learning to cursive

Judith Thurman’s recent post at the New Yorker blog on cursive handwriting and the Declaration of Independence reminded me of something I wrote some time ago about my own experiences learning to write and read cursive. Reading it over now, I don’t think schoolkid me would have been sad to see schools decide not to teach cursive anymore.


One of my earliest memories is of being in a shopping cart. This is followed by a memory of being on the floor of a supermarket near a shopping cart, followed by a memory of being in the car, my right arm propped up against the door, on the way to the hospital where my arm was put in a cast.

I’d like to think that being right-handed and breaking my right arm when I was four is the reason handwriting was so difficult for me, but it’s more likely that I simply lacked a bit of coordination at that age. I also had trouble coloring inside the lines and cutting things with scissors along the lines. And I still don’t hold eating utensils correctly. For quite a while, long after the cast came off, I could grip a pencil only with the help of a triangular accessory, but eventually I got the hang of it.

I don’t remember how my printing looked originally; in third or fourth grade we got to cursive. I couldn’t do it. I was given extra worksheets designed to lead me into it: mostly practice with italicization, doing everything but connecting the letters. By fifth grade, when all written assignments had to be in cursive (for reasons completely and utterly unknown to me) I could manage it, but only painfully, slowly, with hideous letters. In junior high they didn’t care about cursive vs. printing: they just wanted writing. I went back to printing, but my printed handwriting had by then taken on the shape of italics. I still print in italics and I still can’t write decent cursive. In English, that is.

One of the things that worried me most about taking Russian before I got to the first day of my first class was learning a new alphabet. One of the things that worried me most about taking Russian after the first day of my first class was learning that Russian handwriting is pretty much all cursive. To my surprise, it turned out that I had little to worry about. My Russian cursive may not be native-writerly, but it is better than my English cursive and it took a lot less time to learn.

It is not uncommon for people working with handwritten documents to run into problems making out what the words say; it is especially difficult when you’re just starting out in research. In the fall term after I first took Russian I began reading 19th century correspondence in English; even worse, the first letters I read weren’t just handwritten, they were faded copies of letters in a letterpress copy book.

I know a number of people who’ve had similar experiences with old handwriting: taking 10, 20 minutes to read a page; wanting to give up; wondering if the 20th century is really the more interesting period; nearly fighting back tears (literally or metaphorically) to finish those first few pages. A fellow grad student a few years ago told me that upon coming across, in the handwritten meeting minutes of some organization in 19th century Germany, a discussion of whether or not to buy a typewriter, she immediately said to herself, sitting there in the archives: “Yes! Buy it, buy it now!”

I’ve sometimes described trying to read old handwriting as a cross between “Wheel of Fortune” and cryptography. If you can make out a few words initially you can use them to decipher the rest. If you know a word is “the”, for instance, you have an idea of what “t”, “h”, and “e” look like – although initial letters often look different than the same letters in the middle of a word. Get enough letters in other words and you can read those words; get enough words in a sentence and you can read the sentence, or most of it.

Proper nouns can be especially difficult; so can initial capitals. Signatures are probably the worst. Once, through the careful examination of m’s, o’s, and w’s in a group of letters written around the same time by the same author, I concluded that a word I’ve seen quoted in publications as “work” most likely is “Mark”: not the most earth-shattering revelation, I know.

As I struggled through those first few letters that day I realized I was running into an additional problem: I had become so accustomed from my summer language course to reading cursive as Russian that I was struggling with the English letters that look like Russian ones. (Example: “m” in Cyrillic script is transliterated as/sounds like “t” in English.) Realizing this, I went up to the main desk at the archives, got a piece of scratch paper, returned to my seat, and set about forming, for the first time since grade school, a cursive list of all the letters of the English alphabet – upper and lower case – which I could then turn to as a reference sheet.

“the library is itself their laboratory and museum”

From William Coolidge Lane, “The treatment of books according to the amount of their use” (1903):

(emphasis in the original; I have added paragraph breaks for readability)

The question then resolves itself into this: Can a scholar accomplish his work if he has to depend exclusively on bibliographies, the library catalogs, and selected standard works, to learn what material he ought to examine, and is not able to find the books themselves brought together into one or several specific places on the shelves — groups of books, that is to say, which he can run through in searching for his facts or evidence, and can easily recur to from time to time, groups of books in which he is almost sure to find volumes for which he would not have thought of asking, but which would prove to have value; while many others he can dismiss with a glance, though he would have felt obliged to send for them if he found them recorded in the catalog. No catalog record can take the place of a first-hand examination of the book, and it often happens that a moment’s glance at the book will show a trained bookman that there is nothing to his purpose there. The saving of time from this fact alone is an important item in any scholar’s daily work.

From a somewhat careful inquiry in regard to investigations lately in progress in the Harvard College Library, I am convinced that this direct personal access to a classified collection of all the material at hand is of the first importance if profitable work is to be accomplished.

From a description of some of these investigations, it will be seen that in many cases appropriate bibliographies do not exist to which the student may turn for information in regard to his sources. He is going over the ground, that is to say, for the first time, and is making his bibliography as he goes. In other cases the bibliographies which he can use are so extensive and record so much that is out of his reach that an enormous loss of time results simply from sifting out the comparatively small amount of material accessible to him.

The library catalog is of use in some cases. Its use should always supplement search by other means, but often the student’s inquiry is for specific points to be found only by searching through a series of general works, so that he cannot depend upon the catalog for the precise information which he requires.

In fact, the work of a philologist or a historian in searching for new facts or fresh evidence in regard to the subject of his inquiry may be properly compared to that of the naturalist searching in the field for his specimens. The naturalist cannot tell his assistant to go to such and such a stone in such a pasture and bring him from under it a particular beetle. He must himself search from stone to stone on the chance of finding what he wants, and in precisely the same way the literary worker searches from volume to volume for what he seeks. He knows the field in which his facts will be found, as the naturalist knows the habitat of his specimens, but can no more tell in advance in what volume he will find what he wants than the naturalist can foresee under what particular stone he will discover his beetle.

A physicist, to take another example, is studying certain unknown relations in electricity or sound. He refers to books in order to inform himself as to what others have already learned, that he may be guided by their results. His own work, however, is with the instruments of his laboratory, and his use of books is a supplementary matter.

A writer on economics, on the other hand, like the physicist, must know the results of others labors as recorded in books, but unlike him, books also form the main field of his investigation, for the facts which he seeks are for the most part to be found in print.

Scientists, who thus find the material of their studies in nature, and refer to books mainly for the records of previous discovery, often fail to recognize the fact that to the students of history, literature, philology, economics, etc. — to the students, that is to say, of human expression and accomplishment— books are themselves the very material of their study, and are not merely the record of what others have discovered before them (like the chemical journals and the transactions of scientific societies).

Books are, with architecture, sculpture, and painting the only tangible evidence of what men have been, and how they lived and expressed themselves. For the students of these subjects, the library is itself their laboratory and museum[*], and should be used in the same way that laboratories and museums are used by the scientists. Its resources should be as conveniently and systematically arranged as are the contents of the scientist’s workrooms. A museum that stored its birds, its insects, its fishes, and its reptiles packed indiscriminately together because they would thus occupy less room, or that expected an inquirer to know in advance on which specimens he would find a particular kind of parasite growing, would be as reasonably administered as a library in which a reader, seeking to trace out some special phenomenon in literary or social history, should be expected to know in advance in precisely what volumes he would find the evidence he sought.

Lane was Librarian of Harvard and was responding to Harvard President Charles W. Eliot’s suggestion that little-used library books be moved to a separate facility, to be built on less expensive land, where they could be shelved more densely–but where they could not be browsed directly. Readers would have to page these books at one of the central libraries; ideally, the books would then be delivered the following day.

As described in Kenneth Brough’s Scholar’s Workshop (1953), a study of the development of academic library services from the late 19th century to the early 1950s, Eliot’s plan sounds quite similar to what many academic libraries do today with their off-site and/or high density storage facilities. Eliot even advocated developing partnerships with other libraries to coordinate and share book storage; these sound quite a bit like the consortial arrangements that groups of libraries have developed in today’s world.

At the time, however, Eliot’s proposal was not adopted.** Lane undertook a survey of researchers and came to the conclusion that direct access to books was integral to certain fields of scholarship and needed to be preserved. He acknowledged, however, that other types of research would not be significantly affected by the proposed changes:

(again, I have broken this up for readability–this is part of one paragraph in the original)

A comparison of the above instances with the ordinary requests for advice and assistance constantly made at all library reference desks shows that there are two widely different ways of using a library. On the one hand, a man who desires to inform himself about some period or subject and is content to accept what some competent writer has published, consults one or two standard books on the subjects; these naturally suggest others and he follows them up if so disposed. For reading of this kind, access to a large collection is unimportant and may even be discouraging, and the elaborate equipment of a great reference library is quite unnecessary.

On the other hand, a man who undertakes to follow out some new line of inquiry, to establish relations between certain facts not hitherto studied in connection, and to draw fresh conclusions from what he learns, sets about his work in a very different way. So does one who attempts to collect from a wide range of sources, scattered and fragmentary references hitherto unnoticed on some specific subject, that he may thus add to the general sum of knowledge in regard to it. Nearly all the instances cited above are of this kind.

For such work, direct personal access to a well classified and abundant collection of books is the first requisite. To be deprived of it means at the very least a serious and unnecessary waste of time, and in many cases it altogether prevents the undertaking of the inquiry.

In fact, this liberty of access is itself of such primary importance that the question of a division of the library into books much used and books little used becomes a secondary question to be decided solely on the ground of practical convenience. A library may well find it convenient to place less used subjects, or the less used books on popular subjects, in a more distant part of the building, or even, when pressed by want of room, in a separate building, but it cannot afford to store them in such a way that scholars cannot themselves look them over and find them in an order convenient for such examination.

Writing at a time when just about the only way to read a book was to actually have it in front of you, Lane ultimately sided with a policy of open stacks, though he left the door open for building remote, but still browseable, facilities for little-used books. For the fields of research he identified as being heavily based on the types of sources found in libraries, some kind of direct access was considered essential.

Things have obviously changed quite a bit since Lane and Eliot’s time. I think it is still true that there are some disciplines that rely heavily on the kinds of materials one finds in libraries, though to be clear, I should point out that such sources can be found in lots of other places, such as archives or museums or, for that matter, in the possession of any institution, group, or individual that creates or collects (and also preserves).*** Browsing strategies remain important to these fields, but I think it’s a mistake to consider browsing synonymous with stack browsing.

Collections have grown past the point – indeed, they probably passed it years ago – where even a large research library could still provide open stacks for nearly everything it owns. Not just because of the expense and the extent of space needed, but also because increasingly materials are being created and stored in formats that simply cannot be browsed “physically” because they cannot be read directly by people: digital formats, of course, but also other forms of media (film, video, audio tape, and so on).

Moreover, there are now viable ways to gain access to the contents of books (and other sources) without actually having to hold the physical copies. You can browse in a browser. And even when you can’t get full-text, search engines, databases, and yes, even the much-maligned, often frustrating, but still valuable online library catalog can usually get you a lot farther than the old card catalog would. There are more ways of providing an “order convenient for…examination” than shelf arrangement.

Now, I don’t want to sound too technologically triumphant here. Is everything digitized? Of course not. Are there still barriers to digitizing and providing convenient electronic access to much of the material on the shelves of academic libraries? Yes.  Can stack browsing still be a useful way of finding new connections you might not otherwise have come across? Yes to that too. Does the physical object retain its importance? Certainly. We are living in a hybrid world, one that’s likely to last for quite a while.


*Given the terms of the analogy – naturalists and specimens – Lane was probably thinking of the museum here as a site of active research, not as an institution with mostly static collections. I don’t think this is a case of the library as “book museum” – although some of the other arguments Lane makes in the paper could be pushed in that direction.

**For a full discussion of the debate, see Brough, Scholar’s Workshop, 124-134. Lane wasn’t alone: the 1903 American Library Association conference hosted a panel – or what we’d now call a panel – on “The Treatment of Books According to the Amount of Their Use.” I found Lane’s paper, which appeared in the conference proceedings, by following a footnote in Brough.

***For a recent analysis of library- and record-based research, see Andrew Abbott’s papers here. It’s also worth noting that “conventional reading” is now only one of the ways to analyze such materials. There are also, to name just two broad categories, statistical and digital methods.

synthesizing the past

It was arranged for me to see Charles Beard, who was attending the American Historical Association’s 1935 convention in New York. Perched on the bed in his overheated room in the Hotel Pennsylvania, Beard poured forth his scorn for the pusillanimity and triviality of a historical scholarship that had lost all sense of its critical function in the civic realm. He gave me a formula for a fine scholarly career: “Choose a commodity, like tin, in some African colony. Write your first seminar paper on it. Write your thesis on it. Broaden it to another country or two and write a book on it. As you sink your mental life into it, your livelihood and an esteemed place in the halls of learning will be assured.”

-Carl Schorske, “A Life of Learning [pdf]” (the 1987 Charles Homer Haskins lecture)

Concerns about overspecialization in history are probably about as old as specialization itself. It would be easy to point to Carl Schorske’s 1935 conversation with Charles Beard quoted above and then to William Cronon’s recent column on the importance of synthetic, bigger picture history, then say something along the lines of “same as it ever was”, and then leave it at that. But just because overspecialization seems to be a persistent problem doesn’t mean that nothing can be done about it, and just because it seems to be a recurring problem doesn’t mean that it’s always of the same magnitude.

I could be mistaken, but I take Cronon’s title, “Breaking Apart, Putting Together” to be an implicit reference to the title of Thomas Bender’s “Wholes and Parts: The Need for Synthesis in American History” [JSTOR – paywalled] which was published just about 25 years ago. Writing after a couple of decades during which social history – which often involved intensive research on particular communities or social groups – had grown to become quite possibly the dominant form of American historical research, Bender urged historians to begin to synthesize this work into broader interpretations. For those historians who continued to write monographs – and Bender was not opposed to the monograph – Bender hoped that more of them would carry out their research with the possibility of future synthesis in mind: there’s not really a standard way of combining individual works of history, but it stands to reason that some works are more amenable to synthesis than others.

Bender’s article generated quite a bit of discussion at the time, not all of it positive:  some objected to the idea of synthesis, some objected to the particular kinds of synthesis Bender preferred. About a year after the article appeared, the Journal of American History published a special forum on synthesis, in which Bender defended his ideas against some of his critics [table of contents; articles paywalled].

Despite the criticism, the impression I got when I was reading up on this a few years ago was that Bender was not alone in his concerns, that other historians – and not just those who specialized in the United States – felt that there was a need to broaden the scope of individual historical works. Sometimes this was expressed more as a concern with fragmentation rather than with synthesis, per se, but I think those are two sides of the same coin.

In the intervening years, there does seem to have been an increase in the amount of synthetic work being produced, at least in American history. While you probably still will have a problem finding a recent, academic-ish survey of all of American history that is not actually a textbook – textbooks are a kind of synthesis, but not the kind Bender was writing about – there are now a fair number of surveys that cover particular periods of American history that build on recent research.

And course general surveys are not the only kind of synthesis there is. As Andrew Hartman has pointed out over on the U.S. Intellectual History blog, many works that focus on a particular topic or question also involve synthesizing other historians’ research on the same or related areas. Hartman’s examples are from intellectual history, but I can think of relatively recent works in political or social history, such as the history of voting or the history of marriage, that seem to qualify as both original and synthetic.

All of that said, I don’t really disagree with Cronon. I’m not a fan of setting up stark dichotomies as a rhetorical device and I don’t think, for reasons I’ve outlined above, that the situation is as bad for synthesis as it was in the mid-1980s, but I’m also a big fan of synthesis (and survey courses, for that matter). Since I think there could still be more of it I don’t really see a problem with arguing in favor of it.*

What I do wonder, though, is what relationship academic synthesis has to public interest in history, but that’s a subject for another post.


*Even though I think I’m personally still more comfortable doing close-to-the-sources monograph-style research.

different kinds of stacks

I’m taking a course in collection development/management and I’ve come to realize that I must be somewhat of an outlier as a library user. This is probably less true of the number of books I check out than of the variety of repository types I’ve used. Some libraries actually keep track of how many “heavy users” they have – this may be defined differently in different institutions, but a heavy user is probably someone who takes out more than 100 books in a year – and I’m reasonably certain that there are a fair number of people whose circulation statistics match or exceed mine. People in the humanistic fields tend to take out a lot of books. I take out a lot now, but I took out even more when I was full-time in history.*

What I wonder, though, is how common is it to make use of more than the central collections? That is, how many people are reaching into the little-used areas, especially the “storage” collections: off-site facilities, mainly, but some universities, including this one, have on-campus high-density automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) that serve much the same function as an off-site storage facility. (Generally, you request a book  from an ASRS through the online catalog or at the circulation desk, and then a machine retrieves it, usually within 10 minutes.) Every university I’ve had experience with as a library user has had a significant amount of the collection in a storage site; this is really not unusual for modern academic libraries.

What I think might be unusual, however, is how much I’ve used these collections. In Berkeley, I made a lot of requests from NRLF (the Northern Regional Library Facility), despite the fact that it could take a day or two for books to come in. Similarly, at UCLA, I’ve done the same with SRLF. In fact, I’ve actually gone to the SRLF building in person because it’s on the UCLA campus and if you actually come to the site, they will process your request in one day. (For complicated reasons, I couldn’t wait for the usual next-day delivery.) At Stanford, I made a lot of requests from their storage sites, and visited the on-campus “auxiliary library” at least once. And here at UBC, I’ve used the on-campus ASRS quite a bit. Even at the San Francisco Public Library, when I wasn’t really doing academic research but just using the library while I did an internship in SF, I found myself requesting materials from their “paging” desks, where staff retrieve books from non-public stacks within the building.

This has to be fairly unusual behavior among library users, to judge by my conversations with friends and colleagues. But how unusual is it? I should look into this.

*This is partly the result of my using pre-1923 ebooks nowadays, an option that wasn’t as widely available just five years ago. Although I did read Roderick Hudson entirely online in its serialized form in The Atlantic, available via the Making of America project back in 2007.

access to subjects

[Note: I started writing this as a comment on this post on “Bookworm and Library Search” over at Benjamin Schmidt’s Sapping Attention, but Blogger wouldn’t let me post it, probably for length reasons. Since my comment turned out to be mostly a standalone discussion and defense of subject headings, I figure I can post it here without causing too much confusion. I’ve added some context to make it clearer what I’m responding to, but it will probably make more sense if you read Schmidt’s post first.]

Summary: As I understand it, Bookworm is a new tool, still in an alpha/beta stage, for accessing and interacting with public domain books using both catalog data and full-text word data. As Schmidt describes it, Bookworm “straddles the space between something like Ngrams and the more traditional library catalog.” I’ve only played around with it just briefly and it looks pretty neat. My post below really has little to do with Bookworm itself.

Instead, I’ve used part of Schmidt’s post as a jumping off place to talk about subject headings and why I think they’re still useful in a full-text world. As an introduction to what Bookworm can do, Schmidt describes four ways of accessing books. The first two have their origins in the pre-digital era. First, subject headings:

1) Use the subject headings in a library card catalog.

Subject headings are the best resource for a particular topic, but a lot of the time they won’t work; your subject may not exist in the catalog, you may not know what it’s called, and librarians may not have assigned some relevant books to the subject heading you’re using.

As will become clear below, I think this is a too narrow way of characterizing subject searching/browsing; this is essentially all Schmidt writes about the method. I actually do quite a bit of subject browsing – when the catalog is set up in a way that makes it possible.

Next up:

2) Find one book in the stacks that you find interesting, and see what’s next to it on the shelves.

Since books in libraries are arranged on shelves according to a classification system (usually the Library of Congress or Dewey) that was designed to group similar books near each other, this is more or less another kind of browsing by subject. Schmidt covers this one pretty well; when I write about subjects below, I mean specifically subject headings, not classifications or call numbers, and even more specifically the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), which are the main ones in use in North American libraries, especially academic libraries.

Schmidt doesn’t think the development of electronic catalogs made much of a difference for these two search strategies. Summing up, he writes, “so, this is the pre-digitized library; even electronic card catalogs don’t change this balance in any important way.” You can probably guess by now that I’m going to argue that it did make a difference for how people can use subject headings.

Instead, Schmidt writes, the big change came with full-text access:

3) Search the full text of thousands of books for a word or phrase of interest.

For scholarly journals and newspapers, two fields where full-text search is older than for books, this is probably the most important way of finding texts. For most purposes, full-text search obliterates method (1) above; where before you had to find a subject vaguely connected to your interests, now you can identify your topic as precisely as you can describe it in language.

I’m not going to disagree with the view that full-text searching represents a huge change in how people can access works – how could I? – but I don’t think it “obliterates” many of the uses of subject searching. More on that below. My take is that at least for now and for books, subject searching and full-text searching work alongside each other. Journal articles and newspaper articles may be a different story; historically, these have been dealt with according to different indexing and cataloging techniques, and in some cases have not been given subject headings in any form. Length of a work can make a difference too, although the best full-text search designs try to account for this.

For completeness, I’m including Schmidt’s fourth method in this summary:

4) Organize the library according to your personal principles, and browse it from arbitrary points.

It’s worth your time to go over to his post and read about this; I don’t have much to say on this point, except to say that I’m all for it. To the extent that it ties in with what I say about subjects, I’m really just advocating for the continued use of subjects as an additional “arbitrary point” from which you can browse. As long as they exist and continue to be assigned to books, there’s value in making them available for people to use (or not) as they so choose when accessing library and book data.

And with that long, and I hope fair, introduction out of the way, here’s what I tried to post as a comment.


I’m looking forward to digging around in Bookworm, but at the risk of missing the larger point, I want to speak up for subject searching/browsing. Subject headings are by no means perfect, but I’ve found them quite useful. They don’t seem to get much support when I hear people talk about them (not too often, but it happens), so I feel obligated to defend them, or at least to point out additional ways to use them.

In the card era, which I remember but which was long enough ago that I never did much searching that way, you did indeed have to pick subjects ahead of time, hope they would work out, and go searching. But ideally a search would not be just a series of sequential [subject –> titles] lookups. What I remember being taught was that once you find a relevant book – maybe even a marginally relevant book – you should check its subjects and write down the ones you don’t already have. Indeed, if you already have a known book to start with, look that up first and begin building your subjects from there. Then you repeat this process until you think you’re done.

This is essentially the subject heading equivalent of your method 2) about classification. It’s more laborious, in that (I assume) this involved opening and re-opening a bunch of drawers in the catalog instead of being able to browse in a relatively confined area in the stacks — and then, of course, you would still have to take your list of books and go to the stacks. But it’s still a way of browsing relationally.

I must admit that I’m glad I never really did this with cards, but I’ve done and still do the electronic equivalent quite a lot. It’s not unusual for me to end up, starting from one “base” search and continuing through subjects, pulling books from two or three or more classification letters in the stacks (where I also browse the shelves). I haven’t found full-text searching to obliterate this but instead to augment it.* I could see developing a full-text search that attempts actual subject analysis and then tries to identify related works for a subject created on the fly, but raw relevance-ranked searches don’t really do that.

I also think the transition from cards to electronic catalog records did represent a fairly significant shift in how people could search library collections. In terms of subjects, it obviously made the strategies I described above a lot easier. Now you could put in a search – and this meant any (enabled) search: title, author, and so on, not just subject – and then pull out your next set(s) of subjects from the relevant results without having to physically traverse a bunch of card drawers. That’s not exactly revolutionary, but it was still an advance.

The big differences, to my mind, were the ability to browse subject hierarchies and the implementation of keyword searching. In the abstract, you could always browse the entirety of the Library of Congress Subject Headings by using the big printed (red) books of headings put out by the LOC – if your library had them in the reference collection. But there was no guarantee that your catalog would have the book(s) that correspond to a particular heading. The nice thing about subject browsing in the electronic catalog was that 1) you were looking at what your library held 2) you could look at the headings themselves without having to look at each particular (card) catalog record for each heading, and 3) you could more easily identify the hierarchies within the headings, which is the key to browsing. So now you could start with, say, “United States — Congress — History” and quickly see that you might also want “United States — Congress — History — Anecdotes” and “United States — Congress — House –History” and so on. (There are a lot of Congress and history headings.) And then you could call up the records for each heading right there in the catalog. This eventually got a bit easier on the web when you could simply click through to the results.

Furthermore, keyword searching meant that you no longer had to know the order of headings – there are rules to this, but most users aren’t going to know them – just the terms you’re looking for in the headings. So [United States Congress history] would lead you to the same subjects as [history United States Congress], and the results would include all subjects using those words in any order, not just the subjects that use only those words.

I suppose even that’s still not so revolutionary, but eventually keyword searching began to run across all catalog fields (as it does now): instead of having to run both a title keyword and a subject keyword search for the same terms, something I remember doing quite often, you could run one search and turn up all records that contained your terms anywhere in the record. A far cry from full-text search, sure, but still a major improvement in searching power. In a card catalog, you might have to deal with subject cards and author cards and title cards. (Have I mentioned I’m glad I did little with cards?)

Keyword searching did one more thing for subjects that I don’t think has gotten much attention and, to some people, might seem like just a curiosity: it made visible and searchable the subheadings that exist in LCSH that pretty much never show up as top-level headings.

The subheading “Homes and Haunts” is a fun example**: as of today, a subject keyword search in the Library of Congress catalog for “Homes and Haunts” (with the quotes) turns up 9853 headings, starting from A to beyond Z (i.e some use non-roman scripts). But not a single one of these uses a top-level subject of “Homes and Haunts.”*** This is because “Homes and Haunts” is one of a set of established headings that are used only to subdivide broader headings. Without the electronic catalog, it would be essentially impossible to track how it was being assigned across all subjects. Granted, I’ve never actually made this kind of heading a subject of research, but I find them sort of fascinating nonetheless. I’d love to see an analysis of which people’s homes and haunts have been considered subject-worthy and, by implication, book-worthy.

Unfortunately, my anecdotal impression is that subject headings are not widely valued and there seems to be a trend towards library catalog interfaces making it harder and harder to use them effectively. Whether this (if my impression is indeed correct) is by design or simply the byproduct of other changes, I don’t know, but it’s a big part of my motivation for writing such a long comment. (I don’t mean to pick on your post; it just seemed like a good jumping off point. I’ve been meaning to write about subject searching/browsing for a while.) I wholeheartedly support developing more and more sophisticated ways to access library collections, but I think it would be a shame if subject headings got left behind because no one worked out a way to maximize their potential usefulness.

*I’m sure I could get more proficient at full-text book searches, but I often find a frustrating amount of false positives when I do that kind of search on a large collection, and not being able to re-order a result set can drive me crazy.

**I owe this example to my dad, who worked in library automation during the transition from paper cards to electronic catalogs.

***The closest you get are:

Homer, Art–Homes and haunts–Ozark Mountains Region.

Homer–Homes and haunts–Greece.

Homer, Winslow, 1836-1910–Homes and haunts–Maine–Prouts Neck.

owned content

Generally, I wouldn’t consider a return to posting on my blog something worthy of announcement, but then I never expected to stop posting for over a year.* During that time I have gotten both busier academically and more involved in the world(s) of platform-based social media – specifically, facebook and twitter – and that’s taken away much of the time I would have had for the blog.

Since my growing dissatisfaction with those social media platforms (facebook in particular) is a big part of why I’m going to start blogging again, I’ll start this post with that.

I’ve been on both facebook and twitter since 2009, but never really made much use of them until last year. I was a late adopter on facebook; for various reasons, I had been actively not signing up. When I finally gave in, my first facebook update read:

“Am no longer completely avoiding facebook. Now I’m incompletely avoiding it.”

I did not post again for over a year. As for twitter, I’d read and posted sporadically from the time I signed up, but in the past six months I’ve finally started checking in and posting a bit more consistently.

In both cases, my increased usage came not from spending more time online, but from the growth of my own in-person social networks. I simply had met and gotten to know more people who were on twitter and facebook; it began to seem natural to spend more time there. Especially if I wanted to participate in some of the conversations that I knew were going on.

This is not to say that I’ve been using both services in the same way. Facebook for me tends to be more about literal “friend” relationships: I don’t run the apps that interact with other sites, don’t “like” or become a “fan” of organizations, and as a result pretty much everything I see comes from my friends – and most of that is simply stuff from everyday life. I also manage my privacy in ways that are more or less consistent with talking with groups of in-person friends.

I have some of that on twitter, but partly because of its public nature, and partly because of the asymmetry of follow/follower relationships I tend to use it more as a professional/academic/informational service. In fact, I originally signed up just because having an account made it easier to manage the “following” I was already doing via RSS (which I don’t think twitter supports anymore). Even though getting to know more people who happen to have twitter accounts was the big change that’s gotten me to use twitter more, the environment has always seemed a bit more distant to me, more like a public square. (I should add: I don’t see this as a bad thing.) This doesn’t mean I avoid all mentions of lunch or sandwiches, but it’s just never been a big part of how I tweet.

This may be why I’m generally more satisfied at the moment with twitter than with facebook, even though facebook is the more “social” (in the sense of socializing) place for me, as well as the service I’ve spent more time on. To lapse into cliche for a moment, I feel like I have a sense of what twitter is, and it is what it is. Twitter has stayed remarkably consistent over the years I’ve been on it, even down to the interface (for better or for worse). There have been a bunch of updates, but most of them have been aimed at making it easier to do the same things, or to pull some of those activities, like link shortening and photo posting, under twitter’s own umbrella, rather than leaving them to third party applications. But like the old twitter web interface, the new twitter has at its core a box at the top of the page for writing your tweets and a stream of posts below it.

After being a bit overwhelmed at first by the sheer volume of tweets, I’ve gotten used to just dipping into the stream when I get the chance, or checking at the end of the day and scrolling down for a bit, looking for interesting links and conversations. Sure, sometimes I wish there were better ways to follow threads of conversation that span more than two or three people, or I want to have a bit of extra space for a few more characters in my posts, but if I really want to write at length, there are other places for that.**

Facebook, on the other hand, I find both appealing and maddening; recent changes have tipped the scale towards maddening. On the plus side, it’s proven surprisingly effective as a place simply to “hang out” (even despite not being a google plus-style “hangout”), and it’s been great for maintaining contact with people I don’t see much in person anymore. The posts are capped at just enough characters (420) to make me feel like I can express something on many (but not all) occasions when I feel expressive, and they’ve done a good job integrating photos with the text boxes and links.

In fact, the photo handling, while not at the level of flickr or other photo-specific sites, is better than anything I’ve found on the (free) blogger and wordpress services. And the reciprocal nature of my “friend” relationships means I’m not just interacting with real people, but I can actually see that happening – whereas blogging sometimes has the feel of posting bills on a wall along a crowded street, even when I know people are reading (silently).

So what’s the problem? It’s not the advertising, which I actually don’t see a lot of. I don’t begrudge facebook the need to make money. It’s also not really the proprietary nature of the system: twitter has the same issue with respect to the underlying platform, though of course most tweets are publicly viewable to anyone. It’s not even the privacy issues; I’m not happy with the ways facebook has rolled out new features, but I recognize that the settings have gotten more precise and fine-grained over time. They’re probably more complicated than they need to be, so there’s a learning curve, but they seem to work for me.

No, the big issue for me is the lack of control you’re given over what you contribute to the site. (Again, twitter has this same issue, but the ways I limit my usage there mean I run into these frustrations less often.) This runs all the way from the initial composition of an update to the management of what’s already been posted.

I get that facebook has broken down many of the barriers that may have been keeping people off of the interactive web: anyone can post a link there and not have to worry about those “<a href>” tags or even the location of the “embed link” button in an editor. But sometimes I just want some fully-enabled html. Sure, there are some unicode workarounds for things like strikethrough, but it’s not easy to format text. Or say I want to post two links in one update: only one will be given facebook’s automatically-generated “preview” link. Sure, I can post the second link as a comment on the first, but that seems silly, and anyway, if more than a few comments get posted on that thread, facebook will automatically hide the one with link under a “see more” tag once it’s considered an “old” comment. And don’t even bother trying to post a link to match a particular word in an update: the lack of enabled html rules that out as well.

The result is that facebook (and again, twitter) is, from a page design perspective, pretty much a monotonous, homogeneous stream, with only the particulars of links, photos, and raw text changing among the mass of pre-set elements. Unlike blogs, or even e-mail, there is no title or header or subject line: there’s just a text box. I’m a fan of the bloggy rhetorical style that involves juxtaposing a title with a short bit of text in the body of the post (often containing a link); this is impossible on a platform like facebook. Long posts are possible, but only if they’re formed as so-called “notes,” which aren’t well-integrated with the rest of the system. And forget about using categories or tags.*** Bulk management of previous updates is essentially impossible: want to change the settings on a bunch of posts, or maybe delete them? You can do it, but you have to do it one at a time. Your best bet for searching for content is to scroll down a bunch of times to extend the page and then use ctrl-f (or its equivalents).

The recent changes are the last straw for me. As John Battelle writes, facebook is positioning itself to be even more of a storyteller: the words may be the users’ own, but the structure of the narrative and to a very real extent its main content will be up to the platform. This has long been true of the mysteriously-generated “top news” viewing option available on user’s facebook page, but until the re-design users had the alternative of selecting a “recent changes” option that provided, in reverse chronological order, everything they wanted to see from their friends. I never really understood how the top news worked: occasionally it would highlight for me some conversation I had missed on an older post on some friend’s wall, but most of the time it pushed to the top updates that the facebook algorithms must have deemed popular (whether or not they interested me) while burying other updates I wanted to see. I used the chronological option almost exclusively.

Now, apparently, everything a user sees on the front page is going to be like “top news” and it drives me crazy. On the reading side, I often have no idea why something has been pushed to the top of my page, and I end up missing things I want to see. Facebook offers a new option to mark stories in such a way that supposedly indicates that you want to see more like them, but there’s no explanation for how it determines similarity: if I mark something because it’s well-written, will it get filed as “about music” instead? Who knows?

I’ve noticed that facebook won’t even put some things I post on my own front page. (That is, I log in and go to facebook.com and I don’t see them, no matter how far I scroll down.) They do get posted to my profile (technically, my “wall”) in the same way as before, and some friends have reported seeing some of them on their front pages. But why should I share something if I don’t know that it will reach the people I’d like to share it with? How can I refer to the chronology of what I post if the lack of chronology in subsequent presentation means that my posts will appear out of order, if they appear at all for some friends? By taking control of the content this way, facebook has both weakened the bonds of reciprocity that have kept me on the site and stripped the platform of some of the few ways a user could express individuality through narrative. The system has  inched towards the model of posting bills along a crowded street – and the users can use only one type of printing press.

In claiming that this new Facebook will tell the “story of your life”, it’s like they took this passage from Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (hey, it’s an embedded link) as a model, not a warning (hey, it’s an enabled blockquote):

It is not, I apprehend, a healthy kind of mental occupation, to devote ourselves too exclusively to the study of individual men and women. If the person under examination be one’s self, the result is pretty certain to be diseased action of the heart, almost before we can snatch a second glance. Or, if we take the freedom to put a friend under our microscope, we thereby insulate him from many of his true relations, magnify his peculiarities, inevitably tear him into parts, and, of course, patch him very clumsily together again. What wonder, then, should we be frightened by the aspect of a monster, which, after all–though we can point to every feature of his deformity in the real personage–may be said to have been created mainly by ourselves!

So I’ve decided to re-exercise just a little bit of the control I used to have over my own personally-generated content and bring back this blog. It’s still on the wordpress.com free platform, which may make it a part of what Battelle is calling the dependent web, but it still offers far more flexibility than I’ve found on a micro-blogging platform. Maybe some day I’ll be ready to move onto my own domain. I’ve been considering it.

In the meantime, after thinking about it for a while, I just can’t delete my facebook account outright: I still like the in-the-moment social aspect, and I want to keep my network. But I’m reducing my own personal footprint: pulling photos and old posts, not signing up for any services that will share things that I don’t explicitly choose to share. Some of that data will no doubt live on behind the scenes, but I just don’t trust them enough to keep sharing more.

Anyway, I’ve gone on far too long here, probably as a reaction to being cooped up for so long in walled worlds with strict character limits. So I’ll just say that the “gotten busier” part of my year away from this blog to which I briefly referred above largely comes down to this:  I’ve decided to revive my history phd. I still have a couple of terms left on my archives and library degrees, which means that for the time being I’m working on three degrees at once. More on that later.

*If you’re looking at your RSS feeds and wondering where this post came from, hi! I hope this blog will continue to provide whatever it was that led you to subscribe in the first place, if you can remember that.

**In fact, I’m usually in danger of writing too much when given the chance. This post is probably a good example of that.

***You can “tag” people, but that’s more like identifying or notifying them; it’s not a subject system or taxonomy or anything like that.

Categorized as meta

“based on a true story” wasn’t enough

The makers of The Life of Emile Zola would like you to know that

This production has its basis in history. The historical basis, however, has been fictionized for the purposes of this picture and the names of many characters, many characters themselves, the story, incidents, and institutions, are fictitious. With the exception of known historical characters, whose actual names are herein used, no identification with actual persons, living or dead, is intended or should be inferred.

I wonder if their goal was to get certain historically-minded members of the audience time to walk out before they started complaining.


I don’t quite get this post by Atrios. He says he’s often skeptical of urban parks, which is understandable (depending on the park), but to judge by the link he provides, the places he’s talking about aren’t really parks. I’ve never seen Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway, but the picture here in the Boston Globe is not a picture of anything I’d call a park. It looks like a median strip in the middle of a wide and busy road – a street that might be called a “way”, perhaps, with some “green” in the middle.

Incidentally, unless other sections of the Greenway have wider “parklands”, I doubt the solutions proposed in that Globe article will do anything for the “park” even though they would probably benefit the neighborhood. But that pictured section is probably never going to be better than something to look at while driving by.

Categorized as the city

a system of signs

Sometimes, in the library, information seeks you.

Books on the hold shelf come wrapped in sheets of paper fastened with rubber bands. This is next to the self-checkout machine.

Self-checkout has its perils.

So do certain kinds of micro- readers. I think this is in front of a microcard reader. I’ve never used it; I guess it’s bad for the fiche. The back walls of the carrel are adorned with melted fiche, but I couldn’t get a good shot of them.

You have to be very careful when you use these machines. Smart thieves know to strike just when you’re leaning forward, nauseous, squinting at blurry text.

It wasn’t easy shooting these signs, especially since I was just messing around and not putting a lot of effort into it. As I said in an earlier post, I don’t really know how the camera works, so I don’t know why there were times when I’d click and it wouldn’t shoot any picture at all. I assume it had something to do with the ambient lighting; in a lot of places the overhead lights, or sun from the window, or reflections, or the contrast between the edge of the wall of a desk or carrel and the open space beyond, may have thrown off the “auto” feature. After clicking a bunch of times trying to capture that burglar sign and failing to get anything, I decided to test the camera by turning it so that it would catch only objects inside the carrel walls, and this is what I ended up with. It might be the best photo I have.

I don’t know why someone went to the trouble to create a pink insert with the word “pink” on it. All the other signs I’ve seen in the area read “GREEN” (which is covered up here); but so few people use these carrels as they’re intended I don’t even know what the actual tabs and flags look like. I don’t think I’d want to leave my books on an unlocked shelf.

That’s a typical-looking basement desk. The upper-floor desks look nicer, but there’s more graffiti. Here at a fifth floor desk, there’s no hiding the writing from the flash. I wonder if it came after the sign was put in.

This sixth-floor desk has no such sign and look what happened. I wonder if anyone knows what kind of citation style this is? I can’t figure out what’s so significant about Bush, 2007 and Obama, 2009.

Back in the basement, this appears to be the good cop/bad cop strategy applied to movable shelving instructions. Too bad they didn’t give that guy a word-bubble in comic sans.

This sign always cracks me up. There’s one near the computer group on the second floor too. Kids these days.

This last photo is from the other main library, the one I don’t go to very often because it doesn’t have as many social sciences and humanities books. That library is pretty boring, signage-wise, but there’s a great view from the stairwell. You just have to keep moving while you enjoy it. I had some trouble blocking the reflection on this one; it was another clear, well-lighted day today.

I would assume that if there were a fire, the people sitting in the stairwell would simply be the first to leave, but who am I to question a sign? In the real world, just as it is on the internet, the best arguments are made in ALL CAPS.

clarity is cold comfort

It’s just incredible to me that the temperature has fallen to near freezing tonight, and possibly will drop below that. Don’t get me wrong, even though I’m from the mildness of coastal California (the Bay Area, mainly), I’ve spent the last three winters on the east coast (not the Canadian one). Those winters, at their coldest, were much colder than just about any time I’ve been here except a brief clear cold period in early December – a clear cold that I welcomed, in fact. Though I must admit I was happy to drive through it and out of it and on down to California for the winter break.

No, what’s incredible to me is that I’m leaving for the summer, and when I do, the weather will have been more or less the same, on aggregate, from mid-October to late April. And by the same, I mean cold and overcast, cold and drizzly, cold and rainy, cold-but-not-as-cold and rainy, or even colder and clear. And this is the warm part of this country.