01/13/23

Media Roundup plus Bonus New Semester Playlist

We’re freshly into 2023 and the past year has been a big one for me on a personal level as my family welcomed our first child in June of this year. Amidst all of the activity I’ve been doing my best to maintain a steady media diet and devoured some interesting stuff in 2022. Below is a very much non exhaustive list of those things I’ve read, watched, and listened to over the past year that vaguely relate to my academic interests, or are things I can easily remember while typing this post up as the baby naps upstairs. Cheers! As always, I’m open to any and all suggestions in the comments. ☮

Books

Podcasts

Movies/Television

Music

Following up on the playlist I created last year on the invitation of some SLIS students, I felt inspired again as I return to the classroom following my parental leave this fall to make a new playlist to send me into the new calendar year as well as the new semester. These are some timeless favorite jams plus some more songs with echoes to current events, libraries, school, or the turning of the wheel of time. Enjoy!

12/12/22

Music Recommender Systems and CCR

I recently found myself, as I do more often than I should, scrolling through reddit. This thread caught my eye and confronted me with my own assumptions and biases about music listening and discovery in the age of streaming.

My first reaction was to think “Obviously someone who likes the Grateful Dead enough to be on the subreddit for the band also likes, or at least has heard of, Creedence Clearwater Revival.” While embarking upon my own CCR listening session, I reflected more on how the recommendation-driven approach of Spotify and other music streaming services has radically restructured the ways in which people discover new bands they might enjoy, even if those bands are both Bay Area rock bands founded in the 1960s.

I will date myself and add a bit of self-deprecation here by noting that I bought the CCR compilation Chronicle: The 20 Greatest Hits at a Sam Goody sometime in the late 90s, and thought I was the coolest 12 year old a few years later when they were featured in The Big Lebowski and I already knew their songs (side note: I still don’t like The Eagles through no fault of their own because of this movie). I dimly recall my mom questioning my decision to buy this CD and wondered why I didn’t want something from a more contemporary band but I was not to be deterred in my quest to discover classic rock! In the early days of the internet, music streaming did not exist and the way my friends and I would find out about new music or expand our horizons was by listening to the radio, watching MTV/VH1, raiding our parents music collections, or getting someone’s older sibling/cousin/friend to share some hitherto unknown artist.

But I digress…what this post really got me thinking about was how fundamentally different music listening and discovery is today. To be clear, I do not think that the “old” way of stumbling into a given musical artist is better than what the streamers are able to provide for modern listeners, but I do feel that these recommendation algorithms can divorce music from its cultural context. Is this artist being recommended to me because they preceded the band I am listening to right now, or because they were influenced by them? Do they share a dummer? Or does the platform just have the data to predict that I’ll enjoy them based on the habits of similar users to me?

I guess I was just so struck by someone unironically asking on an internet forum if anyone had heard of Creedence Clearwater Revival that I have thought about it more than once in the past week. It speaks to the personalization that is part and parcel of streaming platforms, but also the solo nature of music discovery as opposed to the fundamentally social processes involved in hearing about new sounds from other humans. All of this is taking place at the same time as Americans are spending more time alone as we continue to churn through these not-quite-still-a-pandemic months. This trend even rose to the attention of national media recently, perhaps reflecting a situation where a lonely redditor, fresh off of putting his nickel down to hear Willy and the Poor Boys, has no one they’d like to talk to in person about their new favorite band and so takes to the internet to ask if their fellow musical travelers have heard of Creedence. In the words of the Dude, “that’s just, like, your opinion man”.

Also, I guess I will be writing about anything on here that’s on my mind that is vaguely about technology, cultural heritage, and related topics.

11/12/22

Twttr

While I was not necessarily optimistic about the future of Twitter following its acquisition by Elon Musk in October of this year, the rapid onset of volatility and chaos across the platform has been surprising. As others have outlined in detail, current leadership of the company is trying to rapidly raise revenue from existing users with limited success, laying off much of the existing workforce, floating bankruptcy, and generally posting through it.

I’ve been reflecting on the lives (and deaths) so social media sites more than usual this week and. I joined back in the summer of 2009 while working a corporate job in New York City in what feels like a different lifetime. I was also reminded that I’ve written no less than four papers which are specifically about Twitter. It’s a profoundly strange feeling to consider that the subject of these research studies may soon look quite different than it did when I wrote about it, if it exists at all.

Back in 2014, I investigated how archives were using Twitter to promote their collections, engage with users, report on events, and what else they were up to. At that time, all Twitter accounts had RSS feeds which made data collection of public accounts quite easy and reflected the original conception of the service as a “microblogging” platform, in contrast to “macroblogs” like this here website built with WordPress.

Following the 2016 Presidential Election and beginning of the Trump administration, I began collaborating with my colleague Amelia Acker at the University of Texas at Austin on a series of studies on Presidential social media, specifically the preservation of Presidential tweets. We first looked at preservation of Obama administration social media accounts and the first Presidential Social Media Transition, highlighting the platform-specific issues around managing these digital objects as federal records. In our next co-authored paper, we examined how APIs shape the ability of cultural heritage professionals and memory workers to collect, preserve, and provide access to social media platform data. Most recently, we returned to Presidential social media and unpacked how the role of Twitter as a private platform hosting public records affects issues related to digital preservation for presidential records.

What do these papers, particularly the most recent trio, portend about Twitter? Amelia and I have been working to highlight the deep tension between the platform’s identity as a private company and it’s function as a digital public square. We’ve pointed out more than once that the risks of leaving government records on private social media platforms is quite risky and creates major potential challenges for archives and digital preservation professionals. I remain proud of this work and confident that the ideas discussed in these papers will be valuable even if the platform changes on a fundamental level. An article published just today in the MIT Technology Review points out some of these risks and reaffirms the value of Twitter as a living historical record with the potential to inform our understanding of this era into the future.

There’s so much more to say about all of this but it looks like this is the sixth paragraph of this post and, thanks to a tweet I read today, I know that if you write more than six paragraphs about any one topic, you f*cked up. The future of Twitter looks quite unsteady, that’s about all I’m willing to predict today. As for me, while I might try to post here on my own personal piece of internet real estate more frequently, you will still find me on Twitter until the bitter end, doomscrolling through niche memes, news stories, celebrity posts, sports updates, and whatever else pops up…

09/18/22

Reading Public Domain Ebooks

I recently finished reading A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe’s account of the 1665 Bubonic Plague epidemic in London. Only took me two and a half years of living through a pandemic myself to read one of the most famous historical accounts of a plague. The book itself apparently sits somewhere between fiction and non-fiction, and was full of detailed retellings of the trials and tribulations of English people living through a Public Health crisis. While this book was written some 300 years ago (it was first published in 1722), it reads as a remarkably recognizable narrative for those of us continuing to live through the COVID-19 pandemic. There are stories of people fleeing the city, their run-ins with locals in the small towns dotting the countryside, the ongoing work of keeping those who stayed in London fed and employed, tales of sickness, quacks and scam treatments, people celebrating the end of the plague before it was over, and much more. Despite the writing style this book felt remarkably relevant to me and I recommend it to anyone interested in considering our modern moment, its relationship to similar eras in the past, and how people cope with large scale crises of sickenss.

I also wanted to be sure to mention Standard Ebooks, a great site I’ve been using to access public domain books. In addition to A Journal of the Plague Year, I am also making my way through Moby Dick and have a number of other works in my e-reader queue. The quality and attention to detail of these files is top notch and I really appreciate the dedication of this project to providing professional level files though and open source model. Promoting access to free culture, public domain materials, and classic literature is always a good decision!

12/6/21

End of Semester SLIS Dance Party

It’s been a year, hasn’t it? Amidst everything going on we returned to in-person teaching at Simmons SLIS and the fall semester is almost concluded. An advisee of mine who is part of the leadership of LISSA (Library & Information Science Student Association), our student organization here at SLIS, asked me if I would be a part of their end of semester celebration by creating a 30 minute playlist for a virtual event they dubbed the “Serotonin Swing” Virtual Dance Party. Here’s what I came up with, the Spotify playlist is embedded below and I’ve got some more context and commentary after the embedded player. Consider this my personal liner notes for this playlist!

  1. “Dancing in the Street” – Martha Reeves & The Vandellas. This was the first song that came to mind when thinking about this playlist. It’s such a joyful celebration of self-expression, as well as a sort of anthem for the Civil Rights era (more about that here).
  2. “Pelota” – Khruangbin. I’ve been listening to this band so much during the past few years, and really loved their most recent album Mordechai which came out in June 2020. This particular song is catchy and danceable, with irreverent Spanish lyrics about the singer being a ball and going on various adventures. There’s also a music video which is pretty great.
  3. “Wrapped up in Books” – Belle & Sebastian. The chorus of song, from the 2003 album Dear Catastrophe Waitress, says “Our aspirations are wrapped up in books.” Is there any more appropriate sentiment for library school students? I think not. The music video looks like it takes place in a bookstore instead of a library, for what it’s worth.
  4. “Move on Up” – Curtis Mayfield. A classic funk/soul anthem from Curtis Mayfield, which you may recognize due to its sampled use in a latter day hit. The lyrics are about striving and working towards a brighter future, which is an inspirational message at the end of a long semester. For a different take on this song, here’s a live version from Curtis himself back in 1987.
  5. “Robot Rock” – Daft Punk. This song provides the perfect soundtrack to an interplanetary dance party. It’s the first single from Daft Punk’s 2005 album Human After All and a longtime favorite.
  6. “Hypotheticals” – Lake Street Dive. I suppose that one song released this year should be on this playlist. This is from LSD’s 2021 album Obviously and I think it’s a super catchy, fun, well constructed song. Bonus points for the fact that this band was formed at the New England Conservatory of Music, right down the road from the Simmons campus!
  7. “A Minha Menina” – Os Mutantes. This song is built on a memorable guitar lick and has an addicting groove infusing it with dance. Os Mutantes means “The Mutants” in Portuguese; this band is influential in 60’s Brazilian rock and has been compared to The Beatles. Can you hear the similarity in their sound?
  8. “Waterloo” – ABBA. I want to start by saying that this is my favorite ABBA song. I absolutely love that it’s about a pivotal historical battle and also a pop song about love. When I was a rebellious teenager who thought I was too cool for this type of song, my parents explained to me that ABBA was the international language of music. I eventually got over myself and now have a major soft spot them, this song in particular. Check out this 1974 clip of them performing the song as part of Eurovision, it’s a legendary performance.
  9. “I’m Amazed”- My Morning Jacket. This song, from the 2008 album Evil Urges, is a triumphant declaration of an approach to the world (with all its clearly visible flaws) from the perspective of wonder. It’s a relevant lens for graduate school, and life in general! Here is an alternate version of the song, from the David Letterman show back from 2010. I’ve been a fan of this band for years and have been fortunate to see them in concert a handful of times. Bonus fact: this album has a track called “Librarian” on it which was considered for this playlist but ultimately rejected because it was too slow for dancing, and because the lyrics are NSFW. Go look for it yourself if you’re interested in listening to more from this band 🙂

Let me know what you think about these songs! What did I leave out, what are your favorite songs about libraries, archives, museums, and/or organizing information? Thanks again to LISSA for inviting me to be a part of their end of term festivities, this was a fun task and I was honored to be asked.

12/28/20

The Last Archive, reviewed

I first read Jill Lepore’s A is for American in an undergraduate history course on the United States before the Civil War; the following year her book The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity was a key inspiration for my senior honors paper in which I tried to localize the historical memory of King Philip’s War around Bristol, RI, where the conflict ended following Metacom’s killing. She also wrote an article in The New Yorker in 2015 on web archiving and digital preservation that I assign to students and still recommend. When I saw the announcement of her latest venture, a podcast, I knew I had to tune in. It’s not like I have too much going on in the middle of this pandemic, plus the title was “The Last Archive,” so on-brand!

The stated goal of the show is to answer the question “Who Killed Truth?” over the course of ten episodes tracing a modern history of facts and evidence. I will admit that the first few episodes, on an unsolved murder case in Vermont, the lie detector, an invisible woman, and the invisible man, felt a bit scattered and without a clear focus. Perhaps it was a function of my thoughts on the current public health and political climate in our country right now but episodes 5-8 on computational election prediction, the polio vaccine, the failed attempt to build a National Data Center, and the 1977 National Women’s convention were spot-on in terms of tone and content. In each, Lepore provides historical context for urgent issues facing our society, giving the listener a better idea of how we arrived in a place where many people distrust vaccines but trust the private sector to manage vast stores of personal data about each of us. Episode nine, focusing on Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, climate change, and citizen science projects documenting bird deaths was a reminder that more people should read that book, and the final episode ties things together neatly and enticed me to pick up a copy of her latest book IF THEN: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.

The podcast is livened up by voice actors reading some of the records used to write the episodes, and the show’s website provides additional info on the archives and sources used in the production. The final episode featured the Computer History Museum and the Internet Archive, among other repositories. I, for one, think the internet airwaves would benefit from more explanations of punch cards and the efforts to extract data off of them!

Is this indeed the titular last archive? I hope not, for my own sake as an archival educator and researcher. What it is, though, is a fascinating and engaging history podcast for anyone interested in how we’ve come to construct truth and knowledge in the modern United States. Give it a listen, it’s well worth the addition to your COVID-era media diet.

04/11/20

Non-exhaustive list of media consumed during the COVID-19 Pandemic, briefly annotated

In these pandemic times we find ourselves in, the world feels as though it’s been tossed upside down and cast asunder. I find myself alternating between deep dives into the news, reading the latest developments and coming to terms with the reality of what’s going on, and periods where I force myself to turn away and consume other media. These are some of the things I have turned to in these moments. They are by no means recommendations and they are not even necessarily good. It’s just a semi-random and not complete list of what I’ve been watching, reading, and listening to while I work through these decidedly weird weeks.

Books:

Movies and Television:

  • Tiger King. Need to have something to talk to my friends about in our group chats. What happened to Carole Baskin’s husband? Sound off in the comments.
  • Vanderpump Rules. In my house we also watch plenty of other Bravo shows which I don’t like quite as much, but I will recommend VPR to everyone. The first few seasons of this show are truly transcendent reality television, if you don’t like them then there’s no hope in converting you.
  • What Men Want. A fun little rom-com starring Taraji P Henson, who should be given all the roles she wants forever and ever.

Podcasts:

Music

I’m had to move my teaching online and have been doing other stuff besides all this nonsense. If you’re reading this, know that I love you and hope to see you in person soon. We’re living through a global tragedy and I can only hope that we make it through and imagine how to collectively heal our world and create a more just environment. The pandemic has revealed the cracks in our society like never before and the need for justice is as urgent as ever. Now, I’m off to wash my hands!

01/15/20

The term that was

Seeing as it is January 15, I don’t think that I am too late to share a recap of my first semester at Simmons. I taught two classes: LIS438 “Introduction to Archival Methods and Services”, and LIS448 “Digital Stewardship.” Both courses were very interesting and I felt more comfortable as the semester progressed. Despite some technical difficulties with using software we all made it through successfully- truly the joys of academic computing know no bounds…but that’s a topic or another post. My students were great and I was pleased to see many of them engaging the material deeply and producing solid work on their assignments.

In addition to teaching, I spent some time visiting new places around Boston and connecting with new colleagues in the area. I went to the JFK Library for the first time as well as the Massachusetts State Archives, Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Simmons University Archives just across the quad from my office. Thanks to everyone at these institutions for welcoming me and showing me around!

Back in September, I hosted a Teach-In on Climate Change and Archives at Simmons. This was the start of a conversation in our field that demands our full attention and I am grateful to the work of Itza Carbajal and the ProjectARCC folks for putting together such a great set of resources to facilitate these conversations. The teach-in was a success with local archivists joining SLIS students and faculty in our discussions about the future of archives on a warming planet and the role of memory work in the 21st century. Our event in Boston was just one in a global network and was featured in Archival Outlook.

That concludes a non-exhaustive list of what I got into during fall term. It’s exciting to feel more connected to a new regional archival community and I can’t wait to see what this season will bring. I’ll leave you with a longform article recommendation that a friend shared with me, A scandal in Oxford: the curious case of the stolen gospel. It combines so many of my favorite things: Classics, archives, ethically grey antiquities markets, and Oxford. Enjoy!

08/6/19

New Position (Plus Summer Highlights)

I am writing this post from my new office at Simmons University School of Library and Information Science where I am beginning as an Assistant Professor. I am beyond excited about this next chapter in my career and eager to explore all that the university and greater Boston area have to offer. I can’t wait to get to know new colleagues and visit all of the incredible archives, libraries, and museums around here! I’ll be posting again with more detail about my position, courses, and syllabi soon.

Since I’m here, I figured I’d also share some relevant highlights from my summer so far. With a change of position and move looming, I made sure to get out and visit a few placed in the DC area I had not been to before. Among these were the Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center, part of the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Musuem. This was a fascinating space, full of incredibly rare and unique planes and related artifacts, including civilian aircraft, military and space equipment. I will share one photograph of a vintage computer, a UNIVAC 1232 which helped track and manage US government satellites through 1990 (?!?).

UNIVAC 1232 computer

I did spend some time looking at the Enola Gay and considering it’s representation in the space. The tour guide I heard gave much more context than the object label which was woefully short. The Enola Gay has been covered far more thoroughly than I ever could (for example here and here), and I will only add that it’s deeply troubling that the visible text is all that could be agreed upon in the midst of the controversy. I hope that soon we can reach a place as a country where difficult conversations are possible not only about the atomic bomb and the end of World War II, but also the myriad pressing issues of the day including racism, bigotry, homophobia, and misogyny. Honestly the Enola Gay deserves its own post so I’ll have to get to that next.

During my parents’ final visit to DC before my move, I took them to the National Museum of African American History and Culture for their first time (my second). This is an amazing museum that everyone should go to as soon as possible. The image below is of a very striking object that made me pause: a guard tower from Angola Prison, founded on the grounds of a plantation which held enslaved people and remains open as the largest maximum-security prison in the US.

Guard Tower from Angola Prison, on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Finally, I attended the Archival and Education Research Institute (AERI) 2019 last month in Liverpool, UK. As always, this was an amazing institute and I was so happy to see old colleagues from around the world while also making new connections. The talks and workshops were excellent, as was the Beatles tour which I attended with much anticipation. The smile on my face in front of the gate to Strawberry Fields, an orphanage where John Lennon used to hang around as a kid, says it all.

The author standing in front of Strawberry Fields gate in Liverpool, UK.

That’s it for now. I’m getting settled at Simmons and can’t wait for the school year to begin! If you are reading this and ever find yourself in the Boston area, get in touch!

02/26/19

What Should We Make of Obama’s Library Plans?

Last week former President Barack Obama signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) which articulated plans to digitize and provide online access to all of the declassified records from his administration. I’ll get to that MOU in a minute once we recap how we got here. In 2017, Obama announced that his foundation would not be building a Presidential Library like every one of his predecessors dating back to Herbert Hoover, and instead construct a “Presidential Center” that will include a museum telling the story of his administration but no onsite research library. This plan is outlined in a New York Times article from last week that further explains some of the reasons why Obama has chosen to break with precedent in this way, including significant fundraising requirements for the federal portion of the library and a bevy of issues across the existing presidential libraries.

So why am I writing this post? Unlike (I suspect) most of the readers of the Times article, when I saw a link to NARA’s MOU announcement I clicked through and was eager to see what it contained. What I discovered was a ten page document that gave the outline of a plan to solicit bids from vendors to conduct this digitization work in the upcoming months and years. The general plan seems to make sense. NARA will retain custody of the records and has not changed its perspective on the Presidential Records Act. This plan may save money because NARA will not be responsible for maintaining another large facility in a new location. NARA will have to approve the vendor before the start of digitization work. However, I was left feeling skeptical due to my experience studying public-private partnerships in archives as well as my knowledge of NARA’s track record with electronic records.

My dissertation examined digitization agreements between state archives in the US and organizations like Ancestry.com. I’ll keep it brief but one key finding from my project was that the negotiation and contract writing phase of these project are extraordinarily important because they govern not just the digitization work, but the future of access to state records for years to come. When I read the Obama-NARA MOU, I was looking for some specifics to reassure me that the bids coming in to digitize these 30 million or so pages of paper records would conform to some standards and best practices in the digitization and digital preservation communities. Unfortunately, the MOU contained no such comfort. The bids will all need to reference metadata specifications, technical details, and information security measures, but nothing in the MOU referred to NARA’s Digitization Guidelines from 2004 or made it clear what other standards compliance would be required from a winning bid. The Obama Foundation is going to select a vendor and seek approval from NARA for their choice, based on these agreed upon criteria. I read this MOU as full of good intention but short on the sorts of details that would convince me of the likelihood that this plan will be executed on time and budget.

Another important thing I learned while working on my dissertation was how the importance of enforcement and public sector vigilance in these partnerships. In order to produce a positive outcome, the representatives of the public sector need to do everything in their power to write a strong contract and then enforce its terms. The public sector needs to be asking the right questions in order to ensure that they are protecting the rights of the American people, in whose name these records were produced in the first place. For example, will the vendor produce the minimum required metadata to comply with NARA standards or strive to generate more? What types of access are expected with the proposed system and will that enable enough people to find and engage with the records they want to read from the Obama Presidency? What will the access system for these records actually look like? I’m concerned that their control over this digitization process is giving the Obama Foundation too much control over the former president’s records during a critical phase of their lifecycle, which is the reason why the Presidential Records Act exists. The foundation is preparing the RFP which will hopefully include more specifics and the answers to the above questions plus more.

One thing I emphasize to my students is that digital preservation is fundamentally about trust. When we create digital surrogates of paper records, or when we provide access to large collections of born-digital materials, we as archivists ask for the trust of our users that what we’re serving them over the internet is worthy of their trust. Dissertations, family histories, court cases, and other work of users are based on these digital documents and we must do everything we can to build their trust in our holdings. What I’ve seen in this MOU does not provide enough detail to indicate whether or not any vendor selected to digitize Obama’s records will be held to a high enough standard to build trust into the access system for these presidential records that will not have a permanent home which includes a public reading room. This makes the building of that trust all the more critical. For now, I take the good intentions of NARA and the foundation at face value and look forward to picking apart the RFP when it is released.

Reading through this agreement and the plethora of #hottakes that have accompanied it, I will play the role of a consummate academic and keep asking questions while observing closely. I agree that the presidential libraries model was/is in serious trouble, but am not yet convinced that this new path forward will yield better results for the nation and for users of archival records. There has already been a great deal of digital ink spilled on this topic. For more, here are some links to resources I’ve been reading as I formulated my thoughts on this situation. While I’d like to remain optimistic, I am waiting for more detail before I feel confident that Obama’s declassified records will be made available online once the five year window following his presidency has elapsed.