About Lydia Fletcher

Aspiring librarian, occasional medievalist, full time nerd. Currently Science Librarian at UT-Austin!

Electronic Resources & Libraries 2013: Notes from “The Social Economy of Open Access”

This year I’m getting the amazing opportunity to attend Electronic Resources & Libraries conference for FREE by being a volunteer. (For any library students looking for a way to attend local conferences at reduced rates, ask the organizers about volunteering—not only is it a great way to get access to a conference, you also get a lot of great networking opportunities by working at, for example, the registration/information desk and meeting and greeting presenters or vendors.)

I’m also doing a lot of tweeting about the conference and engaging in conversations. ER&L is very active about promoting discussions and live tweetings through resources such as TweetChat (I’m in the #erl13 room). A lot of people seemed energized and excited about my quotes and musings about the session on “The Social Economy of Open Access,” so here are some of the notes I took this afternoon:

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The Accidental Science Librarian

I think of myself as being an “accidental” science librarian—for the past three years I’ve worked in health science and science libraries and I’ve fallen in love. It’s refreshing to look forward to going to work as much as I do (it’s why I decided to become a librarian in the first place, after all!), and I think that my time at the UT Physics, Math & Astronomy Library has been the absolute high point of my entire MSIS career. It’s really given me a chance to see all sides of academic science librarianship from collection management to eResources management to in-depth reference services to the day to day of managing library staff and performing basic circulation tasks.

When I interviewed for the PMA position, my now boss asked me why I wanted to work in a Physics, Math & Astronomy library with my medieval studies background. The answer is that I’ve always loved science topics, I’m just not as good with numbers and theories as I am with studying language and literature. When I was nine I went to Space Camp and I was determined to be an astronaut for most of my young life (along with a paleontologist, ballerina and Pepsi truck driver—I had a lot of big ambitions!), up until the point where I stopped getting any taller just below the minimum height for astronauts. Even as a literature student, for my non-medieval elective courses I gravitated towards history of medicine and science courses, and courses that talked about science in literature and science fiction. Part of my undergraduate thesis talked about Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe and the Kalendarium of Nicholas of Lynn.

My original plan at the UT iSchool was to focus on special collections, archives and preservation, but over my two years here and at the encouragement of my boss at PMA, I’ve drifted into seriously looking at science librarianship as a career possibility. To that end, my courses have split pretty evenly between special collections/preservation courses and courses that focus on data informatics, data curation and collection management. I’ve also become a member of the Special Libraries Association and their Physics, Astronomy and Math subdivision.

In particular, this semester I’m taking a course on science data informatics, which is focused on examining the information properties of scientific data, developing criteria to appraise the properties of scientific data sets, understanding the Semantic Web and the growing network of Linked Data, examining issues of long-term management of, and access to, scientific data, and endeavoring to write a semantically marked up and enhanced term paper about what we learn. Within the broad spectrum of science data, I’m looking in particular at astronomical data and how it is archived, preserved, and reused for new research projects—I’ve been lucky enough to talk with one of the computer scientists involved with the Hubble Legacy Archive and I’m working on setting up a time to talk with some of the UT particle physicists about how they archive their data.

As I’m looking into the job market, I find myself torn between these two competing enthusiasms and am trying to find ways to bridge the gap between them (librarian for a history of science-centric special collection, anyone?), but I’m also excited to be looking into positions that focus on working with science researchers to manage and archive their research data for long-term preservation. It’s an area I’ve wandered into without really noticing, but now that I’m here I’m excited to start making contributions and getting my hands dirty.

Bookmaking: Part Two!

This blog started out with the story of how I made my own manuscript book because after studying medieval manuscript and book creation methods in a classroom for my first master’s degree, I thought that actually putting some of them into practice would help me get a better appreciation for how to talk about books from a codicological standpoint. And it did! My little copy of part of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess really helped me understand the steps that books go through as they’re being made.

This semester I’m taking a course in the UT School of Information’s conservation department called “Treatment Techniques for Bound Materials,” and the first seven weeks of class have been devoted to making our own book from the ground up.

My bookbinder's toolkit.

My bookbinder’s toolkit.

It’s exciting work and I love every minute of it! I’ve uploaded pictures and information about the steps I’ve gone through to a Flickr album.

Our next portion of the class will be dedicated to rebinding books, particularly paperbacks that had especially cheap bindings. I’ve picked two of my favourite paperback books that are in serious need of a new binding: a copy of The Outlaw of Torn by Edgard Rice Burroughs that I bought for $2 and which is coming completely unglued from its current covering; and my first copy of Dumas’ Three Musketeers, which has been repaired with packing tape several times already. I’ve picked up some lovely papers for their news covers, and I’m excited to start working on them next week.

Wrapping Up My MSIS: My Capstone Project

As I’m closing in on my MSIS program at the UT School of Information (holy wow, has it really been two years already??), I’ve started working on the “capstone” professional experience project that is meant to bind up all the skills I’ve acquired over the past four semesters and bring them all together into one demonstrable project that I will complete over the course of this semester.

My project is to work with an archivist and medievalist in the Harry Ransom Center to catalogue and digitize part of the HRC’s Pforzheimer Manuscript Collection. The subset of the larger Pforzheimer collection that I’m working with is called the Bulstrode Newsletters. It is made up of a series of manuscript newsletters written between 1667 and 1688 from journalists in the London metropolitan area to several recipients. The newsletters represent the “correspondence journalism” of the time period: gentlemen living in the countryside or abroad could subscribe to a newsletter office for an annual fee and receive updates by letter from a journalist reporting current events in London as well as transcripts of speeches and presentations in Parliament.


The address of Sir Richard Bulstrode in Brussels and the wax seal from Edward Coleman’s office.

The collection that I’m working with is comprised of letters that were mostly sent to Sir Richard Bulstrode, an English diplomat and writer who fought in the English Civil War for the king and as part of the Prince of Wales’ horse. Bulstrode was implicated in two thefts in 1665 and fled to Bruges, where he was captured and imprisoned for two years. While in prison, Bulstrode converted to Roman Catholicism. In July 1674 he was appointed an agent for the English crown in Brussels and was knighted. Eventually he became James II’s ambassador to Brussels. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688 which resulted in the deposition of James II and the accession of William and Mary, Bulstrode remained in Brussels and continued to work as a loyal agent of James II.

IMG_1901Most of the letters in the collection were sent by a newsletter office run by Sir Joseph Williamson, the Secretary of State. Williamson’s newsletter office was highly regulated and almost acted as a propaganda outlet for the state, with a moderated system meant to keep certain aspects of government out of the eyes of the citizenry. However, part of the Bulstrode collection includes letter that were sent by Edward Coleman, the secretary of the Duchess of York. Coleman was convicted of being part of a Catholic plot to kill the king and the only evidence that exists that Coleman the traitor and Coleman the newsletter-writer were one and the same person is in our collection in the form of a note asking Bulstrode to send return letters via the Duchess of York’s house in London.

The letters as a whole deal with day-to-day events at the British court and in Parliament, but there are some other rich tidbits related to the activities of other countries (particularly France) and sensational or unusual trials. One of my favourite letters talks about how “disappointed” the French were after one of their warehouses of supplies for their war in Sicily was burned down.IMG_1470

My capstone project is going to involve a lot of the things I’ve learned at the UT iSchool: cataloguing, digitization, metadata standards, digital collection management, and good old research and reference work. I’ll produce a finding aid for the Bulstrode Newsletters, oversee the digitization of the letters by HRC digitization technicians, create rich descriptive metadata for the digital assets and encode transcriptions for the first 300 letters. It’s an exciting project and I’m really happy to have the opportunity to work with such a rich source of historic information.

I’ve already finished the first two steps of the project, which were to survey every letter and make sure that we had everything that we thought we had. The list of letters was based on a microfilm version that was produced about ten years ago, but it turned out we had almost 50 letters that weren’t part of the microfilm collection.


A “before” look at the way the letters were stored, leaving them to bend inside their boxes.

The collection was also horribly out of order—the letters are often dated in English Old Style dating, where new years start on March 26th instead of January 1st. Because of that, many of the letters were out of order and I had to sort through them all and make sure that they were presented chronologically. I also rehoused all of the letters into new archival folders and document boxes with stiff supports to try and reduce the amount of bending and curving stressors put on the manuscripts. Previously the letters were stored in 3-4 folders per document box—now there are 12-13 folders per box with 20-25 letters per folder. This is great from a conservation standpoint because it reduces the risk of tearing or other physical damages to the delicate paper pages. It was remarkably zen work.

Phase three of my project is to create the rich metadata for each letter before the records are imported from the current SQL database into ContentDM. Each letter needs a title, description, date, place, and other important descriptive information attached to its record before the digitization can commence. I’ve finished one box and most of a second, which puts me about one third of the way through the entire collection. It’s slow going and after about four hours of working on it I start to go a bit loopy, but it’s important work and I’ll feel satisfied to know that when everything goes into ContentDM later it will greatly improve the search-ability and discover-ability of the collection.

And after! All nice and tidy and securely supported.

The Folger Shakespeare Library also has a collection of newsletters written by Sir Joseph Williamson’s office called the Newdigate Letters. My supervisor at the Ransom Center and I are both hoping that I can find a grant and some time to make it to the Folger this summer and do a little extra work to compare their letters to ours. There’s many great opportunities for mining these letters for new insights for historians of the seventeenth century, and I hope to find a way to raise awareness of the collection and help researches navigate it.

Oppa Data Style: Using Data to Track the Popularity of PSY

Every once in a while I get the opportunity to write about something for class credit that I passionately love in my non-academic life.  Previously this has meant getting to write about the works of Alexandre Dumas for my senior seminar on Robin Hood literature or talking about how video games incorporate medievalisms in new and interesting ways, but sometimes this means getting to write about things that are really esoteric like the viral video sensation “Gangnam Style” by the South Korean pop artist PSY.  I got this weird and wonderful chance today when The Economist published an article examining the data behind “Gangnam Style”s viewer data on YouTube, which makes it prime material for a blog post for the Digital Curation class I mentioned in my last post.  And because I think this is one of the most fun things I’ve ever written (and I’m still stunned and delighted that I got to talk about “Gangnam Style” for class), I’m going to archive it here for posterity.

Soon there will be a blog post about the amazing experience I had at the International Seminar on the Care and Conservation of Manuscripts in Copenhagen last week, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around all the amazing things I saw and heard there, so in the mean time please enjoy:

On July 15, 2012, the South Korean pop singer PSY released his sixth studio album with the song “Gangnam Style” as its first single. By September, the official video released on Youtube was averaging almost 10 million views per day and the related Gangnam Style mania was being covered and analyzed by a variety of mainstream news outlets, including The Wall Street Journal (as previous linked) and The Guardian (“What’s so funny about Gangnam Style?”). The South Korean pop song spawned a huge number of parodies (as of writing, YouTube returned over 16,500 hits for the search phrase “gangnam style parody”) with parody topics ranging from “UMD Library Style” to “Klingon Style” to “Deadpool Style” (for even more Gangnam-related videos, check out The Week‘s “Gangnam Style: the 11 best parodies of the viral video” and The Wall Street Journal‘s “5 Must-See Gangnam Style Response Videos”).

Needless to say, the overwhelming response of the American public to a South Korean pop song about a district of Seoul very few Americans could probably find on a map has been unprecedented even in the era of YouTube-to-famous viral music videos (by contrast, Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video had earned 144 million videos during its first initial storm of popularity while the official PSY music video on YouTube has over 531 million views at the time of writing). The sensational storm caused by the video has necessarily meant that a great deal of attention and thought has been directed to understanding the phenomenal popularity of the song and its singer, and that’s where the data comes in.

In “The data behind Gangnam Style: the rise and rise of PSY,” writers at The Economist take a look at the data surrounding the video’s popularity and discover that Gangnam Style isn’t “a flash in the pan.” The writers break down the video’s 531+ million views as “At roughly four minutes of video, that amounts to 36m hours of phantom horseback-riding dance moves, which equates to 4,100 continuous years.” This may make Gangnam Style the most popular and influential viral video yet.

But who’s watching it? The Economist‘s writers identify the “top demographic category of fans” as “girls aged 13 to 17, followed by boys of the same ages and then young men 18 to 24.” However, this raw data only tells part of the story since some of the most popular spin-off videos are produced by people outside these key demographics and since it would seem to indicate that enjoyment of Gangnam Style is restricted to the young and predominantly male—as the article points out, however, figures from outside these key demographics such as Ban Ki Moon are showing off their style moves.

Another article by SPIN (“How Did PSY’s Gangnam Style Become the No. 1 Rap Song in the Country?”) blame Billboard’s antiquated and “useless” chart methodology for not accounting for digital downloads and other metrics in the way they (previously, it has recently been changed) determine what songs are the most popular, which were previously only determined by radio airplay data.

In the end, however, I think that while the data collected by The Economist and others will be important to researchers hundreds of years from now who will chart the inexorable spread of Gangnam Style’s influence in world culture, I don’t think raw (or even analyzed) data is ever going to be able to tell the whole story of exactly why this weird and wonderful video has so effectively captured the hearts and imaginations of so many people around the world.

For more in-depth analysis of Gangnam Style and the culture and artist that created it, The Atlantic‘s “Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea’s Music Video Sensation” is an exceptionally interesting read.

New Frontiers in Journalism: the Development of the Guardian’s “Data Journalism”

One of the classes I’m taking this semester seems likely to push me outside my “comfort zone” of book history studies and “traditional” library skills like cataloguing.  It’s called “Digital Curation” and it focuses on the active and on-going management of digital artifacts through their lifecycle, particularly by maintaining and adding value to a trusted body of digital information for current and future use.  I initially signed up for it because I thought it would complement my class on Digitisation, which is a practical course teaching both technical digitisation skills and digitisation project management (including grant-writing, something I am really looking forward to!), but after working through the readings and assignments on “big data” management this week, I’m also excited about the class because of the emphasis on data collection, analysis and visualisation.

As part of the class, we have to write blog posts each week on a topic related to this week’s readings, and this week I got to talk about one of my favourite websites, the Guardian’s Datablog, so I thought I would repost the text of it here:

In August 2011, London experienced some of the worst rioting it had seen in a generation.  Following the shooting of a young man in north London, the rioting spread across the city and to other areas of England over the course of four days.  To learn more about the events and timeline of the riots, the BBC maintains this excellent website with archived BBC coverage of the riots.

In the wake of the riots, the Guardian newspaper’s online editors undertook a massive collection of data generated by the rioters and victims of the rioters’ activities, and began to analyse it in cooperation with the London School of Economics.  They began collecting data by sending teams of online journalists to the London courts to document the public information related to each rioter that was arrested and charged with an offense: name, occupation, home address, crime committed.  They also began collecting data publicly available through social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook and publishing their findings as part of their (then) new Guardian Datablog and, eventually, as its own collection of articles and analysis: Reading the Riots.

By doing deep analysis of the data they collected, the researchers at the London School of Economics and editors and journalists at the Guardian were able to eventually begin drawing broad conclusions on the social and economic factors that contributed to the widespread and violent nature of the London riots, but the development of Reading the Riots also contributed to the Guardian’s realization that large data sets can make good journalism and led to the establishing of the Guardian’s Data Journalism site and creation of the Guardian Datastore, a webscale repository of journalistic data collected or curated by the Guardian.  Much like using Twitter to track the cholera epidemic in Haiti, data journalism tracks trends in data generated by social media to create analysis and visualisations related to major world events, such as the Olympics or public elections.

But is the Guardian’s capitalization on data collection and analysis as forward-thinking as all that?  It certainly sets them apart from other traditional newspaper companies in Britain, such as the Times, but does it presage a sea change in journalism as we know it?  Is data analysis “real” journalism, and do the articles produced by the Guardian’s Datablog deserve to be on the front page of the website?

Medieval Manuscripts Fragments as Binding Materials, a New Project at the Harry Ransom Center

A medieval manuscript text used as the binding material of a 1561 copy of Aesop’s Fables. Image from the Ransom Center Fragments Project’s Flickr.

Medieval and early modern people were great re-users.  The concept of processing used materials into new products to prevent the waste of expensive materials wasn’t an unusual or extraordinary idea to them: times were tough and in the business of manuscripts and books, materials were expensive and could be hard to come by.  There wasn’t a sense of uniqueness or the desperate need to preserve for future generations, as there is today, so parchment manuscripts that we might consider priceless today were scraped clean to have new manuscripts written upon them.

As horrifying as it sounds to us postmodern peoples, for whom any scrap of medieval manuscript text has enormous value, in the early modern period medieval parchment manuscripts were unbound, sliced, diced, chopped, and julienned to be re-used in the bindings of newer, “better” printed books.  Parchment was an ideal material for strengthening a book’s spine as a liner, or for use as an easy, cheap cover or endpaper.  Indeed, some scholars believe it was common practice to dismantle a manuscript book into such “manuscript waste” fragments once the book had been set out in type and printed.  We can be thankful the Winchester Malory manuscript of Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur did not meet this fate, as it spent several years sitting around William Caxton’s printing shop while he worked on his printed edition.

Since the practice of using and re-using manuscript waste was so prevalent, it’s not all that surprising to find bits and pieces of medieval manuscripts tucked into early modern books held by research libraries around the world, and it seems like cataloguing, describing, digitizing and exhibiting such finds is becoming more and more popular: two years ago, the Yale Law Library created an exhibit around 150 medieval manuscript fragments in early modern law books in their collections, called Reused, Rebound, Recovered: Medieval Manuscript Fragments in Law Book Bindings.

Closer to home (and my heart), the Harry Ransom Center is beginning a project of cataloguing, describing, and digitizing the medieval manuscript fragments in their collections.  Conducted by Micah Erwin (who recently discovered the impression of a pair of medieval spectacles on such a fragment, as I mentioned here on my blog), the project aims to survey the fragments and share  knowledge and awareness of them with other medieval manuscript scholars and librarians:

The Harry Ransom Center’s on going project to survey manuscript waste in their book collections. It is managed by Micah Erwin, Project Archivist, and supervised by Joan Sibley, Senior Archivist in the Archives and Visual Materials Cataloging Department.  The Harry Ransom Center is currently conducting a survey of medieval manuscript fragments and binder’s waste found in the Book Collection. We are posting low resolution images of some of these fragments on Flickr and Facebook to share with others. We would be grateful for any comments and/or additional information that you would like to contribute about these items.

It’s an exciting project to me, personally, as it draws on both my love of medieval manuscripts and my dream of using the resources made available to scholars and librarians by social media sites such as Flickr and Facebook to connect researchers to materials so that knowledge and understanding can grow out of such connections.  It’s the perfect example of my idea of book archaeology in the digital age!  By working collaboratively to identify the fragments, we can possibly learn more about early modern bookbinders and the spread of early modern books.

The first step, of course, is getting awareness of the project out there, and that’s what I’m hoping to help with!  Please consider liking the project’s Facebook page and sharing it on your timeline, or tweeting and retweeting the link to the project’s Flickr page!

The Kraus Maps Database Project

In addition to my job at the Physics, Maths & Astronomy Library at UT, I’ve spent my first year of library school volunteering at the Harry Ransom Center (HRC) completing a “boutique” digitization project to make images of the Kraus Map Collection available online.  The database’s website is up and running now, so you can all see the maps and globes here.

The Kraus Maps Collection features a wide range of individual maps of Europe and America, a few atlases, and a group of manuscript letters by Abraham Ortelius, as well as celestial and terrestrial globes by Vincenzo Coronelli and a 1541 Mercator globe.  The maps are all stunningly beautiful, and every detail can be seen in the zoomable viewers.  My favourite part of the project was being taken through the HRC stacks to see some of the maps in person—the c. 1610 manuscript map of Virginia is thrilling to behold, but my personal favourite was seeing the 1472 printing of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae with its beautiful T-shaped world map, the first printed map of the world anywhere.

My role in the project was very small: I standardized the print and digital metadata and entered all of it into the database; I made minor image edits to remove colour bars from the scanned images; and I copyedited the text of the 1969 Catalogue 124: Monumenta Cartographica from the New York antiquarian dealer Hans P. Kraus for inclusion in the database as short “notes.”

Even though I didn’t have a hand in the initial planning, ditigization, or database creation, my work on the project gave me a lot of insight into what the “tail” of a digitization project involves.  I got to see the librarian managing the project discuss databse build problems with the systems librarian and hear anecdotes about the planning, permission and staffing problems the project had encountered.  This experience has fed into my awareness of how important digitization and digital humanities projects are for special collections and rare books librarians, and will help me as I begin to think about what I want to do in these areas as I plan my master’s capstone project experience.

Another amazing post about how rare books librarians and scholars are using new technologies to collaboratively discuss rare books and on why we should continue to do so.

Quote That: Positivity Edition

From Quote That: Positivity Edition:

Libraries as band aids may be obsolete, but that is not why we need libraries. We need libraries so we can fix our education system, so we can fix our economy, so we can fix our democracies yes. But we need libraries even more to discover new knowledge not found in any textbook. We need libraries to create whole new opportunities for innovation. We need libraries to give our communities a voice and power in the working of government. Libraries will never be obsolete so long as our communities dream, and strive, and work to ensure a world of insurmountable opportunities.

– David Lankes, Beyond the Bullet Points: Libraries are Obsolete

I love this quote, even out of context.  Yes, yes, yes, libraries will never be obsolete!