[Interesting discussion on the Chronicle forums](http://chronicle.com/forums/index.php/topic,183273.0.html) about the nature, and problems, of sharing ideas early in the research project development process. It feels vaguely parallel to things I’ve encountered.
Part of me just wants to observe: “article musing on the role of serendipity in research and how it was often prompted by getting lost in library stacks gets misread by a librarian as an attack on modern search: film at eleven.” I don’t think [*The Ubiquitous Librarian*][ul] is purposefully being a bit dense, but that’s the result. Fortunately, the comments save the article. (And, yes, I’m a proponent of serendipity, but as my friend Ridger Kamenetz once observed, “You have to be there to get it.” That is, without adequate preparation, there is a lot less luck.)
As an underprepared graduate student in folklore studies at Indiana University, the stacks of the research library were an unbelievable field of fortune: I learned so much about what I needed to know by pulling books off the shelves that were adjacent to the text for which I had been searching. I not only filled in gaps in my education but also sometimes got a quick sense of the landscape of a particular subfield by not only examining the contents of a shelf but of an entire bay.
So, a thank you to librarians but also to the Library of Congress cataloging system. (Can you search by LoC number in Google Books?)
Danah Boyd’s recent decision to stop using Mendeley because of that software’s acquisition by Elsevier has created [quite a stir], by all accounts. I will leave the discussion about parent companies and publishing companies to others. What I found interesting was that Boyd was not particularly drawn to Zotero, and no one in the comments section was particularly drawn to recommend Zotero. Instead, there is a number of alternatives presented: Citavi, Colwiz, Qiqqa, to name but three I hadn’t heard of before.
Once upon a time, there were three by five cards, and they did a lot of work. They both managed quotations and they managed references. Sometimes they even managed notes and composition. But they were, despite their dependability and their lack of need of batteries, quite difficult to work with. Their lack of easy discovery meant an inordinate amount of shuffling was always involved every time you picked up your deck; they randomly went astray (in much the same way that socks do in the laundry); and they required duplication of effort because one was always copying things from them into something else. They were, in other words, ripe for the kind of things that computers do well: search, sort, and copy. Copy seems like the most trivial of that list, but the fact is that copying by hand almost always introduces the possibility of some random, all too human, error being introduced into a manuscript, something small that you were unlikely to catch but large enough to be embarrassing. Such possibilities still exist, of course, but just not having to re-write a quotation, or only having to type it once seems like an honest to goodness blessing.
Searching and sorting is, of course, the stuff of databases, but that’s a word that scares most people and with so many writers turning to computers as the basis for writing and revising, it wasn’t long before enterprising individuals fine-tuned a database into a citation program that was fairly easy to use by non-programmers — mind, I remember a number of us bashing together HyperCard stacks at some point in the late eighties, early nineties in order to build our own citation management “systems.” Those early programs were useful in a very limited fashion. I remember using an early version of EndNote alongside some early word-processing software for academics — it had a name like *Lexus* I want to say — but I also remember that I was using “borrowed” copies of both programs because as a student I could ill afford either or both.
Fast-forward twenty years and EndNote is still around and I draw a salary. However, since my state seems dead-set on squeezing academics out, I can still ill afford the software. The good news is that there are a number of alternatives: [BookEnds], [Sente], [Papers], [ReferenceManager], to name but a few of the commercial options, let alone [Zotero] in this list or BibDesk.
What’s fascinating is how much computers have changed the nature of what’s possible. For many of these apps, managing references is the least of what they do. In fact, almost all of them now bill themselves as *research managers*. Zotero’s home page offers a succinct formulation of the functionality researchers, scholars, and scientists have come to expect: “Zotero is a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources.”
I have and, occasionally, use Zotero. The qualification of “occasionally” marks my quibble that I don’t find Zotero necessarily “easy-to-use” — largely because its UI is so clunky, making some of its functionality almost impossible to discover — but the application does do what we now expect of such programs: we want to be able to record a reference (often by having the software take the notes for us just by pointing it at a URL or DOI), perhaps even download the PDF and keep track of it, allow us to make notes and keep track of them, and then work with colleagues near and far on a project.
Because I don’t find Zotero necessarily intuitive, I have in fact purchased and used BookEnds (which I was originally drawn to because I was using the outstanding word-processing software [Mellel]) and I have downloaded and played with [Mendeley]. The problem with any of these solutions is that they have, for the most part, not been taken up by a larger community, and, really, in the research business, the network effect matters a great deal. If you’re in the business of sharing knowledge, you need to be using what others are using. (It is for this reason, and only this reason, that a copy of Microsoft Word still resides on my computer, but I’m telling you, colleagues in the humanities, the sooner we embrace LaTeX, the better — I’ll have more to say about this soon.) Which is why I use Zotero at all.
And also why I found the list of, apparently European, alternative research managers so interesting. Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail:
* [Citavi], it turns out, is Windows-only. So, no.
* [Colwiz] seems to offer a one-stop shop for, well, practically everything. It says it can do all the standard things we now expect of reference managers, and it also offers task management. Much of the collaboration — sharing of documents and notes, assignment of tasks — seems to occur through the Colwiz cloud, which always struck me as Mendeley’s weakness as well. (More about this in a moment.) **UPDATE**: Colwiz is an Adobe Air application that requires you to sign in to run — when I cancelled sign in so that I could explore the app, the app itself quit. *Bad, Colwiz, bad!*
* [Qiqqa] bills itself as “PDF management software”, which seems rather old-fashioned at this point, but in addition to its ability to organize PDFs, it also has some AI that “reveals connections about, and between papers and concepts in a totally unique way” — I’m guessing some form of latent semantic mapping — as well as the ability to annotate PDFs, sync things to the cloud, and create bibliographies (but only in Word it seems). And, eh, Qiqqa is only available for Windows and Android. No Mac, no Linux. (And no iOS, since they bring up Android.)
Syncing across computers and now other kinds of devices (i.e., tablets), as well as across users within a group seems increasingly important to a wide range of researchers. Being in the midst of a collaborative research project myself, I find myself realizing how useful this ability to sync and share can be.
Again, it’s the network. (Tim O’Reilly has been [noting] this for many years now.) One of the things that hampered my investment in Mendeley was the reverse side of the network coin: whose network is it? Mendeley was marvelous for being free and quite usable, but the network, in the end, belonged to them. Zotero opens this up a bit, but they do have to find a way to pay for infrastructure, which is not really one’s social network, but the PDFs one accumulates, which Zotero wants to keep in its own infrastructure.
Leaving aside who owns the network, another dimension of these apps is that they are primarily focused on keeping materials in sync. While it’s true that I want my notes with me always. I don’t necessarily want to keep my PDFs with me. In fact, rarely do I want to keep all the PDFs I have downloaded with me. I am usually interested in a subset, which I would happily designate as “make available off-line” if I were given the opportunity.
What I really want is a library to which I have access. What I really want, in other words, is the original promise of the internet which we all imagined back in the nineties but which we seem to have forgotten in the intervening years.
In the mean time, I would settle for some system, a la iTunes’ “Cloud Match” that would allow me to get access to PDFs to which I have legal access. In that way, a server system need not be overloaded with everyone’s library. Annotations could, like any image management system, be manage and maintained by the user’s setup. This would, I think, significantly reduce the pricing of such services, of which I am shy, again because I have to be extremely conservative when it comes to my budget.
Were the NEH or the Mellon Foundation to make any additional investment in a cyberinfrastructure for the humanities, I think this is it. And it needs to be a national infrastructure. I trust and like the good folks at Zotero, but they are not a national body. It astonishes me that the NSF and Arxiv are two different infrastructures, though, for all I know, the NSF funds, or funded, Arxiv.
Of course, I have been making much the similar argument at the local level: that the university library is the new communications platform. I think other universities have made huge strides here, and I am glad for them. Perhaps I imagine a national infrastructure because that may very well be the only way I get into this game, but I also think that a national, or even international infrastructure (or federated national infrastructures), are the only way forward.
Research management is, I think, too important to be left to individual users to bear the time and cost of setting up and maintaining such things. The contemporary cohort of research management software has gone a long way in relieving researchers of the burden of such work, but in realizing the importance of networks, both for working across a range of devices but also a range of users, I think we have highlighted the real need for a thorough revision of the way we approach supporting a robust research infrastructure, one that is open, accessible, and affordable to anyone interested in making the investment.
My thanks, by the way, to [Tim O’Reilly] for being the one to bring all of this to my attention. One day, Mr. O’Reilly, I hope to work for you.
[quite a stir]: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2013/04/11/mendeley-elsevier.html
[Tim O’Reilly]: https://twitter.com/timoreilly/statuses/322755746456535040
[Why does one language succeed and another one fail?] To answer questions like this, Leo Meyerovich and Ari Rabkin are examining sociological aspects of programming language theory: what they call *socio-PLT*.
Every folklorist I know should listen to the Radio Lab short podcast entitled “Loop the Loop” which tells the story of Lincoln Beachey, a daredevil pilot who established many of the genres of air show acrobatics. More importantly, he is all but forgotten to history, except for his presence in a jump rope rhyme:
Lincoln Beachey had a little dream
To go up to Heaven in a flying machine
The machine broke down and down he fell
He thought he’d go to Heaven but he went to…
As is often the case, Radio Lab does good work here. If this podcast excited you, then you should also listen to their podcast on Tic-Tac-Toe where they first sent listeners to ask for the game by that name, and got few results, but when they sent listeners out to demonstrate the game, they found it was quite common. I plan to use this with my field research class as an example of being careful how you ask a question. (There’s a lot more to unpack there, but I think most of my folklore colleagues will get it.)
By the way, RadioLab people, if you are reading this, then you don’t always get it right. Your hosts completely blew it in the episode on talking to machines when they belittled the computer scientists for staying inside too much and not knowing enough about the “real world.” Hmmm. Sounds a lot like the pot calling the kettle black when you have your show narrated by two guys sitting in a sound booth. That is, we all have our moments when we spend too much time inside — be it rooms or just our heads — and when we need to get outside, whatever that outside may be.
I am working on the second section of the book, the one in which I try to introduce the various threads / ideas that I hope to weave together in thinking about the nature of creativity within the context of crawfish boats. If you’ve read the opening of the book, then you know where I leave off, and where I want to start in the next section, is with the image of the crawfish boat itself. I think I want to begin with some sort of analogy or metaphor that emphasizes the ingenuity and complexity of the thing. I have been comparing crawfish boats to a Rube Goldberg invention, but my friend Tom Mould kept reminding me that Goldberg’s machines were overly complex things that did simple things. That doesn’t apply to crawfish boats. (Or does it?)
Still, having a concrete image to put in front of a reader seemed appealing, and so I was casting about for a cartoonist or illustrator of sufficient renown that I could successfully allude to them in a paragraph or so and then move onto the work at hand. When my memory came up empty, I turned, like I often do, to Google. I searched for “fanciful machines” and “fanciful imagination” and a number of other phrases. At one point I used “imaginary machines” and near the top of the search results was a name that I should have recognized but didn’t: Agostino Ramelli.
Ramelli is best known for the book that has his name in the title, Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostino Ramelli, which is usually translated as The Various and Ingenious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli, but the main title can also be rendered as The Various Imaginary Machines. Published in 1588, the contains 195 engravings of various machines along with detailed descriptions of each one in both French and Italian. The book had enormous impact on the emergent field of mechanical engineering, and many of its plates would be copied into texts by other authors — a common practice at the time. (More on this in the medieval mini-renaissance in a moment.)
Why should I have recognized Ramelli’s name? Well, I used one one of his illustrations of one of his imaginary machines as the icon for my digital humanities seminar this semester:
Ramelli’s Book Wheel
So far, for me, my work on making and creativity exists mostly as a separate sphere from my work in the digital humanities. I trust — er, I hope — that the two will merge at some point in the not too distant future. This, at least, is the promise of network analysis in my own intellectual journey. In the mean time, here was a connection presenting itself to me. Hmmm, I thought to myself. I should get this book.
And so I headed over to Amazon, where I typed in “Ramelli machine” as a kind of shorthand that I was reasonably sure would return the book in the results. And it did. But it also returned some other titles:
- A Brief Illustrated History of Machines and Mechanisms (History of Mechanism and Machine Science) by Emilio Bautista Paz, Marco Ceccarelli, Javier Echávarri Otero and José Luis Muñoz Sanz
- Engineering and the Mind’s Eye by Eugene S. Ferguson
- One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw by Witold Rybczynski
Those were all very interesting books. Say, I own the last one; I’ve read it; and I plan to use it later in Genius Loci. What’s going on here?
What’s going on? When a path loops back on itself like this, the loop it forms has meaning. For now, I will call it affirmation that I am in the right place. (After all, a looped path returns you, in theory, to the same spot — coders will recognize that code loops don’t quite work like this, but I’m willing to bet the analogy only gets stronger in the case of code.)