Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Whole Story, metadata and linking, and New Stories

Or, what I've learned from #28daysarenotenough.

In February and through March, I've continued my Internet gallop in search of one new thing each day about African American History.  It has been exciting and sobering.  Exciting with the pleasure of learning about a person new to me each day, sobering in realizing what a blank slate my mind was before the discovery.  After this experiment, which I must conclude at the end of March for this year because my Too Read list is staggeringly long and I want to try to do some deep reading and thinking about what I have found so far, I also have a new perspective on the need for metadata and deep linking across sites.

Let's talk about language for a moment.  In searching web sites, I would get different results if I searched "african american woman" vs. "black female."  Why is this important?  Well, think about how sources are tagged and described.  If there isn't a line of code or a linked descriptor/controlled vocabulary to bring like information together, the researcher has to _know_ and search in all possible ways.  If didn't know how to be flexible in my searching, I might not have found out about Jane Bolin, or activist Mary Church Terrell

The above is a fairly obvious example.  But what about more subtle or politically charged language? A tremendous resource for researching history is the Documenting The American South project from UNC-Chapel Hill.  This repository of texts provides the opportunity for unprecedented access to primary source material.  And not just access, organized access through browsing and searching. This repository provides a representative example of the tensions that come to bear on organizing information.  And though I have often found subject headings to be a very useful way of navigating a lot of content, I am finally able to fully grasp Sanford Berman's arguments about the Prejudices and Antipathies of applying LCSH's to people.  If you aren't well schooled in Berman's arguments, get yourself over to immediately.  Here's the example from DocSouth that has raised my awareness:

If you do a keyword search on "escape" in this repository, 18,000 results are generated.  If you search "fugitive" 5,560 results are retrieved.  However, there isn't a subject heading for Escaped Slaves.  The LCSH is Fugitive Slaves.  Think about the implications of the word "fugitive".  For an example of how the word was employed in the 19th Century, choose one of the entries under the subject heading to read.  You could begin with:

Life and Adventures of James Williams, a Fugitive Slave,
with a Full Description of the Underground Railroad printed in San Francisco in 1873.  The html copy is online at:

A scanned copy is available at:

After you read it, or even read just the table of contents and the summary, would you really think that "fugitive" is the best subject heading?  This is an incredible narrative on many levels:  Williams' story and how he tells it, the information he provides about other former slaves and their successful escapes, including his own work on the Underground Railroad.  His move to California, his jobs and his relationships.

This is the work that digital humanities can accomplish:  bringing forward and making accessible texts that complete the story, that will provide seekers with the broader narrative of American history beyond what gets into watered down textbooks and a few hours per week in "social studies."  I found the Williams narrative because I was looking for it, it has been digitized, and I was willing to look at formal subject headings that I now question.

I'm going to keep pursuing my #28daysarenotenough quest until the end of March.  I have been happily surrounding to the "search and click and mull" process to choose a person each morning in a ritual of reading and coffee drinking.  But I am willing to hand it off to you dear reader:  who are the people we should know?  Where can we read their works, see their art, hear their music? I challenge you to expand your to read list and share it with me.  I also ask:  How as librarians and archivists, publishers and teachers, are we building links to repositories that will result in researchers finding the information that they seek?

So, what's on my to read list as a result of this experiment?  Well, right now my neurons are being restructured and my heart broken and stitched together by T. Geronimo Johnson's Welcome to Braggsville.  It is making me want to go re-read Caucasia by Danzy Senna.  I have just finished March Book 2 by John Lewis, which activated that "what's the WHOLE story" question I have held in my mind ever since #Ferguson blew into my West Coast consciousness back in August.

Also on my list:  Professor Annette Gordon-Reed's Hemingses of Monticello, and James McGrath Morris' new book on journalist Ethel Lois Payne, Eye on the Struggle.

And what I'm most anxious to turn my complete attention to and I hope a savvy publisher will pick up on as well, the ongoing blog of 93 year old and National Park Ranger Betty Reid Soskin, go look:

I have learned from my #28daysarenotenough experience that I do have huge gaps in my knowledge about so many decades and regions and citizens of my country, but if I look and listen and ask and seek, those stories are available and more are coming forth each day.

I am most excited about the increase of new stories and the opportunity to participate in supporting their broader distribution.    If you want new stories, support them with your money and if you don't have money to spare support them with your time through signal boosting.  Here are two stories I can't wait to see on the big screen:

Ella Jenkins, First Lady of Children's Music:

Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl:


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