Tagged: twitter

it’s history, not a viral feed

For months now I’ve been stewing about how much I hate @HistoryInPics and their ilk (@HistoryInPix, @HistoricalPics, @History_Pics, etc.)—twitter streams that do nothing more than post “old” pictures and little tidbits of captions for them.1 And when I say “nothing more” that’s precisely what I mean. What they don’t post includes attribution to the photographer or to the institution hosting the digital image. There’s no way to easily learn more about the image (you can, of course, do an image search through TinEye or Google Image Search and try to track it down that way).

Alexis Madrigal recently wrote a piece for The Atlantic revealing that @HistoryInPics is run by a couple of teenagers who are savvy at generating viral social media accounts to bring in money:

They met hustling on YouTube when they were 13 and 15, respectively, and they’ve been doing social media things together (off and on) since. They’ve built YouTube accounts, making money off advertising. They created Facebook pages such as “Long romantic walks to the fridge,” which garnered more than 10 million Likes, and sold them off. More recently, Di Petta’s company, Swift Fox Labs, has hired a dozen employees, and can bring in, according to an Australian news story, 50,000 Australian dollars a month (or roughly 43,800 USD at current exchange rates).

Madrigal’s piece focuses primarily on the ethics of the pair making money off of unattributed photographers’ work. (Unsurprisingly, they are entirely nonchalant about their appropriation of such photographs.) That aspect of these posts is part of what bothers me. (Unsurprisingly, as an English PhD who works in a library, I’m a firm believer in attribution.)

Another aspect of those accounts that makes me batty is their casual relationship to the truth. Matt Novak, in his Paleofuture blog, has written about some of the most ridiculous of viral photos, tracking down what they really are, rather than what their posters purport them to be. In “9 Fun Facts That Are Total Lies” and “7 (More) Fun Facts That Are Total Lies” Novak reveals, shockingly, that Teddy Roosevelt didn’t ride that moose across that river and that Nikola Tesla wasn’t a swimming instructor. (Disappointing, I know.)

Matt Novak sorts out the real Tesla from the fake.

As Novak explains,

Nikola Tesla was many things: a pool hustler, a gambling addict, a eugenicist, and a legendary genius. But despite what you may have seen recently in the miscaptioned photo above, Nikola Tesla was never a swimming instructor.

The photo is actually from 1898. And while the photo does bear a resemblance to the genius inventor, it’s almost certainly not him.

By 1898, Tesla was neck-deep in robotics, radio, and X-ray research. The man was also quite wealthy, enormously famous, and an obsessive tinkerer not known for taking leisurely swims. It seems highly unlikely that he took up a day job as a swimming instructor. But I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if someone was working on a graphic novel with a similar plot at this precise moment.

I can’t stand going through these feeds to find more too-good-to-be-true images, but I’m sure that you could, faithful readers. First, however, you’d have to get over your shock that a huge portion of what they post—and making up their most popular content—are pictures of celebrities. The Beatles as teenagers! Michael Jordan in college! Paul Newman with a beard! Kurt Cobain! Marilyn Monroe—again and again and again!

I only know about these accounts because people retweet them a lot (even, most horrifyingly, people whose jobs involve a respect for metadata and historical accuracy). At first I thought the accounts were just odd—who knew there was such a pent-up demand for old photos?—and then as they started proliferating, they starting annoying more and more. I muted them so that they wouldn’t show up in my twitter feeds, but they continue to bother me (it’s hard to mute them all, since there are so many of them).

Neither Madrigal nor Novak get at all of what bothers me, although they each get a part of it. So let me tell you what gets my goat.

Feeds like @HistoryinPics make it impossible for anyone interested in a picture to find out more about it, to better understand what it is showing, and to assess its accuracy. As a teacher and as someone who works in a cultural heritage institution, I am deeply invested in the value of studying the past and of recognizing that the past is never neutral or transparent. We see the past through our own perspective and often put it to use for our own purposes. We don’t always need to trace history’s contours in order to enjoy a letter or a photograph, but they are there to be traced. These accounts capitalize on a notion that history is nothing more than superficial glimpses of some vaguely defined time before ours, one that exists for us to look at and exclaim over and move on from without worrying about what it means and whether it happened.

But history is not a toy. It’s not a private amusement. And those of us who engage with the past know how important it is and how enjoyable it can be to learn about it and from it. These accounts piss me off because they undermine an enterprise I value.  Historical research—indeed, humanistic inquiry as a whole—is being undermined by the constant plugging of economic value as a measure of worth, the public defunding of higher education, and the rampant devaluing of faculty teaching.

And so @HistoryInPics makes me angry not for what it fails to do, but that it gets so many people to participate in it, including people who care about the same issues that I do. Attribution, citation, and accuracy are the basis of understanding history. @HistoryInPics might not care about those things, but I would like to think that you do. The next time you come across one of these pictures, ask yourself what it shows and what it doesn’t, and what message you’re conveying by spreading it.

And so as to not leave you on an angry note, I leave you with the following recommendations. Want some old pictures to laugh at? @AhistoricalPics is a hilarious, spot-on mockery of the trend. Looking for a twitter feed that will call attention to interesting historical tidbits while also providing accurate information and reliable attributions? @SlateVault, curated by actual historian Rebecca Onion, is a vault of treasures indeed. If those don’t give you enough outlet for your whimsy, try @libraryofaleph, which tweets verbatim the captions of images in the Library of Congress, allowing your imagination to run wild and then letting you search the Library of Congress yourself.

Follow these accounts and resist the others. You’ll thank me in the long run.


 

  1. I despise them so much I’m not going to link to them or list them all. You’re clever. You can figure it out. []

disembodying the past to preserve it

What follows is a keynote I gave at the Digital Preservation 2013 conference on July 23, 2013. If you’re curious, there’s a video up of the talk and the Q & A as well and a pdf of the slides I showed (some of which vary from what I’ve shown here).

“Disembodying the past to preserve it”

I am, as you’ve heard, not someone who focuses on issues of digital preservation. I’m a book historian and performance scholar who works at a cultural heritage organization that is focused on the preservation and exploration of centuries-old objects. I think about the digital and preservation from the perspective of someone who studies the past and seeks new ways to make it accessible to scholars and the public.

So since I spend a lot of time thinking about the history of books and since so many people see the rise of the digital heralding the end of print, I thought I would start off by looking back at the earliest surviving instances of moveable type in the West. We all know, I think, that the first book printed by Johannes Gutenberg was the bible in 1455. But that wasn’t the earliest instance of print. Gutenberg’s first printed text were indulgences—short formulaic texts sold by the Church and its deputies to fund various enterprises by promising purchasers they wouldn’t need to spend as much time in purgatory for their sins.

1454 indulgence (Rylands Library)
1454 indulgence (Rylands Library)

What we’re looking at is one of the earliest surviving copies of these get-out-of-jail-free cards. Now held at the University of Manchester’s Rylands Library, this indulgence was printed in 1454 and was issued to a specific buyer in 1455 on the 27th of February. (You can see why printed indulgences were so handy—the bulk of the text is the same from one to the next, and small blank spaces can be left to be filled in by hand with the particulars for each sinner.)

There are other copies of the Gutenberg indulgences that have survived. This one is a slightly later issue (it’s the 31-line indulgence, not the 30-line, for those of you who are bibliophiles). Now part of Princeton’s collections, this indulgence was issued on 29 April 1455 in Pfullendorf to Johannes Grosshans—you can just barely make out the fact that there is a manuscript insertion here, but this copy hasn’t survived in as nearly nice shape as the last one we looked at.

It’s astonishing, actually, that any of these indulgences survived. Very few of them did—even though print runs for indulgences were huge, often in the thousands, there are only 50 recorded surviving copies of the 31-line indulgence, and a mere 8 extant copies of the 30-line. When you look at an indulgence, it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t survive in large numbers. They’re just flimsy little things. Compare these two images, the first of someone holding Princeton’s indulgence I mentioned above…

… and this of a bound incunable (also in Princeton’s collections):

The first can be held in one hand (even in its framed state) while the other rests heavily in a chair (don’t try that in your reading room, please!).1 I think you can guess my point: the Aristotle is big and it’s durable because it’s big. You can’t easily tear or lose this book. But a single sheet of paper? That gets misplaced, it gets accidentally destroyed, it gets forgotten. A light breeze could blow it away if you weren’t paying attention. And once the holder has died? Do you need to hang onto an indulgence as a record of your grandfather’s purchase?

The disposability of indulgences is why they haven’t survived. But it’s also why the ones that survived did. Here’s what I mean: because the indulgences weren’t seen as precious documents to save, they were perfect to reuse for other purposes. And the early indulgence that survived often did so because it was used as waste paper in bindings. Without launching into a lecture on early modern binding structures, I’ll just say that bindings often incorporated paper leftover from other projects. Endpapers, spine linings, structural supports—binders needed materials to finish their books. And why would you use good blank paper—paper that could be used for other purposes—when you had scrap paper at hand? And so odds and ends of printed paper were incorporated into the bindings of books:

If we turn back to the images of the indulgences I’ve shown, you’ll see that being treated as disposable is how they survived. The 30-line indulgence now at Manchester was preserved in a binding—you can see the evidence of holes in the corners and the stain left from the leather turn-ins. And Princeton’s copy survived as pastedowns in a binding from the early 1470s. With Cambridge University Library’s copy of Wynkyn de Worde’s 1598 indulgence we see something slightly different: these are indulgences that were never sold and are still in sheet form, preserved in the binding of a bible. This is one of my favorite examples, because it doubles as evidence of something we normally wouldn’t see, the production technique displayed in the unfinished object.

Because it was disposable, it was preserved. It’s not a preservation technique I’d recommend, but it’s worked for more than a few texts.

I’ll let you deal with what this might mean for digital preservation (I know just a tiny bit enough about digital forensics to gather that bits of data cling to other bits of data and that you might be looking to recover someone’s novel only to find that other records of their life are interspersed with it). Instead, I’ll ask what lessons we might learn from this about using digital iterations of material objects.

For starters, it’s worth pointing out that I wouldn’t have been able to give this talk if these objects hadn’t been photographed and shared online. It was because I was looking for images of indulgences for a different talk that I came across these pictures and noticed that they all looked like binders waste. Discoverability shouldn’t be news, but it shouldn’t be forgotten either.

The problem that we’re facing, in my world, is that the digital objects we’re producing sometimes lead to wonky discoveries. Here’s one thing that has been bothering me recently: the size of books.

psalms unscaled

Here we have two books of psalms, one printed in Geneva in 1576 (on the left) and one in Florence in 1566 (on the right). They are, to all appearances, the same size.

psalms scaled

But this is how their comparative sizes should be displayed: the Italian psalter is 21 centimeters tall and the Geneva psalter is 13 centimeters, or about the height of a Sharpie. (Projected on a screen, of course, they appear to be significantly larger than a Sharpie, although perhaps on your device’s screen they are significantly smaller—a not unrelated oddity of working with digitizations of material objects: size isn’t stable.)

Here we see a collection of books as we would see them in the Folger’s digital image collection, displayed side-by-side:

sizeofbooks unscaled

Here are those same images shown in relation to each other—I arbitrarily chose one book as my standard, and then calculated the scale and adjusted the images from there:

sizeofbooks scaled only

This slide does a much better job of conveying the relative size of these books. But it’s a rotten way of browsing through a large collection of images if you’re at all interested in any feature other than size. In other words, if you want to treat these images as books—as objects that you hold in your hand and read—then you’re going to be dissatisfied. They’re always going to be digital surrogates (a phrase I hate), lacking the primacy of the original.

But what if we took the disembodied aspect of these images of books as an opportunity rather than a failure?

Here’s a fun fact about early printing that is all about its material process: many printed works are illustrated with woodcuts, images that are literally made from blocks of wood.

(I just want to make the aside that it’s pretty effing amazing that the Folger has the piece of wood that made that exact print—the other amazing thing is that on the other side of this piece of wood is carved another woodcut! Just like you’d reuse scrap paper in your bindings, you’d repurpose pieces of wood.) In any case, one of the results of illustrations being made from blocks of wood is that the blocks of wood could be reused to print illustrations in different works.

The Broadside Ballads Online project at the Bodleian has taken this fact and combined it with image search technology to begin to explore how images in Renaissance ballads are used and reused. Alexandra Franklin did some excellent work with this, starting with noticing a distinctive hat used in Unconstant Phillis, a late 17th-century lament by a shepherd about the woman he loves:

unconstant_phillis_hat

Using image match, Franklin searched across their ballad collection for other instances of the hat, pulling up 8 hits, including this one from The Noble Gallant.

gallant_hat

What’s particularly fun about this reuse is that we see that although the hat is the same, the man wearing the hat is not!

Why might this be a useful discovery? Tracing the use of a woodblock across multiple printings and multiple works can help date printing; it can also help us think about iconography and shifting discourses. For me, this is also a useful discovery for the way it turns material objects into digital ones that can be dismembered and rearranged. It’s not strictly necessary to use digital tools to do this sort of image-hunting work: Ruth Luborsky and Elizabeth Ingram compiled their Guide to English Illustrated Books without the use of image matching technology. But it’s certainly much easier to do it with bits than with books.

What can digitization offer that material objects cannot? Tools to reshape objects that would break under physical pressure. The work done on The Great Parchment Book by the University College London Centre for Digital Humanities is the most recent and exciting example of what those possibilities are. The Great Parchment Book is a survey compiled in 1639 of all those estates in Derry managed by the City of London through the Irish Society and the City of London livery companies. It’s a remarkable set of records. But it’s also a collection of 165 leaves that were badly damaged in a fire in 1786. Through careful preservation, about 50% of the text was recovered, but the brittle, wrinkled parchment remained an intractable obstacle to further work. But after extensive physical preservation work on the manuscript and detailed imaging, the UCL team was able to virtually unwrinkle the pages (read about the preservation and digitization processes). About 90% of the text of the Great Parchment Book is now readable, and available for examination online as images of the leaves, enhanced images, or a transcription of the text.

In both of these cases, digitization makes available objects for study that would otherwise be restricted, either because they’re too fragile to handle or they’re too dispersed to work with. For someone invested in cultural heritage, these are remarkable accomplishments. We can’t study the past if we can’t access its records and artifacts.

But both of these projects are ones that require significant investments of time, money, and people. They’re not lightweight experimentations—you need high-resolution images, you need expertise in image manipulation, you need the physical objects at hand.

I want to end with a look at something that is the opposite of all this, something that builds off of what has already been done, publicizing and redeploying images without adding to them or, indeed, displaying them.

The Library of Aleph is a twitter account that tweets the captions of prints and photographs in the Library of Congress’s digital collections. The tweets are nothing more than the captions—no images themselves, no links to them. Just the captions, with occasional reminders that anyone can find these images by searching the Library of Congress. Here’s one tweet: “House burning during Groveland reign of terror—Negroes driven from homes throughout area.” Here’s a screenshot of the corresponding record:

House burning during Groveland Reign of Terror--Negroes driven from homes throug_2013-07-26_16-45-37

The Library of Aleph’s tweetstream the day after the verdict of George Zimmeran’s trial was announced was a relentless account of the history of African-Americans, from slavery through Jim Crow through the Civil Rights Movement. The person who created The Library of Aleph hadn’t created it for this purpose—it was really an account he put together to tweet out some of the interesting images he was finding without cluttering up his main account. But in his anger after the verdict, it became a platform for remembering and reliving our past.2

I bring it up here because of this paradox: what makes the tweets so powerful is that they are disconnected from the material object they’re referencing. They’re just captions. We might gloss over images but I think we pause over these. What are we reading? Who wrote the captions? What does it mean to choose these words to describe these images?

I love the way @libraryofaleph connects the past to the present and the present to the past. Things that speak to us today can speak to what spoke to us in the past, and digital technologies can bring them together. But what I really take out of this in terms of what cultural heritage organizations can do with digital tools to preserve our past is that this is an account that came not from the Library of Congress, but from an unaffiliated user. The Library of Congress did all the hard work in collecting these works, in digitizing them, in creating their metadata, in making them discoverable, and then in making it open so that somebody else could do with it something powerful.

And it’s that that cultural organizations need to think about in the use of the digital objects we are creating. We need to make them open so that other people can do things with them that it would never occur to us to do ourselves. Preserve your data, create your metadata carefully, and then release it. Make it open so that it can be used, so that we can learn from it, and so that it can continue to be discovered by future users.

  1. In my talk, I actually used two different images, comparing a 1498 Wynkyn de Worde indulgence to the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle, but these images do a nicer job of giving a sense of their scale. If you’re curious, though, this is what I actually said in my talk: “Compare this indulgence printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1498 to the Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in 1493 in a glorious 18-by-12-by-4-inch binding of about 300 leaves. Actually, it’s nearly impossible in this photograph to get a sense of the Chronicle’s heft, even when the images are placed side-by-side (I totally eyeballed their size comparison, guessing that the indulgence is slightly less than half the height of the book based on what I know about their formats, which is far from an ideal method). []
  2. Note: I’m using the male pronoun here because I’ve been in contact with the @libraryofaleph creator and he is indeed a he. []

book dealers’ descriptions and catalog records

Mike Widener (Rare Book Librarian at Yale Law Library) wrote a great post about his practice of adding dealers’ descriptions to catalog records of rare books; Jeremy Dibbell included it in his link roundup; John Overholt tweeted about it; and then the conversation began. I’ve storyfied it and embedded it below (you can also go straight to Storify to see it). I wanted to capture the conversation, but we all also wanted to hear a wider range of responses and have a longer conversation about the value and potential pitfalls of this practice. It’ll end up on the EXLIBRIS-L listserv as well, so I’ll include a link to all that when it happens (thanks, John!) but in the meantime, read and comment:

tweets not sheets

Looking for pithy thoughts about early modern printing? Wynken de Worde is now on Twitter! You can follow wynkenhimself or just scroll down to the bottom of the right sidebar to see his feed. And it’s not procrastination. It’s the expansion of his unerring instincts for cross-referencing and promotion that made him the great printer that he was. Um, I mean, is. (Keeping track of the time-period switching and the gender-changing is trickier that you might guess.)

And so that you can more fully appreciate the joke in the title: the sheets in question are of course not sheets on your bed, but the sheets of paper that are the basic unit of measurement for early modern printers, who thought of books–and the cost of books–in terms of the number of sheets it took to print them. Funny, right? That Wynken, he’s got a sense of humor.