The Recondite & the Difficult

Rather sounds like an old Western, doesn’t it? The Quick & the Dead. The Good, the Bad & the Ugly. The Recondite & the Difficult.

The title of this blog post deviates slightly from the traditional themes of the American Old West, in that it is a quote from a piece of work by Tim Hitchcock entitled Digital Searching and the Re-formation of Historical Knowledge, and is absolutely nothing to do with Clint Eastwood or any of his ilk, but does refer to a stand-off of sorts, a Mexican stand-off if you will, between the old ways of researching and the new. I feel I may have lured you here under false pretences, but hang on in there.

I’ve been writing up a series of reports on the use of social media, augmented reality apps and virtual environments to enhance the more traditional exhibition format, and in doing so have started to explore the idea of cultural artefacts reinforcing social hierarchies, and of knowledge transcending physical formats like parchment, or paper. It’s all very vague and smells a bit “timey wimey” at the moment, but in the course of my research I had cause to take another look at Professor Hitchcock’s work and saw the following lines:

Both the methodologies of the social sciences and the evolution of the profession have effectively given prominence to specific types of information and relationships that privilege organic archives and recondite primary sources, interpreted by professionally trained individuals, as the source of legitimate truth…The most impressive footnotes in any monograph are those referencing archives and the most obscure of primary sources. We judge good scholarship by its engagement with the recondite and the difficult… [pp.82-83, 2007]

Of course, this is true. I’m often guilty of thinking it myself. And I can count any number of acquaintances who have raised their eyes at me when I’ve said I spent more time at my laptop than I do in an archive: some of them have no doubt made comparisons to other friends doing PhD research and compared the amount of time they’ve spent in the British Library to the time that I’ve spent there (thus far, none: don’t say anything, I have panic attacks about it).

And I’ve no doubt that there is nothing that compares to the visceral thrill of discovering something that may not have been seen for a hundred years, a new path through the information quagmire, a new link forged in the chain of our knowledge. But very often, with the increasing digitisation of archival content in many libraries and museums across the world, that information can be accessed digitally, with no need to travel hundreds of miles and to attempt to gain access to a cultural institution that may or may not accept your academic credentials and give you access to the data you seek. It doesn’t necessarily have to be difficult to find in order for it to be relevant.

But it’s all part of that old Devil called cultural hegemony again, conditioning us to think that the harder it is to find or understand, the more important it must be, and that those who can get access to it must occupy a special level in the social hierarchy. Of course, there are those who would perpetuate that notion of the ivory tower, but not quite as many as before.

Searching through a digitised archive, some would argue, doesn’t allow for those serendipitous moments when you open one thing and find another thing entirely, or you pull out an old picture and it takes you down some other intellectual road in quite a different direction. It’s hard for that to happen when your search terminology has to be so specific.

The recent OWOT (One Week, One Tool) “barn-raising” saw a team create a web application called Serendip-o-matic, which:

…connects your sources to digital materials located in libraries, museums, and archives around the world. By first examining your research interests, and then identifying related content in locations such as the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), Europeana, and Flickr Commons, our serendipity engine helps you discover photographs, documents, maps and other primary sources.

Serendip-o-matic allows you to save your searches and to then go back and start again with new search terms. Plus, it has a rather funky-coloured hippopotamus adorning the home page, which can only be a good thing. It is rather clunky at the moment but given it was bashed out in one week, it is actually a bit of a marvel. And it shows that the digital world is catching up – it wants to provide the researcher with those random items that produce our most profound leaps into the scholarly unknown. It’s got a sea-green hippo for God’s sake! It must want to help!

We’ve meandered gently away from my rather laboured Western analogy at the beginning of this blog post to zoology (albeit of the fantastical kind – it’s nearly 1.30 a.m. so you should probably just back away from me very carefully) but what I am essentially saying, or as Professor Hitchcock put rather more eloquently, is that technology is bringing the archive to us. It doesn’t have to be difficult and it can still provide interesting, worthwhile results. For those of us who require a bit of magic along the way, well, resources like Serendip-o-matic can do that too. Of course, the whole point of this is that I can now search for resources whilst still in my pyjamas, which I rather suspect they would frown upon at the British Library, and probably anywhere outside of my flat.

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“Museum Welcomes Wikipedia Editors”

An article in the New York Times recently discussed the merits for cultural organisations of liaising with members of the public to increase knowledge of a museum or library’s collections. In the article, entitled “Museum Welcomes Wikipedia Editors”, collaborators working with the Smithsonian Institute were encouraged to edit existing Wikipedia pages or to create new ones based on archival content. Based on an idea established by Liam Wyatt (Wikimedian and founder of GLAM-Wiki), an edit-athon, usually supervised by members of an organisation’s staff, consists of staff and gifted amateurs, “lured….by the prospect of disseminating knowledge, a behind-the-scenes tour and a free lunch” [New York Times, July 26th], who want to edit and/or expand upon the entries in Wikipedia’s digital encyclopaedia. In the case of the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum in Washington, this meant identifying topics on Wikipedia that they felt needed more information or new entries and creating a list which contributors could choose from to work with.

The Bodleian Library in Oxford conducted an edit-athon this year in relation to their Queen Victoria journals, with the intent of improving the Wikipedia entries on figures and events mentioned within the journals.

The New York Times article notes the elephant in the room: that more and more online users are eschewing the websites of cultural organisations and going straight to Wikipedia for their information. It is beholden to us, then, as the people within those organisations, to ensure the accuracy of the articles within Wikipedia and to embrace it as a new knowledge base, rather than ignore the fact of its use and to dismiss it as inferior due to the fact it is edited by members of the public.

I love the idea of an edit-athon and think it could be an interesting and fun tool for the National Library to employ, not just for their artefacts generally but for their forthcoming Chaucer exhibition specifically. For example, what are the articles within Wikipedia like for the artefacts within the exhibition? What are their counterparts within Wicipedia like? One use of QR codes within an exhibition setting (incidentally, the topic of my current report) is often to link back to appropriate Wikipedia articles. If we do that, and the articles are not appropriate or not fit for purpose, we are undermining the very intent of an exhibition, which is to disseminate knowledge.

Of course, one small downside (although this does negate the rather tired argument that the problem with Wikipedia is that its additions aren’t monitored and are therefore inaccurate/inferior) is that Wikipedia won’t accept an edit or an addition to their encyclopaedia without citations, to ensure validity. To that end the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia has begun adding a Wikipedia citation code to the bottom of each object record, so that when someone comes to edit an article which relates to one of the museum’s pieces and needs to reference it, the code can be grabbed quickly and inserted into Wikipedia’s editing interface. I’m not proposing that this is feasible for all artefacts within the National Library’s collections, which run into the millions, but it is certainly a very good way of navigating the divide between the physical record of an item and its digital counterpart, with the citation code representing a very neat bridge between the two.

I’m giving edit-athons generally a big thumbs up. I think they could potentially be a wonderful way of collaborating with the local and student communities here in Aberystwyth, in a relatively non-pressured setting: around a table, with laptops, and some free sandwiches afterwards. And I think I can speak for everyone when I say, most people will go a good long way for a free lunch, so a trek into the digital hinterland shouldn’t be any great stretch of the legs.