellation of DH-related gatherings comprising an emergent consortial commitment to DH among Boston-area scholars and programs.
metaLAB took part in both facets of the four-day festival: on Monday, Michael McCluskey, Elizabeth Watkins, Sarah Zaidan, and Gretchen Henderson, all members of the metaLAB fellows community, presented that group’s proposal for documenting hybrid tech projects in the arts and humanities, which they’re calling the metaCatalogue. And on Saturday at Simmons, a group of metaLAB core members presented a session informed by our growing research initiative, Data Artifacts, which seeks to understand the collections data of libraries and other institutions as cultural objects—as artifacts, things assembled by human hands and minds, with stories to tell and values to express. In particular, we’re looking for phenomena that are frequently treated as problems—errors in cataloging data caused by typographical, vernacular, disciplinary, and technological clashes—and seeing them as interpretable, story-full phenomena that lend insight into the cultural roles of libraries and their collections in different times and places.
In presenting the Data Artifacts project to the group convened at Simmons, we took a participatory approach. Our audience consisted of librarian and archivists as well as scholars and technologists—a cohort at one varied and sympathetic, all of whom have had ample opportunity to engage with, and reflect upon, problematic data in digital and material collections. After a brief reflection on the kinds of problems we’re looking for, we set the audience loose to catch data artifacts on their own—either by searching their own favorite online and institutional collections, or by using a prototype search-and-visualization tool developed by metaLAB technologists Jessica Yukofsky and Alex Hugon. This tool is focused on the open metadata repository of the Digital Public Library of America, which is seeking to gather digital collections and make them comprehensively accessible. In the process of undergoing such translation and transmediation, these collections are likely to produce many data artifacts of the storytelling kind—quirks and effects that help us to understand how collections emerge, and what they can mean, in the era of open linked data. We put up a tumblr for the session, to which a number of DH-the-next-generation participants contributed examples of artifacts in the DPLA data and in other collections they know well.They’re compelling examples not of finished analyses, but starting points—place where they data snag and confuse, telling us that something worth paying attention to might be happening below the surface.
Two years ago, the Berkman Center’s John Palfrey moderated a presentation entitled “Digital Humanities 2.0,” in which a slew of leaders and innovators—Peter Lunenfeld, Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Todd Presner and metaLAB’s founding director, Jeffrey Schnapp—joined a conversation about emerging paradigms in the arts and humanities in the information age. The conversation went so well that the group co-authored a book: digital_humanities (MIT Press 2012), which offers a handy and provocative “guide to the perplexed” for the DH-curious. The convocation also offered the world the first glimpse of the metaLAB to come. And so some three years later, we thought it would be worthwhile to convene another gathering to celebrate the publication of digital_humanities, celebrate the milestones we’ve reached (not least of which includes ever-brighter prospects for Zeega, the multimedia collections and authoring tool invented by several metaLAB cofounders), and take a look at research initiatives that point to metaLAB’s bright future. The event was held in the Visual Resources Department in the Loeb Design Library at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design—and as the video above suggests, things are hanging together quite well!
metaLAB is happy to announce that Zeega has been selected to join the first cohort of startups in Matter, a new San Francisco-based accelerator for mission-driven companies committed to changing media and supporting media entrepreneurs building a more informed, connected, and empowered society. Matter will allow the Zeega development team including metaLAB’s own Jesse Shapins, Kara Oehler and James Burns to work alongside fellow media entrepreneurs tackling problems ranging from building a radically transparent society to the daily news experience of the future. The founding partners are The Knight Foundation, KQED and PRX. Matter is led by Corey Ford, whose background combines years as a filmmaker at Frontline with work at Innovation Endeavours, the early-stage venture fund of former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
For over a year, metaLAB has been working with the scientific and curatorial staff of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum to explore new digital lives for the institution—not only a much loved public park, but a collection of rare plants, a research site, and an evolving landscape—that will connect it to new audiences locally and globally. One of the most exciting projects we’ve shared so far recently wrapped up at NuVu Studio, a “magnet innovation center for young minds” headquartered in Central Square. Founded by Saeed Arida, a 2010 PhD in MIT’s Design and Computation program, NuVu offers a bracing vision of the power of STEAM: enlivening the left-brain work of making and investigating science, technology, engineering, and math with the expressive energy of the arts. Through a series of two-week studios, students develop media-rich, computationally-intensive projects exploring a heady variety of subjects, from climate change to urban affairs to the reinvention of lunch.
Above: NuVu students learn how to translate weather data into meaningful stories.
The Arboretum and metaLAB worked with NuVu to offer a pair of two-week studios in which students (from Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, among others) undertook remote exploration of the Arboretum in Jamaica Plain from their home base at the NuVu Studio in Cambridge. Through firsthand exploration of the Arboretum, the judicious martialing of online resources, and a great deal of brainstorming and studio experimentation, students developed hardware and software to record phenomena at the Arboretum. In a follow-up studio, students designed interactive, web-native visualizations that put data recorded in the field together with the Arboretum’s collections records—in the process, sketching prototypes for long-term digital outreach and interaction between the Arboretum and schools in the Boston area and beyond.
Above: the Arboretum’s Michael Dosmann introduces students to tools for field data collection; metaLAB’s Yanni Loukissas and Jessica Yurkofsky listen in.
During an initial site visit, students talked to curators and botanists to learn what kinds of data they collected, what kinds of knowledge they created, and what kinds of stories they want to tell about such a place. Under the direction of NuVu’s David Wang and Sean Stevens—the former an MIT PhD candidate in artifical intelligence, the latter a fearless hacker and omnicompetent tech guru— they designed systems for remotely measuring temperatures, wind speeds, air quality, soil types and tree heights; engineered mechanisms for remotely exploring the ground and the canopy amid changing winter conditions; and developed ways to analyze, visualize, and share their data by physical means. We had visions of swarms of sensing, storytelling robots running through the Arboretum fast, cheap, and out of control. The actual projects, in the end, were every bit as fanciful: a bug-eye camera to swoop over a meadow, imaging blossoms in ultraviolet light; a smart birdhouse of clear acrylic stuffed with environmental sensors; an elegant robotic flower, connected to a computer and designed to blink, blossom, and retract its petals in response to incoming information on Arboretum conditions. In the process of researching, designing, building, and deploying their systems, students learned about planet science, data-driven research, and remote sensing technology.
Above: a weatherproof, programmable sensor kit, prior to build.
In addition to extensive new knowledge about things like plant biology, horticulture, and urban ecology, the students learned what it takes for scientists to make the often-inaccessible worlds of nature visible, exciting and meaningful. They also discovered that effective science depends on sustained teamwork and creative communication just as much as on good questions and hypotheses. Their making allowed them to confront first-hand the powerful role innovative engineering plays in enabling scientists to carry out explorations of organisms and environments by turns complex, unpredictable and fragile. Along the way, we at metaLAB and our Arboretum colleagues learned a great deal about the challenges and rewards of rapid prototyping as pedagogy—and about the promise of engaging the ingenuity of young people in making media, telling stories, and fostering change.
metaLAB/Zeega will be well represented this week at the Reischauer Institute’s conference on participatory archives. Jesse Shapins will be presenting the Japan Digital Archive project and Jeffrey Schnapp will speak more broadly about the animation of archives.
OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES OF PARTICIPATORY DIGITAL ARCHIVES:
Lessons from the March 11, 2011 Great Eastern Japan Disaster
January 24-25, 2013
Belfer Case Study Room (S020)
CGIS South Building | 1730 Cambridge Street
The Internet inspires libraries, archives, museums, and arboreta to make their collections “open,” “participatory,” and “democratic.” This cluster of intellectual values, emergent in networked cultures, is taking hold at institutions that carry long legacies of prior norms: preservation, expertise, comprehensiveness, excellence, and commemoration. In some cases, the emerging values adduce to older ones; in other cases, they seem to clash. In public discourse, these initiatives and controversies play out in the keys of policy and technology—but they have important cultural dimensions as well. Yet remarkably little critical attention has been given to the changing meanings of collections and collections data. Data Artifacts proposes to explore the values of networked-age collections—namely, openness and participation—and to chart their development as they variously align with, supplant, and overturn older processes of knowledge production.
Data Artifacts is born of the very data-intensive, ostensibly-open initiatives it seeks to interpret. Informed by the digital turn in the humanities, the project employs classic, textually-conditioned interpretive methods alongside the lively use of data visualization as a mode of inquiry. Through critical attention to cataloging and classification schemes across varied institutional contexts, Data Artifacts will historicize cultures of collecting and the understandings of material culture and intellectual value they embody. The project will result in a series of scholarly products including presentations, workshops and publications culminating in a hybrid online/print book that weaves together textual and graphical modes of analysis into what we see as a new genre of data portraiture on institutional collections.
Data Artifacts expresses an urge to explore data as cultural artifacts that reward deep hermeneutic contemplation; to interpret changing data sources, data types, databases, and craft practices of catalogers and technologists as evidence of a new discourse on the rise. How are data expressed, materialized, socialized? The promise of the project’s impact lies in these questions, and in a critical perspective that sees collections and the ever-shifting clouds of data that cling to them as worthy of the full measure of humanistic scrutiny. Such a perspective has implications for the interpretation of many types of collections beyond those that document and preserve material culture of interest in the humanities. In future work, Data Artifact’s interpretive frameworks and expressive models might be applied to medical, scientific, and governmental data sets, all of which are also being transformed through computation and network effects. Data Artifacts will develop and disseminate methods and insights that can be applied to understanding collections across domains of social and cultural production.
Last week, Matthew Battles and I joined a group of literary hackers, digital humanists, media designers, and veteran librarians at the DPLA (Digital Public Library of America) appfest on the sprawling top floor of Chattanooga’s brutalist-era public library. We wrangled with library metadata all day, seeking new modes of engagement with unwieldy media collections integrated from institutions across the country. The DPLA just released a new API and is preparing to meet your queries with troves of collections information and content. The appfest was a challenge to those in the library community as well as techno-savvy sympathizers to prototype the first DPLA killer-apps. The forty or so people in attendance came from near and far: there was a strong showing of library staff local to Chattanooga and developers, designers, and media scholars flew in from Boston, New York, Texas and beyond (Toronto).
A range of technical and humanist skills were brought to bear on application prototypes developed in small groups. The results included a system for scoring the similarity of media records (winner of the Chattanooga library trophy), an online reference-ticketing system for asking DPLA-related questions, a mobile app for authoring new collections records, and many more beyond memory. Matthew and I collaborated with a group including local staff as well as visitors. For eight hours, with only short breaks for BBQ and cupcakes, we sought to compile a visual collections map for the DPLA, registering the scope and range of integrated contributions. Jeremy Throne came up with the name: biblioGrapher. Matthew wove together an overarching narrative. For my part, I hacked together some Processing code to produce a hierarchical graph of the current DPLA collections using the treeMappa library (See image above: the map shows nested rectangles corresponding to the relative sizes of contributed records. The white “holes” represent query results). Other members of the group created a wireframe interface for making DPLA queries using the collections map as an interface and developed use cases that librarians might expect to see. It was only the result of a day’s work, but already it suggested a promising means of engaging with aggregate collections: using a hierarchical map to contextualize queries and prompt further, and more informed exploration.
Back in Cambridge, we are making plans to continue work in this direction. In our Library Observatory project, we plan to further investigate the opportunities in tree maps for understanding and navigating large, heterogenous media collections. Indeed, this approach is promising not just for integrated library data, but for aggregated records from museums, arboreta, and a range of culturally significant collections. We believe that such maps hold insights to understanding what is gained and lost by bringing together the work of distributed cultures of collecting into online repositories like the DPLA.
Asked to contribute to the recent Digital Book Summit at Olin College, metaLAB struggled to come up with something novel to offer. Held on a brisk fall day at Olin’s Needham campus, hosted by Olin library director Dianna Magnoni, the summit convened librarians, technologists, and publishers to reflect on publishing ventures that offer ebook technologies to academic audiences. Presentations from representatives of O’Reilly and Credo Reference regaled the audience with broad, ambitious narratives of state-of-the-art products and services.
What was left for metaLAB to do? We don’t have a product to demo; our technological work is intimate and propositional; we tend to favor projects that have a higher likelihood of failure than commercial ventures can sustain. Yanni Loukissas and I, the metaLAB participants in the summit, felt at loose ends: we’re hacks and makers, critics and humanists; our favorite class was Physics for Poets. What could we offer such a forum?
Our solution was Yanni’s inspiration: we would invite our fellow conference-goers to do the work. In a workshop we called “Voice, Argument, and Intellectual Property in Multimedia Scholarship,” we divided participants into small teams and got them hacking. Employing the cutting-edge technology of index cards and markers, we randomly assigned each team a set of prompts: we gave them an academic subject (mathematics, literature, architecture, etc.), a platform (ranging from Twitter to multimedia documentary to chatbots), and final products (from anthologies to exhibitions). Over the course of an hour, the groups formulated pitches for a product that would express those prompts with sufficient rigor, charisma, and brio to convince a funder to support it.
Our aim was to get the workshop participants thinking about ebooks that aren’t books: more generally, to provoke them to think playfully about new means of scholarly communication that make use of emergent digital affordances, rather than merely translating the toolkit of the book to electronic media. And in that ambition, the teams richly succeeded: some of the notions cooked up included a virtual world for training aliens in the art of human abduction; a “Ken-Burns-like,” tablet-based documentary of library architecture; and an “Ocular Prosthetic Situational Awareness Device” for “crowd-sourced and event lexicon support for on-site, real-time tactical and/or ethnographic reconnaisance (aka social chit-chat).” (All of the teams documented their notions on a tumblr.) while nobody expects a call from the MacArthur Foundation, it seemed generally productive and inspiring to think adventuresomely about academic publishing possibilities that extend beyond ePub, Kindle, and Google Books.
On Thursday night, a small audience gathered in Boylston Hall to take in an unusual call-and-response performance: legendary musician and field recordist Bernie Krause joined poet and ecocritic Jonathan Skinner in a kind of motet of verse and natural sounds. The event was produced by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab and Film Study Center in conjunction with the Woodberry Poetry Room and its adventuresome curator, poet Christina Davis, whose curatorship has framed a rich exploration of poetry’s sonic entanglements.
Seated at a small table with a vase of lilies and a pair of MacBook Pros, Skinner and Krause alternated readings from ecologically-themed poetry with treasures from a vast collection of recorded environmental soundscapes. Alternating a dozen or so lines of verse with one or two minutes’ audio, Skinner sought to frame the upwelling sounds of nature: the forest’s night chorus, the pounding of waves, the clamor of a band of gorillas crashing through undergrowth. The tentative and gestural nature of the collaboration was evident; although Krause and Skinner exhibited great warmth and camaraderie, and despite Skinner’s deep responsiveness to natural sounds in his poetry, the particular fit between soundscape and spoken word—between chorus and verse, as it were—was not especially tight. Perhaps it’s a cognitive effect, or perhaps it’s a question of prosody, or amplification, or editorial shaping and control; it’s fair to say that the performance seemed like a gesture towards a deeper and riskier engagement rather than a finished work.
It was an inspiring and provocative experience nonetheless; Krause’s entr’acte discussion of the ecological dimensions of sound was especially thought-provoking. In his recent book The Great Animal Orchestra, Krause argues for the importance of the “biophony“—a neologism of his coinage to name the domain of sound produced by animals, whose evolved orchestrations can furnish useful data on the health of ecosystems. In Krause’s paradigm, biophony is framed by two additional acoustic regimes: geophony, the sound the earth makes as bodied forth in wind, waves, thunder, river, and the like; and anthrophony, the sonic intrusions of man, typified, in Krause’s typology, by the drone of the internal combustion engine.
There are questions worth pondering in reference to this taxonomy: for instance, what to make of the absence of a sonic kingdom for plants? Perhaps photosynthesizers should be counted among the biophones—and yet the palette of sounds actually made by plants is tiny compared to that made by motile life—small, and almost entirely epiphenomenal, rather than behavioral. (If I were to propose a term for this domain, I’d nominate “phytophony,” which is nearly lovely enough to forgive the plants their sessile, silent habits and grant them full sonic sovereignty.) Sound plays little role in the natural history of plants—a fact which would seem to set a limit on the evolutionary importance of acoustic phenomena. (As Krause’s account of tree cavitation in the video below demonstrates, sonic behavior in plants is perhaps not entirely without evolutionary import.)
If the absence of plants from nature’s sonic parliament is merely incidental, the alienation of humankind is perhaps more troubling and compelling. Why shouldn’t Krause consider our sounds part of the biophony? Do only our vocalizations, up to and including language, count as biophonic, while our machines live in a sonic domain of their own? Might language, too, be counted out of the animal orchestra? If language is biophony, Jonathan Skinner’s versified vocalizations aren’t separate and antiphonal from the natural, but are properly part of the same great evolutionarily-tempered arrangement. Just as naturally, one wants to say, we frame the biophony with electronics, transpose its rhythms and modes through networks, and derive our own acoustic inventions from inspiring encounters with nature’s sonic pressures. These framing, mimetic propensities charm and enliven our long encounter with the world; they bring their forces to bear on us across media—from jawbone and inner ear to condenser microphone and lossy file-compression algorithm; from the veils of morning to the strangest sea. Here’s the question I’m left to ponder: can our networks of mediated sound provoke us to act in ways that thwart the implacable, unsustainable enormity of the systems that drive and enable those networks?