Safe Spaces and Kind Words

Every generation has to kill the dragon, or so the saying goes.

I disagree.

I may be starting a new chapter in my life, but I refuse to slam the door behind me.

If I am privileged, then I owe that privilege to my teachers — female and male — who took time out of their busy lives and frantic production schedules to answer my questions, critique my data models, debug my programs, and tweak my code.

I am lucky. By the time I got to the Scholars’ Lab, I was on my fifth dissertation prospectus. Feelings of isolation and unworthiness, those constant companions in graduate school, were beginning to reach critical levels. I have a vivid memory of meeting Bess Sadler (then head of R&D), talking with her, and then watching her turn to Joe Gilbert and say “She is one of us!” No one had said anything like that to me in . . . well . . . years.

When I started my fellowship, I hadn’t written a computer program in seven years. Bess started to teach me Ruby on Rails, and when she realized that I didn’t know HTML and had never even heard of Information Design, she gave me books on those topics as well. When Bess left the Scholars’ Lab for another position in the library I panicked, until I realized that the new head of R&D, Matt Mitchell, was just as happy to work with me and so was his successor, Wayne Graham.

And behind it all was Bethany Nowviskie. Triple-booked most days of the week, tweeting intriguing project links and encouraging words faster than I could follow, and always working on some new way to bring more people under the big tent of DH, Bethany fostered community wherever she went.

And she is still doing it. The Scholars’ Lab has undergone an almost complete staff turnover since I started my fellowship in the Fall of 2008, but it remains the same welcoming and challenging community where I found my intellectual home.

Programming was the least important skill I learned in those years hanging out on the 4th Floor of Alderman Library. I learned how to work collaboratively, not just with software developers, but with Archeologists, Musicologists, and Literary Theorists. My fellow fellows challenged my assumptions about evidence and argument and helped me craft a rhetoric that (hopefully) breaks out of my own disciplinary boundaries.

Sixteen months ago, I knocked on Bethany’s open door to ask if she had any time to meet with me in the next week. I had come to the realization that I no longer wanted to be a history professor and had been freaking out. A huge, gentle (though slightly mischievous) smile spread over her face, and for the first time since I had printed out the job postings from the AHA website, I relaxed.

Last summer, surrounded by boxes in my new apartment in Boston, I saw Bethany’s offer to include in her Tenure and Promotion Dossier any and all DMs sent in before the deadline. I cleared off a chair, thought for a while, and then wrote the following:

D nowviskie is my model for scholarly creativity and collaboration. With wisdom and kindness she creates safe spaces for people to flourish

To quote Charles Dickens, “May that be said of us, and all of us!”

Long Live the Library

Just yesterday I read that Johns Hopkins Medical Library has decided to close its physical location on January 1, 2012. JHU embedded its subject librarians in their respective departments years ago, and after reviewing the relative use of print and electronic sources, decided to shut down the main building but have no plans to lay off any current staff. This is a major event, maybe even a turning point in the future of libraries, and it brought back vivid memories of the one day I spent in the Johns Hopkins Medical Library.

I studied at Johns Hopkins for five weeks in the summer of 1999, taking classes for college credit in Java and molecular biology before returning to high school for my senior year. Yes, I’m that young. Yes, I’m that much of a nerd.

For my molecular biology class we were split into teams to learn about a particular topic, write a paper, and present back to the class. My team got assigned stem cells, and I was in charge of looking up recent advances in the field. Using the online catalog and the materials available on the main campus, I learned of a seminal experiment that had been conducted a few years earlier. After reading the fifth article referencing the experiment, I decided to find the original article for myself. But the article wasn’t online, and it wasn’t on the Homewood Campus. The only copy was in the Medical Library.

So, the Saturday before the paper was due, I caught a bus to the Medical School and 20ish minutes later it dropped me off in front of the building. The library was open, but aside from a woman at the circulation desk, I don’t remember seeing anyone else. She pointed me to a computer terminal where I found the journal’s call number. Then I headed into the stacks.

I have a very distinct memory of the institutional concrete, metal shelves, and low lighting that greeted me when I got off the elevator. I found the aisle that held the back issues of the journal of the American Society of Hematology, aptly named Blood. Just imagine it: shelves upon shelves of black bound volumes, each with the word BLOOD emblazoned in large letters on the spine. I shivered, found the volume I needed, pulled it down, located the article, sat down in front of the shelf, and read the article. I nearly threw up.

The study that everyone had been so excited about? It described a new procedure tested on 8 patients — 3 of whom died and 2 contracted Graft-vs-Host Disease. This was the breakthrough, because it worked just as well as the previous treatment. Sitting on that concrete floor was the first time in my life that I seriously considered not going into medicine, whether as a doctor or researcher. I couldn’t face the body count.

After a few hours, I finished reading the article and taking my notes. I replaced the volume on the shelf and headed out to catch the bus.

In all the years I have spent in libraries — for relaxation, for research, and now for my job — I don’t think anything compares to that one day. Books have been some of my closest friends, but that article changed my life. That space is about to be gone. I’m sure the decision wasn’t made lightly, and I can’t argue with the reasons given. The information will be curated, preserved, accessible, and cumulative, and that is what matters. But I still felt the need to tell that story.

The library is dead. Long live the library.

Who you calling untheoretical?

I’m sorry. I need to vent. If you think you will be offended, continue at your own risk. You have been warned.

Several weeks ago, the whole Digital Humanities Theory, or Hack vs. Yack, debate sprung to life once more with a post by @ncecire. I have since read several other posts on this issue, calling for more communication, more give and take, more attention to political realities between Theory and DH.

However, I find many of the comments in these pieces insulting to those of us who work on DH projects. I doubt this is intentional, but I feel the need to defend the theoretical work already being done, while looking forward to incorporating even more ideas. Debate is good. In the academy, debate over terminology is inevitable yet often productive. So here is my rant:

I am sick and tired of people saying that my friends, my colleagues, and I do not understand or care about theory.

Every digital humanities project I have ever worked on or heard about is steeped in theoretical implications AND THEIR CREATORS KNOW IT. And we know it whether we are classed as faculty or staff by our organizations. Libraries and other groups involved in DH are full of people with advanced degrees in the humanities who aren’t faculty, as well as plenty of people without those advanced degrees who know their theory anyway. Ever heard of #alt-ac? The hashtag is new; the concept is not.

I have attended physical weeks of meetings to discuss terminology for everything from personal status (Do we label someone a “slave” or “an enslaved person?” If we have an occupations list should we include “wife,” if so should we include “husband?” What about “homemaker?”) to political structures (When do we call something an “empire?” Is “nation” an anachronism in this period?). I’ve seen presenters grilled on the way they display their index — and heard soul searching, intellectually rigorous justifications for chronological, thematic, alphabetic, or randomized results.

Just this week I was presenting The Early American Foreign Service Database and got the question “So where is the theory in all of this?” Before I could answer with my standard, diplomatic but hopefully though-provoking, response a longtime DHer called out “The database is the theory! This is real theoretical work!” I could have hugged her.

When we create these systems we bring our theoretical understandings to bear on our digital projects including (but not limited to) decisions about: controlled vocabulary (or the lack thereof), search algorithms, interface design, color palettes, and data structure. Is every DH project a perfect gem of theoretically rigorous investigation? Of course not. Is every monograph? Don’t make me laugh.

I have spent so much time explaining the theoretical decisions underlying Project Quincy, that I wrote a program to allow database designers to generate color-coded, annotated, interactive database diagrams in the hopes that more Humanist Readable documentation would make all our lives easier. (The program is called DAVILA.)

One of the most exciting things about DH is the chance to create new kinds of texts and arguments from the human experience. Data structures, visualizations, search tools, display tools . . . you name it . . . are all a part of this exploratory/discovery process.

So it’s time for me to stop ranting and, in the best of DH tradition, DO SOMETHING.

If we as DHers are creating something new, then I believe our vocation includes teaching others how to read our work. If someone looks at The Early American Foreign Service Database and doesn’t see the theory behind it, maybe I need to redesign the site. Maybe those color-coded, annotated diagrams should be more prominently displayed. Maybe I need a glossary for my controlled vocabulary. I wrote DAVILA, but the download only parses one kind of schema. Maybe I should write some more.

I’m going to stop talking (for now.) But, I’ll end with a tweet from Matthew Kirschenbaum, a great practitioner and theorist of DH: “More hack, more yack, and please, cut DH a little slack. We’re just folks doing our work.”

Am I even qualified?: Writing about Digital History

About two weeks ago, my article “Fielding History: Relational Databases and Prose” went online for open peer review and possible inclusion in the open access essay collection Writing History in the Digital Age, edited by Jack A. Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki. If you haven’t heard about Writing History in the Digital Age, you owe it to yourself to head over to the website and learn more. It is a fabulous project and experiment in open peer review and open access publishing. I am honored that my essay has made it this far.

As part of the experiment, the editors have asked their prospective contributors to publicly reflect on their writing process. That’s something I have neglected to do until now, for a variety of reasons . . . the main reason being that this may be the most difficult essay I have ever written.

OK, my master’s thesis was probably harder, but that was five times as long, and I worked on it (on and off) for 4 years before sending it out to be traditionally peer-reviewed. “Fielding History” clocks in at 3,077 words and I only had six weeks to write it. Six weeks in which I nearly gave up on the project approximately four times. One of these times (but not the last), my husband asked why I was quitting. Before I could think, I responded:

“Because I am only qualified to write about 18th Century Diplomats!”

He just stared at me. I stared back. Until the absurdity hit me. I’m an open source developer, a database architect, and a historian. I’ve developed and built databases for three distinct historical projects (including my own dissertation). If I can’t write an article on relational databases and historical writing, then who can?

But that is the trick with an emerging field. It’s hard to know when you are ready to write about it. I know how to become credentialed to write about my 18th Century diplomats. I’m getting a PhD. Most of the time I’m very happy with the boot-strapping culture that imbues Digital Humanities with so much of its energy and allows someone like me to have a great job and contribute to the field without having to wait for tenure or even my dissertation committee to declare me “fit.”

But then I have to write about what I’m doing, and all the doubts pile in. I always wanted to write about the theory of history, even before I entered a PhD program, but I thought I would do it after I retired — an emerita’s retrospective on a life of study. What right do I have to do this when I’m only 29?

What finally got me writing was the realization (voiced by my husband) that this was not about having the final word or all the answers. But I could put in an early word for something I care about and maybe start a conversation. I wrote the piece in first person (a big no-no for academic prose) to emphasize that point. I don’t have the theoretical chops to write in the third person about databases and history. What I have is a case study, a story, that may help others think more reflectively about what we digital historians do every day.

I hope you will head over to Writing History in a Digital Age and look at the really amazing essays my fellow historians have written. Open peer review continues through November 14, 2011. Please comment if you have something it say: having an essay up for open peer review is orders of magnitude more nerve-wracking than wondering if anyone reads your blog.

Maybe stop by and read my piece as well, if the topic interests you. Let’s get this conversation started.

Ten Years Gone

Ten years ago it was Tuesday. I was riding my bike along Long Island Sound, saying goodbye to one of the few things I knew I would miss about living in Connecticut.

Ten years ago my family was three days away from moving into Brooklyn. We were finally going to be city dwellers again for the first time since I was an infant.

Ten years ago we were so excited.

Ten years ago I finished my ride, put the bike in our now almost empty garage and headed inside for a glass of water.

Ten years ago my dad called me downstairs.
    “You have to see this.”
    “I’m just going to take a shower”
    “You have to come down here right now.”

It’s all a blur after that. Once the second plane hit we knew it wasn’t an accident. When the towers fell, it was like watching the kind of movie I can never watch again.

Our phone rang off the hook. My dad used to work in the Trade Center. All our friends and family were calling to find out where he was. Later I learned that he had been invited to a breakfast at Windows on the World. He almost went because the view was so spectacular, but we were moving, and he couldn’t spare the time.

My father lost eight friends. It was days before we could track down one of his best friends. Jay was the only person I knew who wanted to get on a plane that week. He was stuck in Arizona. His wife was in White Plains.

We moved into Brooklyn. I’ll never forget the moment the smell hit me — as if everything organic was burning all at once without distinction. We joined a candlelight vigil on our new front steps. We couldn’t find our candles. I got a flashlight and pointed it up into the sky.

Then I went back to college in Chicago. At home I’d been one of the calm ones, in Chicago no one else flinched when they heard an engine overhead.

Ten years ago today, I’m still on that bike. Flying along Long Island Sound on a beautiful morning. Two months ago, I gave that bike away. I’ll probably get a new one in the Spring.

Ten years gone, and the the world isn’t really all that different. There is good and there is evil. People continue to invent ways of making the world more beautiful and kind. People continue to twist their gifts into weapons of hate and cruelty.

Ten years ago it was Tuesday. Today it is Sunday. I should get ready for church.

Alt-Ac: The First Month

On August 1 I joined Brown University as their first Digital Humanities Librarian. This job is a dream come true. I was hired to help cultivate Digital Humanities projects by working with faculty, students, and staff, and serve as an ambassador for the great digital work already being done by the Brown University Library. I am also Brown’s new English subject librarian. I’ve decided to blog about my transition from history PhD student to library staff in the hopes that it might help others who are considering making the transition themselves. If future posts on this topic would be of interest, just let me know.

/* alt-ac is short for Alternate-Academic, referring to those of us with graduate level training in the Humanities who have chosen to work in non-tenure track positions within the academy, often (but not exclusively) in university libraries and Digital Humanities positions. To learn more, head over to Bethany Nowviskie’s blog. */

My first month at Brown has been an interesting combination of diving in head first and learning the ropes. On the DH front: I’ve already started working on a few longstanding projects, helping out where needed. I’ve met with faculty who are interested in starting new projects. And, anyone who knows me will not be surprised to learn that I’ve begun a DH Project Documentation survey, which consists of interviewing everyone in the library who is currently working on a DH project and documenting the project to date (goals, accomplishments, work remaining, technical specifications, etc.)

On the Librarian front: I’ve been learning the library’s systems for acquisitions, collection development, gift appraisal, and cataloging. I’ve joined the Exhibits Committee (group of librarians who coordinate the Library’s physical exhibit spaces). I’ve met with a faculty member who wants to set up an exhibit in one of the Library’s museum spaces next year. My office is right off one of the main study areas in the Library so several people have come in with reference questions and several more have called my office after finding me on the phone tree. All my colleagues have been extremely helpful and patient as I learn how to do this better. Seriously. I’m not just saying that in case some of them find my blog.

All in all it’s been a busy month! But getting back to the question of transitioning from graduate school to full-time staff . . .

Honestly, one of the biggest changes is simply having a 9-5 job. I was certainly busy at the University of Virginia, but I worked from home and set my own schedule. I’m enjoying having an office and a place where I can focus my energies, but when I get home I’m basically wiped. Hopefully this will change as I get more used to the schedule. For now, I’m drinking too much coffee and trying to remember I need to be in bed by 11pm. I was originally going to post this last night, but at 11:30 I still wasn’t done. Two months ago I would have pushed on and posted at 1am, but these days I can’t sleep in to compensate for a late weeknight.

Another change relates to my not-quite-finished dissertation. I’m working on it after hours at the office before driving home, usually spending 1 – 1.5 hours a day. It’s hard to find tasks that work well in that timeframe for where I am in my work cycle. Despite my occasional use of #scholarsprints on twitter, I typically write in 2 hour chunks. Though I still have a ways to go in pages and workflow, I’m finding that I like (and even look forward) to working on my dissertation to a degree that I haven’t felt in years.

As a closet generalist in a PhD program, I quickly tired of my favorite subject in all the world simply because it was all I did. Day in. Day out. All history. All the time. Now that I work with a number of disciplines and projects, I find myself looking forward to spending time with my Early American diplomats. Assuming I got to bed at 11pm the night before, working on the dissertation is more like a treat at the end of the day than a looming anxiety.

Finally, and this may be hard to express, there has been a change in how I relate to the people I work with on a day-to-day basis. I contributed and consulted on several DH projects at UVA, but always in the capacity of a graduate student who happened to be around. Sometimes the project was a summer job, sometimes consulting was part of my fellowship, sometimes I just had conversations with people who wanted a sounding board for their ideas. What I do at Brown hasn’t been all that different thus far, but my opinions have more weight and the activation energy required to turn one of my suggestions into a plan of work is much lower than last year.

It’s gratifying, but also somewhat intimidating, how quickly some of my ideas have taken off, so I am being very careful about what I suggest. The DH Documentation Project, for example, was something I suggested at the end of my second week. Within five days it had become one of my primary goals for the year, and I was assigned to interview dozens of people. If I had suggested something like that as a graduate student, I can’t imagine things would have moved that fast (assuming the project ever got started).

The best part of the job, however, is getting to help people. This is what I missed most in graduate school, where I often struggled with the feeling that I wasn’t a productive member of society (which may account for my decision to develop open source software). In my new position I help people, whether faculty, students, or fellow staff, all day long. Like I said at the beginning, a dream come true.

Abigail and Thomas

I probably can’t call Thomas Jefferson a metrosexual in my dissertation, but that’s why I have a blog.

Abigail Adams is famous for bringing out the best in her correspondents, but Thomas’s letters to her are particularly striking, perhaps because we have so little to compare them to. He burned his wife’s letters shortly after her death, Maria Cosway was hardly an intellectual equal, and if he wrote to Sally Hemings it is no surprise the documents do not survive.

His letters to Abigail are full of humor, political philosophy, and shopping. Yes, Abigail and Thomas shopped for each other when they lived in Europe, while John Adams was the American Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James and Thomas Jefferson held the equivalent position at Versailles (1785-1788). She ordered shirts and table linens for him in London. He bought her lace and shoes in Paris. But my favorite example is his quest for the perfect statuettes, described in his letter of September 25, 1785:

I could only find three of those you named, matched in size. These were Minerva, Diana, and Apollo. I was obliged to add a fourth, unguided by your choice. They offered me a fine Venus; but I thought it out of taste to have two at table at the same time. Paris and Helen were presented. I conceived it would be cruel to remove them from their particular shrine . . . At length a fine Mars was offered, calm, bold, his faulchion not drawn, but ready to be drawn. This will do, thinks I, for the table of the American Minister in London, where those whom it may concern may look and learn that though Wisdom is our guide, and the Song and Chase our supreme delight, yet we offer adoration to that tutelar god also who rocked the cradle of our birth, who has accepted our infant offerings, and has shewn himself the patron of our rights and avenger of our wrongs. The group was then closed and your party formed.

Unfortunately the little statues were not properly wrapped and broke apart on their journey. But the shoes always made it over intact.

Quote from “Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams. Paris, 25 September 1785.” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, ed. Barbara B. Oberg and J. Jefferson Looney. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008. [accessed 03 Apr 2011]
To see the letter in its original context (complete with scholarly annotations) click on the link. If you do not have access to the Rotunda American Founding Era the letter can also be found in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Main Series, Volume 8.

Republicans of Letters

Here are the slides for my January 26th talk at Brown University’s Center for Digital Scholarship, “Republicans of Letters: Historical Social Networks and The Early American Foreign Service Database.”

The abstract ran as follows, “Jean Bauer, an advanced doctoral candidate in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia and creator of The Early American Foreign Service Database, will discuss her use and creation of digital tools to trace historical social networks through time and space. Drawing on her research into the commercial, kinship, patronage, and correspondence networks that helped form the American diplomatic and consular corps, Bauer will examine how relational databases and computational information design can help scholars identify and analyze historical social networks. The talk will include demos of two open source projects Bauer has developed to help scholars analyze their own research, Project Quincy and DAVILA.”

Some of the slides are pretty text intensive, so if something catches your eye, go ahead and hit pause!

In Pursuit of Elegance

I wrote this for the HASTAC Scholars’ forum on Critical Code studies, which I co-hosted in January. To see the post in its original context, click here.


One of the older jokes about programming states that every great programmer suffers from the following three sins: laziness, impatience, and hubris. Laziness makes you write the fewest lines of code necessary to accomplish a given task. Impatience means that your program will run as quickly as possible. And hubris compels you to create code that is as beautiful as you can make it. These three criteria – length, speed, and elegance – are the benchmark for evaluating code.

But what makes code elegant? One of the first things you learn in a programming class is that (in most languages) the computer will completely disregard any white space beyond the single space required to differentiate one part of the statement from another. However, in the next breath, your instructor adjures you to follow indentation guidelines and fill the eye space of your code with enough blank spaces to make a Scandinavian graphics designer drool. So your code ends up looking rather like an ee cummings poem with lots of random space, oddly placed capitalization, and sporadic punctuation.

Of course that is the perspective of someone who is not used to looking at code. The indentations draw the eye to nested components (loops, subroutines, etc), the capitalization signifies variables or other important components of the program, and the punctuation stands in for the myriad of mathematical and logical operators absent from a QWERTY keyboard.

I believe the fear Matt Kirschenbaum discusses above comes in part from the visual strangeness of code. It just looks weird and impenetrable. The mantra embraced by too many programmers of “It was hard to write, it should be hard to read” doesn’t help the situation either. Academics don’t like feeling stupid (especially once they’ve left their graduate student days behind them) and the seeming impenetrability of programming syntax makes them feel that way.

Of course it’s not the academic who is stupid, it’s the computer. People who have little experience with how computers actually work often miss this critical distinction. The “thinking machine” does not think. Like Mark Sample’s now lost haiku generator, the computer has no vocabulary we do not give it. And as Mark Marino points out, as far as the computer is concerned, even those words are completely devoid of meaning. This gives the programmer an extraordinary amount of power, but within the constraints that everything must be broken down into components so simple even a computer can work with them.

My hope for Critical Code Studies, a field I have only just become acquainted while helping to create this forum, is that by analyzing the thick textuality of code and the highly social, highly contingent environments in which code is generated, we can find better ways of explaining code to those who are afraid of it.

As a historian of Early American Diplomacy who spends much of her day designing and building databases, websites, and data visualizations I find myself constantly trying to allay the fears of my less technically trained colleagues. However, there are crucial connections between the work of programmers and humanists. I think the link may lie with aesthetics.

This brings us back to laziness, impatience, and hubris. Speed and brevity were virtues of necessity in the early days of computer science. Early computers had very little memory or processing power. Even an efficient program could take hours, an inefficient one weeks. Also if the program was too long it could not be entered on a punch card. The vast amount of memory and processing power on even a budget home computer have made these restrictions all but obsolete except in the case of very small devices or very large data sets. Yet these criteria continue to have great psychological power, not unlike a great professor’s ability to reduce the complexity of a historical event to the essential points her students will remember, or the identification of previously unrecognized leitmotifs which draws an author’s body of work into a new stylistic whole.

The virtue of elegance comes straight from mathematics, which to me suggests that it is built into the very fabric of the universe. We all recognize beauty in some form. Sometimes the best way to understand a foreign culture is to determine what they value as beautiful and find in it the beauty that they perceive. The elegance of code is bound up in structure, process, and product. The better we can explain it, the more accessible code will become.