Carolyn Mayben Flowers: the Lady Prospector of Porcupine

June 9th, 2013 by

Working my way through some of the Canadian Collection on Commons this morning, I discovered a rather eye-catching picture:

Porcupine's lady prospector (HS85-10-24373)

“Porcupine’s Lady Prospector”, photographed at the Porcupine Gold Rush in the summer of 1911. Two things immediately strike the viewer: one is that the woman in the photograph is dressed decorously by the standards of Edwardian Canada, with a white blouse and a long dark skirt, despite the searing heat of that summer – Porcupine would later be devastated by wildfire – and the second is that she has a revolver slung casually on one hip.

There has to be a story here.

It turns out to be quite quick to put a name to her; the Timmins Daily Press captions a copy of the picture as Carolyn Mayben Flowers, and the Timmins Museum gives us still around in 1915, giving piano lessons. I haven’t been able to trace her after that, or indeed before. There is a “Cathaline Flowers” in Gowganda (aged 26, married, with a six-year-old daughter), but Gowganda is a long way from Timmins, and she doesn’t list herself as American…

Sitting in a tin can

May 15th, 2013 by

Randall Munroe, in conclusion, on the Hadfield video:

While that’s far from the most anyone’s paid for a guitar, it’s certainly a lot of money. And if playing music helps the astronauts relax and keep from going crazy while they’re crammed together in a tin can for months at a time, it’s probably a worthwhile investment.

As it happens, NASA – are we surprised? – have long before tested the combination of astronauts, musical instruments, and confined spaces.

When the Apollo 11 crew returned from the moon, they were swiftly locked inside the “Mobile Quarantine Facility”, a pressurised trailer designed to stop any lunar diseases escaping. (They were joined by a doctor and a technician, and presumably everyone carefully ignored the aircraft carrier they would have contaminated en route). After a couple of days, they were transferred to a set of living quarters with twelve other people, and spent the next three weeks waiting to see what happened.

(With impeccable logic, it was ruled that if any of them contracted inexplicable urgent medical problems, they would be transferred out of quarantine and into a hospital, which somewhat defeated the point…)

However… well, three weeks in what was essentially a laboratory. No matter how careful the psychological screening, it’s a daunting thought. “[O]nly meager provision had been made for recreation,” according to the official history; they had a ping-pong table and a television.

And, so, some enterprising genius shipped Neil Armstrong a ukulele. It is not recorded what his colleagues thought of this, but in the picture below they do seem to have an avid interest in the sealed door…

Interior view of Mobile Quarantine Facility with Apollo 11 crewmembers [S69-40210]

Wikipedians in Residence: a recap

April 24th, 2013 by

To my great surprise, I got named in a BBC story today. The article is about the upcoming Wikipedian in Residence at the National Library of Scotland; it’s really pleasing that as my own work at the British Library is coming to an end, there’ll be someone else taking up the work at an equally interesting organisation.

NLS is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Here is a list of all the current and past Wikimedians in Residence, and below is a list of everyone who is currently looking for a Wikipedian (or Wikimedian) in Residence that I’ve heard about – please let me know if I’ve missed any!

  • The National Library of Scotland (paid)

    Four-month residency working with the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh to help disseminate the Library’s content to Wikipedia, and work with librarians to help encourage understanding and use of the projects.

  • JISC “Wikimedia Ambassador” residency (paid)

    Nine-month program looking to build skills and expertise engaging with Wikimedia projects among JISC-funded research programs, and to help disseminate knowledge from that research. (In many ways, this fits very neatly with some of the work I was doing for AHRC…).

  • ZDF Television (Germany) (paid)

    Short-term program (until mid-October) to liaise between the organisation and Wikipedia contributors on – I love this – a project to fact-check political claims during the months before the 2013 federal election in September.

  • Smithsonian Institution (paid)

    Internship (with stipend), aiming to build on and sustain the existing partnership programs with the Smithsonian.

  • Swiss Federal Archives (paid)

    Three to six month program with a particular focus on digitising WWI-related photographs.

  • METRO (New York) Open Data Fellowship (paid)

    An interesting two-track program; an eight-week fellowship working as a Wikipedian in Residence for a consortium of cultural institutions, and also as an advisor on open data/licensing/etc. US only, students preferred.

  • Olympia Timberland Library (US) (volunteer)

    The library is looking for a “Wiki-Ninja” (now there’s something to put on a job description) to help build and sustain a local-history editing program among the local community.

And, of course, there’s plenty more institutions which are setting up similar volunteer programs without going through a formal recruitment process – it only tends to be needed when money gets involved. If you’re a Wikipedia volunteer thinking of what you could do with a local institution, now is as good a time as any to approach them…

How many hours?

February 19th, 2013 by

A newly released (and very interesting) paper – Using Edit Sessions to Measure Participation in Wikipedia – looks at estimating the level of participation in Wikipedia using an estimate of time spent contributing, rather than previous studies based on raw edit numbers, etc.

Their headline figure is an estimate that all of Wikipedia, up to an unspecified date in 2012, represents “a total of 102,673,683 total labor-hours”.

As David White noticed, this is many lifetimes of labour:

Some other ways to visualise these numbers:

  • Three years work by a mid-sized university of around 15,000 people (assuming a working day of eight hours and 250 working days in the year)

  • The users of the British Library reading rooms (capacity ~1500) working for thirty-three years.
  • One thousand “productive lives” (days as above, over fifty years, rather than 24/7 cradle to grave)

Or, in a sharp demonstration of the “cognitive surplus” theory:

  • Seven minutes writing time each from the global audience of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony.

All of Wikipedia, in all its languages, could have been written in the time it took the world to make a cup of tea during the speeches.

Wikipedia and the British Library

February 14th, 2013 by

Crossposted from the British Library Digital Scholarship blog

I’ve been working as the Wikipedian in Residence at the British Library for the past nine months. This is a one-year project funded by the AHRC, which aims to study the ways in which academics and specialists can engage with Wikipedia and similar projects.

It builds on the work previously done by a number of other Wikipedians in Residence at institutions around the world (full list); usually, they’ve worked with galleries or museums to help improve content relating to the collections of those institutions. The benefits for everyone are clear – Wikipedia improves in quality and scope; the institutions engage communities interested in their material, and reach potentially much broader audiences.

We’ve tried something a bit different this time around. While we’ve worked on some content projects, we’ve focused on working with researchers and librarians to help build skills and give people the confidence to engage directly with these communities. Over the past months, I’ve talked to well over three hundred people, demonstrating tools and encouraging them to think about making a first step. There are three approaches we’ve been looking at here:

  • Contextualising research. Part of the perennial problem of academic projects is that they are often very specialised; it can be very difficult to explain the details of the work to a layperson. Wikipedia allows researchers to help improve the “background” material needed to put their work in context, indirectly the supporting public impact of their work. Working with the International Dunhuang Project, the BL hosted a series of workshops over a week; here, curators, Wikipedia contributors, and students worked to write articles about Central Asian archaeology and exploration – see our report.
  • Capturing research. Wikipedia – a publicly-visible, constantly shifting draft awaiting further collaboration – is great for absorbing pieces of secondary research work that may never be formally published elsewhere. As a cataloguer, I used to spend time trying to chase down small details – who did this particular bookplate belong to? was this author the same as another under a pseudonym? what was the original title of this book, and was it first written in Russian or French? Many projects, especially those concentrating on historical networks or correspondence, produce many incidental biographies or summaries of events; Wikipedia can be a very efficient way to get this work out to a wider audience, rather than keeping it in a local silo. Next month, I’ll be working with the Darwin Correspondence Project in Cambridge to look at using some of their biographical summaries as the nucleus of Wikipedia articles.
  • Digital content. Wikimedia is one of the largest open-content communities around, and is always keen to use new high-quality material. If your project is producing data or images (or anything else) under a free license, there may well be someone wanting to use it in an interesting and transformative way – and to expose it to new audiences. At the Library, we’ve been working to get high-quality imagery from our Royal Manuscripts collection (recently digitised) to supplement related articles – such as the beautiful image illustrating the history of the fleur-de-lys in seven languages, below:
  • Clovis recevant la fleur de lys - XVe siècle

If you’re interested in what else we’ve done, you can see an outline presentation I gave to AHRC here.

I’m at the Library until the end of April – if you think you or a group you’re working with would be interested to hear more, please get in touch!

On pennies

February 2nd, 2013 by

The BBC has an article on whether or not the UK may end up withdrawing the penny as too small.

What the article apparently has forgotten, when carefully noting the examples of Canada, Australia, Brazil and New Zealand, is that the UK has withdrawn currency for being too small – the halfpenny circulated until the end of 1984 (you still found a couple in the backs of drawers when I was small). (It’s not the only coin to have been withdrawn in living memory; the pre-decimal farthing was withdrawn in 1960 as too small.)

It’s informative to look at how little something had to be worth to be withdrawn then. Using RPI, in 1960, 1/4d was worth £0.0196 (2011 values). In 1984, 1/2p was worth £0.0131 (ditto). The penny is worth substantially less than either earlier coin was at the time of its withdrawal…

Marking authorship in texts

December 27th, 2012 by

While writing something about Wikipedia, and talking about the idea of tracable attribution of text, I’ve been thinking of ways in which works with multiple discrete authors have displayed the different contributions of those authors.

At one extreme, there’s a fully “collaborative” work – no-one makes a distinction between the two authors, and while they’re named on the title page the writing is implicitly attributed to both. At the other extreme, we have individual chapters or articles – A writes chapter 1, B writes chapter 2, etc., and they may never have known of the other contributors.

In the middle, there’s cases where the work is broadly collaborative but with individual elements – the main text is jointly written, but particular contributors sign their own footnotes, sidebar sections, forewords, appendices, etc.

The one that interests me, though, is something I saw in I.S. Shklovsky’s Intelligent Life in the Universe when I read it as a student – I seem to have lost my copy in the intervening ten years, so this is from memory.

The book was originally published in the USSR in the early 1960s, and translated and expanded in English with the aid of Carl Sagan later in the decade. The original text was updated by Sagan, who also added several new chapters; the two then shared drafts, editing “each other’s” sections. Given the political climate, however, they were keen to avoid claiming to be in agreement on some sensitive topics, and so they experimented with explicitly marking the appearance of a single voice in the text itself.

In the end, the result ran something like:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisici elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. ▲Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur.▼ △Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.▽

Unmarked text was jointly written; black triangles marked remarks by one author, and white triangles by another. (At at least one point, delightfully, they started arguing.)

So, the question: was this something common in the period that I’ve just never noticed elsewhere? Is there a name for it? What other novel ways of marking authorship have been used?

Letters from the West

November 11th, 2012 by

The British Library has recently released the first tranche of some material it digitised as part of the Europeana 1914-1918 program. Most of this first installment involves papers from the India Office Records, which (for various reasons) ended up being transferred from the FCO to the British Library rather than the National Archives. As the Indian Government was responsible for India’s participation in the war, they include all sorts of unexpected primary sources rather than the more usual printed histories – official reports, intelligence briefings, policy papers, etc.

But the most interesting, by far, are the “Reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France”. The system of censorship in force at the time had two goals – the first was the most obvious, to prevent the transmission of negative rumours or sensitive information, either by obscuring the comments or by returning the letters unsent. The second was more subtle; the censors who were reading the letters used them to prepare reports on morale, the reaction of front-line soldiers to news, and the like. Inbound mail was also censored, with much the same effect.

The Indian reports contained a brief summary of themes and comments in the censored mail for the period, along with a selection of translated extracts giving the name of the sender and recipient, and a note of the language they had written in. The originals weren’t kept, and the chances are that very few survive anywhere.

Many letters deal with the fighting, with reports of the war. Others are simply slices of life, reports of the strange world far from home:

I had an opportunity of seeing London. It is an enormous city. It took about an hour and a half for the train to go through the city without stopping. The buildings are high, the streets are very clean. There are many big factories. Many kinds of gardens, fields without any walls, short cows with long hair and short horns are some of the objects that came to my notice. (“a Mahratta Brahmin”, 21/1/15)

No one has any clue as to the language of this place. Even the British soldiers do not understand it. They call milk “doolee” and water “deolo” [du lait, de l’eau]. There is much comeliness in this country. The people dress themselves like the English. Of black men they think a great deal. No one keeps “parda” as we do. The country is a very open one. The ladies shake hands freely. They are not bashful about this. They do as the English do. (“X.Y., a wounded Sikh”, 27/1/15)

We enjoyed the Saloono festival as best as it could be enjoyed by a foreigner in a distant country far from home. Here we managed to get camphor, sandal wood and other necessities of “Hawan” which was done with Vedic mantras in France, which the French people might never have expected. We also get “saimis” here, they are manufactured in Paris as well as in Italy and are sold in small packets. (Ram Seran Das, August 1915)

The French language:
Kya, tum mere sath aoge? = Walé wo wené éwac má?
Tumhara ghar kidhar hai = U é watr mézon?
Main tum ko pyar karta hun = Y ém wu boku. (Jemadar Sohbat Khan, 29/8/15)

When this letter was written we four, viz, Gul Din, Gul Shah, Rakib Shah, and I were sitting under a tree, eating apples and pears and had made a pipe out of an empty shell-case and were smoking, with the pipe standing in front of us. (Jemadar Zar Gir, 57th Rifles, 30/8/15)

In this country rain falls every day. The country is cold and abounds in fruit. (Sowar Sharif Khan, 13/9/15)

As to your request to send you a copy of the Qu’ran, I have already written and told you that I cannot get one here. What is the use of repeating it? If I could get one here, I would send it. You say the Qu’ran can be got in London, but London is 52 miles from here [Brighton] and we do not go there. (Khadim Ali Khan, 17/10/15)

These are the result of skimming two or three volumes; there’s a wealth of social history buried in these papers, and it would really reward some intensive reading.

They’re all listed through the Digitised Manuscripts interface, which is a little tricky to use; for reference, here’s a full index of the digitised papers by date covered:

The origins of “scientists”

October 16th, 2012 by

(Hello all! I haven’t touched this blog in months. I really should post an update soon…)

So, today is Ada Lovelace Day. I’m working on preparing some material for the Royal Society event we’re running on Friday (more of which anon), and looking at Orlando to find what content is in there.

To my surprise, for Mary Somerville, it notes:

March 1834: Mathematician William Whewell’s anonymous assessment of On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences by MS in the Quarterly Review took up the question of gender difference (and proposed the adoption of a new word, ‘scientist’). This word, which Whewell had coined in a talk in 1833, he now proposed in print as necessary to embrace all enquirers into different aspects of the natural world.

Well, that was an unexpected footnote. The word “scientist” first appeared in print in response to a review article by a woman writing to argue for a uniform model of the natural sciences.

scientist, n. 1. A person with expert knowledge of a science; a person using scientific methods. [citations:] 1834 Q. Rev. LI. 59.

The encyclopedia anyone can [be told to] edit

February 10th, 2012 by

A moment of amusement, from the (thankfully) long-distant past:

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, which contains more than 100,000 entries and fills fifty-one volumes, includes some distortions so flamboyant as to be beyond belief. These are an old story. But such distortions have importance […]

Almost everyone has heard about what happened to Beria in the Encyclopedia. After his liquidation, subscribers were notified, with full instructions, that they should snip out the article about him and insert in its place substitute articles which were duly enclosed, about the Bering Strait and an obscure eighteenth-century statesman named Berholtz. These were the best available substitutes beginning with ‘Ber’. During Stalin’s day when the party line changed on some matter so important that the Encyclopedia itself had to be changed, subscribers were obliged to turn in the volume affected to the party secretary; it was pulped and a new whole volume, cut and patched, was then sent out to the subscriber. Nowadays the reader is allowed to keep the book, and trusted to make the proper emendation himself. Progress!

Another person ‘expelled’ from the Encyclopedia was a Chinese Communist leader, Kao Kang. To replace him, a substitute page went out dealing with a city in Tibet. […] In their haste to make the revision, the editors overlooked the fact that the same Tibetan city also appeared elsewhere in the Encyclopaedia, spelled differently.

— John Gunther, Inside Russia Today (Penguin, 1964).