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Collecting Quickly Online, MARAC Fall 2016

2016 November 7
by Sheila

This Saturday, I had the pleasure of participating in a Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference Fall 2016 panel organized by Meg Hogan, Lead Archivist at the Rockefeller Archive Center, titled “Crowd Archiving: Working with the Public to Capture Event-Based Social Media Materials.” Together with Jessica Douglas, an archivist at the Maryland State Archives, and Ed Summers, University of Maryland, as facilitator, we discussed different ways and challenges of capturing and saving the digital conversations and records of contemporary events quickly before they disappear.

Below are my slides

Public, First in Debates in DH

2016 July 20
by Sheila

The revised version of my blog post, “The Public is Dead. Long Live the Public” from April 2015, appears in the 2016 edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matt Gold and Lauren Klein as “Public, First.”

Debates 2016 features long-form essays and shorter pieces in six sections: Histories and Futures; DH and Methods: DH and Practices; DH and Disciplines; DH and Critics; and a forum on text analysis at scale.

Read the full text if the excerpt below grabs your attention.

As a public historian who has practiced in both analog and digital modes, I am attuned to the articles in the Chronicle and conversations—on Twitter, at meetings, and at conferences—from traditional and alt-academics who see digital and online projects as a means for sharing academic research with “the general public.” Skeptics ask why academics have lost their publics, while proponents point to popular digital humanities projects (Bender). It is important to recognize that projects and research may be available online, but that status does not inherently make the work digital public humanities or public digital humanities.Public history and humanities practices—in either digital or analog forms—place communities, or other public audiences, at their core.

Digital humanities scholars and practitioners are defined by the digital, which makes the difference in their humanities scholarship. Public historians and public humanities scholars are defined by the “public,” even when definitions of these practices are contested (National Council on Public History; Lubar). Suzanne Fischer offers a useful way of describing public history as “cracking open history as a democratic project, and doing it transparently, in public.” She also suggests that while public historians work with specific audiences on projects, they also have “a duty to serve particular communities” (“On the Vocation of Public History”). Public digital humanities, then, should be identified by the ways that it engages with communities outside of the academy as a means for doing digital humanities scholarship.

A Liberian Journey Launches

2016 March 23
by Sheila

I am very proud to announce the official launch of a project that has been in the works since 2013,  A Liberian Journey: History, Memory, and the Making of a Nation <>.

The project was developed in partnership with the Liberian Center for National Documents and Records Agency (CNDRA), the Indiana University Liberian Collections, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with generous support from the National Science Foundation.

This new digital public history site is meant to inform, raise questions, and invite stories about a transformational moment in Liberia’s past by making historical sources available for the first time in one place related to a 1926 Harvard scientific expedition to Liberia. The website features an exhibit on Chief Suah Koko, a noted woman leader in Liberia’s history; digital collections containing nearly 600 photographs, more than two hours of motion picture footage, oral histories, and documents linked to an interactive map. This effort marks the beginning of a recollection of Liberia’s lost history and for CNDRA represents a very important step in reawakening the Liberia national consciousness.

The project officially launched in Monrovia at a ceremony on Monday, March 21 with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in attendance, together with members of her cabinet and the Liberian legislature. How often does a head of state attend the launching of a digital history project?

Liberian President attends opening ceremonies

Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, attends launch ceremony at CNDRA.

In 1926, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company secured a ninety-nine year lease for nearly one million acres of land from the Liberian government to establish one of the world’s largest rubber plantations. To help the company understand the conditions and challenges it faced, Firestone sponsored a team of Harvard University scientists and physicians to conduct a four-month-long biological and medical survey. Loring Whitman, a Harvard medical student, served as the expedition’s official photographer, and his work includes the earliest known surviving motion picture footage of Liberia.

The moving images and still photographs are products of the American scientists and represent an early 20th Century colonial world view. At the same time, the footage and photographs offer a valuable historical record of the peoples, cultural traditions, and landscapes of Liberia at a time of rapid economic, cultural, and environmental change. Through this site, the project team offers these historical sources for reinterpretation and contextualization, and seeks multiple perspectives on the past by inviting Liberians to participate as content creators and historians of their lives.

A Liberian Journey homepage

This collaboration was always virtual, which is always challenging.
I worked closely with Web Developer and Designer, Ken Albers,  at RRCHNM and collaborated with the team for nearly three years over Skype, email, and phone calls to develop this digital public history and community-sourcing site that worked best for our primary audience in Liberia.

The site is designed minimally for mobile devices first, in the Omeka platform, to ensure that anyone can access the site especially in areas with limited internet connectivity. A Liberian Journey adds to the Center’s portfolio of global digital humanities projects.

Due to the Ebola crisis in 2014-15, we scaled back on developing multiple exhibits, since we planned for that to be a collaborative effort with our colleagues at CNDRA who were not able to work during that time. In the coming months, CNDRA will invite individuals to share meaningful stories and images about Liberia’s past. Additional online exhibits will combine community contributions with the Firestone expedition sources to give voice, meaning, and historical context to the lives, cultures, and histories of the Liberian people.

NexGen Omeka: Classic to S, the Next Generation of Omeka

2016 January 12
by Sheila

In November 2015, I represented the Omeka team at IMLS’s Focus conference held in New Orleans to share the latest developments in the Omeka software family.

Below are my slides, and the notes from my talk.

I am here representing the Omeka team at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, and we are ever grateful to IMLS who has funded Omeka, from its earliest manifestation in 2007.

I’d like to take you on a brief journey showing you where Omeka started and where we are going related to collections data interoperability and our aspirations for offering GLAMs a way of onboarding to the Linked Open Data landscape.

In the early 00’s, we learned from collaborating with many cultural heritage institutions that there was a need for an easy-to-use, collections-based system that was free and open source, that also adhered to international metadata standards, while also offering organizations the opportunity to build an appealing front-end design that didn’t replicate the look of a database.

We found that we kept building the same type of relational database backend over and over, and decided to generalize it into what is now Omeka.

One of the most important guiding principles, that we are discussing today, is for the data to be portable and accessible in multiple ways.

Data that goes into Omeka, comes out: from the very simple, such as RSS, to more complex formats, including the newest addition, our data API.

Data sharing has always been a core requirement that shapes Omeka’s current development, as the project continues to grow and change.

To increase accessibility of the data, we added an API in Omeka 2.0:

With the API turned on, a user may import all public items and collections, including their files, to be used for other applications

With an API, it’s much easier to push and share content from an Omeka site with other software and applications.

For example, this in-gallery installation at the University of Connecticut Archives is a prototype of the Omeka Everywhere project, an IMLS-funded collaboration with Ideum and the UConn Digital Media and Design Lab. Collections are added into an Omeka site, the Omeka API talks with the API of the Open Exhibits software loaded on a touch table that can publish collections to touch tables for browsing and exploring. This creates continuity between the online and in-gallery experience.

Controlled Vocabularies: The Omeka team has worked to enhance the ease and standardization of metadata input, and over the years, through developing plugins that assist with metadata entry by offering controlled vocabularies, such as the Library of Congress Suggest for LC subject headings and then for all of the LCs authority files.

Our friends at UC Santa Cruz, through their work in the Grateful Dead Archive Online, greatly increased Omeka’s offerings in this area, beyond Library of Congress suggest, to include Getty Research Institute vocabularies to aid in the standardization of metadata entry across individual sites. This standardization, aides greatly when looking outside of one institutions and towards aggregating collections.

We are always grateful for this type of development from the broader Omeka developer community.

With all of this development occurring for Omeka Classic, we are simultaneously building the next generation software package, Omeka S.

Omeka S, which is a new software package designed with medium and larger libraries, archives, and museums in mind.

An outgrowth of lessons learned and feedback from some of Omeka institutional users, Omeka S shares many of the same goals as Omeka Classic (2.x), but none of its code.

Many features of Omeka S will be appealing both to cultural heritage institutions and academic and research libraries, including:

  • the ability to administer many sites from a single installation;
  • a fully functioning Read/Write REST API, which the system uses to execute most of its own core operations;
  • the use of JSON-LD as the native data format, which enmeshes the materials in the LOD universe;
  • Native RDF vocabularies that maximize data interoperability, by including Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI) Terms; DCMI Type;The Bibliographic Ontology(Bibo); and The Friend of A Friend Vocabulary(FOAF).
  • and a set of modules that will aid integration with digital repositories, such as Fedora and DSpace, as well as with one of CHNM’s other major software project’s, Zotero.
  • Every Omeka S Resource (item, item set, media) has a URI–unique resource identifier, and will have the ability to embed URIs to connect to existing resources, such as those in DBpedia.

CHNM’s newest NLG grant increases the integration of Linked Open Data authority files in metadata description for digital collections:

  • We are building LOD vocabulary modules that will help users create descriptions that capitalize on Linked Open Data through the use of controlled authority files from the Library of Congress and the Getty Research Institute. The use of these standardized description values will increase the discoverability of the digital collections by linking them to the growing semantic web.
  • We are also including pathways for institutions to implement their own locally-controlled authorities that allow GLAMs to standardize their descriptions, and contribute to the development of new authorities that might eventually become standards in the field.

To increase the likelihood that newly created metadata for digital collections in Omeka-S can be smoothly transferred to key aggregators within the national digital platform, we are building a resource template that will make Omeka-S data DPLA- ready.

We will offer a basic resource description template based on requirements for the DPLA MAP v.4.0 and the Europeana Data Model, which we hope will help cultural heritage organizations more easily aggregate their data, without requiring messy crosswalks or major data transformations.

Please try Omeka-S!

We are still in the alpha development process, but we are making our newest builds available on GitHub after every 2 sprints, roughly every 4 weeks. This is not something that is quite ready for launching at scale, but we do seek feedback, particularly from our colleagues working in larger libraries and archive.

You may follow our progress, on our blog, in GitHub, or on Twitter (@omeka).

Thank you for your time, and thank you to IMLS for supporting Omeka’s new directions and its place in the national digital platform.

A little leadership training may go a long way

2015 December 8
by Sheila

With a nod to my colleague Sharon Leon, this fall, I took an elective! It felt a little indulgent, and I enjoyed the opportunity. I participated in Mason’s Positive Leadership Certificate program which is professional development for both GMU employees and anyone in the greater DC area. I met people doing interesting things at my own institution, as well as others working in government agencies and running small businesses.

This course was steeped in new research from fields in psychology and neurosciences, and focused on how the relatively new specialty of positive psychology can be used to foster workplaces where people thrive. Other topics covered were mindfulness, well-being, coaching, and strengths-based teams and leadership.

Before the program began, I was excited to have the chance to read and think about the building blocks of strong and thriving organizations, but was a little skeptical of what the “positive” meant and nervous this would be too touchy-feely. The course instructors designed exercises that encouraged a lot of self-reflection and discussion, something I wasn’t quite prepared to do with a bunch of strangers. Soon I realized that becoming a good leader or manager begins with you (with me), and the only way to change habits or reactions that our brains do automatically is to be self-reflexive and to practice new habits.

World's Best BossWe reflected on our best bosses, and how they made us feel. Often the best bosses were good coaches who asked questioned and listened carefully. It turns out that the list of characteristics of our best bosses matched closely to Gallup surveys & the four themes they summarized that define a good leader:

  • Inviting Trust–competence, respect
  • Showing Compassion–empathy, and celebrating and crying together
  • Instilling Hope–vision for the future, direction
  • Projecting Stability–consistency, security, strength

Instructor Steve Gladdis emphasized that when a leader doesn’t showcase these four qualities, employees can feel like their work isn’t valued, might feel despair because there is no vision for the future of an organization, or they may not want to stay with that organization because it appears to lack stability. Most leaders/managers aren’t born with the ability to do all of these things, most people have to learn and practice to develop these abilities.

Some of the best things I learned related to practicing and cultivating mindfulness. “Mindfulness” as a term is used a lot lately. Our instructor Beth Cabrera relied on Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s definition:”Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

The benefits of mindfulness are a calm, clear mind; focus; and emotional intelligence. Cabrera’s advice to the class was to slow down, stop multi-tasking, go outside, use transitions in our day as cues to STOP–stop, take a deep breath, observe, and then proceed–, and to add meditation into our day. Mindfulness is not something that our brains naturally want to do, so it requires practice.

The benefits are attractive, as it offers individuals more self-control over emotions and increases the ability to handle difficult situations, to truly show compassion, and to help us manage and focus our energies. Big companies are encouraging mindfulness for their employees to help their focus, productivity, and creativity.

Another way for increasing productivity and enthusiasm is for each of us to do things that we are good at and enjoy. We took the Gallup Strengths Finder test, and learned how to balance out teams with people with different skills and strengths. The optimal balance is that 80% of the time we are doing something we are good at and like, leaving 20% for the stuff we do not like. (How does your job stack up?) In class, we discussed being willing as a manager to shuffle tasks and rewrite job descriptions. Often, those small changes often make a big difference in a person’s satisfaction level at work. As does the belief that individuals are contributing on a daily basis to a bigger goal beyond their work stations. Managers and leaders need to remind people about the greater good they are doing.

During class, the historian in me was always thinking about ways that positive psychology and mindfulness practices embraced by large companies today compare with efforts by industrial capitalist to create company towns and factory-based leisure activities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Time to do some research.)

Some of the case studies we read about in the class relate more to work environments outside of academia, but still much of it is relevant for anyone who is or wants to become a department chair, an academic advisor, dean, et al. For example, coaching techniques can be useful when advising a student or a peer. Understanding your own strengths and how to put together teams of individuals with complementary strengths and skills is useful in many arenas of academic life. And, mindfulness can not only improve our work, but the kinds of interactions we have with friends, families, and colleagues.

I have been practicing some techniques from the course. I’m trying to start conversations with a question that focuses on the positive: what is going well today? I’m noting things I’m grateful for each day. I’m meditating on my work days, walking outside with my head up and not in my phone to notice the world around me, trying to listen better, and to reduce multi-tasking. The last one is not always easy, since I have prided myself on my efficiency while multi-tasking.

In finding my strengths and learning more about management techniques, I will be thinking how best to use them in my current position and in future endeavors.

Further reading:
The books we read for this course, and a few other resources, are available in this Zotero library.

Natalie Houston often writes in the general area of mindfulness and productivity for ProfHacker.

Harvard Business Review blog offers a lot of interesting articles, many focus on management, but also about organizational structure, social dynamics in the workplace, and other things. If you use the Sage plugin for Firefox, you can read the articles through the feed without needing to subscribe.



Editor’s Cuts: Collectors on the Radio

2015 October 27
by Sheila

As I enter into the final (crossing fingers) revisions of Stamping American Memory, I’ll be trimming and revising. Some sections have to go, because they don’t totally fit. Below is one of them. I’ll save a few sentences for “Who Collected Stamps?” but the rest is gone. So, I’m posting it here for your reading pleasure:


With the emergence of commercial broadcasting in the U.S. in the 1920s, listeners not only tuned in to hear musicians and comedy acts, but also listened to stamp collecting programs. E.B. Powers from Stanley Gibbons’s New York office hosted a program that broadcast on WJY and WJZ in New York, WOR in Newark, and WNAC in Boston. Newspapers listed daily programming from their home city and from other regions that reveal shows running from fifteen minutes to one half hour. Mekeel’s tracked philatelic radio programming and listed nine regular shows in 1932 broadcast from stations in Illinois, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. By 1936, more than 60 stations broadcasted philatelic shows. Those who listened regularly were exposed to stamp collecting practices and “the drama of the postage stamp.” 1

As radio emerged as a medium to advertise as well as to provide entertainment and news, it is not surprising that professional stamp dealers like Powers hosted the program and served as the philatelic expert. His presence on American radio not only spread the word about philately, but may have also encouraged the commercial side of collecting and investing. It is unclear whether Gibbons officially sponsored these programs, but it is easy to see how Powers could promote his company as the place to shop or consult for philatelic advice.

Radio not only broadcasted stamp collecting programming, but it also connected collectors and helped them obtain new specimens. When listening to KDKA in Pittsburgh, one collector learned that the station received a letter from the United States Shipping Board vessel Cathlamet, detailing that the ship picked up the station’s signal on the radio while sailing near what is now Ghana on the west coast of Africa. While the station was thrilled that their wireless waves carried that far, the collector contacted the station and asked for the envelope bearing the letter read on air. To his delight, the director saved the envelope and the collector went to the station to pick up the envelope affixed with a stamp from the Gold Coast British colony (now the nation of Ghana). According to this individual, “stamp collecting and radio were working in harmony at last!” First published in the New York Times, this story was reprinted for philatelic audiences in the Philatelic West. 2

Other collectors combined an interest in short-waved radio with philately. Part of the thrill for George Mathewson and other amateur radio enthusiasts was communicating with hobbyists in other countries. To create a written record of such communication, each operator sent a letter or postcard from their hometown and country that the other would sign and postmark. For Mathewson, the act of receiving many foreign-stamped letters turned him into a stamp collector. Once he established contacts in other nations, he then actively requested stamps from those with whom he communicated. Additionally, as radio listeners tuned into as many stations across the country as possible, they then mailed out postcards to those stations who returned the cards with a unique (non-postage) stamp verifying contact. Radio hobbyists collected those cards and pasted them, with unique station stamps, into albums produced for this purpose, creating a type of “radio philately.” 3 Stamp collecting meshed well with radio enthusiasts’ interest in seeing how far their signals traveled and in connecting with others with similar interests.

As philatelic information spread in different media, stamp collecting attracted new practitioners and appealed to the interests of different people. Magazines, newspapers, and radio programs brought some activities that had been exclusive to philatelic clubs and publications out into a public realm. For collectors who did not belong to a club, this exposure increased their philatelic knowledge or allowed them to connect with the philatelic community through the media. This media presence also exposed non-collectors to the hobby and taught them that many people saw something special in stamps and spent time collecting them.