Tag Archives: databases

Review: Allan Holtz, American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide

Cover of Holt's "American Newspaper Comics"At $120 on Amazon, Allen Holtz’s 2012 American Newspaper Comics: Am Encyclopedic Reference Guide may well be the most expensive new book I’ve ever purchased. As someone who is working on a dissertation on early newspaper comics, however, it’s an invaluable resource, and worth every penny.

The book is the first of its kind: a well-researched guide to the publishing history of virtually every recurring comic strip or panel to have a run in a general-audience American newspaper, published with the imprimatur of a respected university press. This is no small task, however, and the book has the heft you might imagine: it’s over six hundred 8.5×11″ pages of pure text– that’s right, there are no illustrations. The price of reproducing images would have been prohibitive both in terms of the book’s size (it’s already a bit heavy to carry around) and its price. Instead, over three thousand example illustrations are packaged in a PDF on a CD-Rom that comes with the book.

While six-hundred-plus pages of pure text is not what one might expect from most books on comics, it works well: this is a reference book, straight up, with very little interpretation or editorializing. One doesn’t so much “read” this book, as one uses it. Illustrations, while they would certainly given the book visual appeal, would have only been distracting. It’s best to think of this volume as a database in print form. And thinking of it as such, this book is a pleasure to use.

Let’s say you were interested in finding information about “Musical Mose,” an early, short-lived strip that lampooned the notion of racial “passing” by “Krazy Kat” cartoonist George Herriman– himself a man of African-American decent who was passing, in certain circles, as white. Looking it up alphabetically, it’s on page 281, which takes you from “The Muggles” to “Mutt and Jeff.” Holtz’s approach is minimalist, but highly informative:

4409 • Musical Mose. Sunday strip. Running dates: Feb 16-Feb 23 1902. Creator: George Herriman. Syndicate: New York World. Notes: An earlier untitled strip featuring the same character, but named Sam, appeared on 1/19/1902. Sources: Ken Barker in StripScene #12 except 1/19/02 info from Cole Johnson.

George Herriman's "Musical Mose" was a strip about a black musician who constantly found himself, despite deft musicianship, unable to ingratiate himself to the ethnic immigrant audiences he played to. Herriman was himself of African-American decent.

George Herriman’s “Musical Mose” was a strip about a black musician who constantly found himself, despite deft musicianship, unable to ingratiate himself to the ethnic immigrant audiences he played to. Herriman is believed to himself  have been of African-American decent, and to have “passed” as white.

While we don’t get an exploration of the themes of the strip or how it reflects on Herriman’s own life story, we do get a lot of good data: given that it was a Sunday strip, we know that there are only three known episodes of “Musical Mose,” and have the dates to find them.

We know that the strip was by George Herriman, who fans of old comic strips would immediately associate with “Krazy Kat,” and possibly “The Dingbat Family,” a domestic comedy that “Krazy Kat” began as topper gags to. However, upon flipping to the (somewhat awkwardly titled) “Index of Credits,” the user will find thirty-eight different Herriman titles that can be found in the book, from the wonderfully titled “Major Ozone’s Fresh Air Crusade” to “Mutt and Jeff,” which we learn, flipping back to the entry for that strip, Italian comics historian Alberto Becattini asserts Herriman provided some ghost work and assists on.

Finally, by going to the invaluable “Index of Syndicates,” we can find other strips that ran in Pulitzer’s New York World, and by looking at those, we can find what strips were contemporary with “Mose.” Moving back and forth while exploring various cartoonists’ works, getting a feeling for various features syndicates’ preferred types of strips, etc., an interested researcher can definitely get lost in this book.

Holtz has established his knowledge of the field in his blog, Stripper’s Guide, for years, and the book has special characters next to any strip discussed in the blog, as well as one for strips represented in the illustration CD-ROM. His blog becomes a very valuable supporting resource, with more details about the topics of strips, biographies of cartoonists, and the like. I find myself using this book with my Nexus 7 tablet next to it, as I’m constantly wanting to see what else I can find. (The future of books isn’t e-books, it’s reading with a divice in the other hand…)

While it’s superbly well-researched and a pleasure to use, it is not without problems. Putting all the illustrations on a CD-ROM works well, but putting them all in a single PDF with no labels or metadata makes using the CD-Rom unnecessarily difficult. Holtz’s choosing to only include comics from general audience newspapers makes sense on one hand, as small trade papers and other marginal newspapers are not as well-documented or well-preserved, and had lower readership.

Mr Block was an anarcho-syndicalist IWW strip, where the eponymous main character represented the "block-headedness" of politically moderate AFL and CIO workers. Strips like these reached out to workers while making specific cultural claims about what was "common sense."

Mr Block was an anarcho-syndicalist IWW strip, where the eponymous main character represented the “block-headedness” of politically moderate AFL and CIO workers. Strips like these reached out to workers while making specific cultural claims about what was “common sense.”

However, the use of comic strips was an important way for more marginal presses like foreign langage newspapers and labor papers to try to integrate themselves into the mainstream. While the Spokane Industrial Worker wasn’t necessarily a mainstream paper, it was doing something specific by including the Mr. Block cartoons, and the book feels the poorer for their absence. (And one could argue that the Joe Hill song by the same name points to the strips cultural relevance, even if it was a limited-audience relevance.)

My biggest critique of the book isn’t so much a problem with the Holtz’s book itself as the inherent limitations of books generally. Books have some great qualities: they have long shelf lives, they’re not dependent on changing technical specifications, they can work with only ambient solar power (in other words, you can stand by a window and read), and they’re just generally extremely stable. And this is all good– indeed, I’m quite glad that this research was published in book form, as the research in it will be useful for scholars for years. However, this is all ongoing research. There are people– the author included– still constantly scouring old newspapers and microfilm for new finds.

Holtz has been working online for years now, and he is very open to the post-publication peer review that the internet does so well. In fact, at the end of the book’s conclusion, he includes his email address and mailing address, in case readers should have corrections, comments, feedback. And this trait makes me trust Holtz as a researcher. But unless this volume goes into multiple revised volumes over the years, oversights are going to be permanent.

Here’s one example that also points to the shortcomings of a physical book: Holtz was alerted to at least one more Musical Mose strip last year, clearly after the book had gone into editorial review but (I believe) before it was published. While on the internet an author can share this discovery with their audience and the record is improved, there’s no post-publication corrections for a physical book.

Is this a glaring inaccuracy in the book? No. It’s a single oversight, a single strip missed. There will inevitably be problems like this in any reference book so exhaustive. But it’s not nothing, either. This is a very early strip, thematically very important to some key biographical questions about the author– and George Herriman is one of the most universally artistically acclaimed newspaper comic artists in history. If Holtz’s blog ever goes down, some key information might be lost.

Again, I’m glad that this information was published as a book. I grew up reading comics collections and comics history reference guides at my local public library– that was one of the things that got me so interested in studying history. Libraries and comics researchers should definitely purchase this volume– no book is ever perfect, but this one is amazingly well-done. However, having said that, I can’t help but hope that the University of Michigan Press will see its way to producing a second, electronic volume of this book, one that could be periodically updated and available to research libraries and other institutions for a one-time fee or an affordable subscription rate. More scans of strips could be made available, especially early work that’s in the public domain. Holtz’s “Strippers Guide” columns could be linked within, as well as other bloggers or writers that he and the editorial staff might feel could contribute.

This is possibly the best reference book on comics history I have ever encountered, but an online comics reference database could do so many things that the book cannot.

Response to Matt MacArthur

In a comment on my most recent blog post, NMAH’s Matt MacArthur brought up a major and valid criticism of the enthusiasm of myself and others like me for open data initiatives:

Mike touches on an important point about what people actually *want* from the Smithsonian (and museums in general). I heard a very interesting presentation from the Powerhouse Museum in Australia recently. They have had their collection database available via download/API for a while now – they are leaders on this openness” front. What they have found is that while this is was a radical/exciting development among proponents who care about such things, in reality hardly anyone has made use of it. This is particularly true for the education audience, who they thought would be eager to use raw data in the ways that you mention. Instead, teachers and students continue to gravitate toward specific bits of content that support their curriculum, and the more traditional, mediated “online exhibit” type of material. Maybe this will change and it still may be an important avenue for the Smithsonian to pursue. But for now, the evidence available to me shows that the public demand to see a lot more of the Smithsonian’s “stuff” online along with reliable interpretation, and have some social functionality around that content, is much greater than the demand to “walk away with our stuff and do whatever they want with it.”

On the one hand, I can’t argue with this line of reasoning. First off, the people who will want to access raw data online is always going to be smaller than the number of people who will want to just look at it, consume it passively. Much like the number of people who use their computers to program, do complex modeling, or calculate is always going to be smaller than the number who use them for entertainment and communications.

Of course, some people say that the fact that most of us just play games, surf the net, and write email means that the personal computer is dead in the water and devices like the iPad are the future. What these people overlook is that the iPad is not a very good device for doing innovative programing or developing next-level software. If you want computers to keep developing on the software level, you need keyboards and processing power. Just because the majority could get by with an iPad-like device doesn’t mean we should stop producing PCs, or that we should stop producing them at a price point that keeps a low barrier to entry so that merit is more important than deep pockets in the long march to innovation.

The situation when it comes to digital archives and exhibitions is not that dissimilar. You want to give the majority of people what they want– if grandma is scared of computers, but comfortable with the iPad, by all means, get her an iPad!– but as long as doing so doesn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the more passive-consuming majority(1), you also need to be designing keeping in mind the innovators, the hackers, the bleeding-edge early adopters… in other words, you need to design for the developers, as well as the average consumer.

The audience may not be there, at least not at first. But these considerations have to be made from the beginning, to be incorporated into the heart of the code from the get-go, or else it’s going to be nearly impossible if the demand picks up. This is part of what makes the Smithsonian Commons such a awesome and ambitious project– it’s going to have to cobble things from the many different, often privately-contracted and sometimes proprietary CMSs and databases that the various museums of the Smithsonian system, and bring it all together into one place. This is no easy task because when the different projects were begun, they were not designed to interoperate.

It’s important, when beginning a project like the Smithsonian Commons, to design the project so that it is capable of maximum openness. It’s easier to nail some doors shut than it is to tear down walls.

Similarly, while the case of the Powerhouse Museum might be somewhat discouraging– all this great openness and nobody using it– the Powerhouse Museum is not the Smithsonian. No other museum is the Smithsonian. The SI is “the world’s largest museum complex and research organization,” according to the home page. The Smithsonian is large enough that, if the Commons is implemented well, it could counter this trend of disuse. The Smithsonian Commons could be a tipping point.

People won’t develop the tools if there’s not a potential audience for them. If the SI works with other museums like the Powerhouse to ensure interoperability and good data standards, it’s enough of a behemoth that the SI’s working on opening up might actually encourage development and use for the Powerhouse Museum. If people can design tools that allow you to digitally manipulate, analyze, and play with the combined collections of an entire international network of museums, suddenly you’re looking at something with enough potential use, and enough potential audience, that it might be worth doing.

I’m not saying this will happen necessarily, of course. I can’t predict the future. But I can see that the Smithsonian is uniquely positioned to help push this sort of thing into reality. I’d hate to see that opportunity squandered because of a lack of perceived interest.

It may well be that the average user will always be the casual browser, the person who wants to see the stuff, along with a little social functionality. But arguments of “demand” shouldn’t be applied to openness and APIs. There’s a moral argument to this, for institutions with a public service mission, but let’s look beyond that to a completely pragmatic view. With computers, “demand” isn’t a fixed quality. The world only needs so many eggs. With computers, however, demand is a constantly shifting value, because demand created by tools. And tools that can be developed by outsiders with little to no cost other than time can suddenly prove quite important.

Look at Twitter clients– when the website first launched, I doubt there was much perceivable demand for standalone programs that simply talked to a website that let you post SMS-sized messages on the web. But Twitter was created with an open and robust API, and clients emerged and multiplied. They’re key to the site’s success– I doubt I would keep using Twitter as much as I do if I always had to navigate back to and refresh the website. Making it an always-on part of my desktop makes it invaluable by comparison.

Fostering a dev community is a way to ensure a small but powerful group of passionate early adopters. It can bring new and unexpected functionalities to the project. And if people start building tools that take advantage of the Commons’s wide-open API and data standards, they may just come up with a cool tool that brings even more casual users even deeper into the project. Why bet on the fact that they won’t, and close the project off? Isn’t it better to hope they do and leave the possibility open?

Finally, I’d like to suggest that while I said it’s likely that casual users will always be the core of the user base, the numbers may be shifting. Google’s recent unveiling of their Android App Inventor points toward some of the folks with the deep pockets and the big brains actually investing time, money, and energy into lowering the barriers to application development in some interesting ways. If the Smithsonian Commons were interoperable with App Inventor, wouldn’t that be an amazing project for beginning students interested in software development, or the use of new media in traditional disciplines?

(1) The notion of the average visitor’s experience of museums– or experience of any form of media or spectacle for that matter– as being “passive” is one that I find deeply problematic, but that’s a matter for a different post.

Thoughts on the Smithsonian Commons

Reading the Smithsonian’s recent announcement of the debut of the Smithsonian Commons Prototype and playing around on that page has left me feeling rather ambivalent, with more questions than answers.

I like the impetus behind the project– it’s ambitious and well-intentioned. Integrating the Institution’s many web presences, putting them in an environment where the user has more control of how they use and experience it, allowing guests to collect and curate, themselves, rather than maintaining the position that curation is a rarefied activity best left to experts– these are commendable goals, and the Commons, if it lives up to the promises of the Prototype page, will deliver on these things. But part of me feels like it’s just… insufficient.

“Vast, findable, shareable, and free” is a great start. But it’s not enough. What is lacking is any definition of openness, or any commitment to a specific vision of what openness means.

The goal of the project seems to be an opening up of the Smithsonian to a wider public– and I think that’s a great goal. But I worry that where the prototype has currently settled is may be giving more lip service to the principle of openness than it is embracing what that principle entails. This is where I start to have a lot of questions.

The prototype page promises that the Commons represents a “dedicat[tion] to stimulating learning, creation, and innovation through open access to Smithsonian research, collections and communities.” And yet how open will that access truly be? In the four video use-cases presented by the prototype page, I see very little openness with data. I primarily see a more social approach to playing in the Smithsonian’s sandbox. Letting others play in your sandbox is definitely a step toward openness, but true openness is letting others walk away with your sand and do whatever they want with it.

To put it another way: “Screws better than glues.” Ownership is about the ability to alter, remake, use, remix, or hack. And you need to give your visitors data, not just let them see it. Being open with information in the digital age means not just allowing people to look at your books, but letting them walk away with a copy and seeing what they can do with it. Until that point, you’re not really being open. You’re just being transparent.

Openness is a moving target, of course. There’s “open” and then there’s open. And there are some indications that the project has the potential to be truly open. But they are somewhat ambiguous. In the use-case videos, two things are mentioned that give me hope that this could be a truly open project.

The first thing was that, in the video of the teacher, she is able to download her collection from the Smithsonian Commons and use it– in this case, by making a Powerpoint for her fourth-graders out of images of Teddy Roosevelt she has gathered. This is hardly particularly exciting– she could have done the same thing by mastering the elusive “left mouse click” technique. But is this all the download function will allow you to do, or is it just a failing of imagination on the part of this hypothetical teacher? I want to know– how much metadata will be downloaded when you use that download tool? What format will your data come in? Will it be a rich enough data set to let you really do something with it?

But second, and perhaps more excitingly, the Smithsonian Commons will have an API. Of course, that can mean a lot of things. Will this API be available to any developer who wants to incorporate Smithsonian resources into his or her own site, or is it an internal API that allows all the various SI museum sites and digital archives (which run on a variety of different CMSs) to interoperate and participate in the Commons? And if it is public– how expansive will it be? Some APIs are limited to highly specific functionalities, where others really let you get into the guts of the thing and really do something innovative. Which will this be?

People trust Google. Not everyone, of course, and as Jeff Jarvis has been pointing out a lot lately, a lot more Americans do than Europeans. But ultimately, it’s a trusted company. They have access to everything on my phone, my email, they have access to 98% of my search activity… Normally, I’d say that anyone who trusted a profit-driven company that much was either crazy or stupid. And yet I do it. Why?

There’s a couple things. One is openness. Even before the Data Liberation Front initiative, Google was fairly good about letting me export my data. I can take my ball and go home, because they let me own my data, even if they also own my data.

But the other one– the really big one– is their commitment to not being evil. The adoption of the motto “Don’t be evil” was a step toward the creation of a certain type of culture– one that was constantly asking certain fundamental questions when coming into new projects– What does it mean to be evil? Is this new project evil? Can it be used for evil? Do its implications for malfeasant use overwhelm its potential for good or convenience?

Openness, like I said, is a moving target. What the Smithsonian needs to do, in approaching this project which has the potential to be really revolutionary, is to work on creating a similar culture, one that is always questioning openness. What does it mean to be open? How open can we be, here? Is this project being executed in the most open way possible?

As a publicly supported institution, openness should be seen as a moral obligation, a key element of the SI’s mission. Public institutions need to see “open” as the default, not the exception. And yet, looking through the SI’s web and new media strategy wiki, I don’t see that sort of discussion going on. The adjective “open” is used a lot, but there’s not as much grappling with what it means, or what it implies.

I hope none of this comes off as negative toward the Smithsonian or toward the Smithsonian Commons project. I think it’s a great idea. As the Jefferson Library’s Eric Johnson has pointed out, in some ways, Smithsonian 2.0 is really getting back to the organizational structures of Smithsonian 0.2. Under Spencer Baird’s tenure, the Smithsonian’s collections grew exponentially because of the crowdsourcing of knowledge in the form of specimens sent in by amateurs and hobbyists. Moreover, many of those doing the curation and gatekeeping during this period were, likewise, not exactly formally trained. They learned by doing– on-the-job training that taught how museums work by forcing you to make a museum work.

It’s natural that some museum workers– like many in academia– will have resistances to openness. After all, museums and universities are the great organizers of Knowledge. Their identity is often contingent upon their reputation for being able to separate wisdom from hokum, to selectively place that seal of approval on the true and disavow the false. And years and years of schooling and job experience are invested in credentialing, in the creation of the trust necessary to make such pronouncements authoritative and accurate. Openness can be seen as threatening to this, with its non-hierarchical structures, armchair experts, and “wisdom of crowds.” Working toward a truly open model for a project like the Smithsonian Commons is, in some ways, going to be an uphill battle. But the first step of that battle has to be changing the discourse, actually forcing people to discuss, tease out, interrogate the principle of openness.

For the Smithsonian to move forward and remain relevant, not to mention for it to remain true to its mission as a public institution– it needs to take a hard look at these questions when beginning a project with as much potential as the Smithsonian Commons.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival began today. There is a quote from Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, under whose tenure at the SI the Folklife Festival began, that pertains just as much to the advent of the Smithsonian Commons as it does to the founding of the Festival: “Take the objects out of their cases and make them sing.”

The Smithsonian Commons is a project that could well have just that ability, to unbind the vast collective knowledge of the Smithsonian Institution and put it out there for the whole world to experience.

The question of openness can be reduced to this: you can take the objects out of their cases. But do you just want to put them in front of a worldwide public, or to put them in their hands?

Defining Digital Storytelling…

My Digital Storytelling class was asked to try to define “digital storytelling.” Below is my reply.

It seems to me like we’ve got one of those blind-men-and-an-elephant problems, here. I’ve been playing around with trying to come up with a working definition of “digital storytelling” for a couple days, now, and honestly, anything I can come up with is simultaneously:

  • So broad as to be meaningless.
  • Still far too restrictive.

This does not bode well for the prospect of coming up with anything that even resembles a “definitive answer” to the question of what “digital storytelling” is.

Which makes this class seem a bit amorphous.

The best I can come with is this: “Digital storytelling” is the use of digital (non-analog, usually computer-based) media to create (or suggest) a narrative (or set of narratives or narrative possibilities).

I could unpack that a little, but I’m afraid to do so too much, because the more you do, the more restrictive your definition becomes. So let me just sort of ramble about a couple of the implications of this.

The use of digital techniques alters older technologies by lowering barriers to use in both cost and necessity of technical skill. While techniques like sophisticated 3-d rendering are still prohibitively difficult for amateur users, digital photography, videography, sound recording, and image alteration have continued to get cheaper, faster, and easier. Looking at a the technological forces behind this, things like Moore’s Law, Rock’s Law, and Nielson’s Law all suggest that this pattern will continue. All things digital will continue to get faster, cheaper, easier, and better, as long as research and development continue.

Not only is this true with individual digitized media, but it is also true of the ability of computers to integrate various forms of media into a coherent whole. Digital technology continues to make it easier, faster, and cheaper to put together still and moving images, sounds, and written words, to combine them into new integrated wholes.

And just like the words and pictures of a comic strip, each of these elements gains something in combination with other elements– it’s a synergistic relationship. Looking at just the words or just the images of your average comic strip, you realize that either element is less meaningful when not interacting with the other. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. It’s the same thing with digital stories that incorporate multiple media.

While words, pictures, sound, and video are all clearly important building blocks for digital stories, it is important not to exclude the “natively digital” media that can be incorporated into digital storytelling projects– the two that spring immediately to mind are simulation and databases.

Both of these technologies present us with some of the most dramatic possibilities of digital storytelling: they do not necessarily follow– and indeed can be used to actively undermine– the traditional notions of narrativity we have from old media. Storytelling is no longer necessarily limited to a single beginning, middle, and end. Instead, creators have the ability to chart various paths that audiences can take, indeed– audiences are no longer limited to “passive” intake, but can actively guide their own user experience, taking the driver’s seat or even helping to build and extend the story itself.

Of course, audiences have never been particularly passive, and have always re-purposed, remixed, and reinterpreted the media they consume. The difference now is that we can construct stories that encourage or even force audiences to do just that. It can be built into the medium itself, now, rather than just being built into how humans consume stories.

The Early Comic Strip Archive, Part Two: Why a Database?

In my last post about building a digital comic strip archive, I tried to sketch out why I thought early comic strips would make a good subject for an Omeka-based archive. (I could have gone on for ages, but I’m trying to keep this brief– also the reason for breaking it up into installments…) This post is dedicated to looking at why a digital archive using Omeka would be an optimal format to explore the topic.

The best online projects are the ones that don’t try to mimic the functionality of any other medium– if your website could just as easily have been a book, you’re not adding much value by putting it online. I think an online database collecting early comic strips would be the optimal medium for such a project.

The primary advantage of an online database would be the ability to use multiple categories or tags as organizational tools. A single strip could be included in multiple categories. To take one example, a single strip from Harry Hershfield’s Abie the Agent, a strip about a European Jewish immigrant, a car salesman who was also vehemently and vocally opposed American involvement in what he described as “that Europel war.” One strip from this comic could be categorized according to the various newspapers that included it (it was notably more popular in urban costal cities, and not distributed to many middle-American small town newspapers), under King Features Syndicate, which distributed the strip, under the strip’s title, the cartoonist’s name, under “automobiles,” “Jewish characters,” “WWI”… the list goes on.

The ability to sort by a variety of means brings together the collection as a dynamic thing, a research tool in and of itself.

Omeka has two primary functions: collections management and exhibition. So far I’ve just been discussing the former. Now a few thoughts on the latter:

Once the collection has a substantial number of item/strips within it, I think it would be a great thing to have thematic essay/exhibits. An essay on the debate over neutrality during the Great War, accompanied by strips that reflect the debate. Another on issues of race and ethnicity in early comics. Another on the formal evolution of the medium, the gradual conventionalizing of things like word balloons, thought balloons, elements of visual storytelling, etc.

What makes these comics an invaluable tool for historical research is the multitude of voices, perspectives, and themes that they encompass. An online collection could highlight a variety of issues within this multitude, allowing visitors to follow their interests, rather than making some hierarchical linear narrative.

Comics history is an under-researched topic. Aside from the ghettoization of the medium itself, it’s commonly being assigned to the dustbin of kiddie fare and ephemera, what little attention the topic does receive is divided into several niche markets of interest. There’s the Nostalgists, the people who want to look at the history of comics fondly and rather uncritically. Then there’s the Cultural Historians, who want to look at the medium simply as a lens to broader social and cultural trends within society. Finally, you have the Artistic Formalists, who– inspired by the seminal works of Will Eisner, Scott McCloud, or Matt Madden, want to look at comics as an artistic medium, and to look at older comics as a window into the evolution of a symbolic system, an artistic code, a mechanism for storytelling.

All three approaches have merit.

All three approaches, however, also have pitfalls, blind spots, and difficulties. This fracturing of the already-small number of those interested in looking at this topic is a perpetual frustration to those of us who want to look at something approaching the bigger picture.

I think that an Early Comic Strip Archive could attract attention and use from all three groups, and that moreover, because the database format is well suited to multiple approaches, it could serve the additional function of bringing these three tribes closer together. Beyond this audience of enthusiasts, as I mentioned earlier, I think that an archive like this could be an invaluable resource to educators trying to make history more interesting to resistant or reluctant students. Comics have humor, visual appeal, and an ever-present iconoclasm that can make history more appealing to the same student who get bored with slogging through dry textbooks and memorizing dates and names.

Next: Potential Pitfalls and Possible Partners

The Early Comic Strip Archive: Part One

I’ve been trying to come up with a project that would be well-suited to Omeka. I want to learn to use it, want to give myself practice with it, play with the insides, see what I can do with it. I think I’ve come up with a decent idea.

I’m thinking about creating a digital archive of early newspaper comic strips.

Why Comic Strips?

A personal anecdote, before you dismiss the concept as purely self-indulgent: comics were what made me interested in history in the first place. I was a very visual kid. I loved drawing. And my hometown library had a decent collection of comics. But not too many of my favorites. After reading all the Garfield and Peanuts books in their collection, I started branching out. The library had a lot of “The year’s best editorial cartoons” collections. I started picking them up for the art. I kept reading them for the history. It was a unique window into times and topics I didn’t know too much about. The editorial cartoons led me to Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury and Walt Kelly’s Pogo. To this day, my view of the political history of the twentieth century is shaped, in part, by political cartoons.

Comics are a fascinating cultural artifact. They can give a lot of insight into a time. And they’re a good inroad into history for students who may otherwise be resistant. They add a visual element, humor, and a window into how ideas and events were being received within popular culture. They don’t give a single view– reading a comics page from, say, 1911 can give you a great insight into the debates of the time.

Because of my lifelong interest in comics, I decided to do a seminar paper a few years back on the ethnic and racial images in early Hearst newspapers’ comics pages. I found a surprising heterogeneity of topics, portrayals, and ideas. In the years leading into the US’s involvement in WWI, I found that while Hearst demanded his editors toe a party line of German sympathy and non-intervention, the comics page of the New York Journal was actually the site of a rather lively debate. Some strips came down firmly for intervention, and mocked neutrality. Others were firmly opposed to American involvement in a European war, strongly advocating isolationism. While Hearst is famous for supporting his cartoonists, he apparently also felt they were unimportant enough to be allowed a greater degree of freedom than many of his prose journalists.

Whether you trace ethnic images, political debates, class sympathies– the early comics page was one of the most multivocal sites in the newspaper business. And they drew readers. People sometimes picked their newspaper based on the inclusion of their favorite comic, just as others might choose to read a paper because it sympathized with their political beliefs.

And best of all, these early strips, from 1895-1932, are in the public domain.

Part Two: Why a Database?

…rethinking my entire take on the role of the librarian…

I just finished my MA last year at Umass Boston. My first year, I had a normal Teaching Assistantship.  It was fine.  But the next year, I had to hunt down an alternate source of funding.  I ended up getting an Assistantship through the library, working at the Reference desk.  It was, I hate to admit it, a FAR more educational experience than keeping attendance and marking papers.  I was, despite my lack of an MLS, basically working as a part-time reference librarian… although there was almost always a real reference librarian available on-call if I got in over my head.  Nevertheless, I got very acquainted with databases and systems I never would have otherwise– I now can find chemical abstracts over the Internet.  Why I would ever want to again, I can’t tell you, but I can do it.  I also know how to deal with business databases, and other systems I’ll never use again. 

But I liked it.  Actually, I even toyed with the idea of getting an MLS.  But there was something about the culture of libraries that I never got comfortable with.  One librarian, in the midst of a long conversation one slow Friday afternoon, helped me put my finger on it, very precisely.

I forget how we got on the topic, but we started talking about the role of libraries– what all should be kept, and what should be thrown out as detritus.  Coming from an American Studies department that valued Cultural Studies and Social History,  I was adamant that too much was being lost to the selections of archivists and librarians.  Too many voices are lost to the authority of the archives.  Who can judge what is going to be important 15, 20, or 100 years from now?  As I saw it then, the goal of libraries and archives, ideally at least, should be one of collection– collecting for both depth and breadth.  Collecting indiscriminately.  I was tired of finding so many topics I was interested in working on were things that no one had cared enough to keep and preserve.  It was then the goal of librarians, and especially reference librarians, to make these huge quantities of information navigable for patrons.

In contrast to my collection/preservation model, the librarian I was speaking to offered a completely different model– one that is taken from communications theorists of a generation ago, and which they borrowed by means of metaphor from electrical engineering.  He talked to me about signal-to-noise ratio.  He told me that the goal of a librarian was to be a custodian of information, constantly overhauling the collection in order to increase the amount of signal (usable information) and to try to eliminate noise (detritus, misinformation, things that lack scholarly value.)

I was aghast, and wondered how anyone would ever presume to know so much that they could understand exactly what would be of value to future scholarship, and what wouldn’t.  Any Historian who’s spent weeks trying to find information about someone who seemingly only exists in a single fascinating document will understand where I was coming from.  Today’s trash can be tomorrow’s treasure.

However, after reading this article, I’m starting to wonder if I wasn’t being a bit naive– or at least thinking in impossibly idealized terms.  Frankly, I’m starting to wonder if there’s not just too much information, and if that "custodian" model isn’t as outdated as I thought.  Looking at the sheer volume of information being produced in a single year, it seems an impossible task to keep it all. (Even when you discard the somewhat-misleading on data that is non-recorded, such as telephone conversations, in the report, the number is staggering.)

I mean sure, we can spider and scrape systems, we can come up with clever ideas to get people to provide tags for free, but ultimately, the methods we have of automating such things are always going to provide as many blind spots as moments of insight… or at least I’m afraid that’s the case.

I think H-Bot, for example, is a brilliant idea, but it sort of points toward the stupidity of computer intelligence… Here’s a little trick: ask H-Bot "When was Teddy Roosevelt president?"  And then ask it "When was Theodore Roosevelt president?"  You’ll find that Teddy was president in 1908, and Theodore was president in 1903.  Both answers are correct, in a fashion, but don’t give the whole story.  It’s all because of the very method of data-collection that H-Bot uses.* 

Don’t get me wrong, I know the thing’s just beta testing, and it’s not complete, and honestly, I still think it’s a cool project, and I’ve been playing with the thing since I found it last year.  But any mechanized data-collection, data-pooling, or data-mining software will always have these sorts of problems– they’re simple little machines, and cannot comprehend complexity.  Maybe, at least for the time being, we should keep on encouraging the librarians to throw some stuff out.


*– What this result does point to that’s very interesting is the different use of language at different points in that President’s career.  More web sites describe him as Theodore when focusing on the events of 1903 than any other year, whereas 1908 is the big year for Teddy.  It would be interesting to look at other variations on different presidential nicknames, and see what kinds of correlations you could find– do people describe them by their nicknames during good times, showing familiarity and comfort, or during bad times, showing derision and lack of respect?  It could be a fun thing to look in to…. (Although checking into that a bit, I discovered that H-Bot can’t find James Carter or William Jefferson Clinton, so the question might not be as easy to answer yet…)