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Net Neutrality?

July 13, 2014

Below you’ll find the comment I just submitted to the FCC, as they’re currently accepting public comments about the idea of reclassifying internet access as a public utility, like water or telephone service. The initial period for public comments ends on July 15.

I have been a college level educator for over 20 years, and that work has led me to pursue a new career as a digital librarian. I have seen education revolutionized by the way that the internet has removed countless barriers to accessing information. As a result, we are in the midst of an incredible period of learning for young and old, rich and poor, across the globe. I find it devastating to imagine this progress coming to a screeching halt if Net Neutrality is destroyed. It is obvious to me in my role as an educator that internet access should be reclassified as a public utility, like telephone service or access to clean drinking water, so that our government can regulate the industry and take steps to prevent corporate greed from interfering with our intellectual freedom. My entire career has been based on work with non-profit organizations. As an emerging digital librarian, I am in the midst of building digital collections that provide valuable educational materials to anyone on the internet. Such collections, created by non-profits, can’t afford to pay the fast-lane fees internet service providers will charge if net neutrality is ended. No one but greedy internet service providers can possibly think that this is fair. Libraries are both consumers and producers of information, and without regulation will face huge cost increases both as users and as providers. The end of net neutrality would be a devastating blow to our culture and our democracy.

 

If you care to post your own comment, it’s a little more user friendly to do it through this site than at the FCC site itself: http://act.boldprogressives.org/survey/survey_NoSlowLane_FCC_comments/

3D Funday

March 29, 2014

I just joined the NYC Museum MediaLab Meetup group, and on March 15 I attended my first meetup for a 3D Funday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This was a great opportunity to learn about 3D scanning, modeling, and printing technology. We were able to experiment with most of the tools ourselves – and anything I didn’t get to try myself, I got to peek over the shoulder of someone else using. There were lots of questions asked and answered, with everyone being extremely generous about sharing their knowledge and ideas.

After lots of time to get to know the other meetup-ees, and to hear about a great range of exciting projects everyone’s working on, we all sat down to formally introduce ourselves, and then heard from artist  Jeff Hesser. Jeff spoke about the relationship between three different threads in his work as an artist: his traditional work with figurative sculpture, his teaching, and his work with digital media. His work deals with several different kinds of tension: between realism and abstraction, between memory and forgetting, between permanence and impermanence, between old age and youth, all of which echo the tension between the physical and the digital. The issues he brought up were a great way to get us started on our day, and none of us who were there will ever look at a sculpted eye the same way again.

Scanning sculpture at the Met, using the Sense scanner from 3D Systems

scanning sculpture at the Met, using the Sense scanner from 3D Systems

Several of us commented on the fact that the act of scanning the sculpture in the galleries really forced us to do a kind of close looking that we might not have done otherwise (I have similarly found this to be true in my work with students to create objectVRs of historic clothing). To make sure that we were doing a good job of catching all the nuances of shape in our scans, we really had to look very closely at just what it was we were scanning. The act of choosing what to scan also became another kind of close looking, as we examined objects very carefully to choose what we thought we wanted to capture for different projects, and what we thought would make a successful scan, based on lighting and physical access to the different sides of the object. As artist Jeff Hesser said in our discussion after our scanning time in the galleries, “the making of the thing leads to a deeper experience of it.” This was also true as Don Undeen demonstrated how to work with a completed scan using the TinkerCAD software, and the experimentation began: to turn the object into something new.

editing and printing 3D scans

editing and printing 3D scans

If you’d like to see what we scanned that day, you can do so at http://www.thingiverse.com/met/collections/museum-medialab-meetup-3d-funday-2  (the Buddha body at the very bottom, and the Masonic chair, were two that I helped to scan). These are best viewed in Chrome as your browser, I believe. Choose on an object, then on its page you’ll usually see a choice of views, click on one that’s blue, and then click on “thingiview” (doesn’t work in Safari), then you can click/drag to rotate it and see all its 3D glory. These scans are still very rough – the idea is that our next meetup will be an opportunity to clean up the scans and do something with them.

The conversations that day really brought me back to conversations about digital material culture from THATCamps past. The scanned objects float in space in the software, initially removed from the context in which they were captured, so the focus is on the object itself. This allows for a kind of close looking that feels surreal, allowing you to see all sides of an object, around, above, and below (and sometimes even inside). This removal from the physical context initially feels wrong, but of course it’s precisely what museums do when they place objects in white cube galleries very different from the context in which they were made, used, or stored.

I’ve had several discussions over the years with museum folks and educators about the challenges of portraying the different contexts in which an object has lived over the course of its life – for some objects, there are many. Can we combine our 3-D models of these objects with models in which we re-create several of the different spaces from their history?

Anyway, here’s an outline of what we did that day:

“Scan, sculpt, print”
that’s what Leanne from 3-D systems wrote on the whiteboard to start us off for the day

  • Scan
    • Sense scanner from 3D Systems (shown in the top photo above) – first we practiced scanning each other, then we worked in teams to scan some sculpture in galleries where we had permission from curators
    • 123D Catch photogrammetry – this app works on iOS, in a web browser, or as a PC download – you take a series of photos of an object, circling around it, and the software stitches the images together into a 3D view
  • Sculpt
    • a demonstration of the Sculpt software (also from 3D systems)
    • also a demo of Tinkercad, editing a scan after we came back from the galleries
    • other 3D software mentioned:
  • Print
    • a few test prints with the adorable Cube printer, from 3D Systems
    • an example of a resin printer, demonstrated by another Meetup-ee
    • a larger printer in the Met MediaLab, in the middle of a weeklong print

Many thanks to Don Undeen and the team at the Met MediaLab, to artist in residence Jeff Hesser, to the team from 3D Systems who let us play with all their great tools, and of course to the powers-that-be at the Met who let us scan and photograph objects in the first place. I’m really looking forward to the next MediaLab Meetup!

Also, just as an aside, I appreciated the poetry of spending time in a digital media lab which is a re–mediated (ha!) former slide library.

Efficiency? Cons and Pros of Online Learning

February 23, 2014

This is a follow up from my previous post that provided an outline of my workflow as an online student.

I love my online classes, but I take issue with anyone who suggests that online classes are a more efficient format than face to face classes, as some who have made education their business model would have you believe. Such an opinion probably comes from the perspective of being able to re-use class lectures and other materials on a larger scale of geography and time, but those of us who have been blessed with a high quality education know that lectures and readings are only a small part of an ideal learning experience. Interaction with instructors and other students, and hands-on exercises, are where a higher level of cognition takes place, and this takes time and energy: in other words, labor.

If I’m taking so long to read through the asynchronous discussion posts of all my classmates and reply, imagine how many hours my instructor must put in, if she’s doing a good job. Instead of 1-3 hours of face to face contact time weekly, in an online class I would imagine that easily becomes 7-12 hours for an online instructor, to keep on top of an engaged discussion board and other student communication. I imagine class lectures are also a much lengthier process: in addition to the usual lecture preparation, an instructor doesn’t just show up and present, but must carefully record a video, often doing it several times over if a tech glitch comes up, or if something interrupts them in the middle of recording. The time to set up the Blackboard for a class, or a module in another learning management system, should also not be underestimated. A class site that is easy to navigate makes all the difference with regards to a student’s cognitive load, but it takes a lot of advance preparation on the part of the instructor to organize the presentation of material in a learning module. All of this is on top of the time that an instructor would usually put in, including usual class preparation and quality feedback on assignments.

However, all in all, I find that the inefficiencies of the format are definitely balanced by other advantages. Efficiency is not what education is all about – there are other factors that are far more important to fulfill the personal learning needs of any particular student. As a working mother, I personally would not be able to go back to school for a second masters if I could not do it online. In my online program I get to discuss issues with fellow students from all over the country and all over the world – and I don’t mean they’re just from another country, but as they write they are sitting in another country. I can respond to a classmate’s post at 2 in the morning, or over my lunch break at work, if that’s when it fits into my busy schedule. I can go to a conference, or take on an out-of-town freelance job, and participate in a class from my hotel. I have worked on very successful group projects with teams spread out across the country, using Skype, Google Hangouts, and Google Apps for video meetings and collaborative authoring. As a result, I have been able to adopt such tools for real-life work, building a dream team for a project that is not limited by geography.

Finally, my online discussion participation has helped me greatly to develop my ability to articulate my thoughts in writing – thoughts that are typed rather than spoken. By the time I complete my degree, I probably will have written a book’s worth of discussion posts. In face to face classes in my past it has often taken me several weeks to warm up to my classmates before I feel comfortable jumping into a discussion, but the asynchronous format allows students like me a greater comfort to carefully develop our thoughts at our own pace before sharing them. This has built my confidence in a way that has allowed me to jump in sooner in face to face situations since.

Keep in mind though, I am able to thrive in this online situation precisely because of the face-to-face liberal arts education I had as an undergraduate. That was the formative experience that forever made me think critically and articulate myself carefully, rising to the challenges of my instructors and classmates. Without that foundation, I could very well be floundering in my online discussion boards. I admire efforts to bring to an online format the kind of undergraduate education I was lucky to have, so that it can reach a wider audience, but in that situation quality comes from time and personal attention: again, labor. Technology can scale certain aspects of education, but an instructor or advisor’s personal attention cannot be scaled in the same way, which means, yes, someone needs to pay for their labor.

All of this summarizes my experience so far as an online student, and I hope it is enlightening to those who are looking at online education from the outside, or those who are taking their first online class. If you’re an online student with a different perspective, I hope this will inspire you to share your experience as well, either in the comments below or on your own blog (in which case I hope you’ll provide a link in the comments below). We need to share our perspectives and help shape how the future of online education will develop.

One Online Student’s Workflow

February 23, 2014

aka: How to Keep Blackboard from Driving You Insane

These days I find myself particularly aware of my workflow to stay on top of the two online courses I’m taking this semester as a part of my MLIS program at Syracuse University. One of my instructors has been asking about our online student experiences, and my mother is taking her first ever MOOC, so I’m in a position to share my thoughts. This is not intended as advice, but simply as an observation of how one student approaches the work – one very busy adult student who is also a working mother – a common demographic, I believe, for online learners. I’ll follow this up shortly with another post as  a narrative reflection on my experience with the pros and cons of classes that are fully online.

There’s a lot here about how to get around the Blackboard learning management system (LMS) – some will apply to another LMS, others won’t. If anyone has thoughts about an LMS that’s less frustrating, I’d love to hear it (Moodle?).

  • Scheduling

    • For my classes this semester, one has its week from Monday – Sunday, and the other from Wednesday – Tuesday. I’m finding this helpful, so I don’t have end of the week deadlines for both classes at the same time.

    • I schedule an hour of work time for each class every night, with extra time on the weekends, but realistically the weekday evening times often get pushed to the weekend after my other commitments – really, most of my classwork has to happen on weekends

    • I do at least try to do some reading for one class, if not both classes, each evening before bed.

    • I also try to check in with the discussion boards for each class daily, even if I don’t have time to write a post

    • At the beginning of the semester, I mark assignments in Google Calendar so that I can be sure to schedule enough lead time to work on each one. If I have assignments for 2 classes that are close together, or if I have a home or work conflict around the time of the assignment, I need to work on assignments further in advance.

  • Accessing materials

    • As an online student I’ve become acutely aware of the limitations of each browser, so I’m constantly switching between three:

      • Chrome handles files/downloads best, and works best with all the Google Apps I have become dependent upon, but has been very slow for me lately

      • Safari is best for printing (or saving material as PDFs), and has been the fastest of the 3 for me lately

      • Firefox is best for viewing video lectures in Panopto (see below), but also can be slow

  • Reading

    • When a new class week begins, I collect any readings:

      • I use my laptop to access Blackboard and download any readings

      • then I email it to myself and open it on my iPad

      • then I download it into the GoodReader app

        • this used to be easier – I could access Blackboard directly on my iPad using the Blackboard mobile app and grab PDFs directly from there – but Blackboard has updated the app so it only works with iOS system 6 and above, and disabled the old app, so I can’t use it with my first-generation iPad.

        • I can access Blackboard in Safari on my iPad, but it tends to log me out each time I leave Safari to download a PDF into GoodReader, which gets very annoying very fast

      • This is easier if the readings are already PDFs

      • If they are web pages, I open them in Safari and use the Print command  to turn them into PDFs, which I then email to my iPad and import into GoodReader.

        • I can also do this directly on my iPad using PDFmyURL.com, but it doesn’t always work, and the formatting isn’t great

    • Once the readings are in GoodReader, I sort them into a folder structure, with a folder for each class and folders for each week within.

    • I use GoodReader because I find it very simple to annotate my readings – I can highlight, underline, circle, draw, type notes, whatever! There’s also great search capability, etc.
  • Other course materials

    • For future reference, I like to save all links (including public PDFs) to Delicious, tagged with class number and appropriate subject tags (this is one of my OCD parts)

    • I also save learning objectives, assignment instructions, etc. as PDFs, on my laptop

      • I have a folder for each class, and within, folders for each week and each major assignment

  • Lectures

    • In my classes so far, I have experienced a variety of technology used for “lectures.” Voice over Powerpoint slides is by far the most common lecture format, and works well, but I have experienced some other formats:

      • Panopto is my favorite for viewing lectures

        • Pro-tip – if you watch it in Firefox, you have controls that don’t exist in the other browsers. My favorite is control over the spead of playback. I imagine this could be great for students who are not native English speakers to slow a professor down – but I usually use it the opposite way, speeding everything up to 1.5x the normal rate. It still is very listenable, with many profs. If I want to take detailed notes about a section, I’ll pause the video for a moment, so I probably take the same overall amount of time to view a lecture, but it’s more focused for me this way.

        • You also can easily navigate through the slides, which are connected to the audio/video so you can easily replay a section

        • I also really like the way many profs use this to show slides or screencasts and their face at the same time. This “embodiment” gives me more of a connection with the professor, which is helpful.

      • For one class the instructor had made podcasts years ago and has been re-using them. Unfortunately he included references to specific due dates, and assignments that had changed slightly, so this felt a little stale. This would work better if an instructor re-used content lectures but created brief greeting lectures to address content specific to this incarnation of the class

      • For another class the instructor shared PDFs of slides without any voice over. At first I thought this would be insufficient, but he really did make the slides speak for themselves, and I enjoyed being able to go through them at my own pace. He also included many links to a wealth of video content already existing on YouTube, which exposed us to a wide diversity of perspectives, internationally.

      • If the lecture is in an audio/video format over slides, I do appreciate having the slides available separately as a PDF. I like to view the slides on my iPad in GoodReader while viewing the lecture, so I can take notes directly on the slides as I go.

  • Discussion Boards

    • For most of my classes so far, this is where the meat of the class really happens, which is particularly interesting given the variety of instructor interaction with the discussion boards. I have had classes where an instructor replies to many posts and adds other thoughts, others with instructor comments only 1-2 times a week, and others with no reply from the instructor whatsoever. Of course, the same is true in face to face classes.

    • In my program at SU, I am very lucky to have some very thoughtful classmates, who raise the level of discussion to a high level. My classmates and I often raise new questions, share links to additional online resources, and overall truly benefit from our interaction with each other. In most classes only a handful of students really participate in the discussion at this level, but again, that is true in face to face classes as well

    • asynchronous discussion (anyone can post at any time) really allows for more thorough exploration of a subject than the limited time and competing voices in a face to face classroom

    • however, when those limits from the face to face classroom’s time and space are taken away, in a very engaged class it can become very time-consuming to keep up with the discussion boards.

      • In one class of about 25 very engaged students, we all posted lengthy posts / replies about 5-7 times a week (not once a day, but several posts, a couple of days out of the week). I just looked back at my archived reading from one week from that class (see below) and the PDF is 86 pages long – for one week! But it’s hard to say what you could cut back from that – this particular class had a real variety of perspectives, including several international students, so I wouldn’t have wanted to miss their thoughts

      • For another class, the large class was divided into 3 smaller discussion groups, and we were only required to follow our assigned group. This was much more manageable, but then on one occasion I used the search tool in Blackboard to try to find a past post, and discovered a wonderful discussion thread in another group that I felt sad I had missed out on! You can’t have everything.

  • Communication with the class

    • In addition to the communication of the discussion board, Blackboard usually provides two other means of private communication, at the discretion of the instructor

      • Email – this function allows you to choose from a list of anyone in the class (including the instructor) to send an email. The idea is that by sending it from this system, all email communication is archived within the system. In real practice, this is very annoying. It’s great to be able to receive an email outside of the class system, but you can’t reply to it, because it’s not coming from the person who sent it, it’s coming from the system. You have to log into Blackboard to reply. If I’m working on a class project, I usually ask my classmates to send an email from Blackboard but to include their preferred email in the body, so we can use regular email from that point on.

      • Messages – there’s a message system within Blackboard which acts kind of like email, but is even more annoying than the situation above. This system exists entirely within Blackboard, with no notification system. If one of my classmates tries to reach me with this kind of message, and I’m not expecting it, it might be weeks before I happen to check the message module and notice that I have a message in my Inbox. The only way for this system to work is if you get into the habit of checking it every day, which for me and my busy schedule is too much.

  • Navigating Blackboard

    • I have had some instructors set up a great Blackboard, and others set up one in which it was nearly impossible to find a particular resource. Each instructor may structure the site in a different way, but what’s most important is consistency – that I know I can always find readings in a section called “Readings” for example, and that is true for every week and all content.

    • I find it helps greatly to have one central place for each week’s content, and everything links from there.

      • for some classes, I’ve had instructors create a single splash page with links to everything for the week

      • for most of my classes, instructors have created a learning module folder for each week, and within that are folders for readings, video lectures, assignments, etc.

      • for either of these formats, I usually start at the first page/section of the module and then methodically go through each section, capturing the content as described in the sections above

      • if no central learning module is provided, it is much more difficult to approach this methodically

    • Redundancy can be both good and bad – I appreciate it when professors link to the same content from several places in the site, so that it’s convenient. However, if they do this as a duplicate post, rather than a link to a post, this can get very confusing – especially if they change the information in one place but not the other.

  • End of semester archiving

    • I try to preserve all the content from each class to have on hand for future reference.

      • Learning Modules

        • Materials are collected during each week of class, as discussed above

      • Discussion board

        • once the class discussions are officially over, I:

          • visit each part of the discussion board, one at a time

          • expand all posts

          • use the “collect” function to view all posts on one page

          • save as a PDF (works best in Safari)

Fellow students, what did I forget?  New students, what else do you have questions about?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Also, please continue on from this outline to my next post, a narrative reflection on my perspective of online classes.

2013 – My Year in Review, Part 2

January 4, 2014

This is part 2 of my look back at what I’ve accomplished over the past year, focusing more on my professional life. While part 1 focused on my life as an MLIS student, of course these 2 parts are strongly interwoven. 

Part 2 – My Professional Self

Of all my many projects this year, the one that is nearest and dearest to my heart is HistoricDress.org. I’m very lucky to be a part of an amazing team whose members share my vision for innovative digital tools that will increase the educational impact of historic clothing by allowing for specialized access to diverse digital collections of historic clothing and related materials. My car now knows the route to Smith College by heart from my frequent travels for this project: in addition to regular planning meetings, I worked with students and colleagues from 5 Colleges (a consortium of colleges in Western Massachusetts) throughout the year to continue to develop content and structure for our prototype website, and to make plans far beyond what our current prototype is able to do. a close-up view of a paisley shawl with an overlay of text for Historic Dress: The Center for the Study of Clothing, Costume, Fashion and CultureThis work included some wonderful outreach opportunities this past fall, which have left me feeling very energized with great feedback from the education, library, archive, museum, and costume history communities that will engage with the resources we have in the works. We’ve also had some great input from the team developing a related project on the other side of the world,  the Australian Dress Register. I won’t go much further to describe our project here, as I’m hoping to write a longer post soon for our project’s blog to describe the insights that have emerged from our process over the last two years.

I will just mention a related event -  I greatly enjoyed the “Narratives of Dress” symposium hosted at Smith College on November 1st and 2nd, where numerous wonderful speakers raised awareness of the ways in which articles of historic clothing are a rich resource for study, especially in terms of women’s history, whether for undergraduate students or established scholars (http://www.smith.edu/narrativesofdress/resources.php). This event involved several members of our team from HistoricDress, as it was organized by Kiki Smith and included presentations by Nancy Rexford and Marla Miller.

My work on HistoricDress also led me to attend the March conference on Women’s History in the Digital World, at the Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education (at Bryn Mawr), to present about that project and about my work on a 2011 digital exhibition for Vassar’s research collection of historic clothing. But hopefully you already know about that from my post last April!

Another project that is dear to my heart though not yet near enough to my heart is the DPLA (Digital Public Library of America, at dp.la). I have been following this project as much as my busy schedule will allow, which of course is not enough. However, continuing in the vein of conferences and talks, I was lucky enough to be able to attend Dan Cohen’s talk about the DPLA at NYU in April, which I believe was his first public talk about it after having been appointed Executive Director for this ambitious initiative. I was proud to be among the first to hear his stump speech about the 3 P’s of the DPLA (portal, platform, public – read more, and watch the wonderful video at http://dp.la/info/). I drafted a blog post on the train ride home from that invigorating talk, but shelved it; now I’ll be sure to try to resurrect it and add more thoughts, especially since attending the DPLAFest in Boston during October. That day of workshops brought together multitudes of us who are passionate about the potential of the DPLA – it was a day of hope and excitement and all the digital library jargon I could have dreamed of, reminding me that my decision to become a digital librarian was the right one, and that these are my people!

a yellowed image of 1954 bride MaryLee Hartzell, with overlaid text "For Better and For Worse: Sixteen Decades of Wedding Wear at Vassar"But back to my more tangible efforts this year: one of the most significant projects I worked on was our exhibition, “For Better and For Worse: Sixteen Decades of Wedding Wear at Vassar.” In January I gathered together students and colleagues who had volunteered to help plan this exhibition, and shared with them my struggle to find a “way in” to this subject. One student helped a great deal with this, pointing out that much of the relevance of discussing marriage and weddings right now is in the context of marriage equality. In addition to displaying objects we already had in our collection, we sought loans of additional objects and photographs, and conducted an oral history project, to tell a story of diverse perspectives of weddings. This stayed open in the Palmer Gallery through Vassar’s Reunion weekend, and we had wonderful feedback from the many alumnae who contributed to this project (coincidentally, it was my own 20th reunion at Vassar, but I decided to keep my curator’s voice separate from my alumna voice and didn’t include any photos of my own wedding dress, but yes, it was red). For the moment, you can see a few photographs and read a little more about this project on our collection blog, at http://pages.vassar.edu/vccc/?tag=for-better-and-for-worse, but this is just to tide you over until we are ready to launch our digital version of the exhibition. Before we struck the exhibition, we took photographs of almost all the objects on a turntable, to be able to create rotating objectVR views. In December, several students helped to process those photos, along with the audio and transcriptions of the oral history project, and we’ll be trying to wrap that up this January, so stay tuned.

an image of 5 very different wedding dresses and 2 groom's outfits

some highlights of “For Better and For Worse: Sixteen Decades of Wedding Wear at Vassar” including 5 wedding dresses from 4 generations of the same family of Vassar alumnae, and two grooms’ outfits from a same-sex wedding

Speaking of this upcoming digital exhibition, I was very pleased to find that students used our online collection (for Vassar’s research collection of historic clothing, at http://vcomeka.com/vccc) for projects in two different classes this past fall. While an average introductory face-to-face visit to the collection may be around 90 minutes at the most, this contact allows us to help students understand what to look at when examining historic clothing. Then, they have 24/7 access to visit our online database and view detailed images and information about the objects they saw in person, and many more. I always wish we had more time to devote to this digital resource, but the fact is that this work is only a small aspect of my job at Vassar, and it is rare for me to be able to steal myself, or my students, away from our costume construction projects for Drama department shows. Work with the collection typically happens at the beginning and end of the semester, when productions aren’t in full swing. So, our digital collection page layouts may not be as pretty, or our interface as intuitive, or our metadata as high quality as my ever-increasing digital librarian standards would like, but there’s still a great deal of content there that is useful to students. After a few tips and tricks from me to navigate the site, they’re off and running.

So, yes, there’s also that matter of all the shows and all the classes I worked on for my day job as Costumer for the Vassar College Drama Department. Please remember that all of the above (and in my last post) was done in addition to working 3 days a week in the Costume Shop at Vassar, supervising 15 undergraduate students to do whatever it takes to produce all the costumes for our Drama Department shows, which this past year included: Cripple of Inishman, House of Spirits, Eurydice, Rez Sisters, Little Dog Laughed, Ghosts, Way of the World, and Mouthful of Birds (a Caryl Churchill piece which I adore and which incidentally I have now worked on 3 times, all at Vassar, all in the Powerhouse, including designing costumes for it in 1993 and 1999). In the summer I also worked with Vassar’s Powerhouse Theatre Apprentice Company as I have done each summer for many years, helping the Apprentice Company to costume their own shows, which this year included Blood Wedding, Agamemnon, and As You Like It.

Did I forget anything? Oh, yes, I also launched my first commercial website, for a friend’s massage therapy business in New Hampshire, at http://moondancemassage.info/ That’s built in WordPress, using the fabulous Mantra theme, which I highly recommend, especially because I can’t believe something so customizable is also free.

Enough? All right, now that I’ve sufficiently reflected, on to 2014. If I were to make a new year’s resolution it might be to write about things in a more timely fashion, as they happen – but I don’t really believe in new year’s resolutions, do you?

(by the way, if there’s an ad below this, please don’t hold it against me – one of these days I’ll set aside some time to move to a self-hosted WordPress installation so I can be ad free)

Women’s History, and . . . Metadata?!

April 15, 2013

Toward the end of March I had the wonderful opportunity to present at an inaugural conference on the subject of Women’s History in the Digital World (#WHDigWrld on Twitter), at the Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education (at Bryn Mawr). Not only did this event allow me to meet many people doing wonderful work with digital women’s history, but it also allowed me to bring together people I know from two different projects: HistoricDress.org, and the digital library at Vassar College.

Early students at Vassar College

Please encode us with dignity! Early students at Vassar College; photograph courtesy of Vassar College Archives and Special Collections

The event began Friday night, and I arrived just in time for the introductions and the keynote by Laura Mandell. Her talk got us thinking about “Feminist Critique vs. Feminist Production in Digital Humanities.” This overall theme carried us through the entire weekend, reminding us of the need for feminists:

  • to be at the table when systems are designed for collecting, encoding, and disseminating information
  • to create projects that provide positive models of how to represent less privileged groups and individuals
  • to peer review each other’s work
  • to provide support for each others’ grant proposals.

The highlight of her talk for many of us, however, was a slide with an example of some of her XML encoding for one of her projects. This is code that holds metadata (“data about data” is the quick definition) about a person, place, text, object – anything, really – and allows information to be understood by a computer. There was a collective gasp from the room when she showed that the TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) preferred code for gender (when encoding a person) was 1 for male, 2 for female.

A tweet from @ProfessMoravec stating ".@mandellc #WHDigWrld 2nd sex has become canonized, when you encode women in TEI the # is 2!"

A tweet from @ProfessMoravec during Laura Mandell’s keynote

I’ve been processing this ever since, thinking about who was at the table when that standard was developed, and why it couldn’t have been m and f, or something else entirely. Eventually it occurred to me that it could be an issue of internationalization, using numbers to avoid one language’s terms. Sure enough, looking into it further, it’s based on an ISO standard, ISO 5218, to be specific. Still, I couldn’t help but keep thinking of different ways to approach this issue – what about other non-serial numbers so it wouldn’t feel as hierarchical? How else could we approach this?

Well, checking in on this again today, a quick search yielded a discussion board conversation on this topic at the SourceForge site for TEI documentation, begun by Melissa Terras. Following through this months-long discussion thread, it appears that in the weeks since #WHDigWrld, the TEI Council has agreed to make a change, allowing the use of alternative or locally defined systems for encoding gender (take a look at the updated specification). Great news, but there’s still much work to be done.

Indeed, Mandell’s XML slide served as an example of how to perform subversive encoding to simultaneously work within current systems and create new systems. Her example pointed out that predominant name authorities, such as the Library of Congress (LOC), sometimes define a woman’s preferred name in the format “Mrs. (insert husband’s name here).” Her slide provided an example of double/triple subversive encoding, including the ISO 5218 and LOC standard terms, but only as alternate terms, following terms and ontologies more appropriate to the given project and to the representation of women as primary figures. It is inspiring to imagine how our projects can meet current standards and interact with other existing projects, yet simultaneously set new standards for like-minded work which could gain traction and someday overtake our current hegemonic standards.

All of this re-opened a door in my mind. I’m in the middle of a Metadata class right now, and up to attending this conference, I had been (for the most part) uncritically accepting the practice of using established authority files for names, places, and subjects, and accepting the preferred terms from such authorities. Disambiguation is the name of the game, and I understand and embrace that. But after seeing Mandell’s example, I am reminded that any “preferred” term must be coming from a preferred group, one that speaks from a position of power and privilege that other groups and other terms cannot attain.

Now that I’m back in school, I’m reminded of how easy it is to just be one of the herd and follow along with what you’re being taught in class. Back when I was getting my first masters, in costume design, my cohort jokingly adopted sheep as our mascot. Of course back then it was more obviously a joke – as a designer you are expected to have a style of your own and not to blend in with the herd. As a librarian, not so much – though I’m lucky that my program at SU seems to be very supportive of discourse. We need to see more examples like Mandell’s, to think more critically about the systems of organization that we are working within, to create alternative systems when necessary, and to stand up and try to make changes in existing standards.

The rest of the weekend continued in this vein, with a wide assortment of wonderful projects from across the country. I’ll highlight the presentations I was able to attend, but please visit the conference website to read more about all the ones that I unfortunately had to miss.

  • The perfect start for me on Saturday was a presentation by Patricia Keller about the Sampler Archive Project. Pat was also involved in the Quilt Index, and I’ve enjoyed learning from Pat about both these two projects, which have been pioneers in presenting focused collections of material culture. My team at HistoricDress.org can learn much from Pat’s work on these projects.
  • Bridget Baird and Cameron Blevins (a mother/son team!) presented Digital Diaries, Digital Tools: A Comparative Approach to Eighteenth-Century Women’s History. They provided a great introduction to topic modeling, and its pros and cons in application to the diaries of Martha Ballard and Elizabeth Drinker. I was reminded of how the entries in many historic diaries are not unlike the mundane tweets of which we are critical today. They also made me think about how calendars/planners now carry much of the data that diaries did then – I wonder how they will be studied in the future?
  • Jen Palmentiero (from Hudson River Valley Heritage), and  Joanna DiPasquale and Laura Streett (from Vassar, where I’m very lucky to have their support and advice for my own project) presented Using Archives and Metadata to Uncover Women’s Lives: Challenges and Opportunities for Scholarship through Archives and Digital Libraries. Their 3 presentations worked perfectly together,  showing the trajectory of tech development to use. Several of their examples demonstrated how technological choices are impacted by factors that are decidedly non-technical, such as funding and institutional culture. Laura’s examples of findings in the digital archive indicated how digital search and discovery can lead to the consideration of different search terms and other practices moving forward.
  • Erin Bush, a PhD student at George Mason University, presented Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Executions of Women in the United States, showing how she is using data science both to help frame her research questions and to try to answer them. Considering the questions she was asking of this particular dataset, she got me thinking about what questions we can ask of objects, given the datasets that are coming available as museum collections are beginning to share APIs for access to data. What questions will a PhD student in 10 years be able to ask of the data coming out of the APIs of the DPLA, or of the projects I’m working on, like HistoricDress.org? What different metadata do we need to be collecting about objects to be able to ask different, better questions? I tried to touch on this briefly in my own presentation, a little later.
  • Monica Mercado presented On Equal Terms? The Stakes of Archiving Women’s and LGBT History in the Digital Era, raising important issues around some of the tensions of building digital collections related to gender and sexuality history.
  • Mia Ridge presented New Challenges in Digital History: Sharing Women’s History on Wikipedia, a subject I’ve been very interested in, though I regret that I didn’t have the time to participate in the #tooFEW (Feminists Engage Wikipedia) project through THATCamp Feminisms last month. A highlight of her talk, for me, was the simple act of changing a name to red to indicate that there is no dedicated Wikipedia page for that person (making the archival silence visible, as it were), and then the power of changing that red to blue by completing a page for that person.

In our own presentation we ran into some tech difficulties which resulted in me presenting from my laptop screen to a crowded table, but our wonderful moderator, Marla Miller, kept us on track, and we made some great connections in our packed room, with a wonderful (though too brief!) discussion. I shared my work on Fashioning an Education: 150 Years of Vassar Students and What They Wore, which you can also see as a Prezi.  Next, Astrida Schaeffer presented on The New Hampshire Historic Dress Project. Finally, Kiki Smith closed our session by discussing our goals, and our work so far, on HistoricDress.org.  This was a great opportunity for members of the HistoricDress.org team to connect and continue to brainstorm our next steps, and even to grow as we identified new partners among conference goers.

Throughout the weekend there were concerns both for the segregation of women’s history and for the failures of “add women and stir” models. This has had me thinking about how historic costume collections are both victims of sexism and examples of reverse sexism – men’s clothing artifacts are preserved much more rarely than women’s. Of course, this means that costume collections aren’t respected in broader circles, as they are considered feminized and therefore superficial. Digital costume projects have great potential to use artifacts of clothing to fill in some of the narrative of women’s history that is missing, but we have to challenge the stereotypes of superficiality at every turn.

Michelle Moravec summed it up well with the title for her blog post following the event - Was Women’s History in the Digital World the First Berks of Digital Women’s History? Indeed, I hope to be able to attend the 2014 Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, and to see many from #WHDigWrld there, and to return to Bryn Mawr for a 2nd conference on this theme in the future. Many thanks to Jennifer Redmond and her team at the Greenfield Center for bringing us all together.

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