The Design Bug

Edward Tufte should come with a warning label. Since I took his course a year ago last October, I have been bitten by the design bug. I realized the depth of this obsession last night while putting together a projected syllabus for a summer course in the History Department. Just a simple word processing document, right? Wrong.

Before I knew it, I was agonizing over font choices (what is wrong with Times New Roman?), getting the spacing just right between the columns (ensuring that the document will have to be exported as a pdf file to avoid disaster), and designing a banner graphic (two versions: a large one for the front page and a smaller one for subsequent pages). And not just a pretty picture, but a semantically rich graphic, which made me think hard about the essential theme of the course before I could render it visually.

This is an internal document! It is only supposed to get the course accredited, but I just can’t send it in without some attention to its visual impact.

I wasn’t always like this. Until about eighteen months ago, I had two intense, but distinct, sets of aesthetic appreciation: one based in logic and one based in visual or written art. I have always been drawn to “elegant solutions,” whether in the relational algebra behind a third normal form database, a well constructed thesis, or a beautiful piece of code. I am also a photographer and the daughter of a novelist, so I prize an arresting composition of shapes or colors or words to convey thoughts and feelings.

My new found interest in graphic and informational design is starting to blend these two senses together. Particularly, as I seek to find more effective ways of visually rendering my research on information flows in the Early American Foreign Service.

I don’t know where this newfound interest is taking me, or my scholarship. I only know that, for now, I’m along for the ride.

Great Teachers Never Die

A new semester starts tomorrow, and I’m thinking of my grandmother, Marjorie Good. She was an artist, whether she held a paintbrush in her right hand or used her left hand to play boogie-woogie on the piano.

I’m thinking of her right now because she was also a teacher. She taught English for nineteen years at a public high school in the Western Suburbs of Chicago. She retired before I was born, but her stories resonated with a deep love for the material and for her students. Sometimes in the middle of a tale, she would stop and smile, remembering a particularly gifted young woman, or shake her head over the teenage boy she was never quite able to bring out of his shell.

She started the media studies program at her school, teaching film courses as electives and always bringing music and art into the classroom. She loved laughter and jokes, wrote her Master’s Thesis on humor in Shakespeare, calling it “Hamlet Plays the Clown,” and every year would dress up as Harpo Marx for Halloween.

She died on January 2, after four years of battling multiple myeloma with more grace and good cheer than most people can muster on their healthiest days.

Tomorrow I teach my first class as an instructor of record (as opposed to Teaching Assistant) at the University of Virginia. I created this class, slaved over the syllabus, and was really looking forward to calling her afterward to tell her how the first day went. Instead I’ll wear her necklace that my mom gave me the day before the funeral. It’s reminiscent of a Celtic wedding ring, and she wore it almost every day.

I believe great teachers live on in their students. I will do what I can to ensure that she lives on in me.

The Cloisters, Part I

On the fifth day of Christmas, my husband and I took the A train the length of Manhattan up to one of my favorite spots in New York City — The Cloisters — home of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Medieval Art Collection. Even more than the art, I love the building, a medieval-style cloister built in the 1930s to house the collection, featuring beautiful courtyards and contemplative spaces, blending architectural styles, and in many cases, salvaged sections of buildings from several centuries once located all over Europe. Stain glass windows from Italy shine light on an altar from Spain in a room where the wall sconces display icons from Germany. Then you walk through an archway into an indoor courtyard supported by columns brought from the courtyards of ten other cloisters, now long gone.

Although I was on vacation, I couldn’t help but see the Cloisters as a metaphor for digital humanities. We are digital architects, creating new spaces to display the glorious works of the past and structuring the fragments to see new patterns in disparate sources. If we do our jobs right, the digital edifices should enhance not detract from the sources we seek to analyze and share. The framework of each project is tailored to the subject matter often with special nooks for contemplation and introspection.

Control your Vocab (or not)

I am a NINES Graduate Fellow for 2009-2010, and this post was written for the NINES Blog. To see it in its original context, click here.

Yesterday I had two conversations about controlled vocabulary in digital humanities projects (a.k.a. my definition of a really good day). Both conversations centered around the same question: what is the best way to associate documents with subject information? If you don’t attach some keywords or subject categories to your documents then you can forget about finding anything later. There are, in my estimate, two main camps for doing this in a digital project — tags and pre-selected keywords.

In my humble opinion, tags are best when you want your users to take ownership of the data. They decide the categories, so in some sense, they have a stake in the larger project and how it evolves. You might even be able to tell why people are using the data in the first place, by looking at what tags they associate with your (or their) content. On the downside, tags can be problematic for first time users who need to search (rather than explore) your data. On several occasions I have been confronted with tag clouds that have descended (or ascended) into the realm of performance art. They are fascinating in of themselves, but fail to provide a meaningful path into the data.

Pre-selected keywords often work best when a clearly defined set of people are in charge of marking up the content. They are great for searching, and if indexed in a hierarchical structure, can provide semantically powerful groupings (especially for geographical information). And if you have a Third Normal Form database, then you never have to worry about misspellings or incorrect associations between your keywords (Disclaimer: I love 3NF databases. I know they don’t work for every project, but when your data fits that structure life is good). As a historian, however, I am wary of keywords that are imposed on a text. If someone calls himself a “justice,” I balk at calling him a “judge” even if it means a more efficient search.

Of course, it all depends on your data and what you want to do with it, but my favorite solution is have, at minimum, two layers of keywords. The bottom layer reflects the language in the text (similar to tagging), but those terms are then grouped into pre-selected types. So “justice,” “justice of the peace,” “judge,” “lawyer,” “barrister,” counselor” all get associated with type “legal.” You can fake hierarchies with tags, but it requires a far more careful attention to tag choices than I typically associate with that methodology.

I implemented the two-tiered approach in Project Quincy, but I would love to hear other suggestions and opinions.

Loss

When a person dies, it’s as if a library of irreplaceable volumes has burned to the ground.

My grandfather died this past Saturday. He was an extraordinary man who escaped Nazi Germany and survived the blitz in in London. He worked on antidotes to nerve gas, helped build the first production sites for antibiotics in Southeast Asia, was a representative to the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization, and lived a life of integrity that few can match. He also crafted extraordinary meals, including a roast goose that would bring tears to your eyes.

He didn’t talk about his experiences or accomplishments much, and though I knew him all my life, most of the stories I have about him I heard from my father, uncle, or grandmother. He was an eloquent speaker, but believed that deeds spoke louder than words, so he preferred to let his actions speak for themselves.

For years I talked about asking my grandfather if I could interview him about his life. Right now I wish more than anything that I had that tape, but it never got made. As a historian, I understand that not everything can be documented, that all sources are inherently partial, and that records in any form can be lost, but I still wish I’d screwed up my courage and asked for the interview. As his granddaughter, I am so grateful for the insights, lessons, and memories he gave me, and I know that they are more than enough.

Rest in peace. Your stories will be told.

and the name of a good book

When you leave a message on my friend’s voicemail, she asks that you give your name, your phone number, and the name of a good book. Since I’m in grad school for history, I tend to end my messages with phrases like “if you suddenly need to know about balance of power politics at the turn of the nineteenth-century then…,” and when she calls back, we have a good laugh before she tells me about the new novel she’s reading.

I think recommending a really good book is one of the easiest ways to markedly improve someone’s life — personally or professionally.

But finding good books for digital humanities can be a real struggle. Especially since the market is flooded with computer books, most of them completely unsuited to the needs of your average beginning digital humanist.

So, I’ve decided to create an annotated bibliography for the digital side of digital humanities (the most frequently used languages/computer science concepts). This is hardly an exhaustive list of all the books that you could find useful, but instead a few books (2 or 3) on a given topic, aimed at beginners or those who want to move beyond basic knowledge. I assume that experts already know how to find the books they need. I’m starting with the books I’ve found most helpful and hope people will suggest new titles and categories over time.

To see the list, click on “Annotated Bibliography”, in the sidebar (under Pages).

Happy reading!

Aristocrats, Agendas, & Adams

Some days I think the biggest problem facing digital historians is our workflow. We are already expected to juggle archival research and secondary readings with teaching and writing. Add a digital project into the mix and the temptation to pull out one’s hair becomes almost irresistible. The madness increases when you are the primary programmer on your own project.

I feel your pain.

Last weekend I was despairing of the many moving parts that will (in the next eighteen months) constitute my dissertation. I realized that I was spending all my time on the database I am building to house my research and complete my analysis. The database is indispensable (and being spun-out into an open source project to help others), but it is only one part of my project. Then I had a brain wave, courtesy of my favorite Founding Father, John Adams.

According to Adams, the greatest threat to a successful republican government was a society’s aristocrats — people with the time, talents, charisma, and/or money necessary to accomplish their goals. Such people (and he was one) would always want to be in control, but in a republic The People, not the aristocrats, were supposed to govern. Adams’ solution was to shut the aristocrats into the upper house of the legislature (read: Senate) where they would have sufficient scope for their talents but not enough power to hijack the whole system.

Last weekend, I realized that my database is the “aristocrat” of my dissertation. It is powerful, attracts attention, and brings me funding, but it has become a drain on my time and energy out of proportion to its role in the larger project. So, I am going to try a constitutional experiment.

I am giving myself one day each week to work on the database. I’ve chosen Wednesdays to coincide with my office hours at NINES. With any luck, this concentrated time will push me to be more productive, while freeing up the rest of my time to do the research and writing necessary to complete my degree. Of course, everything comes back to the database in the end: my research is loaded into the data structure and analyzed for patterns, which I then explore in the prose of my dissertation.

But hopefully, a system of checks and balances will keep me stable.

Scholar != Island

I am a NINES Graduate Fellow for 2009-2010, and this post was written for the NINES Blog. To see it in its original context, click here.

I recently gave a presentation on letters as primary sources — their format, use in historical inquiry in general, role in my dissertation research (and database design) specifically, etc. (My talk was part of an ongoing series called “Original Sources” held on Friday afternoons in the Harrison/Small Library at the University of Virginia. For more about the series, or to the hear the podcast of my talk, click here.) In the Q&A session that followed, the organizer, Kelly Miller, asked me one of the now standard questions in digital humanities: “Has the adoption of digital technology changed how humanities scholars see themselves in relationship to their work?”

I was really glad to get the question, because it is one that I have heard many other scholars answer over the years. The response I have invariably heard is: YES! Digital technology makes humanities scholars more reliant on other people to get their work done, particularly the programmers who translate their vision into databases and websites, using skills that the scholar frequently does not have or fully understand. This loss of independence is a source of anxiety to many who work in the field of digital humanities (the level of anxiety varies greatly from scholar to scholar), keeps other scholars from fully exploring the possibilities of new technologies, and can sometimes cause friction between humanities scholars and the technologists they work with.

I see the issue differently. I don’t think that digital technology has made humanities scholars any more dependent on other people than they were before the “digital revolution.” Scholarship in the humanities has always been (in my humble opinion) a collaborative process: we complete our first works of scholarship under the watchful eye of thesis and dissertation advisors, workshop early drafts of our papers, participate in conferences, offer to buy our colleagues a cup of coffee if their expertise can shed light on something we’ve become interested in, wrestle with anonymous reviewers and editors to perfect our manuscripts prior to publication, and so on. We also rely on an army of documentary editors, archivists, and research librarians to organize primary sources and help us find the materials we need. We return these favors by answering other scholars’ questions and writing the long acknowledgement sections that go at the beginning of our monographs.

After I responded to the question, Mary-Jo Kline (author of the original The Guide to Documentary Editing) gave her opinion that the early adoption of digital tools by libraries (particularly putting finding aids and library catalogues online as well as an increasing percentage of the actual collection) has increased scholars’ tendency to view themselves as working in isolation because now they can locate and/or access so many materials without ever having to enter a library or speak to a librarian.

Of course, adopting digital technology has changed how humanities scholars research, analysis, and publish their scholarship, but not because we’ve fallen from a higher plane of independence. If anything, we have gained powerful allies in our ongoing struggle to share our work with the world. If you disagree, then the comments thread is your oyster.

A Gem of A Letter

While working on People of the Founding Era: A Prosopographical Approach, I came upon an unexpected gem in the Papers of George Washington — a letter written by Washington to John Marshall on April 11, 1789. At the time, Washington was President of the United States and Marshall was the young (but promising) Virginia lawyer who handled Washington’s personal legal affairs. A month earlier, Washington had instructed Marshall to collect on an over twenty-year-old debt owed him by the estate of William Armistead.

However, in early April Washington changed his mind. He wrote,

“I have been lately informed that Mrs Armsteads sons are dead and have left their families not in very good circumstances. If this is the case—and the payment of the debt due to me would distress them I must beg that you will not proceed any further in the matter, for however pressing my want of money is at present I had much rather lose the debt than that the widow and fatherless should suffer by my recovering it.”

We now live in a time of such financial insecurity, worried about jobs, grants, and life savings. Washington’s letter is a helpful reminder that, whatever our current wants, our plans should encompass our neighbors’ needs as well as our own.

Quote from “George Washington to John Marshall, Mount Vernon, 11 April 1789”, Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda 2007. http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/pgwde/print-Pre02d46 [accessed 23 Sep 2009]. To see the letter in its entirety (and the editorial annotations), click on the link above, or if you don’t have a subscription to Rotunda’s American Founding Collection, find it in the print volume, Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Volume 2, page 47.

Troubleshooting Rails Migrations

I’m not sure why this worked, but if it can help anyone else then here it goes . . .

My rails app decided to throw a hissy fit at me by refusing to let me run rake db:migrate because (as it claimed)

rake aborted!
An error has occurred, all later migrations canceled:

Mysql::Error: Table ‘states’ already exists: CREATE TABLE `states` (`id` int(11) DEFAULT NULL auto_increment PRIMARY KEY, `name` varchar(255), `continent_id` int(11) NOT NULL, `notes` text, `created_at` datetime, `updated_at` datetime, FOREIGN KEY (continent_id) REFERENCES continents (id)) ENGINE=InnoDB

This was deeply weird because that migration was the 3rd of about 30 migrations in my application. Rails had happily skipped over it in the many months since I had first run it to create the states table, moving directly to the new migrations and running them. Something was wrong, but I had no idea what. After many hours of frustration I stumbled across a viable (albeit hacky) solution to my problem.

Looking at the following thread on Stack Overflow (http://stackoverflow.com/questions/842162/is-rake-dbmigrate-the-correct-command-to-re-sync-schema-rb-with-your-database-sc), I saw that if I commented out the create table in the failing migration and ran rake db:migrate again rails would skip the troubled migration. I meant to do this, but in my haste I only commented out the lines the describing the table, forgetting to comment out the “create_table” and its associated “end” lines of code.

I ran rake db:migrate before I realized this and got the following:

(in /Users/jabauer/pq_eafsd)
== CreateStates: migrating ===================================================
== CreateStates: migrated (0.0000s) ==========================================

I quickly realized my mistake and took out the comments, hoping to put the fields back in the table. When I did so, rake db:migrate ran perfectly. I am pretty new to rails, so I have no idea why this worked or if it is a replicable solution. However, I am offering it to you in the hopes that it will work, save you time, and keep you from having to leave a commented out migration permanently in your app. And, if anyone knows why this worked (or has a better fix), please let me know!