by Dan Cohen
Viola Canady, Cathedral Window Quilt, Anacostia Community Museum. CC0 photograph from the Smithsonian Institution’s new open access collection.
In January 2009, I was invited to be one of the “digerati” (cringes at the word) at the Smithsonian 2.0 Conference, which was held to think about what the world’s largest museum conglomeration should do to pull itself into the digital age. We were supposed to provide advice on how the SI could engage the public in new ways with their incredible range of materials, using contemporary tools like social media and podcasts. I blogged about the conference at length, and I think that post is now an interesting historical document itself.
My fairly basic point at the time was that the Smithsonian needed to first dip its toe in the digital waters to get an understanding of new media, and later on go for a moonshot in which they digitized and made freely available for wide use the entirety of the 137 million items they held in 19 museums. Then, a decade went by.
So I was delighted to see the launch a few weeks ago of the Smithsonian’s new open access portal, and how robust it was: not just millions of digital images, but served with an API, IIIF (the international image interoperability framework, which allows developers to pull images on demand, and in multiple sizes and color profiles, from disparate sources, and synthesize them easily), and open data on GitHub. This was all great.
There was some grumpiness out there about the belatedness of SI’s evolution, or about the fact that as a federal institution it simply should give everything away so no big deal, but count me as strongly anti-grump for this reason: It is critical to applaud large institutions for doing right and good things, even if it takes a long time for them to get there. (And with large institutions, it almost always takes a long time to get there.) I know from the inside that there were staffers who fought for this for years, and their work needs to be recognized in no uncertain terms—I’m missing many people here but would like to give kudos to Effie Kapsalis, SI’s Senior Digital Program Officer, and Mike Edson, who was the Director of Web and New Media Strategy at SI a decade ago, who pushed hard for this. Importantly, other institutions need to see widespread applause to encourage them to take similar actions. When the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam digitized its entire collection four years ago and got major praise—and didn’t see attendance at the museum drop—it encouraged other museums to do the same thing, greatly expanding access to art.
One more thing you can do: When you use an image from a digital collection, always credit institutions that make their materials freely available, even if the license they make their collections available under doesn’t require that, such as SI’s CC0, which is a public domain declaration that technically has no credit mandate. I’ve called this combination CC0+BY:
Move the attribution from the legal realm into the social or ethical realm by pairing a permissive license with a strong moral entreaty [to credit individuals or institutions].
Credit where credit is due.
Processed World, a zine from the early 1980s that was decades ahead of its time in taking a critical view of computer technology and especially the labor around that technology, has been digitized. It’s like reading attacks on Uber from a time machine. (via Christa Hartsock)
A micro case study of humane ingenuity: Manton Reece, the proprietor of the microblogging platform Micro.blog (where I host my social media), realized that some of the photos users uploaded included highly specific location information inadvertently, so he did the right thing in the name of privacy:
As a precaution I’ve decided to retroactively strip metadata from existing photos that have been uploaded over the last few years. I wrote some scripts to check these photos, updating both our primary photo storage and the published blogs that were affected.
I also stripped metadata from any profile photos that contained location information.
This is what you can do when your app doesn’t make money by tracking you.
(See also: Brett Simmons invites non-coders to help with his reborn RSS app, NetNewsWire. A good way to get more diverse perspectives and a real-world understanding of how an app is used.)
Something enjoyable to do while social distancing: This month the Beinecke Library has hosted “Paleographical Challenge 2020,” an entertaining and educational daily quiz that teaches you how to interpret and uncover evidence in unusual manuscripts using high-resolution digitized images. My favorite puzzle was about a work by Ralph Rabbards, Inventions of military machines and other devices, which I can only describe as 16th-century steampunk.
This week on the What’s New podcast from the Northeastern University Library, I spoke with a record producer who started out programming drum machines for Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel, did the remixes for Madonna’s Erotica album and singles from Missy Elliot and Mariah Carey, and has won multiple Grammys for his work with Damian and Stephen Marley. If you need some counterprogramming to the coronavirus, tune in.
Or, if you would prefer to hear a scientist who develops vaccines and other medicines for neglected diseases, you can revisit an earlier episode of What’s New.