Author Archives: Sean

Tropy

In late November 2010, on the last day of a research visit to Aix-en-Provence, I set down some thoughts on how historians’ practices had seemed to change overnight:

what is the future of the archive?

archival work now focused more narrowly, more intensely. but also potentially doesn’t provide enough time to get the feel for the archives and change direction.

digital photography as a major change. archives now about raw collection, little or no feedback loop between what’s being observed and what comes next.

requires a fundamentally different rhythm, one that i’m not yet comfortable with

My reflections — which went on to include such uninspired predictions as “finding aids will soon all be online” — drew on my own experience working in an unfamiliar archive, but also on my observation of other researchers in the reading room. What had been an unusual practice just a few years earlier — Mary Gayne stands out as a trendsetter — was now simply the way one worked in archives. The other researchers I met that month in Aix — Erica Johnson, Jenna Nigro, and Jessica Pearson — all spent the bulk of their time photographing.

Seven years later, I’m still not entirely comfortable with the new rhythm of archival research. In the interim I tried to make sense of it with software like Zotero and DEVONthink, iPhoto (and later Apple Photos), and even my old friend FileMaker, all without success. And so it is precisely this discomfort, unalloyed, that inspired Tropy and that drives so much of the “digital” work in a discipline whose research practices are already entirely mediated by digital objects. Even with these notes in hand it’s now almost impossible to imagine how disorienting it once seemed to spend time in the archives photographing thousands of pages rather than reading tens; nonetheless, this is an experience shared by all but our most junior colleagues. We’ve changed our ways, but along the way we’ve unwittingly created new problems of organization and analysis of our effectively limitless personal digital archives. Where the historian’s research program once imposed some kind of order, however idiosyncratic, on an archive (itself already orderly, in all likelihood), the imperative to photograph as much as possible dissociates objects from context, atomizes documents into fragments, promises abundance but delivers disorder. There’s no technological quick fix, and as yet no new professional norms to offer guidance, but my hope is that this little piece of software will serve as a first lifeline for researchers adrift on a silent sea of JPGs.

Long-term Sustainability of PressForward

As this year’s Open Access Week winds down, I’m really pleased to share that the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation will generously fund a new, three-year phase of PressForward to ensure its long-term sustainability. The key deliverables of the grant are the launch of a dozen high-quality science publications and the continued refinement of the PressForward software to lower the barrier to entry for new research groups who want to create a collaborative publication.

While “sustainability” is probably the most dreaded criterion of any grant application, it’s an area that I actually enjoy working on in its own right. At RRCHNM we’ve been fortunate to shepherd Zotero and Omeka through phases of grant funding that were explicitly intended to lay the foundation for the projects’ long-term viability, and we’ve also worked hard to establish an effective business model to keep those projects running and growing indefinitely, on their own steam.

plugin-dirimgZotero, for example, has been entirely sustainable since April 2013. We continue to do some important grant-funded work, but these projects are now essentially above and beyond the costs of Zotero’s infrastructure and core development, which are sustained via the sale of Zotero services (primarily cloud syncing and collaboration).

While Zotero might seem like an edge case — how many DH projects have millions of users, some fraction of whom are willing to pay for an optional service? — the principles behind its path to sustainability are fairly generalizable:

  1. Build something good, open, and free that’s easy to use and encourages others to help develop it
  2. Get as many people as possible using your project in order to benefit from whatever percentage of that user base “converts” to contributing in some tangible way (e.g. informal outreach, code contributions, paying for optional services)

At first glance this model might look a lot like a business plan for a crappy startup. But there are two key ways in which it differs. First of all, the “open” aspect isn’t just good politics: it’s a powerful motivator for encouraging community involvement in a project, and it signals that the project isn’t simply top-down. Second, there are no “???” and “Profit!” phases to the plan, which frees us take a long-range perspective on user experience.

Launching a new project is of course exciting, both for developers and for funders. But establishing a project on sound footing for the long-term is particularly rewarding, because it means that all the hard work and money and good will that went into the project will continue to benefit the community. We’re all extremely fortunate that Sloan and other funders (e.g. Mellon and NEH) are increasingly sensitive to the importance of long-term sustainability, and that they are taking an active interest in working with projects to put them on a sustainable path.

We’ll be sharing more details next week about the specifics of PressForward’s new direction phase in a formal announcement at the project’s blog, but in the meantime, congratulations to the entire PressForward team!

Hello Tropy (soon)

I’m happy to announce the funding of Tropy, a major new RRCHNM initiative that Stephen Robertson and I will lead over the next two years. Thanks to the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Tropy will fill a crucial need in the initial phase of the research process: where humanities researchers organize and analyze their vast and rapidly growing personal collections of digital images collected in the archives. In the coming months we’ll be working closely with researchers and a range of archives to develop an entirely new digital tool that enables the efficient import, editing, organization, search, and sharing of images taken in the archives.

Although we’re just getting started, I’m already excited about Tropy for a whole host of reasons:

First, Tropy is something that researchers want, right now. Unlike Zotero, which required (and in some cases, still requires) some convincing to get humanities scholars to use it, people working in the archives are well aware that they’re drowning in the sea of digital images. And on the other side of the transaction, archives are struggling to meet the rapidly evolving demands of their users. No existing software meets these needs, since photo management applications like Apple Photos or Google Picasa are geared entirely toward the photograph, not to the artifact it depicts.

Second, although we remain a long way from a shipping piece of software, Tropy is already the product of over two years of planning and input from a wide range of experts. Stephen and I began discussing it way back in 2013. Like so many ideas at RRCHNM, the plan for Tropy took further shape thanks to the intellectual generosity of countless colleagues: Faolan Cheslack-Postava, Mandy Regan, Jim Safley, Lisa Rhody, Ken Albers, Kim Nguyen, and John Flatness, among others. And so even before development has begun in earnest, Tropy is already an intensively collaborative enterprise. And if you — a researcher, an archivist, a software developer — are interested in participating in this project, there will be ample opportunity in the very near future.

Third, Tropy will significantly extend an already critically important scholarly infrastructure developed at RRCHNM. Zotero remains best-suited for bibliographic data, notes, and citation; Omeka for the public presentation of research collections; PressForward for the collection and dissemination of scholarship. Tropy, in contrast, targets the discrete research tasks of collection, discovery, organization, and sharing of images.

Fourth, Tropy takes RRCHNM development in a novel technical direction. Without getting too much into the technology we’re putting into Tropy, it will very much be a “2016 and beyond” environment. Thanks to newly emerging platforms like Electron, we will actually be able to build a cross-platform tool that functions the way we want it to, something that simply would not have been cost-effective or even feasible given the environments we’re currently using for projects like Omeka (LAMP) or Zotero (XULRunner/PHP).

As the project takes shape we’ll be launching a dedicated project site and (of course) making the code freely available. More soon.

More coverage:
Stephen’s post
University press release
RRCHNM announcement

On Bubbles, or This Time It’s Different

This week Inside Higher Ed stirred the DH pot with a thinly-evidenced piece suggesting that we’re in the midst of a “Digital Humanities Bubble” which is supposedly about to burst. As someone who has spent nearly eight years struggling to fill a range of alt-ac, tenure-track, and tenured digital positions, while simultaneously trying to retain the good people we already have at RRCHNM, this comes as welcome news!

If only.

Since 2006 I’ve been party to over a dozen hires in digital and “traditional” history, and in every single one of those cases, the market dynamic in digital searches has been profoundly different from traditional ones. Whether there’s rapid or modest growth in digital history positions is kind of beside the point; the “bubble,” such as it exists, is relative in the sense that there simply aren’t enough candidates to fill the positions we already have, let alone the ones that may or may not be created in the future.

I first began thinking about this issue systematically after Bethany Nowviskie published her “Asking for It” piece in February, itself a response to the OCLC’s report, “Does Every Research Library Need a Digital Humanities Center?” Like Bethany I found the premise of the original report odd, but my sense was that one could just as easily answer the question, “You can’t have one anyway.” For years we’ve all been increasingly competing over the same, barely growing pool of qualified candidates. The only way a new center can find plausible people is to hire them away from somewhere more established, with tenure, etc., and there simply aren’t enough qualified people out there.

If we’re going to talk about a job market, we need to look at both parties, the buyers and the sellers. The IHE piece and its disenchanted sources assume that the sellers, here candidates, look something like they do in the humanities academic job market writ large. In other words, that there are hundreds of them for every open job, and so “one or two new positions” created at “many institutions” will have no discernible effect. But in digital history, at least, that’s simply not the case.

After some near misses with a research faculty hire and a few developers in my first years at RRCHNM, the first truly alarming example of this dynamic came to my attention in 2008–2009, when we ran the search that ultimately hired Fred Gibbs. Even with a deliberately vague description of “digital history“1 and a fairly desperate openness to what that might entail, we were barely able to assemble a slate of three plausible2 finalists, a mix of history and English PhDs.3

Over and over since then, in complete contrast to the hundreds of applicants we might get for a non-digital position, most of whom are entirely plausible, we see an order of magnitude fewer applicants for digital positions. Take just the last four tenure-track and tenured searches in which I was involved over the past two years:

  • U.S. and the World: 153 applicants, 100+ plausible
  • RRCHNM Director: 11 applicants, 4 plausible
  • Nineteenth-Century Europe: 129 applicants, 90+ plausible
  • Digital History: 13 applicants, 4 plausible

In other words, if you are “digital” and not completely full of shit, you are probably already a finalist.4

And so while the digital humanities may not “save the humanities” or even “save humanities jobs” — and I’m still not sure where those straw-man claims originated — it certainly appears that it can dramatically improve one’s chances of landing a history job. I present to you what is, of course, anecdotal evidence. But at least it’s evidence, and I’d love to hear more about what others are actually finding on the hiring side of things, and how it compares to our experience.

  1. Assistant Professor, Digital History. George Mason University, Department of History and Art History invites applications for a tenure-track Assistant Professor position in digital history. The successful applicant will be expected to manage a range of projects at Mason’s Center for History and New Media and to teach digital methodology for the department. []
  2. Plausible” is a slippery term of course; here I’m using it in the most generous possible way, that the candidate actually demonstrates the bare minimum expertise in the position’s field to teach and conduct research. As in, not a crank or random applicant. []
  3. And it is no coincidence that the other two finalists are currently very much employed in extremely good jobs. []
  4. Given these very tiny pools of candidates, it’s no surprise that even people who are entirely full of shit still wind up in “digital humanities” positions. []

A Digital Humanities Tenure Case, Part 3: Decanal Retention

After some turbulence at the college committee level, my tenure case reached my dean in the spring. Here’s what he had to say about “some” — that’s the college committee’s own wiggle word — determining that digital projects should be considered “major service activity” rather than research:

Although [Zotero] might appear as simply a technical advance, in fact the three outside reviewers consulted on this part of the case repeatedly note that it is a deep and important intervention into scholarly debate. Zotero depends on an understanding of the research techniques in the humanities and contributes mightily to their improvement. Zotero is thus a scholarly work because it makes significant methodological advances.

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