User Experience, Startups, and the Humanities

NFAIS Annual Conference Day 1 immediate reactions

A few quick and lightly edited thoughts.

The conference theme is user experience, and there were a number of different takes on it, from publishers, academics, and startups. The best part of NFAIS is having that range of audiences to draw from.

Three things resonated with me particularly.

1) The personal research management mess Shumaker describes is very real to me. I perform the librarian role he envisions with faculty, grad students, and undergrads, taking the time to try out research tools so I can make good recommendations. One of the ways I do that is to organize each project I do a little differently, so I’m forced to try new approaches. To be fair, this also suits my taste for novelty. The result is that my personal research output is scattered through an array of web services (Confluence, Zotero, Dropbox, Google Drive, Refworks, Pinboard, Instapaper, off the top of my head) and several file formats (mainly text, Scrivener, Word, and PDF). I’m happy to consult, but I think I could use some help also….

One of the things that’s tricky about public web services is copyright, so I’m delighted that Kudos is addressing those concerns by using metadata rather than PDFs, which services like have had trouble with. Once past the learning curve, a Github repository would work well for managing a project, except that I wouldn’t be comfortable sharing licensed PDFs that way.

2) There was a strong theme of trying to make sense of huge amounts of information using the combination of machine learning and social networking. The examplars on offer were all big web companies (Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc). I find myself wondering if the scholarly pond is large enough to allow for the kinds of processing that goes into the algorithms at Google, Facebook, and Twitter. They draw much of their power from their huge scale and the sheer mass of data they have to analyze. It’s interesting to compare the hundreds of millions of users of those services to the millions of works of published scholarly literature.

3) I’m struck that the startups always seem to be science-oriented. As a humanities librarian I wonder why that is. I’m guessing the answer is some combination of money and culture. That is, it’s likely easier to get funded to help wrangle the literature of science because that information can be used to make more money. The profit angle on, say, similar mapping of French poststructuralist scholars is less clear.

The structure of humanities literature may be a factor also. Science is organized around journal articles, which are more manageable than books and monographs. It’s also possible to make a useful start with just the recent literature on a topic in the sciences, where to represent a school of thought in the humanities might take a few generations of book literature.


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Boston area academic librarian and instructional designer. News junkie. Fan of marine mammals, October.