Information Literacy Gone Bad 2.0: Lightning Talk


In my continued campaign against hate propaganda spreading its disgusting tentacles further across the surface of the internets, I’m giving a WILU lightning talk. Since I couldn’t make it to Edmonton, it’s a remote session with a video and online Q&A session.


From the program:

Information literacy gone bad: An inlink profile of a hate propaganda webpage

Lisa Levesque , Ryerson University | Emily Shearer, County of Carleton Law Association Library

Could your hyperlinks cause harm? As our study on inlink data shows, educational websites that link to racist content may boost its prominence in web search results. Learn about the structure of web search ranking and what websites you should never link to, even with the best information literacy intentions.


If you found this site after seeing the link on the video at the conference, congratulations on having excellent vision. That thing was up on screen for approximately 2.5 seconds.

As promised, for more background on the study, please see this report.

Please also see the powerpoint for the presentation I just gave at TRY, below.
Feel free to use this information for non-commercial purposes with attribution (BY-NC license).

As this session was really short, I didn’t get the opportunity to mention Sean Spicer, Safiya Noble’s research, Google’s own statements about what it does, the dissent in R. v. Keegstra, or any other worthwhile tangents. Those were definitely on my mind as I made the video, though. The focus of this study was a very small examination of what is really an overwhelmingly large problem: who gets to organize and control information online? What do their biases promote and what do they hide? How do we deal with the fake news, the hate speech, the pornography, that not only exist within the universal body of knowledge, but are fighting to be seen and heard and will use every trick in the book to become more visible?

While we need to deal with these big issues in proportionately big ways, small efforts also help. That includes a personal and professional understanding of the web as it currently functions and how elements of it, such as hyperlinks, shape our online world. While hate speech is an awful and sobering subject, it’s one that we need to grapple with, if only so we don’t do inadvertent harm.


Information Literacy Gone Bad: An Inlink Profile of a Hate Propaganda Webpage


This week at TRY, I’ll be presenting the results of a study that I conducted last year with my research partner, Emily Shearer. Here’s the abstract:

The connections between webpages shape the landscape of the web. Could the connections that you create—specifically hyperlinks—be inadvertently causing harm? This talk will discuss a study on inlink data, focusing on a hate propaganda page and the libraries and educational websites that link to it. As this study shows, web information literacy skills are needed among librarians engaged in web publishing to avoid links like this that promoted hate speech and misinformation. Given the current political climate, hate speech and webpages containing misinformation are increasingly relevant topics of engagement for library workers. This talk will cover the very practical ways to avoid linking to disreputable pages, as well as more esoteric questions concerning hate speech online and some of the inherent problems with relying on web search result ranking from companies such as Google.

I’m pretty thrilled to be doing this because a) hate speech on the web is awful and b) librarians may be inadvertently contributing to that awfulness through poor hyperlink practices. More so, as information professionals it’s important to learn more about the structure of the web, to question it, and to be able to understand its function and its implications.

For more background on the study, please see this report. My powerpoint is below. Please feel free to use this information non-commercial purposes with attribution (BY-NC license).


My Thoughts on the ACRL/NY Symposium: Money and Power


I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the recent ACRL/NY Symposium on December 2nd, 2016. I arrived at the ACRL/NY Conference bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and very interested to hear about the symposium theme of money and power. However, my enthusiasm was somewhat dampened by the  specter that hung over the conference in the form of the president elect. Donald Trump’s name was mentioned many times throughout with fear and apprehension, and the opening remarks framed his ascension as a reminder of the brute powers at play in our society. The impression I received is that it would be naive to think that libraries – open, sharing, and caring as we are or aspire to be – are minor players in someone else’s game. And, who better to embody the modern capitalistic epitome of money and power than Donald Trump? Perhaps this is why the talks of the day mostly focused around changes that librarians themselves can make, rather than the powers that be that control us. To be sure, libraries have a responsibility to be more inclusive and to criticize power imbalances. Yet, what this conference really left me thinking about was library agency more broadly. How can libraries become more powerful agents, and transfer this power to our patrons?

The best talks of this conference touched this issue, calling out systems barriers, invoking the power of critical thinking, and using plain language to call a lack of funding a lack of respect. Here are my summaries of a few noteworthy presentations. I’ve added in my own thoughts and reflections, but I hope not to have altered the core of what anyone presented on.

Money, Power, Respect: Archival Labor as a Reflection of Neoliberal Values

The focus on Lil’ Kim that went throughout this presentation was really great. The presenter Stacie Williams spoke about how she sees Lil’ Kim as a representative of 3rd wave feminism due to her ability to represent herself though crossover identities, including gender and race. What I took from this was a fantastic reminder of the fact that power is constructed. A singer doesn’t inherently have less value than a politician or a trades person. We assign that value. We, as a society, say that knitting is less valuable of an activity than golf, or that care-giving is less valuable than working for a wage, to pick a few personal, inherently absurd, and somewhat gendered examples. Archival work has been undervalued and undervalued others in turn, and it’s time for that to change.

Stacie Williams brought up some really salient points about money. She argued that we’ve been afraid to talk about money, focusing our discourse on working for love and passion instead. This is a major issue because money is a way to allocate value. We pay for what we value, and when we rely on unpaid and invisible labour that doesn’t respect the mission of the archive or the students who do the work. Working with too little money means that we continue to use broken systems, such as discriminatory Library of Congress Subject Headings. A lack of funds can also foster toxic workplaces – think of the inequality between the female workforce and male management. The archives have lost respect and power, and it’s time to get these back.

With that said, the archives also possess power when it comes to the communities that they serve and the people whose lives are tied up with the collections they manage. Archives should ask: “how can we help our community find and harness power?” Respect extends way beyond the question of wages. We have to address the effect that archives have on a community. Another important question is, “are we respecting people who don’t want to be part of the historical record?” As I listened, I thought about how applicable this is to the issue of archiving residential school materials. Residential schools are so recent of an atrocity, and the colonial abuses of power that they represent continue on in so many ways today in Canada. Archives relating to residential schools need to take into consideration the desires of the native peoples they intend to represent.

I loved the very direct way that Williams addressed the issues at hand: she didn’t tiptoe around the major issues as she perceives them. Directly talking about money is something that libraries and archives need to do, emphatically and unashamedly.

Teaching with Data: Visualization and Information as a Critical Process

Question the information that you’re given is a basic library skill, but it’s one that we often forget when we look at data. This talk by Jill Conte and Andrew Battista was a good reminder of how data is shaped by the methods used to collect it, with a key question being “what is missing from the data?” The presenters described their experiences teaching this subject and outline a lesson plan. I thought the data that they chose to scrutinize for this class was well chosen but bold – FBI data on rape statistics. This openly available data set has changed in meaningful ways over the years, including re-definitions of what constitutes rape. Depictions of this data in graphical or topographical form show drastically different information. When the stakes are as high as rape and the associated trauma, it means that much more when the statistics show a distorted image of reality. Still, it was a sensitive subject for some students.

One takeaway that the presenters had was to consider the value and use of trigger warnings while not shying away from hard topics. I think that’s good advice for all information literacy lessons where a difficult topic, such as rape, may be discussed. Librarians need to teach the importance of critical awareness without alienating students. On a personal note, I sympathize with the difficulty of addressing a topic like this. I imagine that rape statistics are incredibly upsetting for some students, but at the same time, this data is so impactful that this is precisely why it needs to be discussed.

Instructional Standards and Professional Power

Emily Drabinski’s talk about standards was both general and far-ranging; excellent to listen to but difficult to sum up. She said that standards are akin to infrastructure: they’re invisible until it they aren’t there. Standards exist as a way to structure our profession: to communicate with others on an infrastructure level. Standards, like the standard size of train tracks, are essential for the base level of functional operations. Standards also are “about world-making” and they pull power and resources towards the standards-makers. If I understood the talk (and it was very nuanced), standards need to be understood for what they are and can do. Outdated standards should be reformed and useful standards, such as the ACRL Framework, should be adopted.

Drabinski’s talk was far different from the others in that it didn’t give a “how to” or any concrete advice. It was more of a discussion about the topic of standards generally and how these interplay with professional power. Since the conference, I’ve been thinking about her point that standards are a basis, a ground to stand on. Recreating standards in a new way of defining what is acceptable out of the vast array of options available and standards can either let in, or leave out, what you do not want. (Through the accident of differing standards, the different standard size of rail tracks in the USSR majorly impacted the ability of Nazi troops to advance in WWII.) The task to build infrastructure is enormous, and to connect it to Williams’ point, without enough funding libraries and archives cannot hope to reform old, broken standards that include offensive and inaccurate materials.

Architecture of Authority

Angela Galvan’s talk centered around the idea that by mediating access to information through vendor platforms, libraries have given up power to entities that don’t necessarily share our values or ambitions. Her talk was probably the most controversial at the conference, prompting some startled looks and “well I never!” comments from vendors and librarians alike. She has nicely summed up her presentation on her blog, and addressed some of the criticisms she received after the fact.

I think she makes some excellent critiques of library systems, and her focus on vendor relations was on point for the subject of “Money and Power.” A few of the most salient arguments:

She points out that, generally speaking, a vendor’s goal is to make money while a librarian’s job is to freely share information. These goals are sometimes aligned, but not always. This is a point that I have made myself numerous times, but it’s at odds with neo-liberal values and the way that some librarians think about lending as analogous to selling (our patrons are our customers!). Even within the same conference, there was a poster presentation endorsing library corporate sponsorship (Power, ethics and corporate sponsorship: Samsung Library, Yonsei University, Seoul, Korea). I think acknowledging the difference between business and what it is that academic libraries do (communal sharing of research materials) is a good basic starting point for a discussion about why library-vendor relations can be thorny. When our goals are different, our values are different as well. This is why it’s problematic, Galvan argues, to place copious amounts of patron data in the hands of vendors who don’t share our same concern for privacy. One privacy violation that she used as an example is that her name was included in the metadata field of a political book that she purchased. This metadata is useless to patrons and it could be harmful to librarians. She left the implications of this privacy violation wide open, but one that I would point out that in Trump’s America, left-wing academics are going to be the subject of increased scrutiny (see the Professor WatchList as an example).

On the topic of privacy, Galvan argues that given how much information vendors have about patron system use, vendors should be able to provide libraries with perfectly customized systems. This isn’t the case, and for some reason librarians are more willing to accept sub-par software than any other profession (whether or not this is true is a subject I would very much like to explore). We then invest our own time and energy to customize the software. These improvements are then rolled out to neighbouring libraries, and sometimes incorporated into the next systems upgrade. In effect, we’re doing the work that vendors should be doing for us, and sometimes having it sold back to us. While some vendors acknowledge the issues with this process – SpringShare offers free access to Libguides for library school students in an odd sort of compensation for all of the Springy Camps it holds – most do not.

Galvan notes that job requirements are increasingly requesting that users are familiar with particular platforms. She argues that we shouldn’t be hiring systems users, but systems thinkers. Particular platforms may not exist in the future, but the skills necessary to navigate complex systems will always be relevant. I agree. This is the way that Liwen Vaughan at UWO teaches all of her technology classes, and I think it’s the best approach. After having studied databases with her, I know that all relational databases have the same core architecture. It’s frustrating to have friends who are searching for work and are turned down for positions because they don’t have enough experience with a particular ILS, even though they have experience with another and the core skills to learn any system.

Library systems are essential to our mission of providing access to information. Galvan completed her talk by quoting Cody Hanson, stating that: “We must face the fact that when we relinquish control over the software we provide, we effectively relinquish control of our most visible and effective public values.” I have only lately become aware, through my new job as an electronic resources librarian, of how deeply reliant libraries are on vendor platforms, how unstable these can be, and how deeply interwoven our different delivery systems are with one another. There is no divorcing the platform from the content, and due to this there is a power imbalance who controls access to information. Her bullet points for reclaiming agency are an excellent start to address this issue, including the poignant call to action of “Ask for better contracts.”

While it wasn’t a point that Galvan made, one of the most interesting aspects of this presentation was that there were audible gasps in the audience whenever a vendor was mentioned. This was the case even when the speaker didn’t criticize the vendor in question. I don’t think her comments on SpringShare were particularly negative, but perhaps because of the fact that they were conference sponsor, this name became sacrosanct. Why should we fear to name names? What does that say about the kind of power that exists in our relationships with vendors? How can we speak truth to power if we can’t talk about the vendors who control information, many of whom are reaping incredible profits off of libraries? As Galvan says, and as most librarians say who speak about the serials crisis, it’s unsustainable. I would like to point out, as well, that Elsevier was another notable sponsor of this conference.

It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t point out a few issues that I also had with Galvan’s talk, in addition to her many well-said points.

Galvan urged librarians to regain agency through curiosity and exploration. This is problematic, because librarians are often encouraged to exploring coding and new technology, and to make our mark by fixing and building things. Isn’t this a little contradictory to the message of “get the vendors to build it right the first time?”

Galvan alleges that Summon (she named names) prioritizes ProQuest materials over other resources because this is in their best interest. I don’t have a criticism for this, but I would like to see some more empirical facts to back this up.

To read more about these and the other talks, I’d encourage you to have a look at the program. While I don’t have enough to time to summarize the other presentations here they did raise interesting questions, including: Do consortia actually always benefit libraries financially (The Library & the Consortium)? What would it look like if libraries received direct government funding, and what’s the future of (the commendable) Sci-Hub (Sharers Gonna Share)? What can we do to end the myth of the neutral classroom and support students who are people of colour (Displacing the Neutral Classroom)?

For myself, I’m going to continue to think critically about systems: the power structures that entrap libraries, and the systems that we maintain.

The 13th

Films about Race: The Use of The Birth of a Nation in The 13th


I recently watched a film on Netflix that made me appreciate the very real power of historical objects.


The 13th is a documentary about the subjugation of black people in America – from slavery, to Jim Crow, to modern mass incarceration. It’s very moving and very well done. The narrators of the film, who are historians and black history experts, tell a story of black oppression in America that persists over time, taking different forms to suit the era. While there is an overwhelming urge on the part of (white) society to want to move on and forget history, we can’t. History is always with us. The film argues that the systemic racism of the criminal justice system that exists today is the modern incarnation of racist oppression; to ignore this is to allow the injustice to continue.


The documentary makes the point that racist stereotypes and imagery support myths of racial inequality, specifically the myth of the black man as criminal. As proof of this, the film includes extensive clips from The Birth of a Nation (1915). This film about the Ku Klux Klan was extremely popular in its time, breaking new ground in cinematic techniques and earning the honour of being first film screened at the white house (to the White House’s dishounour). Today, watching it is all kinds of awful. Clips from the film featured in The 13th show caricature-like blackface villains, KKK rallies, burning crosses, and a lynching.


image of Klan violence from The Birth of a Nation


The imagery is shocking. So shocking, in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised if a few eyebrows were raised when in 1992 it was included in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. The essays included along with the record for this film show that it was chosen for its non-racial content – “underneath the distasteful sentiment lies visual genius” – but in 1992 this film must have seemed a dusty old relic of a racist past. Surely there were people who questioned why it should be preserved. Isn’t it embarrassing, un-American, atrocious?


Of course, its inclusion in this one archive is mostly symbolic: it’s not like they kept the final copy from destruction. But, what it is symbolic of is that this film hasn’t been swept under the rug. That’s important, because it’s used so well in The 13th. it shows racist sentiment far more openly than we typically see it today. It’s as ugly as can be. We need to see this if we’re going to understand the cultural legacy of the slave trade, and the types of imagery that persist even now. After you watch the leering blackface rapist shown in The Birth of a Nation, it’s easier to understand why it’s a problem to see a hugely disproportionate number of arrests of black men on the news. After you see footage of glorified racial violence from a hundred years ago, it really brings home the continuity of abuse when you see images of civil rights protesters getting hosed.


Hate propaganda of such significance as The Birth of a Nation belongs in an archive. Even if we want to veer away from something so offensive, we shouldn’t, not when it can be repurposed and used to argue against the very stereotypes it promotes. We need access to works like this so that we can prove their inadequacy.


As a librarian and not an archivist, I am normally more interested in more current resources, the sorts of things that people need now. This is one instance where I’m totally convinced of the power of preservation.

Social Media in Academic Libraries: Engaging in 140 Characters or Less


What do you do when your workplace gives you an awesome learning experience? You write an article about it!

I’ve managed social media accounts at a number of workplaces, but the challenges of doing so within an academic library setting are unique. When I had the chance to manage the Twitter account at The D.B. Weldon Library at the University of Western Ontario I leapt at the opportunity. This article documents what I learned, and offers some practical advice. It also raises some questions that I think are important: what should the voice of academic library sound like? And who should speak on its behalf?



This article will focus on my experiences in managing social media while working as a co-op student at The D.W. Weldon Library at Western University. I found that managing social media in an academic library setting requires three things: a good working knowledge of the digital world of social media, a flair for composing interesting content, and tact. This article will address the most practical of these first: what social media is and how to use it. Next, it will tackle the more esoteric subject of how to write as the voice of a library for an online audience. Finally, it will suggest some further areas of exploration for what I have called here “tact,” the positioning of the social media manager him or herself within the larger context of the organization, and challenges faced.



Western Library users can access the article here.

I also have a number of free copies available here.

This is a practical, how-to article, which is different from my usual critical ramblings. I should have an article more along these lines coming out soon (it links undersea cables to library strikes) and I’ll post that here, too.

The Line Between Actor and Action: Response to Karen Barad

Independent Study

In the course of reading about material culture, I have been entirely swept off my feet and convinced by Bruno Latour’s concept of ANT. This theory posits that all action takes place between humans and nonhumans within a network, with each having the potential to be “actants” and affect one another. This means that nonhumans, objects, have agency. This idea is laughable to some – objects! agency? – but it’s also extraordinarily clear that objects do affect us. Books change us. Cars move us. Buildings protect us. We would be very lonely without our nonhuman companions, and very ineffective as humans if we didn’t use tools and cultural items on a regular basis.

I can accept that there are countless relationships between humans and nonhumans, and that this network of relationships creates a certain equality between the two as mutual actants. But could the division between that which acts and the action be divided, which would allow us to remove nonhumans, once again, from the acting process?

Karen Barad has one of the most sensible objections to the idea of agency in objects that I have encountered. She argues that no one really possesses agency, but that it exists through relationships of affect. She states: “Agency is not held, it is not a property of persons or things; rather, agency is an enactment, a matter of possibilities for reconfiguring entanglements” (Interview 4). This is because “separately determinate entities do not preexist their intra-action” (Universe 175). Rather, they come together through action, a phenomenon that Barad explains in Meeting the Universe Halfway through a combination of quantum physics and constructivism.

Agency based on relationships is not radically different from ANT, save that ANT insists on the embodiment of agency within an actant. For both, relationships are how action is able to happen. Yet, Barad’s idea matches the common sense notion that writers like Latour have been trying to dispel: that objects can’t act. As it turns, neither can we.

While sitting and reading a book, I had never considered myself a separately determinate entity encountering another separately determinate entity, the both of us composed in the moment of our intra-action, but I suppose this is the case. I will have to read Barad more thoroughly in order to better understand the science behind her theory; she may be technically correct, which is, as they say, the best type of correct. Barad’s complex reformulation of interaction does remind me of a quotation from Paul Eggert: “mute objects in material form, texts only live by our grace as we read them” (30). The problem is, while I am comfortable with books only coming to life through interaction, I’m not sure if I accept that the reader is in the same position.

The reason that Latour’s formulation is difficult for some to accept is that he allocates agency to where we typically (and mistakenly) believe there is none. How much more unconventional Barad’s reformulation is by comparison! If it is correct, it is still difficult to swallow from a solipsistic-human point of view. It flies in the face of the English language, where subjects impact objects. This is to say nothing of Western philosophy, for which the subject-object dialectic, the Cartesian viewpoint, and the absolute I-know-it-all attitude still hold massive sway. Barad’s viewpoint is semantically impossible to approach. Can I refer to you and I, or to a book, when these objects in space are not yet configured? Attempting day-to-day life while being politically correct with regards to the configurations of one anothers’ atomic matter must surely be difficult.

The centrality of relationships to Barad’s work makes me want to delve in deeper, which I intend to do shortly. At the outset of approaching her work my response is that in comparing her to Latour, Latour’s formula for describing relationships works much more smoothly and with common sense on its side. Yet, constructivist and intricate quantum physics do still have their appeal, the complexity and impossibility of which may be all the better to disturb what needs to be disturbed and question our assumptions. After all, there are those who critique object agency: what else might they be missing in the formulation of reality?


Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. London: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

Dolphijn, Rick, and Iris van der Tuin. New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies. Introduction and Chapter 3, “Interview with Karen Barad.” Michigan: Open Humanties Press. 2012. 48-70.

Eggert, Paul. “Brought to Book: Bibliography, Book History and the Study of Literature.” The Library: The Transactions of the Bibliographical Society 13.1 (2012): 3-32. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Criticizing DH: Response to “Right Reaction and the Digital Humanities”


To a newcomer such as myself, the digital humanities can be an awfully intimidating field. DH is inclusive: you have to be in the club to know who’s who. And DH is constantly evolving as a discipline: today’s hot text may be discarded tomorrow.

I wouldn’t mind the rapid flux and the insularity if it weren’t the case that DH is often presented as being only the best of these things. It isn’t inclusive: it’s communal but equality-challenged; it’s not in flux, but rapidly-paced and multifaceted. A certain positivity covers the surface of DH. What I am sceptical of is jingoism, and DH is certainly on a mission to prove itself a worthy endeavour, one that humanities departments should dabble in. Though, dabblers may find themselves jumping into the deep end of what is actually a discipline, complete with internal feuds and conflicting canons. Personally, I find that too much positivity is a frightening sign. I want to know about the dissent and criticism, to see politics laid out flat. In short, I wish that I could find a primer of who’s in and who’s out, the latest tools and texts, and the state of the discipline

This is a dream, and I know that. DH is a new field, and politics even in well-established disciplines are rarely ever laid out flat. For adventurous souls, not knowing is half the fun. But it was a delight to me, at least, to discover David Golumbia’s blog. He discusses politics and he criticizes DH and its practicioners. He has also identified some of the vitriol that I’ve been looking for beneath DH’s shiny veneer – and confirms some of my worst fears.

In his recent post “Right Reaction and the Digital Humanities” Golumbia talks about some of the very personal attacks that can take place in DH, which he argues are the product of a certain unexamined conservative political leaning. He argues that there is a “brutal incivility” associated with the “politics that persists very near the ‘nice’ surface of DH.” He goes on to tell how after delivering a talk he was attacked with ad hominem barbs by a prominent DHer. He argues that illogical arguments, like those that were thrown at him, are meant as cover up for a “poisonous political agenda” common to some in DH.

Golumbia argues that opposition to his talk was prompted by a difference in politics. His general thesis is that:

“as a politics its function [DH’s] has been to unseat other sites of authority in English departments and to establish alternate sites of power from existing ones, and in no small part to keep what I broadly call ‘cultural studies of the digital’ out of English departments, and generally to work against cultural studies & theoretical approaches, while not labeling itself as such.”

The DHer who was so infuriated with Golumbia denied that DH has inherent power imbalances. Golumbia argues that denying that these exist is an argument that is heard “only from the political right, which is to say, the party that benefits from its alignment with power, an alignment it often tries to downplay even as it benefits.” DH has a “facade of neutrality” that enables this kind of right wing political manoeuvring. When two of the DH speakers present at the talk ignore the angry attacker’s remarks, they are participating in this poisonous neutrality.

I have been studying DH for close to three months now, which is not nearly enough time to know whether Golumbia is closer to the truth than his attacker or not. I am glad that he is able to express his opinions; it seems clear from his interactions with the purported angry DHer that there are those who would prefer that he is silent. Reading over his blog, he makes some excellent points elsewhere, such as here on big data and here on Wikipedia. I find a discussion around power balances in DH to be essential reading. It’s a wonderful palate cleanser between other, more best-face-forward blog posts.

The apprehension that I have towards DH is still with me, however. This is an apprehension that I share with my classmates, who have wrestled to define DH (see here and here), although my fear is that I will be complicit in a neutrality that helps those who would be my enemies. Exactly who is in the right, though, is hard to tell. While I find Golumbia’s points convincing on a quick read through, I might feel differently if I were a committed DHer, for whom even the title of his blog would be untoward – Uncomputing. He himself remarks that he is a black sheep in DH. Is this for a reason?

Like Golumbia, I too believe that “Power and capital in our society are inextricably linked, and in many ways identical.” I also believe that critique holds a strong place in DH and that it deserves a future. I’ll be on the lookout for more political posts like this, and go forward a little more confident that DH can be critiqued and that criticism has a valid purpose within the discipline. It isn’t all sunshine and roses: what a relief.



Image Credit: Ruth Hartnup

Bridging the Gap between Tools and Texts


When I sat down this week with a large stack of papers on textual analysis, I was hoping that they would illuminate for me how literary text functions on the web, and how analysis of literature has been changed by digital technologies.

What I found instead was a history of text encoding that entirely changed my focus.

In “Facilitating Communities of Practice in Digital Humanities: Librarian Collaborations for Research and Training in Text Encoding” Harriet E. Green looks at five case studies of text encoding projects that utilize TEI, or the Text-encoding Initiative guidelines, when encoding literary texts in SGML or XML, which are “two metalanguages that provide an application-independent standard for data interchange” (220). Libraries play a key role in educating scholars, usually graduate students, in how to use these guidelines and these markup languages. Scholars gain experience in a DH community of practice, gain experience in researching biographical information and other relevant contextual data, and contribute to projects, the final produce of which will offer enhanced searchability of texts and other benefits for analysis.

After reading this article, I was conflicted. The increased searchability of texts and other digitial advancements, such as word counts and text-marking, are wonderful for textual analysis. EEBO (Early English Books online) is a great example of a success in this regard. Being included in a community of practice is also valuable, especially in contrast to the solitary work of the typical humanities scholar. However, I couldn’t help but think that if I were a graduate student at one of the five case study institutions, I wouldn’t want to be involved in a project like this due to how labour intensive they can be. At the Kolb-Proust Archive, graduate students have worked with the librarian over the past fifteen years on the creation and editing of notecards about Proust correspondence. That’s quite a lot of labour for which most students didn’t see overwhelming results. The Victorian Women Writers Project VWWP at Indiana University at Bloomington has a similarly long history. Begun in 1995, it was revised in 2010 with all texts requiring updates and new texts being added. Students on this project showed a lack of enthusiasm in finishing the project. As one librarian explains: “We also had many students who didn’t finish their projects during the course of the semester. Most of them continued to work on them, but some we had to take care of their work for them” (225). MONK, a web-based text mining software hosted at the University of Illinois Library that contains TEI-encoded texts, is a prototype for many other projects. Even here, “the process of TEI encoding is so labor intensive” that projects were sometimes abandoned (222). The general consensus is that while the end product may be useful, the process of creating it is too arduous, and researchers feel “strong reservations about engaging in the actual process of encoding texts” (222). With regards to the University of Virginia (UVA) text encoding project, the librarian at the Scholar’s Lab notes: “‘Ten years ago… doing TEI was almost an art unto itself and people were interested.’ But now, she says, faculty and students are less inclined to do the encoding and far prefer to acquire the texts already marked up with encoding.” If I were one of these graduate students enlisted in mass encoding, I’d rather skip right to having the prefabricated tools as well.

However, I’m aware that receiving the tools after they have been created also means missing out on the community of practice inherent in working within Digital Humanities tools. Reading about the history of text analysis tools really makes me appreciate at DH today stands on the shoulders of so many innovators. Most histories of textual analysis, including “Towards an Archaeology of Text Analysis Tools” by Stefan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell, and “A History of Humanities Computing” by Susan M. Hockey” note that Roberto Busa, a Jesuit priest, was one of the pioneers of textual analysis (along with and his collaborator Paul Tasman). Busa’s work on the Index Thomisticus project, which is a tool for performing text searches within the massive corpus of Aquinas’s works, lasted for approximately 30 years. Now, that’s a long time to do textual encoding. He, and others like him, had to create the tools they were using, which shaped their very processes and products, as they went. “A History of Humanities Computing” traces textual analysis by advances made over decades, from times where scholars were “hampered by technology,” to where “where academic respectability for computer-based work in the humanities was questionable.” By advancing digital processes, innovators in early DH work made it possible for the tools that we have today to come into being. They also did a great deal of work at resolving “the two cultures” of humanities and the sciences, by bringing “the rigor and systematic unambiguous procedural methodologies characteristic of the sciences to address problems within the humanities.” Since the 90’s, and continuing today, problems with the two cultures have “emerged again” as there is a divide between scholars who create tools and those who use and talk about them (Hockey).

I believe quite strongly that the divide between science and the humanities is an artificial one, and that applying scientific rigor to humanities projects is one way to overcome this gap. Although I can’t blame those graduate students who weren’t interested in encoding text, it’s a bit like denying the importance of basic procedures for scientific experimentation. You have to cultivate lot of samples into petri dishes before you can effectively prove germ theory. There’s something romantic, as well, about being on the forefront of innovation in the way that those early technologists were. I now get to enjoy the products of their labour via DH tools such as Voyant and the tools listed in Tapor, but being one of the first creators of a tool that no one had ever seen before would be something else. It reminds me of Stephen Ramsey’s controversial statement that “Personally, I think Digital Humanities is about building things. [. . .] If you are not making anything, you are not…a digital humanist.” I don’t agree, but I understand the appeal in believing so.

Using DH tools such as Voyant and the many tools available through Tapor brings me closer to understanding how English literature function on web, and how analysis of it has changed with digital technologies – my original goal for this week. I have explored these tools, and find that they’re quite useful. I particularly like Umigon, which analyzes the emotions in tweets. I enjoy using these tools that I didn’t have to construct myself, just as I enjoy using digital texts online with excellent searchability. They help me with conducting analysis, and I benefit so much from others’ work.

Having read about this history, though, I’m going to be asking myself two questions going forward:

How is what I am accessing online the product of another person’s rigorous labour?

And, what innovation could I create to help bridge the gap between the two cultures and advance DH? Projects that would not stultify an entire generation of graduate students preferred.



Hockey, Susan M. 2004. “A History of Humanities Computing.” In A Companion to Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, 3–20. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

Green, Harriet E. 2014. “Facilitating Communities of Practice in Digital Humanities: Librarian Collaborations for Research and Training in Text Encoding.” The Library Quarterly 84 (2): 219–234.

Sinclair, Stefan, and Geoffrey Rockwell. 2014. “Towards an Archaeology of Text Analysis Tools.” In DH2014. Lausanne, Switzerland.

Material Culture Studies Seminar: DH Gets Physical


A retrospective exhibit featuring the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is first up at the PAMM, including his installation According to What? shown at the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., in 2012.

This week, I’ll be talking about Material Culture Studies in class for my seminar discussion. Here are the articles I’ve looked at. Rather than preparing a handout, I’ve decided to outline some of the key characteristics of these authors and articles here for you to keep in mind while reading. Latour, Bleeker, and Manoff all take very different approaches to Material Culture in their writing. My interpretations of their work are just that – mine – so while I’ve given an overview of these works here I can’t wait to hear what everyone has to say in class about the relevance of Material Culture Studies to DH.

Bruno Latour’s work is characteristically easy to read – which is helpful given the complexity of some of his subject matter. In this essay, he gives an overview of “Actor-Network Theory,” or ANT, by discussing design, sociology, and technology. He posits that the objects around us, which we often ignore, impact our lives immensely. He illustrates, with the example of a door, how enmeshed humans and nonhumans are in the joint venture of saving (humans) work. Objects do labour that is set out for them by humans, but they can also be prescriptive, meaning that they can affect us because they are engineered to do so. Tangential to his main points, he discusses modernity and the false dichotomy it puts between humans and things, coding as a language that does action, and language itself and its tricky relationship to physical things.

Latour, Bruno. “Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane
Artifacts.” Technology and Society, Building Our Sociotechnical Future.
Cambridge, Mass
. Ed. Deborah J. Johnson and Jameson M Wetmore. MIT
Press. 151–180.

Julian Bleecker is a theorist who follows on the footsteps of writers like Latour. His essay expands upon a basic Material Culture Studies idea: what if objects not only mattered, but they actively told us why? His idea of blogjects is fascinating and very relevant to DH. It might even make us think differently about many of the DH projects that we regularly encounter. Blogjects are objects that blog, that do so in collectives, and with minimal human intervention. In doing so, they reform human perception and make an impact on human decisions. He gives rules for blogjects and some interesting, if now dated, examples.

Bleecker, Julian. “Why Things Matter.” The Object Reader. Candlin and Guins,
eds. New York: Routledge, 2009. 165-174. Print.
Best online version:

Marlene Manoff writes about material culture with regards to digital librarianship. If we are to consider materiality as important, which she convincingly argues for, then we have to consider how materiality affects library practices. Digital and physical materials are not interchangeable. The type and quality of metadata are extremely important. While digital degradation is often ignored because of illusions surrounding the physicality of digital materials, it is essential that we pay attention to it for the sake of long-term preservation. Manoff also discusses code, but briefly. She gives a nice brief overview of the treatment of Material Culture Studies in librarianship and historical (read:theorist) considerations of the topic.

Manoff, Marlene. “The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and Historical
Perspectives.” Portal: Libraries and the Academy 6.3 (2006): 311–325.
/portal_libraries_and_the_academ   /v006/6.3manoff.pdf


The following resources are also work having a look at.

For those of you who learn best by visual means or by exploring a website, check out:

This infographic: The Internet of Things: A Primer

These Bruno Latour Mixed Media projects

For my brethren the ra-ra-feminist-theorists:

This essay: Donna Harraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto”

This is a really interesting essay, but I’m not sure we’ll have time to talk about it in class. Part of why it’s so difficult to read is because it’s meant to be irreverent; partially it’s also highly theoretical. Still, cyborgs, or human-machine hybrids, are quite relevant to DH. All of us become cyborgs when we sit down at our computers and engage with the internet. Drivers in their cars are cyborgs; women with IUDs are cyborgs. Harraway is a renowned theorist, and this essay is a classic in Material Culture Studies, albeit slightly off the beaten path. Harraway connects cyborgs with feminism and with what I think we could call “internet identity” in a way that could be constructively compared with the DH Manifesto from week 1.

Some of Harraway’s best lines:

“The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.”

“From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defence, about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war (Sofia, 1984). From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.”

“Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and [sic] art)ficial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.”

“The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.”


Three gold stars for anyone who tweets a favourite line back at me from Harraway, or from any of these readings. See you in class this Thursday!




Image Credit: Ai Weiwei Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn Print. Ai Weiwei. Installation from According to What? installation at the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., in 2012. Image from: