The Bulstrode Newsletters

The man himself, Sir Richard Bulstrode. 18th c. engraving.1

I just don’t think I’ll ever get tired of talking about The Bulstrode Newsletters, although I’m sure everyone else will eventually get tired of hearing me talk about them.

I got word this week from Dr. Elon Lang, the project archivist for the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of English Manuscripts at the Harry Ransom Center, that my beloved Bulstrode Newsletters are now 100% digitized and uploaded to the Ransom Center’s Digital Collections. Almost 300 letters have transcriptions that were scanned, OCRed, and incorporated into their records from the catalogue produced by Alfred Morrison in the 1890s. Along with the metadata I created for the almost 1,500 letters, the transcriptions will greatly increase search-ability for the collection, and maybe some day the Ransom Center will enable users to add additional tags to capture even more metadata about the people, places, and events mentioned in the letters.

Now you too can read all about how the French were “mightily disappointed in their designs upon Sicily”, about the great surplus of news on 6 October 1677 (and the great shortfall of news just two days later), and the torture and execution of David Hackstone (which he apparently bore with great patience)! Among many, many other stories and exciting details (about which, more here in my original discussion of the project)!


You can also get up close and personal with all those lovely, lovely wax seals I went on about last year.

You can also relish the many stunningly gorgeous (and sometimes infuriatingly unreadable) scribal hands. Outside of medieval manuscripts written in Anglicana, I think the hands in these letters are some of the most beautiful handwriting I’ve ever gotten to work with!

The usefulness of the Bulstrode Newsletters collection to researchers is in its completeness: the years between 1667 and 1688 were full of newsworthy events in London and across Europe during the reigns of Charles II and James II. These manuscript newsletters are an exceptional primary source for insightful commentary on events at the Stuart and other European monarchs’ courts, as well as on social, political, and military events and the activities of England’s commercial expansion and maritime explorations (there are several mentions within the letters of entities like the Dutch East Indies Company).


Image from the HRC’s Digital Collections. See this letter in wonderful high definition!

The collection amounts to a single, unified resource for events of this time period, as well as an indication of the workings of these proto-journalists and their relationships with their subscribers—far from being a one-way service in which news from London was transmitted to a client on the Continent, the letters also demonstrate that Bulstrode sent intelligence and even chocolate back to his correspondents in London. Included among the many weekly dispatches sent to Sir Richard Bulstrode are multiple letters from journalists regarding incidental affairs related to the newsletters service—for example, explaining breaks in dispatches or acknowledging receipts of payment. These provide an additional layer of historical interaction and culture for researchers to study. The digitization of the Bulstrode Newsletters adds another reference point for studies of the events of the 1670s and 1680s, and greatly increases evidence about the journalistic activities of Sir Joseph Williamson and other newsletter producers from this time period.

As you can probably tell, I have a lot of love for this collection and I’m still so thrilled I was able to take part in the project. I learned so much while working on it about digitization and Old Style dating and Restoration London, and I hope in the future I’ll get to read some of the scholarship that comes out of having access to these wonderful newsletters.

1- I took this picture of a copy of the engraving that was given to me as a thank-you gift by Joan Sibley at the Ransom Center. It now lives in a gorgeous frame in my office in Irvine.


Life After Library School, Chapter One

photo(13)It’s been five months since I graduated with my MSIS from UT and it’s been a summer of mixed experiences and feelings. At some point I intend to sit and reflect on my experience of job hunting, but before I do that I need to do some serious digesting and make a couple of announcements:

First, the finding aid for the Carl H. Pforzheimer manuscripts collection at the Harry Ransom Center has been published online! This includes my contributions regarding the Bulstrode newsletters (many of which have been beautifully digitized and made available online) as part of my final MSIS “capstone” project. I am still so proud to have been involved in the project, and SO excited to be able to share the link to them!

Second, as those of you who follow me on Twitter already know, I’ve accepted a position as Research Librarian for Physics & Astronomy, Mathematics, and Classics at UC-Irvine in California. I started my job about three weeks ago and so far I could not be happier with the way my job search concluded! My job includes all the aspects of librarianship that I love and I’m so excited to be a part of such an amazing and vibrant campus. I’m really looking forward to putting all the skills I learned at UT into practice at UCI, and I’m sure I’ll be sharing a lot of thoughts with you about my new life as a young librarian (starting with the exciting activity surrounding the UC system’s new Open Access policy!).

To those of you who left such thoughtful comments on my last blog post, I’m so sorry I haven’t sat down and replied to them yet. I still think it was an incredible moment and that there are some exciting conversations to be had along those lines in the future!

Are iPads Paper?

The title to this post may seem like a strange question—I mean, of course iPads aren’t paper; they’re made of metal and glass and wiring, and not from wood pulp. iPads are the latest development in the evolution of computers, one of a string of developments that have revolutionized the way the world works in many fundamental ways over the past thirty or so years, while paper has remained fundamentally the same for many hundreds of years. So, is an iPad paper? No… but also, maybe, yes.

Last night a question was asked, and answered, that I think represents a major moment in the acceptance and use of technology in corporate and governmental environments. Many better writers than I am are discussing the events surrounding Wendy Davis’ filibuster on the floor of the Texas state senate, but I want to talk about an exchange that happened at slightly before nine o’clock last night when the question arose about whether Wendy Davis could read from her iPad during the course of her filibuster and it was determined that, yes, for the purposes of the current legislative process, an iPad counted as paper.

Although this wasn’t something that many people commented on, it caused a bit of a flutter amongst my iSchool friends. At the UT iSchool, one of our core courses included discussion of the infamous “Is an antelope a document?” article by Michael Buckland, which asks questions and encourages its readers to think in the broadest possible way about what constitutes a document.

In the iSchool, we’ve been trained and conditioned to question the fundamental building blocks of information, with the idea that we, as information professionals, are going to be involved at the most basic level with whatever changes in technology and legitimacy begins to arise in the world of documents and the media used to transmit information. The exchange between Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and Sen. Ellis was a teaching/learning moment for iSchoolers around the country.

But what are the implications of this seemingly off-the-cuff exchange? What will the long-term effects be? Can iPads be considered paper in future governmental proceedings? Should they?

One of the things about iPads—and Kindles and Nooks and other tablets/eReaders—that people consistently point to in discussions about their benefits is their ability to store (or access) much larger quantities of books and documents than a single human person can carry around. If I printed out all of the PDFs, books, and other documents that I have loaded on my iPad (or stored in my Dropbox folders, which I can access via my iPad), I’d probably have far more material than I could carry around without a handtruck. I also feel like I’ve saved countless trees by using my iPad to read and annotate articles rather than printing them out and highlighting them like I did as an undergrad and during my first (pre-iPad era) master’s.

Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth during her filibuster of SB 5. Austin, Texas (Photo: Chris Fox, 1080 KRLD)

The benefit to me of considering an iPad as paper in official governmental proceedings is that it can similarly reduce the environmental impact of printing and carrying so much paper. When Wendy Davis was filibustering yesterday, she had a binder full of the testimonies of women who had hoped to speak before the Texas state House of Representatives about the proposed legislation, as well as other relevant analyses and contextual information. Most senators had their copies of the relevant senate rulebooks and other documents that were relevant to the questions they asked Sen. Davis or the points of order or parliamentary inquiries that they raised over the course of the debate. That’s a lot of paper that could be saved, especially since things like the rules books are frequently revised and republished, and are likely to be revised in light of the rulings yesterday regarding giving aid to a senator during a filibuster and, yes, about whether an iPad constituted paper.

iPads are gaining ground as paper-equivalents in other areas, too: the U.S. Air Force and some major commercial airlines are beginning to replace the weighty bags of paper-based manuals and maps that pilots and other crew members carry with iPad apps designed for the purpose. Electronic flight bags stored on iPads are set to revolutionize air travel in a small but meaningful way: by removing the need to carry 35+ lbs of paper materials, it’s been estimated that “a minimum of 400,000 gallons and $1.2 million of fuel annually” can be saved, according to American Airlines, which is the first major national carrier to make the switch. Crucially to the topic at hand, the Electronic Flight Bags have been recognized by the FAA as being the equivalent of paper flight bags.

Of course, one of the major concerns that needs to be considered is about how secure iPads can be and whether they can compete with more traditional means when it comes to transporting important government documents. But doctors, bound by federal privacy laws, have been using iPads to access patient records for years, and storing information in paper form does not necessarily lessen the chance that it will be lost, stolen, or destroyed.

So, are iPads paper? Are antelopes documents? It’s a very exciting time to be an information professional and get to witness a sea change like this in how we regard information media.

Treatment Techniques for Bound Materials

Back in Feburary I posted a little bit about one of the classes I took this semester, Treatment Techniques for Bound Materials. Now that the semester is over, I thought I’d share a little bit more about what I created and learned in the class.

The original binding of the ‘Three Musketeers’ book, lovingly repaired with packing tape.

As I mentioned last time, the class started out with learning how to build books from scratch in an effort to understand how books are made so that we could better understand how to repair them. I made a couple of more books over the course of the semester, but I think the best skillset I learned in the class was how to recase paperback books whose covers had come apart. I certainly have a fair few of those on my shelves at home! For the purposes of learning and not mucking up something that has sentimental value or would be hard to replace, I started with a $2 copy of The Outlaw of Torn by Edgar Rice Burroughs that I bought in 2007 to take on a backpacking trip to England and Ireland (this was in the pre-iPad days when I was still hauling paperbacks around on holidays) and a standard Penguin paperback edition of The Three Musketeers that I bought when I was about 10 and which was definitely quite the worse for wear.

The new cover and fake bookplate of the ‘Three Musketeers’ rebind.

The method for rebinding a paperback is really quite simple: you pull off the covers, cut off the old spine on a purpose-built machine and then put the textblock in a vice, after which you fan the book out in both directions and slather PVA glue on it until the glue covers the spine and creates a new adhesive. Then you build a case and glue the text block in. Easy, right? ;)

It’s really not so bad, but my first attempt, on The Outlaw of Torn, was quite messy—I managed to get glue on the head and tail of the text block, which meant the pages stuck together when the glue dried. I also didn’t do a great job in creating the case: the binder’s boards warped, I ended up with more book cloth on the spine than I wanted (and it ended up crooked, to boot), and the paper that I’d chosen for the cover (a beautiful but delicate Japanese paper with gold vines) was so delicate that the glue dampened it to the point where it rubbed or was stained. The final product isn’t awful, and for a first attempt I think it was quite good, but my second attempt turned out much better.

The front cover of the rebound ‘Three Musketeers.’

My old and much loved copy of The Three Musketeers ended up rebound in paper that had a map of Paris in the late 1800s printed on it. I cut sections out of the paper that roughly lined up with places I knew featured in the book so that I’d have a map to hand on future re-readings and could follow d’Artagnan’s progress through the French capital. I also cut the coat of arms of the city out of the bottom corner to make a fake bookplate for the front pastedown.
The new case ended up being perfect, and it’s probably the best case and case-in that I did all semester. I managed to glue the text block into the case without ending up with anything crooked, and the whole thing just looks gorgeous. I’m really proud of it, and now I want to re-do all of my paperbacks!

One of our final projects for the semester was to collect a variety of technique descriptions into a treatment manual that would serve as our go-to resource in the future. I decided to collect web links to tutorials and videos in an account on, which I am very pleased to share with you all. I hope some of you find it interesting to browse through the different methods for fixing common book problems! And, as I mentioned last time, pictures of most of the repairs I made in this class are available on Flickr. Enjoy!

Capstone Side Projects: A Bit of Sphragistics

Last October I had the chance to go to Care and Conservation of Manuscripts 14 in Copenhagen. It was an amazing experience and full of exciting sessions and events, but one of my very favourites was given by Ilona Teplouhova of the National Archives of Latvia on the conservation of wax seals in Latvia. In addition to introducing me to the interesting field of sphragistics (or sigillography), it was an excellent overview of some of the conservation concerns regarding wax seals which I have found incredibly useful while I’ve been processing the Bulstrode Newsletters collection.

Sphragistics started out as an ancillary discipline to dipomatics, the scholarly study of historical documents. Because most wax seals depict a coat of arms, it has strong links to the study of heraldry and genealogy, art history, and social history. Because the seals were made of wax, they’re often quite brittle now that the wax has set and hardened. In the Bulstrode collection, all of the seals were used to securely close the newsletters and many of them, therefore, have either been broken or are attached to torn pieces of paper.


Edward Coleman’s seal

Going into processing the collection, I knew that there would be a variety of wax seals to examine: the Pforzheimer catalogue notes that Edward Coleman used a seal of “on a chevron between three cherubs heads winged, a crescent for difference” in either red or black wax. Whether this was Coleman’s personal coat of arms, I’m not sure—Coleman was employed by Mary of Modena, the Duchess of York, during his tenure as a newsletter-writer, and this seal doesn’t seem to correspond to anything connected with the Duchess. The seal of the three cherubs is ubiquitous across Coleman’s letters, appearing on a significant number of the newsletters he sent to Richard Bulstrode.

seal03Among the newsletters sent from Sir Joseph Williamson’s office, there are (at least) eleven different seals to be found including three roundels on a fess between three crosses; a ship; what I believe is a female peacock; on a chevron engrailed between three crosses clechée fitched; a sheaf of five arrows, tied; a compass rose of sixteen points; three roundels on a chevron between three birds; three lions heads on a bend; and the most common, a chevron between three water-bougets.

seal05Most of the seals in the Williamson letters only appear once or twice, and I haven’t been able to determine if any of the seals belong to any of the seven named newsletters writers who worked for Williamson. Robert Yard, Wiliamson’s right hand man and general manager of the newsletter office, has signed his name to letters with two different seals. I can’t find any indication that either Robert Yard or Edward Coleman were allowed to bear a coat of arms, but if the seals aren’t connected to the writers and employees of the newsletter offices, I’m not sure what they’re doing affixed to the newsletters at all. Given the abundance of different forms among the Williamson letters, I know they don’t all belong to him. But who?

seal04I can’t spend a whole lot of time cataloguing the seals or attempting to identify any of families they belong to, although I’m still keeping detailed notes and attempting to research the correct way to describe them for my own future reference. My supervisor gave me permission to include a note about whether a complete or partial seal appears on a letter in the database, and she’s made notes for the digitization team to be sure to capture an image of every seal and include it with the images of the letters. Some day I hope to go back and add descriptions, and possibly identifications as well if I can work with the College of Arms to try and identify coats of arms that go back so far. For now I’m most concerned with making sure that the seals aren’t in imminent danger of destruction.

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?