is digital scholarship a medium?

The theme of this week’s readings is the future (or lack thereof) for “traditional” or linear narrative. In response to this theme, I began reading with a greater than usual degree of skepticism – which is saying something.

I’ve been online regularly since 1997, and intermittently for a few years before then. I have seen blogging/publishing platforms come and go, and slapped together more than a few website assignments. Most “innovative” online scholarship presentations are overblown, hard to read, hard to navigate, often impossible to save or cite, and generally frustrating. Yet in reading the following, I finally found the real reason for my knee-jerk instinct to roll my eyes at the premise of non-linear, “futuristic,” “Web 2.0” or “interactive” scholarship:

“Our presumption that readers would want to engage with our article in the way we intended was probably misplaced.”

Respected historian William Thomas wrote this rather damning line in the excellent essay on the development of his digital history project (with Edward Ayers) “The Differences Slavery Made.”

The traditional journal article or book layout is not just a narrative construction; it is a collection of powerful signaling devices that indicate (at least to an experienced reader) what the “important” pieces of a piece of writing are. We have also been trained, over the last 25+ years of the World Wide Web, to look for certain importance markers online, like logos, certain consistent phrases (contact, about us, FAQ). A great deal of digital scholarship, in my experience, fails to effectively use the signals of either the print antecedents or the active web, leaving users to flail about helplessly or, potentially, give up without learning anything.

Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan famously argued that “the medium is the message” — he says:

“…[T]he content of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph. If it is asked, ‘What is the content of speech?,’ it is necessary to say, ‘It is an actual process of thought, which is itself nonverbal.”[1]

I confess I still don’t understand what the content of Thomas and Ayers’ project is. What is the content or medium of this?


(Illustration of “the article’s linkages and structure” from Thomas’ essay, linked above.) In what way is this an article? What understanding or knowledge must the reader come to the table with to be able to read this site?

Scholars – and librarians, and archivists, and museum specialists – are well-trained in their respective crafts, to the point where they can develop a curious reversed myopia about what other people can see in their own work. It is important to keep in mind that the web’s potential for non-linear narration give us new and more powerful ways to completely fail to connect with the people we are attempting to communicate with.

[1] Marshall McLuhan. “The Medium is the Message,” in The Anthropology of Media, ed.  Kelly Askew and Richard R. Wilk. (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2002), 18.

lies, damn lies, and metrics

In his 2014 Code|Words essay, Michael Peter Edson waxes prophetic about the “dark matter of the Internet,” heralding the beginning of a new age, where everything is interactive, collaborative, creative. In the list of factoids he uses to support his theory, he cites number after number: 140 billion Facebook images; 185.4 million Tumblr accounts with 83.1 billion posts; a billion TED talk videos “served”. (Having been on tumblr and Facebook for some time now, I can tell you that it’s likely only a miniscule percent of those posts and images are original, but copyright in this “new” web community is a topic for another time.)

Even while touting the measurement these huge digital impacts, Edson seems to look down on traditional GLAM institutions for measuring their non-digital impacts:

“Some of the disconnect between what institutions could do online and what they do do online can be attributed to the clothesline paradox, a term environmental pioneer Steve Baer coined to describe the phenomenon in which activity that can be measured easily (e.g., running a clothes dryer) is valued over equally important activity that eludes measurement (e.g., drying clothes outside.) The same can be said for the way in which institutions habitually value activity such as visits to museums or journal articles published by their scholars over equally meaningful but more difficult to measure activity such as the sharing of museum-related materials on social media sites or the creation of Wikipedia pages.”[1]

The core concept is this: everything that matters is measurable, and old-timey institutions like museums and libraries are just measuring the wrong thing.

A recent case study of an impressive suite of digital offerings from the Cleveland Museum of Art seems to have taken this idea to heart. The authors are clearly and justly proud of the work the team at CMA have done, and their responsive, dynamic Collection Wall sounds like something I’d like to play with. But in the enumeration of all the digital tools they use and all the data they gather, the story seemed to turn slightly from “gather data to help find new ways reach our patrons with our collection” to “gather data… to gather data.” As they put it:

The visitor-experience backbone captures “user” moments (i.e. transactions) that document a person’s relationship with a museum – from parking garage entrances and special exhibition entrances, to attendance at museum cocktail nights, children’s art-class registrations, donor-circle renewals, and volunteer shift check-ins.[2]

I can’t be the only person that finds this a little creepy.

Counting things – patrons, tickets, blog posts, images, whatever – makes it easy for us to tell a story about “progress” :  “One year we had x widget uses logged, and the following year we had x + 100 widget uses logged. We’re aiming for an even bigger number this year – maybe as high as x + 250!” These stories make it easier to justify our continued existence, help us find (or keep) funding, and make great bullet points in marketing materials. But what are they really measuring? At the risk of sounding incredibly trite, can you measure inspiration? Is there a metric for Eureka moments?

A few days ago I read[3] an entertainingly foulmouthed essay by instructional designer Sean Michael Morris on critical pedagogy in the age of digital learning. Morris warns that in the age of student metrics and constant tracking, it is too often the case that “Learners […] are very much the objects of the learning process, and not the subjects. Learning is being done to them while they’re observed to see how well the technology is working, or the content… to see, to put it frankly, how well learners are responding to the treatment.”[4]

While the digital initiatives and user-data-analytics world of libraries and museums is more ethnographic (what are they doing?) and less experimental (what do they do if I do this?), it feels as though there is still a distinct separation between the content holding institution and the user or patron. Are patrons learners? Are museum staff and librarians teachers? We should be. And if Edson’s utopian internet dark matter is to exert its force, the patrons will need to be teachers and the staff and librarians learners – which is difficult if not impossible to build analytics for.

Just as it is important to ask ourselves why we want to use this digital tool or that interactive design, it is important to ask – and to justify to our patrons – why we gather the data we do, and how we plan to use it. What will our patrons walk away with? Can we and should we measure that?



[1] Michael Peter Edson, Dark Matter: The Dark Matter of the Internet is Open, Social, Peer-to-Peer and Read/Write—And It’s the Future of Museums, 2014,

[2] Jane Alexander and Elizabeth Bolander, “A Digital Road Map: Developing and Evaluating Museum-wide Digital Strategy,” in Technology and Digital Initiatives, Juilee Decker, ed. Lanham, Maryland: Rowland & Littlefield, 2015.

[3] On Twitter, where I have 755 followers as of today – how’s that for a countable thing

[4] Sean Michael Morris, “Critical Pedagogy in the Age of Learning Management.” January 24, 2016. 

(recent) beginners’ resources for dh

In conjunction with a class I’m taking this semester, I’ll be posting over the next few months responses to readings on digital history, digital humanities, and technology in museums. My hope is that blogging about topics that are tangential to both my day job and my research interests will keep me posting! My first response post will be up in a few days, but in the meantime, here’s what I’m thinking about this week. 

As anyone who follows me on Twitter (my medium of choice) knows, I’ve been interested in digital humanities for years, but I don’t feel that I can say that I’ve really engaged with the community of practice in any meaningful way. My experience, and therefore any expertise, lies on the library side of the fence, where I’ve been tangentially involved in DPLA (the Digital Public Library of America) and have been doing some exploring of the relationship between traditional metadata (including cataloging and classification), philosophical ontologies/structures, and linked data/linked open data.

In digital history, the lines between digital research and digital archives/collections seem to be particularly blurry: curation, connection of disparate resources, and interpretation are crucial to both.  As I mentioned in my last brief post, to get myself more in tune with the community, and to offer a starting point for classmates new to dh and to Twitter, I put together a Twitter list of some accessible institutions and projects that tweet about their digital initiatives. A Twitter connection also recommended that I and my cohort check out this undergraduate class on digital history being taught at Carleton University and offered online via Slack (a new-to-me platform!) by a colleague of his.

In other related news, this week’s dh+lib review included a CFP for articles inspired by Miriam Posner’s “How Did They Make That

For anyone interested in the “pretty pictures” side of digital curation, I cannot recommend tumblr strongly enough – it’s not always a well-designed site, but the content is rich and wide-ranging. Just make sure to install the “tumblr savior” plugin for Firefox or Chrome if you’re going to be browsing at work; nsfw materials tend to pop up at the most inconvenient times, no matter how sanitized your dashboard or innocent your search terms.



plus ça change…

New year, new roles, new program… same field, same (or at least similar) research, same Twitter addiction, same librarian!

Although this blog has been barren in the past few years, there are new shoots coming up (just in time for the new year for trees). It begins with a Twitter list which will hopefully start as a jumping-off point for newbies to Twitter and to DH to find some informative accounts to follow.

I wish everyone a very happy new year, a happy new semester, and a productive 2016.


Librarianship on Twitter

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have seen some tweets from me lately with the hashtag #fpadpsy. These are news items intended for the students in Adolescent Psychology here at STLCC-Forest Park, and I pull them into Blackboard as a weekly roundup of psych news.

Though I invited students in the class to follow me and to use the hashtag to share their own news and ideas on Adolescent Psych, it’s been just me so far. Part of the experiment with the new embedded librarian program here at Forest Park is to discover which tools maximize student engagement. I’ve made it clear that the fastest way to get my attention outside of business hours is to use Twitter, and also offered search tips for the hashtag for students who want to keep up on subject news without signing up for Twitter themselves.

We’ll see what happens as the semester progresses and research papers come into play. For now, I’m enjoying the excuse to keep an ear out for stories on a topic that’s as new to me as it is to the students.

New year, new semester, new ideas

Just a quick note to start the semester off right. Last night was adjunct faculty orientation here at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park, and it was fantastic. I attended an overview session given by one of the full-time English faculty members, Hilary Wilson, who was engaging, funny, and full of helpful information, and one given by the math department’s Debbie Char. Prof. Char’s presentation on classroom games and keeping student attention was top-notch, and I’ll be spreading these ideas to as many of my academic friends as I can.

I’m pumped to teach library sessions this semester, to work more closely with faculty to help their students succeed, and to take advantage of the great classes offered and get familiar with some more subject areas.

May you all have a productive, exciting, and low-stress Spring 2013!