Warning: Unintended Use Voids Warranty, and May Result in Injury or Death

Just do as you are told…

Variations on this warning appear on almost any consumer product you can buy nowadays from cups of coffee to chain saws.  This came up in a conversation we were having the other day about innovation.  Innovation is using already existing things with positive results in ways for which they were not intended (I think we should skip the injury and death).  We compared this with invention, which we concluded was creating something new that did not previously exist. The lines between innnovation and invention necessarily blur, and you can split hairs about what is invented in any innovative project, but I think we have the basic idea.  In my work, I tend to try to innovate, especially with technology, since I do not have the skills or creativity in that area to invent anything of value. While I sincerely appreciate the makers who can create new things, I really like to innovate, and work with makers who are interested in extending their inventions in new and different directions.

..or else.

I’ve used an ILS circulation system to manage digitization workflows, since of course an ILS is, by nature an inventory control system, we controlled the location of our inventory by creating pseudo-patrons for each of the locations. Much faster than changing the location field in the bibliographic record. Similarly, we’ve seen in other posts how we have used social media tools to illustrate intellectual connections between archival objects. As the tools get easier to use, and have much less overhead–most tools are browser-based, with little investment in infrastructure–our opportunity for innovation grows.


People are More Than Their Job Description

RugMark inspected factory workers in Nepal, U Roberto Romano Papers, UConn

As we bring together new teams for the next cohort of projects in the Greenhouse Studios, a central question we ask is why should this or that person be included in a project team. This decision speaks to the core of the Greenhouse Studios mission.  The idea of the Greenhouse Studios is both idealistic and realistic. We feel that we should be able to bring a group of intelligent people together around a common idea (what we call a prompt), and from that collaboration will come a story of some type, in some form, that is both scholarly and interesting. That’s the idealistic part. The realistic part is that to increase the odds of success, it is a good idea to seed the groups with people who have certain skills, knowledge or interests, that will insure that we cover the bases of technology knowledge, subject knowledge, organizational knowledge, for example, needed to produce some output at the end of the process.

To ensure that the process actually progresses, a facilitator is assigned from the GS staff. This facilitator’s role is to keep the process moving, and not to lead the development in any direction.

But the tricky part of team building remains with inviting participants. If we are too idealistic, we put the projects at risk, too prescriptive, and we invalidate the central thesis of Greenhouse Studios.  We try to be guided by a sense that, as one colleague in the Working Group said, “People are more than their job description” and are expected and encouraged to think of themselves as more than an archivist, or web developer, or professor. Team members bring their entire selves to the table, and it makes all the difference when they do.


Putting the Archives Where the People Are

Archives on the radio at UConn

We are continually looking for more effective ways to connect people to archives and help them understand the value of archives to a modern society and culture, I want to pass along an idea that an archivist here at UConn implemented in conjunction with the student radio station. “D’Archive” is a weekly show featuring conversation, commentary, interaction with primary sources, and more.

Graham Stinnett, Outreach Archivist, at the Archives and Special Collections, hosts and coordinates the content and guests, which will include archivists, researchers, and the general community. If you are interested in hearing the live version of d’Archive, air time is 10am on Thursdays  at 91.7 FM if you are in the Northeastern Connecticut area, or streaming live at http://fm.whus.org/ from anywhere in the world.

And, in case you missed it, the first episode is available in streaming form from the WHUS website:  http://whus.org/2017/09/darchive

That  episode focuses on the Connecticut Punk scene of the 1980s—What? You didn’t KNOW that there was a Punk culture in Connecticut?  Well, now you can learn all about it.

Collections As Data

The purpose of digital projects has changed over time.

A lot of the talk here at Digital Directions is about thinking of your digital collections as data. One definition  I like is “information that has been translated into a form that is efficient for movement or processing.” This idea that the purpose of building digital collections  is no longer to create a faithful representation of a physical object, but to provide a resource that transcends the original purpose of form of the object is becoming more common.  I used a new slide in my management presentation this year to show how I believe the original purpose of digital projects has been upended.

It used to be that the primary purpose of digitization projects was to provide a digital representation or copy of the original analog object, with as much fidelity to the original as possible.  At the time, that was something of a tall order. Nowadays, while we still do that, we also make it possible, through both technology and creative commons licensing, for people to manipulate the content in ways not part of the original purpose of the digital original.

We have stood the old model on its head and are getting closer to the envisioned future of the potential of digital archives.

Records Management Meets Digital Preservation

Library data architecture map

At UConn Library we are involved in a project to develop a systematic data architecture, although we don’t quite use that term, which is more of an IT term.  According to Wikipedia, “In information technology, data architecture is composed of models, policies, rules or standards that govern which data is collected, and how it is stored, arranged, integrated, and put to use in data systems and in organizations.”

This definition does not address the preservation or sustainabilty aspect of data management that is central to the data curation lifecycle, but data architecture is meant to be only one of the aspects of what is called solution architecture.

Like many organizations that made the transformation from the analog to the digital world, Libraries have over the years developed multiple and sometimes conflicting solutions, systems, and policies for managing digital collections and files in their domain. These solutions  were usually implemented to solve particular problems that arose at the time, with less thought of how those decisions would have large-scale impact, often because there was no large scale impact, or there was no way for these decisions to affect other areas of the organization.  And of course external vendors were only too happy to sell libraries “solutions” that were specific to a particular use case.

As digital content became the medium of activity and exchange, systems improved and became more flexible, it is now possible, and in fact necessary, to look at our data management systems more broadly.

If we keep in mind that, at the root, all digital content is “ones and zeros” and that any system that can manage ones and zeros is potentially useful to a library, no matter where it comes from or what it is sold or developed for, then we can build an approach, or data architecture, that will serve us well, efficiently, and effectively.

How we get to that point is easier said than done. In order to get beyond thinking about the system first we need to understand the nature or characteristics of our data. That’s where records management thinking intersects with this. RM thinking assesses the needs and limits of access and persistence (or what RM folks would call retention). Based on those criterial records are held and managed in certain ways and in certain environments to meet the requirements of their characteristics.  For example, sensitive records may be stored in a more secure facility than non-sensitive records.

How does RM thinking apply to digital libraries?  The RM idea is embodied in the DCC’s Lifecycle model, and many digital archivists have internalized this idea already. Many librarians, who work more with current data, have had less of a reason to  internalize the DCC model of data curation into their work, and the model has generally only been applied to content already designated as preservation worthy. What would it mean to apply RM/Lifecycle thinking to all areas of library content?

We have been mapping the relationships among different content types that the library is responsible for in terms of six different characteristics:

  • File format
  • Manager
  • IP rights holder
  • Retention
  • current management platform
  • Current access platforms

Then we are going to look at the characteristics the content types have in common, and develop a set of policies that govern the data that has these characteristics, and only then will we look to use/alter/build/purchase applications and systems to implement these policies.

It is always difficult to separate applications from the content they manipulate, but it is essential to do so in order to create a sustainable data architecture that puts the content first and the applications second.

Our project is in its early phases, and the map linked to above is very much a work in progress. Check back often to see the evolution of our thinking.

Sometimes Maybe You Should Reinvent the Wheel.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future lately, much of our recent work has been an attempt to determine what forms archival management and presentation and modern scholarship could take, and what forms will resonate with people. It isn’t easy to predict the future, but it is a lot of fun.  Especially when you don’t HAVE to be right, as our iterative development process allows us to change direction pretty easily.

The 1983 era room at the Boston Museum of Science

It reminded me that fururology is a staple of science fiction writers (of which I am a big fan–no surprise there). When I read classic (Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, Robert Heinlein for example)  future-based science fiction, I try to think about how they imagined the future and what parts of it they got “right” and what they missed on or didn’t see. When Isaac Asimov writes about “personal capsules” that traverse “hyperspace” to deliver information packages that can be opened only by the addressee, I think, yeah, he got email all right. It doesn’t matter that the capsules are physical objects that disgorge “cellotape” that automatically distructs, I don’t worry about that, because he got the “fast,” and “personal” part exactly right, and if the means was physical rather than electronic, that’s not really the point.   (See a previous post about Henry Ford)

I’m reading a “lost” Heinlein novel called “For Us the Living” where a person from 1939 is  mysteriously transported to the year 2086. While certainly not one of Heinlein’s best works, it does contain a “proto-internet.”  One of the characters  talks to various people on a screen (or simply leaves an order) and requests and gets  clothing, information, and other things sent right to her home.   Never mind that the whole thing was humanly mediated, it was Amazon, Wikipedia, and the DMV rolled into one.

As we know, the seeds of the future exist in the present. I recently visited a Boston  Museum of Science exhibit called Popnology about the “…fusion of science fiction and science fact in the Museum’s newest temporary exhibition celebrating and exploring the greatest works of innovation and imagination in history.” Along with one of the actual DeLoreans from Back To The Future,  there were props from movies, excerpts from science fiction writers and more about popular visions from the past of the future .  In the center of the exhibit they put together a room from 1983 where everything in it (except for the ironing board) could be done with a cell phone today.  (You can see a photo of this room above, or as one of the gallery photos on the home page of this blog.

In a similar vein, there is the story a few years ago in the Huffington Post that took a Radio Shack (remember Radio Shack?) sale flyer and showed how almost everything (except the radar detector) could be done with a cell phone.

As a historian I understand how the past influences the future, and in many of my current activities, I now also understand that sometimes you DO have to reinvent the wheel, just in a different way.

Understanding Innovation–Do Users REALLY Know What They Are Talking About?

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
–attributed to Henry Ford

Moosup, CT Ford dealer, 1915, Connecticut Historical Society

It is now pretty well established that Henry Ford never actually said this (Here is a good explanation of the phrase’s origins) but like so many other aphorisms it no longer matters whether he did or not. People have parsed this quote in forums from the Harvard Business school to design blogs and more. I had always thought that true innovation was disruptive and developed what users didn’t know they needed, but somehow was known by the innovator.   I even wrote a post about this more than seven years ago.

Yesterday the Ford phrase resurfaced in a conversation about innovation and user feedback that made me think about the phrase, user feedback, and innovation in a new way.   In this discussion I had made my usual comment that users can only tell you what they want from the perspective of what they know and that the faster horses quote was proof that sometimes you have to ignore user feedback to achieve true innovation.

My conversational partner replied that in fact Ford HAD listened to the users, just not in the way we usually think of listening.  By understanding that the users wanted “faster” and were using “horses” as the metaphor, Ford gave them “faster” in the form of an automobile, which was ultimately what it was all about.  (Many other attibutes made Ford’s cars successful, but for our current purposes we will ignore them, because after all Ford never said this anyway. ) By decoupling “faster” and “horses”  and understanding that faster was the relevant needs statement we discover that the users did actually express a valuable bit of information necessary for successful innovation. Because, as we all know innovation has to serve a need, even if that need is hidden from common view.

I don’t think that I will look at user feedback in quite the same way again.