Archive | June, 2008

More Social History of the Paper Cup

25 Jun

My five- (and thinking about it, possibly six- ) part series on the social history of the paper cup continues on my friend Jason Young’s blog, Food in the Library. In this installment, a bit about waste and the invention of disposable culture.


Get Thee to an Archives*!

19 Jun

Historiann (who joins my list of fab women historians that includes this woman and this woman and this woman and, the patron saint of the Bryn Mawr history department, this woman) reports on the Berkshire Conference and the clarion call to uncover unexplored histories languishing in the archives. So, I thought that I would, over the course of the next week, tell my archive stories of stuff I’ve found that may never see the light of analysis and try to think about the archivist’s role in this process. Actually, I’m going to tell two of my own and borrow one from a friend.

Before then, though, I’m off to a wedding in DC and an interview in Philadelphia. Wish me luck!

* Archive/archives? I have no opinion, but the digital pioneer says archives, so there you have it.

How Do You Measure a Victory?

17 Jun

Because, see, I measure a victory in how cool the players look and how much better their collections are.

Let me set the scene. Katie has given her version of events, but I think that the game deserves elaboration. A few weeks ago, I had the idea that it would be really, really cool to have a softball game that was archivists vs. librarians. Bill and I sent out an email to the school to invite librarians and archivists to a friendly game of SEEING WHAT WE’RE MADE OF (and clarified that no, non-archivists and librarians are not welcome; isn’t it enough that they get more resources and better-paying jobs for their degrees in facebook with concentrations in poking? If they want a game they can simulate play in Second Life).

So, I had some shirts printed:

This is a play on respect des fonds, the major commandment of archival practice. Anyway.

I have to say that my friend Alice won the most spirit award — she fielded, batted and pitched and encouraged us to do it for Schellenberg.*

So, yes, maybe the librarians had more points at the end, but they also had more players and had to supplement their ranks with non-librarians. But the archivists looked awesome, played well, and belong to a more interesting profession!

* I wrote that wikipedia entry. It was a question on my final for the appraisal class, and it seemed silly to not post it since there wasn’t already a page. I hope my professor doesn’t hate me for that — it probably means that she can’t re-use the question.

Testifyin’ about the Command Line

17 Jun

Anyone who’s ever worked in a library knows that among the interesting reference interviews and information literacy projects are also tedious kill-me-now projects. I was handed one of these projects last week — I’m to find the official website for 1,300 health sciences journals. This involves pasting each title into google, running a search, finding the official page and pasting that back into my spreadsheet. Kill me now, right?

Doin\' It the Hard Way

Well, no. Because I thought to myself “there has to be a better way.” Then I called my friend Dianne. She was so delighted by the fact that I wanted to automate that she didn’t seem to mind that this would turn into a two-hour coding project.

So, we asked ourselves, if computers are really good at doing things over and over and over, and this is a task that requires repetition, why wouldn’t we just have the computer do it?

Here’s the idea — we’ll write a script that inputs our list of journals into google, spits back the first ten results, and puts them into an html document so that all I have to do is check, rather than search. As we played with it, we realized that we didn’t want any results from google or its cache, we didn’t want anything from elsevier or science direct, and we wanted to make sure to add the word “journal” to our search string so we didn’t get unrelated results.

So, here’s Dianne’s code (in all its glory):

for i in `cat testjournals2008.txt`; do
	search=`echo $i | awk -F "\t" ' { print $3 " journal"} '`
	lynx -dump -force_html -listonly $search | grep -v google | 
        grep -v youtube | grep -v elsevier | grep -v sciencedirect | 
        grep -v wikipedia | grep -v cache | grep -v amazon | grep -v 
        nytimes | head -n 13 | tail -n 10  > results 
	echo -n $i
	for j in `cat results`; do
		if [[ $j != "References" || $j != "" ]]; then 
			echo -n "	"
			result=`echo $j | awk ' { print $2 } '`	
			echo -n $result

She talked me through this as we were doing it, and I understand most of what’s in there. As well as the spreadsheet, we produced an html page so that I could just click through and test sites.

And, I have to say that our results are AWESOME. In most cases, the first result is the proper page — it just goes to show that where mad librarian skills (setting up a good search) and a healthy approach to technology (making it work for me) combine, magic can happen.

Quakers! Sex! Anachronism! Bring it ON, google!

9 Jun

Soooo from what I can tell from my blog stats, most of the random google traffic I get is from this post about a paper I was writing in the fall term. Although (and trust me, this upsets me more than anyone else) it would appear that these google searches are looking for a very rarified market of bonnet-and-wide-brimmed-hat pornography, I suppose it’s possible that there’s someone out there looking for more about dress and social memory. So, let’s give the people what they want.

Anyway, the class was about archives, evidence and institutions of social memory, and was a way to get at the idea that the way that societies engage with their past may or may not have very much to do with archives or professional historical practice. Memory is transmitted all kinds of ways, and many of us tend to think of the links between past and present as more direct and inevitable than is true.

The paper for the class was a research paper on social memory, which I thought was conceptually flawed. It’s difficult to be analytical without falling into the trap of “X group thinks that their history is Y but it’s REALLY Z!” and it’s very hard to explain or measure the social history of a group without a bit more ethnographic skill. The most successful papers were from classmates who were very intimate with a particular social tradition, but their papers were the most vulnerable to empirical blind spots, For instance, someone was writing about the influence of the Adventist Village (a site in Battle Creek, Michigan, that preserves the homes and buildings used by church founders) among Seventh-Day Adventists and how the church’s past is used to create a sense of shared past among members and proselytize to potential new members. But what, really, was the author supposed to say about the relationship between place and memory? There’s plenty of room for description, but how exactly does one measure how successfully this kind of site can create social identity?

My project was similar and somewhat easier. I was interested in a micro-trend I had found while blog-surfing of present-day Quakers (usually women) wearing “plain dress.” Entire pages of websites were devoted to the definitions and permutations of plain, but the results often resembled historical Quaker women from the 18th and 19th centuries, or present-day Amish women. And, as I mentioned, I had the benefit of a living archive, entire blogs and web communities of plain-dressing Quakers who vociferously explained their reasons for wearing plain dress and how these reasons related to religious practice, community identity and spiritual beliefs.

But whence analysis? I decided to use the paper as a critique of the limits of describing what the past (and practices of the past) mean to groups of people.

It is not uncommon for members of a religious tradition to look to their collective pasts for spiritual inspiration and direction. However, the concept of a “collective past” is slippery and the lived practices of how this inspiration from the past is transmitted to the present is unclear. The phenomenon of modern Quaker women donning “plain dress” brings many of these questions into sharp relief. In a tradition marked by competing views of the role of mysticism versus the place of tradition, foundationalism and doctrine, some groups of Friends in the 20th and 21st centuries have often eschewed doctrine and practiced a faith based on continued revelation that looked toward the future and social justice rather than to the past. Thus, women who look to the past do so outside of (and according to some, contrary to) the current practices of their religious communities….

As I looked at the history of plain dress, I was faced with something of a methodological crisis. If I’m trying to measure some distance between “history” (plain dress from the late seventeenth century until it was largely discontinued in the early twentieth century) and “recurrence” or “nostalgia” or “revival” (plain-dressing Friends today), on what authority do I measure that distance? How do I say that I can identify the “true” history of Quaker dress? Even if plain-dressing Friends today don’t claim exact authenticity, they are claiming to be part of a particular tradition.

As I look over my work, it’s clear that I couldn’t figure out what to make of this paper and these problems. After all, in order to really measure the distance between what is remembered and what was lived, I have to some how measure how wearing this kind of costume makes people feel and why it makes them feel connected to the past. And really, what I want to know is what kind of power there is in this connection to the past.

These are important questions to an archivist. What we’re really doing in our archives is wielding our own bits of power. In the case of government or institutional records, it’s easy to understand the potential for power in our documents. Decisions are made on precedent; records can provide evidence for restitution or compel another to acknowledge past events. But what of memories? What is the power in the feeling that one gains from reproducing the past?

So, googlers, if you’ve come to this blog by searching these themes and you have some insights, please let me know.

My Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus with the command line

5 Jun

So let me say here and now that I always KNEW somehow, intuitively, that I should learn the command line, that it would change my life. Proselytizing from a good friend (of Escape Characters fame) for months has told me that automation is the way to go — if librarians deal with information overload, well then, we’re going to need the right tools for the job. Why spend hours clicking from page to page searching for a certain character string or file type when we can batch download all of these pages and then extract the information we need in just a few keystrokes? Sure, the command line LOOKS scary, but it’s really the smart way to go.

Of course, she puts it better than I ever could.

If you’re a librarian, I think part of your skillset should include knowing how to use the command line. You might say that you’re not that type of librarian, we hire other people to do the work with the computers, librarianship isn’t about this kind of technological skills, someother explanation — but, hrm. No. I respectfully, wholeheartedly disagree. You need to know this. You really do. If you’re a librarian, and you’re working with lots of information — and I mean, lots, like information overload lots — you need to be equipped with a way to handle this information without resorting to mind-numbing data entry methods. No, really. Every time someone says, “I guess I have to do this exhaustingly repetitive task by hand, I cry a little. It doesn’t matter if you’re one thousand miles away; I know, and I weep.

So please, visit Escape Characters and her series on useful ways to use the command line in your everyday work.

And I’ll keep you updated on how this is changing my life.