January 2007

I’ve decided not to talk about my dissertation progress over here. I may discuss the content of my historical work (if I’m not too sick of it), but my musings on the dissertation process will be posted up at Dissertation Boot Camp; my this-is-how-many-words-I-wrote-today stuff can be found at garlic loves.

Many conferences, events and so forth on the horizon, in the Midwest and elsewhere (some threatening to disturb my writing by being just that interesting).  Say hello if you’re at:

2/8-2/9: Grantwriting for conservation projects, Midwest Art Conservation Center, Mpls Central Library

3/29-4/1:  OAH Annual Meeting, Mpls*

4/10-4/14:  Museums and the Web 2007, San Francisco**

4/27:  Minnesota Association of Museums Annual Meeting, St. Peter

6/??:  Minnesota Digital Library Annual Meeting, somewhere in Minnesota

9/10-9/14: Mountain-Plains Museums Assoc, Fargo***

See you there!

 *Check out the program!  There are some amazing public history sessions.  Also, I will have just finished my final diss draft, and will be very excited to be doing something else.

**On that same weekend are the meetings of the Midwest Junto for the History of Science in Iowa City and the National Council for Public History in Santa Fe!  What does my choice of conference say about my interests?  I guess it’s obvious.

 ***However, I might be out of the country in September, and thus would not be able to go.

I’d like to inform you, my dear handful of readers, about my current plans for finishing my dissertation, in the hopes that internet accountability will help it actually happen.

As suggested by my advisor, I am now on the 10-week dissertation completion or bust program (patent pending), aiming for a mid-May defense. I thus need to have a full draft to give to my readers in early April. This is scary, but not too scary, since I have okay drafts of every chapter. I have some deadline pressure, since my advisor is on sabbatical next year and will be travelling over the summer as well. The best incentive, of course, is to have the diss done and no longer looming malevolently over my life, as my characters might describe VD. The diss (or, as they said, ‘men’s diseases’), as they advertised hyperbolically, is an obstacle to future health and success.

The 10-week plan will keep me working very hard until the diss is finally done, which will come at the expense of many other things in my life, but (fear not!) not this blog, which I enjoy and is arguably useful for my professional writing. And, of course, Bill Turkel tagged me on the 5 things meme and I have brilliant ideas for my post (which involve–well, you’ll see).

Here’s the exact schedule of when I’ll turn things in to my advisor and committee. Feel free to write me and ask if I’m actually keeping up with it.

Chapter 3 (Chicago)–Feb 1st

Chapter 2 (Milwaukee)–Feb 14

Chapter 4 (Salvarsan)–Feb 28

Chapters 1 (performance) and 5 (masculinity)–Mar 20

Intro and conclusion–Mar 31

To readers–April 5

To committee–April 23

Defense–week of May 14

If you’re writing your dissertation, especially if you’re just starting, may I recommend the Dissertation Calculator from the University of Minnesota Libraries?  If you give it a start and end date, it generates milestones, which can be emailed to you.  It does include such stages as ‘getting closure,’ and doesn’t end with the defense.  Here’s a sample calculation using, roughly, my dates.  If you’re a methodical worker, this might be an accurate representation of the diss process, but for me it isn’t really.  I love the concept, but how can it be made more flexible?  It works well as a checklist, if not an accurate calendar of dissertation progress.

This bill was proposed last week in the Minnesota State Legislature. It says that all state documents should be produced or at least saved in an interoperable non-proprietary XML-based format. Very interesting, and definitely a help to folks archiving and preserving born digital materials. Are other state governments doing the same?

H.F. No. 176,  as introduced – 85th Legislative Session (2007-2008)   Posted on Jan 17, 2007

1.1A bill for an act

1.2relating to state government; establishing Preservation of State Documents Act;
1.3proposing coding for new law in Minnesota Statutes, chapter 16E.

1.6Effective July 1, 2008, all documents including text, spreadsheets, and presentations
1.7of the state of Minnesota shall be created, exchanged, maintained, and preserved in an
1.8open, XML-based file format, as specified by the chief information office of the state,
1.9that is:
1.10(1) interoperable among diverse internal and external platforms and applications;
1.11(2) fully published and available royalty-free;
1.12(3) implemented by multiple vendors; and
1.13(4) controlled by an open industry organization with a well-defined inclusive process
1.14for evolution of the standard. By that date, the state of Minnesota shall be able to accept
1.15all documents received in open document format for office applications and shall not
1.16migrate to a file format currently used by only one organization.

Wondering what’s going on in that blurry photo in my banner? 

It’s a photo from the hospital museum I work for, the HCMC History Museum.  It shows a librarian and children reading in the peds ward, 1938, in the old Minneapolis General Hospital.  I like the connections the photo makes:  books, hospitals, libraries, history.  It shows as well that storytelling and the written word have been and continue to be vital to the medical experience, for both patients and practitioners.

I love the tools developed by the SIMILE folks at MIT, open-source tools that make interoperability between data collections a key focus. They have lots of neat tools that are more meta, but two in particular could be very useful to off-the-shelf digital historians.

The first is the Timeline tool, which I’m planning to use in an upcoming project. It’s basically an API for visualizing historic events, but there’s nothing to download. All you need is to mark up your data in XML. It doesn’t need to be fancy XML either–you don’t need to have a super sophisticated DTD–or you can mark up the data as a JSON file. They even have a tool (Babel) for switching data formats, so you could dump data from a spreadsheet and turn it into a JSON file, and then feed that into the Timeline tool. And the timeline is pretty and it scrolls in a nice ajaxy fashion, quick and smooth. The developers compare it to google maps, and it seems similarly useful, except you don’t have to know any javascript or download a key. Why isn’t everyone using this? The other open-source timeline tools are a bit clunkier and not so user-friendly.*

The other tool is Exhibit:

Exhibit is a lightweight structured data publishing framework that lets you create web pages with support for sorting, filtering, and rich visualizations by writing only HTML and optionally some CSS and Javascript code.

It’s like Google Maps and Timeline, but for structured data normally published through database-backed web sites. Exhibit essentially removes the need for a database or a server side web application. Its Javascript-based engine makes it easy for everyone who has a little bit of knowledge of HTML and small data sets to share them with the world and let people easily interact with them.

This is terrific. Not only can you show your data as a timeline, you can organize and display it in any number of other ways, all helpfully discussed for you on the exhibit wiki and tutorials. And you don’t have to know anything about databases! This is a big hurdle for public historians with little resources in the way of money and time for web stuff, who probably know a bit of HTML but have no interest at all in learning mySQL or ASP or anything else.

I’m thinking that Exhibit would be a great and easy way for local historical societies to make their basic regional history data interactive. If they have nothing else in the way of data, local history museums and societies usually have a page on “History of ____ County,” usually a long, unformatted block of text (sometimes with paragraphs). With a little bit of data mining but no new research or writing, this could be turned into a neat web exhibit that will keep people on your page longer and inspire folks to learn more about local history! Good work, folks. I’d love to talk to local historical organizations that have been using these tools already.

Just a note: A Companion to Digital Humanities, an edited volume from 2004, is now online. Check it out. (via UIUC GSLIS)

*I’d also love to hear about other timeline tools!
**Update: Thanks to Sheila for telling me that the CHNM has a Flash timeline tool in beta.

Broken Bones

Today someone came down and donated some plastic bones to the museum, with breaks in them to help demonstrate where to put the clamps.  They’re sitting in a pile on my desk.  I love my job!

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