ResearchScapes

Discussions on the art and craft of research

Author: Fred Folmer (page 1 of 2)

Research and the Information Process

What is the “information creation process,” and what does it have to do with scholarly research? Short answer: a lot.

Longer answer (if you’re still with me!): In a previous post, I wrote about the first of the threshold concepts developed by the Association of College & Research Libraries’ (ACRL) in its “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.” Threshold concepts are key points that an information-literate student or researcher needs to be able to grasp and utilize. The ACRL’s first threshold concept, “authority is constructed and contextual,” seemed tailor made for a political moment rife with discussions and anxieties about fake news, post truth and alternative facts, and indeed we librarians engaged in several robust discussions with faculty about how to approach this topic in the curriculum.

At first glance, the second threshold concept, “Information creation as a process,” might not resonate quite as strongly. But perhaps it should. Because an understanding of the process of how information is created is necessary for discerning how various books, articles, etc., might be useful or not useful — or for figuring out how authoritative they might be.

First, what does that mean, “information creation as a process”? Information objects — resources that are in various containers, including books, newspaper articles, scholarly journal articles, magazine articles, websites, blog posts, tweets, scholarly proceedings and yes, Facebook posts of dubious origin — all are informed by, and in turn inform, other information objects. In other words, the information contained in these various objects is used to create other objects; in turn, as these objects are read and shared, they may themselves serve to generate tweets, news articles, scholarly articles and books. The process is not merely circular, but infinitely weblike in the way that new information shapes, and is shaped by, already existing sources.

What’s more, the kinds of information objects that are available on any given topic depend on several factors: how long the topic has been in discussion, the extent of the discourse surrounding that topic, and the information objects that have already been created on that topic.

Let’s take, for example a story that’s very much been in the news: Donald Trump’s controversial executive order on immigration from Muslim-majority countries. Although the news of the order hit newspaper websites very quickly following the announcement, even before those stories appeared there were innumerable tweets, Facebook posts and other social media commentary offering even quicker takes.

How useful are these quick takes on the issue? Certainly, they serve as a record of the issue’s explosiveness — its vast potential for altering domestic and global social affairs, politics and business. If one’s project is to document the proliferation of information objects about the issue, then gathering the tweets and quick news pieces would be essential. Similarly, a researcher who sought to document the speculation about the effects of the travel bans would need to look at these early sources.

But the usefulness of any particular information source depends very much on the nature of the project at hand — and that source’s place in the information cycle. What if, instead of looking at the speculation about the executive order, one’s project was about examining its effects? For that, one needs something more analytical — one that views the immigration orders at a distance. One might first look at any newspaper articles that appeared since Trump’s announcement — but again, depending on when the research was being conducted (six months after an event? a year? five years?), more detailed, rigorously conducted scholarly sources might be available.

Let’s look at how this plays out in various searches. Searching Google for “Donald Trump executive order immigration” in April — roughly three months after the initial announcement — yielded nearly 3 million results. Closer to home, entering the same keywords into the library’s CrossSearch tool (which searches books as well as numerous article databases) predictably yields fewer results. (Still quite a few at more than 2,000, but not quite the 3 million that Google unearths.)

Screen Shot 2017-04-19 at 11.35.12 AM

Of these results, most are news articles:

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Only a handful appeared in academic journals, and most of these are quick takes of only a page or two, certainly not the detailed, rigorous, analytical pieces one might expect to find in a scholarly publication. To find such an article, it would be necessary to wait until more time had passed — until scholars had been able to perform studies that involved gathering and interpreting survey data, and that carefully surveyed the available literature on the subject.

Screen Shot 2017-04-19 at 11.36.11 AM

Note, too, that the search doesn’t yield any books at all. That’s because books take even more time than scholarly journal articles to put together. Books need to be proposed, written, edited, rewritten and then published before they can arrive on the scene. The advantage of books, whether they appear in print or electronic form, is that they typically represent some of the most considered, most rigorous thinking on a particular topic. But they take time, and usually depend on the fact that previous news articles, scholarly articles and other materials have already appeared on the topic.

And so a hypothetical researcher seeking to examine the effects of immigration bans would certainly want to look at detailed scholarly journals and books, if they were available. But to determine the kind of questions that are even possible, it’s necessary to understand what materials might be in the information-creation process, and thus how helpful or authoritative they might be in answering the question one poses.

So when you ask a research question, it’s a good idea to think about where a topic might be in the overall information-creation process. The answers will help not only in guiding you to the best possible sources to answer your question, but also in figuring out what might be available in the first place.

— Fred Folmer

Authority: Who Needs It?

(Note: This is the first in a series of planned blog posts exploring the key concepts of the Association of College and Research Libraries’ [ACRL] Framework for Information Literacy.)

In 2016 ACRL — the national organization for academic librarians — finalized its Framework for Information Literacy, a document that had been a number of years in the making. Simply put, the Framework seeks to define and describe six key points, called threshold concepts, that students seeking to become information literate need to understand.

I thought it might be useful in our blog to explore, point by point, the six key concepts of the framework; part of why I thought so is that the first point, “authority is constructed and contextual,” seems to be such an urgent topic to discuss, given the social and political moment in which we find ourselves.

As readers of this blog may recall, last fall I discussed one of the hot buttons generated by the divisive 2016 presidential election: the issue of media literacy or, if you will, fake news. Put succinctly, the fake news crisis can be thought of as a crisis of authority. In what news, media or other information sources can we trust? If people don’t take the time to discern which sources are trustworthy (in other words, authoritative), what can or will they be led to believe, and what does that do to the state of education, research and democracy itself?

The framework — advancing a view of authority that is constructed and contextual — states: “Authority is constructed in that various communities may recognize different types of authority.” It goes on to recognize the need for acknowledging biases “that privilege some sources of authority over others, especially in terms of others’ worldviews, gender, sexual orientation or cultural orientation.” The traditionally dominant voices of authority, in other words, need to be tempered or even overruled by the inclusion of voices that have been long shut out of the conversation. This, to me, is necessary, and frankly unassailable. Authority must be queried and questioned; researchers and students need to pay attention to the social processes by which authority is constructed, and be ready to challenge those processes.

But at the same time, to what extent does the assigning of context to authority mean that facts themselves can be overruled by asserting an alternative authority that claims to have, as has been famously done recently, “alternative facts”? Are facts — which, after all, are important products of authority — themselves constructed and contextual?

One may be tempted to say no — that a fact is a fact, and we’re not entitled to our own facts in the way we are entitled to opinions. While this isn’t exactly wrong, it’s also true that some facts, such as scientific findings, can be revised as new information comes to light. It’s also true that what counts as a fact can vary from discipline to discipline. So do these qualifications leave us in a world without facts — and, some might say, without moorings? Are all researchers thus in a “post-truth” quandary, between a proverbial rock and hard place?

The way through, I think, is to recognize that there simply isn’t anything like a one-size-fits-all edict that provides all the answers to the issue. Instead, researchers need to adopt a set of practices that help to evaluate materials and claims, and to think of this as a process, rather than as a quick judgment or a foregone conclusion. I offer a few suggestions here; some of these are partially based on some of the recommendations that ACRL provides in its “Dispositions” section of the framework.

First, query everything, constantly asking questions about the information’s provenance, its reason for being, its date of creation and its own sources of information. Remember that facts can sometimes be disproved, and that the questioning of established truth is part of a healthy research community (and, by extension, democracy).

Second, place different sources into relation to one another. This is what journalists do when they determine what should go into a story: Is there a second, third or fourth source that corroborates what this first source is arguing? To what does the preponderance of evidence lead? If multiple sources are pointing in the direction of a fact, it’s more likely to be true; but even then, since such things can themselves be the product of groupthink or a particular way of constructing authority, they often need to be qualified or tempered in their description.

The overarching recommendation of the ACRL framework is, as it states, to “develop and maintain an open mind” when thinking about authority: to recognize that authority is constructed socially, and can be made and unmade; that it may be constructed or interpreted differently in various contexts; and that established authority may be related to power.

These points won’t necessarily solve the conundrum about how to know when something is truly, incontrovertibly, absolutely a fact — particularly in an age when information sources claiming to be authoritative are thrown at us in ever greater volume, and at ever greater speed. But they may serve as good points to keep in mind when one is trying to decide how to think about a given claim as authoritative or not.

— Fred Folmer

 

 

Deadline for Library Research Prize: February 12

As a follow-up to a previous item announcing the second annual Connecticut College Prize for Undergraduate Library Research, here’s a quick reminder that applications for the prize ($500 cash!) are due on Sunday, Feb. 12, at 11:59 p.m.

All currently enrolled Connecticut College undergraduates are eligible. Students, please submit an application! Faculty, please encourage students to submit an application!

You can find all the pertinent information concerning rules for entry, project eligibility and more at the Library Research Prize’s webpage (found at http://conncoll.libguides.com/libprize). Entries must be posted to the prize’s Moodle site, which can be accessed using the aforementioned library prize URL.

We look forward to reading your application!

 

 

On Fake News and Research Skills

In light of the emergence of fake news as one of the key stories following the 2016 presidential election, it’s worth (re-)considering the importance of evaluating information to any research process—whether that process involves writing a paper or gathering information about a candidate for office.

Although developing evaluation skills has always been integral to any research process, it’s arguably even more urgently needed now. That’s because libraries are no longer the sole gatekeepers of information, and it’s now possible to simply do a quick search on the web, find something that appears to relate to the topic at hand, and either forward  to someone else, or incorporate it into a paper or other piece of research.

As has been widely reported, a great deal of the fake news now circulates on social media networks. In this New York Times op-ed written by Zeynep Tufekci, a professor of library and information science at the University of North Carolina, the author takes Facebook to task for becoming a platform for misinformation campaigns (the pope endorses Donald Trump! An FBI agent who leaked Hillary Clinton’s emails found dead!).

Part of the problem, Tufekci argues, is Facebook’s algorithmic system, which promotes updates based on whether users find them “comforting.” But research isn’t supposed to be comforting; neither, correspondingly, is the moral and ethical work of citizenship. And helping students learn the moral and ethical work of citizenship is—or should be—in large part why we teach research skills on a college campus.

There have been signs that Facebook is taking steps to limit the fake news stories that are shared on its servers, but researchers—that is, those doing a paper or those simply gathering information to make an informed choice on an election—need to ask themselves a set of questions about every source they’re using, no matter how much the source may support one’s thesis or existing worldview, and no matter how much that source has been useful in the past.

First, who is responsible for the piece? A name isn’t enough; one needs to ask about the author’s credentials or authority to have written something on a particular topic. If it’s a news story, does it come from a reputable service—one that checks its facts, verifies its sources and provides multiple perspectives? Some of the fake Facebook posts came from the “Denver Guardian,” which sounds great until one realizes that no such news source exists. (Go ahead, Google it.)

Second, when was the piece written? In this election season, I saw articles forwarded and shared on social media that had been created months and even years earlier, making it seem as though they had just appeared. But facts and situations can change quickly, and in many research or fact-finding situations, it’s important to have current information, or at least to be aware of when an article appeared so that its date of creation can factor into one’s judgment about it.

Why was the piece written? To report the news, or to advance knowledge in a particular field? To get someone elected to an office? To spread fear, or to propagandize an issue? To make money? This question is often entangled with who wrote the story, but it’s equally important. (To think about the ways in which who wrote a piece can be bound up with why he or she wrote it, I suggest checking out this self-exculpatory New York Times op-ed written by someone who works for WikiLeaks.)

How and where did the author(s) get their information? In scholarly writing, this is precisely why citations must be provided—so that authors cannot simply assert something without some kind of backup. We need to be able to believe what authors are saying; it’s equally important to be able to verify their sources.

I’ve been trying to share the above questions with the first-year seminars with whom I’ve worked this past semester. We’ve looked at sources we found on the web and tried to think about evaluating them based on the above questions, rather than applying such abstract, blanket maxims such as “sites that come from a .edu or .org address are okay.” That’s not necessarily true; it’s always necessary to look closer at each article or book.

One of the first-year seminars I worked with was entitled “Performing Citizenship.” It was striking to me that the course focus and our work with evaluating sources were in particular alignment—and, similarly, that the task of critically evaluating research information and that of truly becoming an informed, participating citizen are one and the same. Whenever we undertake or assign research—and learn or teach the requisite skills to perform this research—we would do well to keep the responsibilities and imperatives of citizenship in full view.

— Fred Folmer

Announcing the 2017 Library Research Prize

We’re pleased to announce the 2017 Connecticut College Prize for Undergraduate Library Research, which will be awarded for the second time during the spring 2017.

A group of librarians worked to launch the $500 prize during the 2015-16 academic year; it’s the first award at Connecticut College that’s specifically designed to honor excellence in the research process. Entrants will be judged by a committee of librarians and faculty members on their ability to develop search strategies, use complex tools and techniques, and evaluate and synthesize resources in a project.

We encourage all students to submit an entry for the prize — and, similarly, all faculty to encourage students to do so. All currently enrolled undergraduate students are eligible. The deadline for submission is 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017.

To be considered for the award, you’ll need to submit the following to the prize’s Moodle site, accessed here:

  • An application form, to be completed in the prize’s Moodle site;
  • A Faculty Support Form (using the standardized form found on the library prize website);
  • An essay of up to 600 words describing research strategies (closely following the guidelines found on the library prize website); and
  • A draft or final version of the project for which the research was done.
  • A bibliography.

To be eligible, the work must have been completed for a credit course (not an honors project) in spring 2016, fall 2016, or spring 2017. The prize’s Moodle site can also be accessed via the prize’s website at http://conncoll.libguides.com/libprize.

For more information, email libprize@conncoll.edu. Good luck, and we look forward to reading your entries!

Going Public: Student Digital Scholarship and Copyright

In late October, I had the opportunity to attend the Bucknell Digital Scholarship Conference in Lewisburg, Pa. The idea of digital scholarship has of late been a strong and consistent trend in academia, with libraries providing key support; here at Connecticut College, the creation of the Digital Scholarship & Curriculum Center and the hiring of a librarian focused on digital scholarship have been emblematic of this development.

At the conference, there were several presentations, from institutions that included Bucknell, Lafayette and Gettysburg, that featured undergraduate students who had worked on digital projects of various kinds. One thing that several student presenters discussed, I thought, deserved special mention: the complications that can arise when making student work public by publishing it on the web, particularly regarding copyright.

In the existing paradigmatic model of undergraduate scholarship, students write papers that are read by a single professor, and then discarded or archived by the student as he or she desires. Copyright claims don’t apply to this model, because what the student writes is entirely written and consumed within a very limited educational context. Per Chapter One, Section 110 of the U.S. Copyright Code, “the performance or display of a work by instructors or pupils in the course of face-to-face teaching activities of a nonprofit educational institution” cannot be an infringement of copyright. (Fair Use, which outlines certain rights held by users regardless of context, may also apply; the TEACH Act, signed into law in 2002, extends Section 110 protections to online and distance-education activities.)

But at the Bucknell Conference, students described work that would not necessarily apply under any of these copyright protections. This work, created to be displayed on online publishing platforms such as Omeka, WordPress or Scalar, is increasingly available for public consumption, and this raises possible copyright issues for works and images that are incorporated into these projects. We’ve seen this trend here at Connecticut College too; for example, students from a history class digitized and displayed pages from a journal of a Connecticut man who sailed to China; another class digitized images from 19th-century Japanese books. (You can look at these exhibits here, or read more about those classes in the online version of the fall 2015 edition of Inside Information.)

In the latter examples, the digitized journal entries and images were in the public domain, and not subject to copyright claims. But if one is publishing a copyrighted work, it often can fall outside of the parameters of Fair Use and require permission, particularly if the use of the image is illustrative and not part of the analysis.

And so going forward, student research that’s presented in public will have to take such things into account, and students, librarians and faculty alike will find themselves needing to consider copyright as part and parcel of their research process. Here is a quick overview of the questions that need to be asked when doing this research, although I hasten to add that more could be said about each one of these items (and we hope to do exactly that in upcoming posts to this blog).

  1. Is it copyrighted? Works published before 1923 are firmly in the public domain and not subject to copyright, but for many works, it’s much more complicated. One needs to ask whether the work was actually published, whether the author is still alive (or when he or she died), and whether there was a copyright notice, among other factors. It’s a lot to sift through, so I suggest using this website from Cornell’s Copyright Information Center to help you decide.
  2. Does it fall under Fair Use? Fair Use is a protection afforded to those wishing to use or transform a copyrighted work in certain legally prescribed ways. When deciding whether Fair Use applies, courts weigh four factors: the nature of the use of the work; the nature of the work (e.g., whether it is artistic or factual); the amount and substance of the work used; and the effect of the use on the marketplace. You can read more about Fair Use here, on a page provided by Stanford University Libraries. For specific information about Fair Use and visual works, check out this page from the College Art Association.
  3. How do I get permission? While the specifics can get complicated, basically you need to 1) figure out who owns the copyright, and 2) ask them for permission. For works found on the web, see if there’s a way to contact the site owner and ask. (Brown University Library has a page with some helpful hints for this process.) For those not found on the web, some additional research may be involved. I suggest asking a librarian to ease frustration.
  4. How do I find images or other works that are not copyrighted? One great way to do this is to search for images published to the web under a Creative Commons license, which signify to a potential user that the image can be reused. This Creative Commons Search page allows you to look for works that can be used for commercial purposes; modified or adapted; or both. From here, you can search within such popular sites as Flickr and Google Images.

Here at Connecticut College, we have a very handy guide on copyright that covers all of the above; I heartily suggest referring to it when you have a question. You can also find a great list of resources at this page from Brown University Library.

— Fred Folmer

Library Budgets and Open Access

It’s International Open Access Week, and so here we offer a summary of our own library’s budget difficulties, along with an argument for why open access initiatives are a crucial aspect of the solution to these issues.

In the most recent issue of Inside Information — the newsletter for the College’s Information Services division — we reported the unfortunate news that a task force created to make cuts to the libraries’ materials budget (books, journal subscriptions, databases, etc.) had indeed reduced expenditures by $100,000, primarily by dropping subscriptions to databases that included Scopus, Royal Society of Chemistry, IoP Science, Newsbank, Art & Architecture, LGBT, Credo Reference, Mango Languages and Book Review Digest, among others. Further, the article states, it’s currently projected that the budget will need to be cut by an additional $60,000 by the end of this academic year.

The cuts have been necessitated by rising subscription costs that are coupled with a flat acquisitions budget — so as the subscription costs go up, there are fewer dollars available to spend on materials. As the Inside Information article, written by Beth Hansen, states, “[w]ithout a substanial budgetary increase, cancellations will continue to be the norm.”

What follows is a revision of what I wrote in the sidebar to the article, regarding open access.

The prospect of another round of cuts in library materials highlights an ever-growing problem: rising annual costs of these materials, particularly electronic journals and databases. These increases exemplify what many observers have called a broken system, whereby colleges and universities support the work of scholars to create new research, which is then published in journals and curated by vendors (Ebsco, ProQuest, Gale, Alexander Street, etc.) in electronic databases. The journals and databases are in turn sold or leased back to institutions’ libraries, often at a substantial markup.

Colleges and universities are therefore paying at both ends, and this double payment is proving unsustainable for many institutions, including ours. As a corrective to this system, many libraries have been pushing in effect to cut out the middleman in the form of open-access policies such as the one passed by our own faculty in 2013. For our part, Connecticut College’s libraries have strongly advocated that scholars adhere to the existing open-access policy and deposit articles in our Digital Commons archive — so that they can be found and used by those who may not have the means to pay the costs associated with access to materials. It’s also why many college and university libraries have undertaken publishing projects of their own, including the Amherst College Press or the Oberlin Group’s Lever Intiative.

Scholars also need to begin to become aware of — and assert — their own rights before they publish an article. Contracts are written to be advantageous to publishers, and not necessarily scholars and writers; thus, scholars can, and often do, unwittingly sign away their rights to their own work when they agree to a publishing contract. It’s also important to realize that contracts supersede whatever copyright had been held initially by a writer. And so when negotiating a contract, it’s a good idea to try to retain the right to deposit a version of the work into an institutional repository — and/or to publish in a journal that meets open access criteria.

One good place to look for more information about these options is the website of SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition), a coalition of librarians and scholars seeking to advance the idea of open scholarship. SPARC’s website includes a page specifically about open access, as well as a handy fact sheet on open access describing actions scholars can take in more detail.

While placing an article into Digital Commons will not by itself change the system, it’s also true that the system of scholarly communication can only be rethought if a critical mass of scholars are willing to rethink their own publication practices. In order for this to happen, it’s important for everyone to understand why and how libraries are getting squeezed, and why emerging forms of open access are integral to thinking about the road ahead.

— Fred Folmer

Google Searches: Mastering Your Domain

As we all know, Google searches typically return huge amounts of results — numbering well into the millions — for practically any initial search. As frustrating as this can be, it’s especially vexing when adding additional search terms not only fails to limit the number of results in any significant way, it also may screen out lots of possibly useful items.

But it turns out that there’s a way to limit your results that doesn’t involve adding search terms — and that can help you retrieve useful items much faster. This method involves adding a domain search along with your search terms. And while this may sound daunting, it’s actually quite easy.

First, you can search in a wide domain, such as .edu, .org or .gov. The latter can be especially useful in finding an array of public materials, such as government reports, statistics and court cases. Suppose we’re looking for statistics on gun violence. If we search for “gun violence statistics” (without using quotes in the search), a Google search turns up 4,550,000 results — a hodgepodge of news stories, government reports, nonprofit organizations (including pro-gun advocacy groups like the NRA) and Wikipedia entries. But if we enter the following string into a Google search, we’re now at 30,700 results:

gun violence statistics site:gov

See how you do that? To whatever search you’re doing, you add the word “site,” followed by a colon, followed by the domain. In this search — which now only looks at sites with the “.gov” domain — the very first link that appears is a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics documenting firearm violence statistics from 1993 through 2011.

Screen Shot gov search
What’s more, once we know that the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (bjs.gov) may be a useful site in which to look, we can limit our searches to only sites within the Bureau’s domain, that is: “gun violence statistics site:bjs.gov”. To wit:

Screen Shot bjs search

We now have only 425 results to comb through. Moreover, we can easily see other categories, such as “Weapon Use,” on which the BJS offers information, and adjust our search terms accordingly to pinpoint the items that might be most useful to our project.

This technique can be used to similar effect to search .org or .edu domains — whether we’re looking within entire domains or particular sites. It’s especially useful when searching organizations big, complex web structures, such as the United Nations (un.org). There are, of course, pros and cons to searching any one of these domains, and this may be the subject of a future blog post. In any case, it’s worth remembering that limiting to a wide or narrow domain may help you find useful items quicker, and at the same time lessen one’s experience of information overload.

— Fred Folmer

Subject Headings, Part II: Labels Matter

We couldn’t be more pleased to pass along to an update to a previous post, in which we discussed the discomfort (or worse) that could be caused by the subject heading “illegal aliens.”

In that post, we argued that it matters — for inclusion, for access, for fairness, for equality of academic achievement — what we call things, and that referring to undocumented immigrants in subject headings as “illegal aliens” was, in short, deleterious to research (among other things). A group from Dartmouth College had raised the issue with the Library of Congress’s Policy and Standards Division, and the response was, in essence, sorry — that’s the only legally accurate way to refer to such persons.

But apparently that’s not actually the case. The Library of Congress has reversed itself, deciding — or discovering — that it’s really better not to use phrases such as “illegal aliens” that have, according to the LOC’s Executive Summary on the matter, “become pejorative.” The Summary continues: “The heading Illegal aliens will therefore be cancelled and replaced by two headings, Noncitizens and Unauthorized immigration, which may be assigned together to describe resources about people who illegally reside in a country.”

Our congratulations to the Dartmouth folks for raising the issue. The episode is an object lesson on the ways in which libraries, and the language they use to describe things, do not sit apart from politics or, indeed, the kinds of important discourses that are addressed in and out of classes on campus. Rather, the means of accessing research materials are fundamentally entangled with those discussions and debates. Everyone’s research is better when those discussions are aligned with current and, one hopes, less offensive language and labels.

— Fred Folmer

Postcards from New London

In the past few months, we’ve added a new collection to the Linda Lear Center for Special Collections & Archives’ growing portfolio of digital exhibitions: a collection of postcard images of various New London landmarks, buildings, monuments, parks and neighborhoods, primarily from the first few decades of the 20th century. The physical postcards had been donated in 1980 by Muriel Castle, a 1939 graduate of the College. The images on display include the Coast Guard Academy, New London’s historic Hempsted Houses, Fort Trumbull, numerous churches, area lighthouses and notable buildings such as the Mohican Hotel and the Crocker House. The collection can be viewed here; there’s also an article about it on the Lear Center’s Tumblr site (at lindalearcenter.tumblr.com).

New London Harbor LightBank Street

It’s probably a fairly safe bet that quite a few more people will access the postcards now that they’ve been digitized, although I hasten to add the disclaimer that what’s currently available is only a portion of the entire collection. That in itself is a key reason to continue digitizing, cataloging and promoting collections such as this one.

Second CongregationalJohn Winthrop Statue

Further, as I learned through this process, postcards are a multifaceted treasure trove of historical and sociocultural information. In addition to what’s kind of obvious about them — historical photographs of particular times and places in New London — the postcards display clues about dress, transportation, architecture, religion and government. Because we’ve digitized and included the reverse sides of the postcards (i.e., where people wrote messages), the cards can also give us insight into how people communicated with each other during the time period, and about the places to which people wrote and traveled. And again, because the images are digitized and freely available, this information is now theoretically available to anyone, not just those who are able to come to Connecticut College and visit with our archivists.

It’s also notable that the exhibition is an example of librarians’ — or, really, anyone’s — ability to create a collection, and thus to contribute content to the pool of resources for scholarly comment and knowledge creation. As the field called “digital humanities” expands, what’s becoming clear is that traditional roles are changing as publishing tools become more and more digital — and accessible. This development raises a lot of issues for research — such as how these “objects” can be cataloged, collected and found — that we’ll be sure to address in future posts.

But perhaps discussions of the wider research significance of digital collections ought for the moment to take a back seat to appreciation of the rich possibilities of a particular collection. In these postcards, we discovered quite a range of topics worthy of research and study — and many interesting, beautiful images that can simply be enjoyed. We hope the collection will serve both ends.

— Fred Folmer

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