DH Box: Making a place in the Cloud

The DH Box team has made exciting strides over the past week!

As some may know, DH Box will be available on a pre-installed, pre-configured Debian cloud server. To achieve this, we are using Amazon Web Services. For those who aren’t initiated, AWS is a vast cloud computing infrastructure (with internet servers throughout the world) that offers services very similar to what a physical computer would. But AWS brings unrivaled scale, flexibility, and economy (pay as you go pricing).

DH Box’s Intro to Cloud Computing

Dennis Tenen led the DH Box team through it’s first group workshop on setting up a virtual web server image, a.k.a. an “EC2 Instance.” The virtual web server contains an Amazon Machine Image (think of it as an identical copy) of an operating system. DH Box will be freely available for users to launch their own instance of ours. This solution saves users the trouble of downloading and installing tools to their own computers.

What do users need to access DH Box in the Cloud?

It will be pretty simple- users must sign up for a free AWS account. And we’re making use of AWS’ CloudFormation (templates that deploy services rapidly) utility to automate many of the steps required to launch a new AMI instance. We also have custom scripts to automate the launch of DH Box files and software once users copy our server image. We’re really excited about being introduced to this powerful service, and even more encouraged that our configuration templates will allow DH Box users to dive swiftly into DH inquiry.

This is just the beginning- we’re focusing heavily on providing thorough documentation so that DH Box users will have everything they need to get up and running. Stay tuned!

Special thanks to Prof. Dennis Tenen for his amazing Intro to Cloud Computing Workshop.

Beyond Citation: Critical thinking about academic databases

During the Fall 2013 semester, I started reading, thinking and writing about the impact of academic databases such as JSTOR and Gale: Artemis Primary Sources on research and scholarship. I learned that databases shape the questions that can be asked and the arguments that can be made by scholars through search interfaces, algorithms, and the items that are contained in or absent from their collections. Although algorithms in databases have been found to have an “epistemological power” through their ranking of search results, understanding why certain search results appear is very difficult even for the team that engineered the algorithms. Yet knowledge of how databases work is extremely limited because information about database structures is scanty or unavailable and constantly changing.

Despite the ubiquity of databases, academics are often unaware of the constraints that databases place on their research. Lack of information about the impact of database structures and content on research is an obstacle to scholarly inquiry because it means that scholars may not be aware of and cannot account for how databases affect their interpretations of search results or text analysis.

Digital humanists have examined both the benefits and perils of research in academic databases. The introduction of digital tools for text analysis to identify patterns common to large amounts of documents has added to the complexity of scholars’ tasks. Historian Jo Guldi writes that, “Keyword searching [in databases] . . . allows the historian to propose longer questions, bigger questions;” yet she also remarks on the challenges posed by search in an earlier article saying that, “Each digital database has constraints that render historiographical interventions based upon scholars’ queries initially suspect.” Scholars such as Caleb McDaniel, Miriam Posner, James Mussell, Bob Nicholson and Ian Milligan have written about the skewed search results of databases of historical newspapers, the impossibility of finding provenance information to contextualize what database users are seeing, and the lack of information about OCR accuracy. Besides these issues, scholars should also have an understanding of errors in digital collections. For example, scholars using Google Books would probably want to know that thirty-six percent of Google Books have errors in either author, title, publisher, or year of publication metadata.

Historian Tim Hitchcock talks about the importance of understanding the types of items in digital collections, saying, “Until we get around to including the non-canonical, the non-Western, the non-textual and the non-elite, we are unlikely to be very surprised.” Because they can contain what seems to be an almost infinite number of documents, archival databases offer an appearance of exhaustiveness that does not yield easily to a scholar’s probing. But while a gestalt understanding of a primary source database is crucial to determining the representation of items in the collection, the limited bibliographic information that is available about academic databases is scattered or unknown to most scholars.

As one step toward overcoming scholars’ lack of knowledge about the biases inherent in databases, I am working with a team of other students in the DH Praxis Seminar at the CUNY Graduate Center to create Beyond Citation, a website to aggregate bibliographic information about major humanities databases so that scholars can understand the significance of the material they have gleaned. Beyond Citation will help humanities scholars to practice critical thinking about research in databases.

The benefit of encouraging critical thinking about databases is more than merely facilitating research. Critical thinking about databases counters scholars’ “tendency to consider the archive as a hermetically-sealed space in which historical material can be preserved untouched,” and “[forces] a recognition of the constructed nature of evidence and its relation to the absent past.”

The Beyond Citation team has selected a set of humanities databases for the initial site launch and is working out the nitty-gritty of platform and server-side database functionality as well as completing research about the databases that we have chosen to cover on the site.

By providing structured information about databases and articles about research strategies, Beyond Citation will frame the common problems that scholars face when evaluating the results of their work in databases. Scholars will be able to enrich the data on the site with their own contributions, participate in reflective conversations and share highly situated stories about their experiences of working in databases. While an early version of the website to be launched in May 2014 will have a limited scope, the idea is that the site will eventually become a research workshop.

As information scientist Ryan Shaw observes, “In an era of vast digital archives and powerful search algorithms, the key challenge of organizing information is to construct systems that aid understanding, contextualizing, and orienting oneself within a mass of resources.” By making essential bibliographic information about the structures and content of academic databases accessible to scholars, Beyond Citation will take an important step to updating the scholarly apparatus to encourage critical thinking about databases and their effect on research and scholarship.

Reach us at BeyondCitation [at] gmail [dot] com or follow us on Twitter as we get ready for the launch in May: @beyondcitation


The idea for Beyond Citation originated from my encounter with a blog post by Caleb McDaniel about historians’ research practices suggesting the creation of an “online repository” of information about proprietary databases.

Presenting… DH Box

In the interest of spreading the mission of DH Box far and wide, I’ve been working on a brief presentation that might also serve as an online introduction to the project. It’s available hereTake a look!

I’ll be using these slides to give a short talk about DH Box to faculty this Tuesday at Hunter College. It looks like we’ll be making quite a few presentations like this one, because as it turns out, building a community is one of the key factors determining success for DH Box. We will need the help of an invested community to:

  • Determine which tools should be included
  • Identify new platforms to target
  • Contribute to documentation
  • Spread awareness about DH Box

and it seems clear that in-person meetings and discussions are the best way for us to create interest in our work. That’s not to discount social media approaches at all; they allow for broad outreach we couldn’t manage otherwise. But in-person conversation allows us to demonstrate and discuss DH Box in greater depth, thus solidifying each potential user’s understanding and their relationship with us and our project.

Beyond Citation: Building digital tools to explain digital tools

Over the last couple weeks, the Beyond Citation team has transformed into a web production team of sorts, focused on making key decisions about platform, site architecture, user interaction, design, and communication.

Beyond Citation—a project to build a website that aggregates accessible, structured information about scholarly databases—has the potential to enhance how scholars approach, use, and interpret resources from some of today’s most widely used digital collections. While it would be straightforward for our team to simply gather and publish information about those resources, our challenge is to build a digital tool that supports meaningful interaction with that information, one that can also scale in the future and cater to a community of contributors.

In the project’s nascent stages, the tactical concerns before us are familiar—we’re taking on the common challenge of building and launching a website or web app. Thrust into the very practical realm of software, decisions, and constraints, discussions of critical theory get put off to discuss the merits of WordPress and Drupal. These powerful tools place the project in a digital ecosystem much wider than academia. The platform we have chosen—WordPress—pushes us deeper still into the wide worlds of relational databases, server-side scripting, and content management—the digital tools that will allow us to explain other digital tools.

As we construct the basic building blocks for the site, we find that the best way to focus our approach is by seeking the advice of experts, reading blogs about WordPress customization, and learning more about MySQL and WordPress taxonomies. The robust open source community behind WordPress has enabled us to confirm that the technical requirements for the Beyond Citation website can be met many times over through combinations of WordPress plugins.

Something to consider while building this tool with WordPress, is that we are seeking to publish data about proprietary tools by using open source technology. Perhaps this isn’t really so unusual—we see this in a similar vein as increasingly popular APIs that allow for easier data aggregation or configuration from multiple sources. And toolsets that are hybrids of proprietary and open source systems are extremely common.

But there’s an important depth to explore when thinking about Beyond Citation as a bridge between proprietary and open source systems. The idea of “exposed” information, built on “hidden” information, represents a direction that the project can try to push technically. For instance, if in a future iteration the team can uncover information about scholarly databases that’s not just hard to find, but not openly available (such as how search algorithms work, or the criteria behind publisher contracts), then I think the value of Beyond Citation increases in a direction most closely aligned with its original ambition. This would also allow the project to explore the similarities and differences in how scholarly databases work in more meaningful ways.

Before we can do that, everyone on the team is doing their part to fill in knowledge gaps, and discovering “how technology works” on multiple levels. Just as we are researching the types of information about scholarly databases that we want the project to highlight, we are also researching the types of data-driven web frameworks that could easily support such information. Like many Digital Humanities projects, Beyond Citation is about knowledge acquisition and aggregation for both developers and researchers. We are challenging ourselves to learn as much as we can about one set of digital tools before we can communicate new information about other sets of digital tools—both of which are moving targets, evolving in their own realms of authorship.

As we work towards a May launch date for an early version of the site, we realize that the authors of digital projects need a constant appetite for more knowledge—technical knowledge and subject-matter knowledge—in order to create and maintain an authoritative tool.

Follow us on Twitter as we get ready for May: @beyondcitation

It’s a Two-Fer!

Travelogue group members
Sarah – Project Manager
Amy – Technology and Design
Melanie – Outreach and Communication
Evonne – Research
Adam – Technology and Design

Last week, due to illness, the Travelogue’s outreach and communication person was ironically silenced.  However, that means this week there is twice as much Travelogue team blog fun to catch up on!

Travelogue’s Twitter page has a great new logo courtesy of Adam.  Initially, we had encountered an issue with the size of the first Travelogue logo not looking great sized down for Twitter.  Adam also created the Travelogue logo that appears on the Travelogue’s Common’s page.  Throughout the design process, Adam shared drafts for input from the group.  Amy has been hard at work on the design and content of the Travelogue’s Common’s page.

Last Monday on March 3rd the team, sans one under the weather outreach and communication member, presented an update on the project status to the DHPraxis class.  In preparation, Sarah created an action plan outlining how each team member could explain the progression the team has made so far.

Sarah met with our DH Praxis professor Matt Gold to go over the scope of the project and get his input on the current ideas the team has.  Sarah is working on the Travelogue website’s wireframe and created a mock up of the layout.  Also, she is continuously working on the project plan.  The team has been actively communicating, to organize the communication and each team member’s responsibilities, Sarah established an Asana page for the team.

Evonne has been compiling research resources, organizing the research conducted, what needs to be further researched and maintaining citations in a Travelogue Zotero page.  Using Evonne’s extensive research as a guide and the Gale database Directory of Special Libraries and Information Centers, Melanie has been reaching out to multiple academic institutions.  The preliminary goal is to introduce the Travelogue project, request info on the usage of content (for example from the Library of Congress) and building relations from there.  Through the Travelogue Twitter account Melanie has followed organizations working on mapping projects  and will be actively working creating engaging content in the pursuit of followers.

The team has been exploring ArcGIS Story Maps as the mapping tool for the project.  A schedule of meetings outside of class is being established as to best collaboratively brainstorm face to face.  The team is looking into whether Travelogue will be paralleling the travel narratives of the chosen authors (Ernest Hemingway and Zora Neale Hurston), literally displaying the travel trajectories of both on the same map?  Or, will each author’s journey be depicted on a separate map?  The website’s URL is also currently being decided upon.

If you want to contact us please do. Our project blog is at  travelogue.commons.gc.cuny.edu. Email us at dhtravelogue [at] gmail [dot] com or follow us on Twitter @DhTravelogue

New Friend, New Platform for DH Box

Cross-posted from: https://dhbox.commons.gc.cuny.edu/blog/2014/dh-box-new-friend-new-platform

This week the DH Box team reconsidered their choice of platform, with the help of Dennis Tenen, a professor at Columbia University in the Digital Humanities and New Media Studies program (and former developer with Microsoft).

A couple weeks ago we were surprised and delighted to find that another team had come up with the idea for a portable tool that could help users quickly get going with DH applications. And this week we found that Professor Tenen and colleagues had also discussed how to tackle such a project and had come up with yet a different solution! In discussing that solution, we found it matched our aim of providing an ease of quickly setting up an environment for new users and made us change our focus for both implementation and outreach.

Read more

Beyond Citation: Wireframes A Visual Tool

Web designers should aim to create a satisfactory and enjoyable user experience.  As I think about scholars and librarians, the individuals who are most likely to visit the Beyond Citation website, I wonder how its design will aid in the discovery of new information. Because wireframes assist the placement of rectangles on grids and the appropriate use of negative space (any space which is not in use by an item) as an integral part of the design, I imagine if implemented well, the user will be visually attracted to the website. As the website’s designer, I believe the best way to alleviate concerns around layout is to use wireframes, which are meant to support the purpose and main idea of the imagined website. Although the wireframe appears simplistic because it is often completed in black or white, once executed through scripts in HTML5 and CSS, the wireframe becomes the underlying structure that will ultimately point users to the discovery of information.

The placement of content and the function of fields should each complement the user’s experience, and promote ease of use.  Wireframes are building blocks that can aid in developing the personality of the website by emphasizing type size while minimizing the use of words and utilizing rectangles to describe content placement. The wireframe’s adaptive nature aids in responsive design, and may consider varied grid widths to accommodate computer screens, tablets and mobile phones. The website’s navigational roadmap is conceived through the developed wireframe, and is assisted by design that makes its primary statement within the confines of the wireframe.  Wireframes visually describe the construction of web pages.

Wireframes can be created on tablets and apps which aid the ability to revise and share development as a collaborative tool. Wireframes also alleviate worry as they create a complementary relationship between the idea, the design and pixels, and when completed, usher in the next stage of the website’s development, which is scripting.  Wireframes are the blueprint that will be utilized to create the Beyond Citation website.

Opening DH Box

This is it! The inaugural post of the DH Box blog (the DH stands for Digital Humanities). Here we intend to make the process of planning, creating, and publicizing the DH Box transparent for our readers. Hopefully this provides some inspiration, and even a blueprint, for future collaborative DH projects.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves! First, some questions and answers:

What is DH Box?

Not much, so far. But we intend it to be a portable, customized environment for Digital Humanities learners that can rely on incredibly inexpensive technology. All you really need is a computer (and a monitor and keyboard, of course!) — but the platform that excites us most is the Raspberry Pi, a tiny computer that sells for just $35. Imagine a collection of DH tools, pre-installed and configured, and a set of texts for users to interrogate — all on a portable and inexpensive device.

What inspired the idea of DH Box?

Several ongoing humanities projects have begun to take advantage of the continuing miniaturization of computing technology. One in particular excited my imagination: Library Box, which repurposes a wireless router into a “portable digital file distribution tool…that enables delivery of educational, healthcare, and other vital information to individuals off the grid.” The possibilities for ’embedded’, specialized miniature computers are massive.

What is needed to run DH Box?

Our first major goal is to get DH Box running on the Raspberry Pi. Once that’s done, DH Box will also be runnable on nearly any Linux computer! We are also targeting OS X.

Who do you think will use DH Box?

Anyone and everyone who is interested in learning Digital Humanities inquiry techniques, but especially those who may not have any prior programming experience. We hope that instructors will use our tools to set up almost instant DH labs, and that students will use DH Box to get an edge in their research.

We see DH Box as an example of what is likely to be a robust and interesting future field, ‘humanities hardware’.

Who are we?

We are an interdisciplinary team of learners and do-ers, librarians and developers and digital humanists and more — with an interest in making DH work more accessible. Find us:


More to come as we continue to develop DH Box!

Refining our focus and finding connections

The DH Box team has been working hard on defining the scope for DH Box and setting up our project plan. We’ve started using Asana as our project management tool. As the project manager, I’m really enjoying Asana. It’s flexible, easy, and it allows our team to collaborate on building the plan as we go. It’s also very nice that it tracks everything and sends out plenty of reminders!

Our scope has been narrowing down as we refine our concept of DH Box. We are thinking more about who will use DH Box and thinking about the best way to make it a valuable toolkit for introductory students in digital humanities classes.

Pedagogy is a key part of the digital humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center and the Praxis Network. Our focus for the first phase of development will be text analysis and topic modeling including key tools such as MalletNatural Language Toolkit (NLTK), and the Stanford Named Entity Recognizer. We are going to build an interactive textbook using IPython Notebook. The textbook will be bundled with the DH Box install scripts and it will help orient students with the tools through interactive code execution. We have also thought more about our platform and what would be most useful for our users. We are going to make DH Box available for download not only for Raspberry Pi but also for Linux, Mac, and hopefully Windows.

As we have narrowed down our scope, we are also discovering a much wider range of connections to the DH community. Our professor, Matt Gold, has put us in touch with his colleague Dennis TenenGC Digital Fellow  Micki Kaufman suggested we check out Ian Milligan’s work and we’ve found amazing stuff in Big Digital History: Exploring Big Data through a Historian’s Macroscope, a co-written manuscript by Shawn Graham, Ian Milligan, and Scott Weingart. My library colleague Roxanne Shirazi, who edits the dh+lib blog, suggested we check out an idea for a project called DH creator stick which George Williams proposed at THATCamp Piedmont 2012 (see also a blog post by Mark Sample).

We’re amazed by the range of rich ideas we are beginning to discover. We hope to reach out to the DH community and ask for advice and feedback as DH Box takes shape.

Beyond Citation: Understanding Databases

Every year, more and more research is done by scholars online via academic databases. Print journals, scholarly monographs, newspapers, periodical indexes, and even ephemera and image collections are steadily transitioning from print to electronic.

Historically, research using print collections took place in library reading rooms with material owned by the library. Increasingly, research using electronic collections takes place outside of the library using proprietary digital platforms subscribed to by libraries. This change greatly affects how libraries function — an ownership model morphs into an access model — and how research is done. Database searches are crucial to uncovering information, but little is known about how these searches work. Additionally, it’s not always easy to find what full text content is covered in these database titles.

The goal of Beyond Citation is to help the researcher to better understand how academic databases work, and provide easier access to the database’s holdings information. For the CUNY Digital Praxis Seminar, the Beyond Citation team needed to determine which databases to feature in its initial launch, and what information to gather about each title.

First, we wanted to feature humanities databases and steer away from STEM titles. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.) Second, we ideally wanted to cover titles that were available at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Mina Rees Library, and we wanted representation from the big three “e” vendors: EBSCO, Gale, and ProQuest. Additionally, we wanted to cover different kinds of content, including historical newspapers, scholarly journals, and historical e-books from both non-profit and for-profit companies.

After much discussion, the Beyond Citation team has decided to focus on the following databases and collections for its initial launch.

Google Books



ProQuest Historical Newspapers

19th Century U.S. Newspapers (Gale)

Early English Books Online (EEBO) with TCP (Text Creation Partnership) (ProQuest)

Gale Artemis: Primary Sources – Nineteenth Century Collections Online (NCCO) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO).


Project Muse (Johns Hopkins University Press)

Artemis Literature Resources (Gale)

EBSCO Humanities Source

We are open to and eager for feedback from users of these titles, or from any other researchers and librarians who use databases in their research. More to come in future posts on what information we hope to gather from each title, and how that information will be displayed. You can reach us at BeyondCitation [at] gmail.com