POST: Patchwork Libraries

In a¬†new¬†post¬†on his Sapping Attention blog,¬†Ben Schmidt¬†offers a visualization of the library sources of books included in Bookworm. Bookworm, a project that “explores new means of library data visualization,” takes books and metadata included in the Internet Archive’s Open Library as its source material. The visualization, beyond drawing attention to the number of books contributed to the Internet Archive by particular libraries over time, points to “temporal patterns” around the 1923 copyright cutoff or particular concentrations of institutional book collections. His lesson is that one must know the source material making up the aggregate and understand where and why shifts in the overall collection have occurred:

The digital libraries we’re building are immense patchworks. That means they have seams. It’s possible to tell stories that rest lightly across the many elements. But push too hard in the wrong direction, and conclusions can unravel.

This attention to the source library materials is reflected in other visualizations and tools with possible application in the Digital Public Library of America. A¬†dh+lib review post last week described¬†Harvard metaLab’s Data Artifacts project, “which seeks to understand the collections data of libraries and other institutions as cultural objects.” This week’s¬†dh+lib review¬†of Matthew Jockers and Julia Flanders’ keynote from the Boston Area Days of DH 2013 looks at the question of scale and the artificial divide between macro and micro reading in DH.

Is aggregation spurring a return to close examination, and, in the language of metaLab (“artifacts, things assembled by human hands and minds, with stories to tell and values to express”), to an almost artisanal sense of the small, handwrought particulars of the sources themselves? Critiquing some of the aggregate-data-driven claims of other scholars, Schmidt has commented:¬†“The explanations for patterns like this might be solved by algorithmic firepower, but just as often they’ll be solved by arcane knowledge from history, literature, or library science.” Might algorithmic firepower and arcane knowledge be complementary?

This post was produced through a cooperation between Kate Pitcher and Arianne Hartsell-Gundy (Editors-at-Large for the week), Sarah Potvin (Editor for the week), and Zach Coble and Roxanne Shirazi (site editors).