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.

You Know You Have Been Around When…

A few months back, I was asked to talk about the kind of work I had done in digital libraries/digital repositories in the past and how it differed from the kind of things I was doing now.   It occurred to me that I had been around for a while and had the opportunity to live through, and have a small amount of influence on, many developments in digital repositories.  Rather than write a narrative, I decided to create a short slide deck of screen shots of different projects I have worked on over the years and how they had evolved along with the profession. Sadly, but not surprisingly, I was forced to go to the Wayback Machine for many of the earlier projects.   But of course that just illustrated what I was talking about, that early digital projects were not concerned with preservation, only access.

Now, I concern myself a lot with trying to create policies for digital content that libraries have taken in over time, but haven’t really considered how to deal with over the long term.  For now, enjoy this trip down memory lane, and, if you have been around awhile as well, you might build your own timeline of history.


The Quantum Archivist Returns

I can’t believe it has been so long since I posted anything to the blog. Much of my time has been taken up with two really big projects.

The CT Digital Archive serves non-profit memory institutions in Connecticut

The first, the Connecticut Digital Archive, is a state-wide digital preservation repository build on open source software (Fedora/Islandora/Drupal) that opened in 2013 with 23,000 digital assets and now holds more than 500,000 digital assets from 40 institutions in as many digital formats as you can imagine. I expect to be talking a good bit about the trials, tribulations, opportunities, and rewards related to preserving culture for the future.


The other  initiative, Greenhouse Studios is a “transdisciplinary collective” that according to our website “reframes the practices, pathways and products of scholarly communications through design-based, inquiry-driven, collaboration-first approaches to the creation and expression of knowledge.” What that means is we are working with scholars, technologists, librarians, archivists and others to collectively create new means of telling stories that leverage the technological tools and methods available to the modern researcher. More

Greenhouse Studios, a scholarly and intellectual experiment

posts on the Greenhouse Studios will be forthcoming. My interest specifically is to understand how preservation, archives, and digital libraries influence the creation of scholarly works.  As archivists, we have always said that having a seat at the table at the creation of records was important. Well, now we are sitting at at least one table, we will see what that means.


Facing Up to ARMA-geddon

Earlier this week, I spent an interesting and enjoyable evening with members of  the Connecticut chapter of ARMA, the records management professional organization. They invited me to be the after-dinner speaker at their monthly chapter meeting. I’d never been an after-dinner speaker before so I didn’t really know what to expect or what was expected.

My topic was to talk about the challenge of documenting culture in the digital age–or at least that’s what I said I would talk about when they asked me to speak. This was for me, and I think for them as well, an opportunity to get out of the bubble of talking to the usual suspects about the usual things.

Rather than follow a more traditional format of slides and linear discourse, I took advantage of the informality of the setting to try to create a discourse between me as an archivist and the records managers. It was informative for all of us.

I think the key idea that I came away with that I had not thought about quite in this way before was the fact that records managers work within organizational systems and archivists work out there in the chaos of human society. Attempting to apply rules-based approaches to content is mostly futile in the archival world. All you can do is collect what you collect and not worry about what you are ignoring.

If you look at the slides below, you  will see that I consider the value of things like home surveillance video, personal digital pedometer data, and lifecasted video channels as historical records.

Here are the slides:

Is all this stuff “records?” And if it is, what do we do with it?  I guess that’s for us to find out.


And the text of what I would have said if I had followed a script:



For the past several months I’ve been working with some very dedicated people both at UConn and elsewhere in Connecticut on a project that we are calling the Connecticut Digital Archive or CTDA.  The CTDA is an extension of one of the original digital aggregation projects: Connecticut History Online (CHO).

For years UConn has been managing the technical infrastructure of CHO. As UConn began to look at the next logical step in its development of digital content management, it seemed only natural that we would continue to collaborate with others in Connecticut to build, not only a shared aggregator of digital content, but to offer digital preservation services as well to libraries, museums, historical societies in Connecticut.

CHO made it possible for lots of people to make their content available to a larger audience, now the CTDA will make it possible to preserve the digital cultural heritage of Connecticut for future generations.

Follow our progress at:


Forum Forum

Yesterday, I had the pleasure and privilege to attend the Connecticut Forum on Digital Initiatives. The second installment of what I hope will be an annual event brought together more than 100 people interested in digital preservation and presentation from across the state and even beyond. We were treated to an engaging and challenging opening keynote from Trevor Owens from the Library of Congress. My big takeaway from that talk was the idea that we should not “confuse tools with content.”

In an era where we want to use, reuse, and manipulate our digital content the display or presentation means change quickly. It is the content (or what I might call the “data”) that we want to preserve. We can also preserve the story that is told with the data through the presentation platform, but that is a completely different activity, and separate from the tools.

Trevor was followed by a number of breakout presentations on a host of topics. You can look at the Google doc to see the schedule and links to presentations and examples.

I  had two chances to speak at the Forum. One was to introduce our latest project, the Connecticut Digital Archive (more on that later) a state-wide collaborative preservation repository for cultural heritage organizations based in Connecticut. You can see the slides below:

My second chance to talk came at the end of the day when an interested and perhaps somewhat information overloaded group convened for the closing plenary.

My point in the closing was to encourage people to join the digital archive effort, and to think about the current challenges facing archivists in the digital age.

Anyone who has read this blog in the past will know what comes next. I wanted to convey my idea that the current challenges we face are part of a long evolution of record keeping that goes back as far as clay tablets and will extend far beyond our lifetimes. To meet today’s challenges, I said that we should respect the traditions of our profession and embrace the potential of our technology.

You can read the text of my remarks and see the slides:

Want to Help Build the Next Generation Repository AND Save the World?

Or at least help make it a better place? The Archives and Special Collections at UConn is at the center of both the development of the digital repository and of the documentation of Human Rights.  We are looking for a Curator of Human Rights Collections who has a strong interest in Human Rights as well as experience working with digital content and archives. If you are interested in working in an environment where innovation is the rule and challenging intellectual endeavors are commonplace, think about applying to join our group!
Minimum Qualifications include:

  • A graduate degree in Library or Information Science from a program accredited by the American Library Association.
  • Understanding of issues and challenges relating to human rights documentation.
  • Three years experience in an academic library, archives, or related institution.
  • Two years experience working with digital content in a repository or archival setting.
  • Ability to work independently, identifying problems, implementing revisions and changes to policies and creating and implementing new policies.

With additional preferred qualifications including:

  • Experience with digital content management and digital curation.
  • Demonstrated work or field experience in human rights documentation.
  • Experience working with archiving web and/or social media resources.

For a complete description and application instructions please visit HuskyHire at:

0r follow this link:

then choose “Advanced Search”  and enter  2012498 in “Job Opening ID”

A Shoutout to Activist Archivists!

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Wired Campus” blog ran a story today about Archivists and the Occupy movement. Who was this activist archivist you ask? None other than Howard Besser, who reported on his experiences at the recent CNI membership meeting in Baltimore.

The Wired Campus reporter felt it noteworthy to mention that Howard “spoke at the conference wearing an Occupy Wall Street T-shirt that he had made by hand” which would not have been a surprise to any archivists who have ever seen Howard at any public event.

Nevertheless the questions for archivists presented by the Occupy movement, and other protest movements in the social media age are complex and daunting for archivists. The Chronicle article goes on to explain how Howard and other archivists are attempting to create some systematic means of appraising and collecting the records of social movements. Failing that, they are at least interested in developing some standard approach for archivists to take when attempting to document these movements, because as Howard is quoted in the article as saying, ““The old way of doing things doesn’t scale.  …We have to find new ways of doing the selection and doing the metadata.”

Howard was joined in the panel by David Millman of NYU, and Sharon Leon of the Center for History and New Media.

Thanks to all three for raising the questions and the public awareness of the archival craft!

Crossing the Divide

WebWise2012, a new world view quietly arrives

Following up on my last post about the DPLA and WebWise2012, my takeaway from the conference was that we have now completely crossed the divide in the digital world from being concerned with creating digital content to figuring out how to manipulate, combine, and visualize the body of digital content that now exists. I know that for many people this divide was crossed some time ago, but the reason I know we really have moved to a new world-view was that nobody was talking about it at WebWise. It didn’t have to be talked about because it was just an assumption of most everyone that there was a body of digital content out there to manipulate, aggregate, and visualize.