– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

Posts tagged “23things

Thing 22

Thing 22 (we’re getting there!) for 23 Things For Research is Google Docs/Drive & Dropbox – that is, being able to share, and edit and share, documents online, with yourself or with other people.

I don’t have a lot of collaborative editing to do, or enormous files to share. However, I do often want to be able to send documents to myself, and I wanted to explore possible ways of sharing large image files online when I want to send an image to an enquirer but its size is going to break the email system. So will either or both of these work for me?

Google Drive

I used my personal account for this experiment – I hadn’t looked at Google Drive since it’s been named that, and I discovered that there were already some files in it from the Docs olden days! I deleted most of them.

Word: I uploaded a short Word doc and was able to edit and save, and then download the saved edited version to replace the older version on my work drive.

Access: Then I tried an Access dabatase – total fail. Also it seems I am not using the most up to date browser, which doesn’t help. So I guess if I need access to databases, I’ll still be emailing them to myself. And if I need to populate one away from work, I’ll do it as a Word table and then paste it back into the master list. Clunky but safe.

Images: I successfully, if a bit slowly, uploaded a 9MB image, which isn’t large in my collections but is too big to send via the university email system. I then managed to share it with myself (on another email address, as though with any third party) and managed to view, open and save it at full resolution. It works! It would be clunky to do with several or indeed many files at a time, though.

It does work for Word documents, but then I still have to save the latest revised version from Google Drive to my work drive, so there’s little difference from just emailing it to myself, except I don’t have to download and save the document to work on it away from my work computer. No great advantage so far, but it’s useful to know that this exists.


Dropbox is a non-starter for me to use at work since it requires a software download and I am categorically not allowed to do that. I think this would be useful for someone who doesn’t have a shared network/drive at work where most recent versions of all files need to be stored. If I were a student or doing more of my own research, particularly if I were travelling or using lots of different libraries, I might well find it useful to have a lot of my files stored online rather than in my own laptop. It could also be a handy backup source, though I’ve heard the occasional horror story about wholesale file corruptions which then get copied to working versions on computers… I suppose that’s a hazard anywhere.

Now that I know more about it, and it seems very simple to use for single items, I may well find Google Drive quite useful for sharing small numbers of large image files; for instance, a few photos of a particular Old Member for an individual family history enquirer. Good to have explored this, and it may prove useful in other ways later. Dropbox is out for the moment because of the downloads restrictions at work.

Failing any more to say about Google Drive, I shall add my lament to the general wail about the imminent demise of iGoogle. Alas for the friendly iGoogle home page and its power to organise me from any screen with internet access. So handy for those of us who desk-hop.

Thing 16

Thing 16 of 23Things for Research is Sharing Research Online – which for me meant Exploring Prezi.

I like the look of Prezi. Zooming around a big canvas is impressive, and the freedom from slide format sounds interesting – my slides are always going over the edges in Powerpoint. But how much more can it really do than Powerpoint? How much better is a good prezi than a good Powerpoint? (yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as a good powerpoint) And how much Prezi learning is needed to make a Prezi significantly better than Powerpoint? Is that investment worthwhile?

Well, here is a link to my first Prezi. It is not complete – I haven’t filled in the text under the Cataloguing frame, which is the important and complicated one, because I had a whizzy idea or two that I didn’t make time to figure out. (I didn’t embed it as apparently Prezi and WordPress have some issues to iron out there, or at least WordPress does.)  Well, actually it’s the second – the first one was hopeless; you can probably see that on Prezi too, but don’t bother. As with all these things, the how-tos are fine but really you have to dive in and fiddle about for ages to get to grips with what’s going on. The ‘How to make a great Prezi Prezi’ is lovely, but it should be called ‘This is what a great Prezi can be like once you are really really good at it’ (not least because a couple of the basic editing tools have changed their appearance and workflow a bit). Eventually I figured out a few of the basics, like what does not work, and it’s not until that happens that specific how-tos become useful, e.g. ‘how the dickens do I rotate these stupid footprints? this is easy in Powerpoint!’

My conclusion, having clicked impatiently through a good few of them, is that the vast majority of Prezis, like the vast majority of presentations prepared with any e-tool, are not great quality. There is capacity within Prezi to do some interesting fresh things, but most don’t use Prezi’s features to greatest capacity or best effect – so most of the time those features are wasted. For this topic (all I could think of for the moment – do good Prezis require innovative subjects?) Powerpoint would have been just fine, and perhaps better. Certainly quicker for me! Maybe this looks a bit newer, but so what, this is not a film. Maybe I’ll come up with a topic that screams Really Cool Prezi at me.

In fact, I already have one of those. I”m giving a much-illustrated talk at a conference in a couple of weeks, and I wish I could use Prezi for it because it looks so slick, and the zoomy quality would be useful, but I’ll be sticking with ye olde Powerpoint this time because I just do not have time before then to sit down and learn enough to make a Prezi look really good. It makes me wonder who does. Seriously, I’d have to fiddle with this for a seasick-making week before I was sufficiently good at it to make it enough better than Powerpoint to be worth spending a week on. (I had to do that with powerpoint too, years ago, but there was no predecessor to Powerpoint and I was a student then…) Also, how would you print a Prezi? those boring slide notes prints can be really useful at (and after) conferences.

And Prezi, for goodness’ sake improve your search function! I couldn’t even find my own Prezis without logging in!

Thing 15

Thing 15 for 23 Things for Research is Podcasts & Videos. I’d been putting it off because I did have an idea I wanted to try , and I knew it would take some time to filter through the suggested platforms and try things out. Unfortunately, it took less time than I expected.

Enquirers are generally pleased to have digital images of items from the collections, and they are generally satisfied with their quality, but they often have difficulty finding their way through Flickr’s rather too many layers of display to the biggest Original size at highest resolution, which is of course what you want if you are trying to read a medieval title deed etc.

So I thought a screencast would be a good way of demonstrating the less than obvious path to those who are having difficulty discovering it for the first time – once you have it, it’s tedious but clear. I wanted a silent film, as more appropriate for viewing (and creating) in a library setting. And I wanted the option of adding highlighting and text. In fact, I had already seen what I wanted using Videopress, but it’s a paid service. I may have to go for that, but I won’t be making a lot of such things and I wanted to at least be able to test out a first attempt for free. But I also have the restriction that I cannot download any software  whatever to my computer at work, and many people can’t. The free versions of Screencast-o-matic and Jing both require downloads. Non-starters for me, unless I lug my own laptop to work 😦

I knew I could do what I wanted, at least for this presentation not using video, with PowerPoint. But it does take ages and I wanted the challenge of trying something new. Hey ho. Instead, I made a little guide using a few still images plus some highlighty circles (generated in PowerPoint) and posted them as a set on Flickr. I have a feeling that looking at screen shots of Flickr on Flickr may well prove confusing for some… here it is. For a fancier version, I think I’d stick with Powerpoint for now. I’ll have to revisit the possibilities again later, because the conservators and I would like to do a series on correct handling of different formats of documents, bound, flat and otherwise.

Thing 17

Thing 17 for 23Things for Research is Exploring images. Basically, it’s exploring Flickr. Which I use. So that’s handy!

I’ve uploaded about 40,000 images to Flickr by now, and have had more than 106,000 views of individual images. The bulk of the images are of (mostly entire) medieval manuscripts, but I’ve also added old photo albums, medieval title deeds, 19th century sketchbooks, letters, diaries, literary manuscripts, administrative records, transcriptions & finding aids… and my own photos of Balliol’s gardens in all seasons, which have proved surprisingly popular!

Flickr doesn’t fill my criteria for an online exhibition facility, because it’s set up so that photos have to be viewed in a highly structured, linear way. However, it makes a very good repository for zillions of images that do need to be arranged in a highly structured, linear way – e.g. a collection of Balliol’s medieval manuscripts, containing numerous sets, each of those containing images of each page of a manuscript, presented in (usually!) the same order as in the original book. It mirrors the structure of the real collections and their contents, and it’s easy to refer enquirers to freely available, high-resolution sources.

I also refer enquirers to Flickr when they ask for visual information about some building or other physical aspect of Balliol as it is now – because they will find a better pool of those images on Flickr than the college has itself. One good reason to continue to use and to add to it is that Flickr is becoming well known as perhaps the top place to go online to search for images of whatever particular something – much more effective than the image tab on search engines. So if it’s the best, more people will be using it, and it’s worth having a presence there. For instance: wish you’d got up early enough to catch all the merry May Day madness in the streets of central Oxford this morning? For a flavour of the atmosphere, you could do worse than start here.

What do we then do about online exhibitions? For a long time I wanted some kind of image slideshow facility on the college’s website, but now that seems dated and limited, no more interesting than what Flickr can offer (and more expensive!) Instead, I’m inclined to try some of the presentation tools I’ve investigated during 23Things – for instance, Prezi and some of the newspaper/magazine tools such as scoop.it, because they provide ways of presenting images and text in more visually flexible and interesting ways – one item doesn’t simply have to follow another; you can relate several things to each other in different ways. This also takes more planning and therefore time but I think I’ll end up with better presentations in the end. And blog posts are a great way of highlighting a single item, especially isolated ones such as my recent mystery postcard accession.

What about copyright? Well, I probably should mark my own photos of the gardens, but I don’t think anybody will be nicking them for a book and making millions with it. As for the images of archives and manuscripts, of course I am careful to avoid publishing anything whos copyright I know to be owned by another individual or institution, but for older material that belongs to Balliol, I’m with the British Library on this one. I think as much as possible should be as available online as possible, for reasons of both access and preservation.

Flickr has lots more potential than just getting good-quality images from A to B – indeed, I wish it were rather less clicky to get from one original-size image to the next in the set, and that there were a filename-preserving way of allowing viewers to download whole sets. I do use several other Flickr features:

tags: obviously, this is the most efficient way to ensure that your photos are picked up in searches!

descriptions: I use set descriptions to provide basic information about the source material, and to refer the viewer back to our website for more structured in-depth information, catalogues etc. So far I haven’t used individual photo descriptions much, as it would take huge amounts of time and would duplicate information on our website – I don’t really want to add a lot of new information to Flickr, because it’s hard to keep track of. But on the other hand, there is potential here for crowdsourcing/community projects such as mapping and transcription – more investigation and planning needed.

flickandshare: a 3rd-party app that allows you to send, or include in your set description, a link that lets viewers download whole sets of your photos. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to preserve your filenames, so viewers may have to download the images one at a time from a list of filenames, which is tedious but at least less irritating than having to click through to and download each individual original-size image direct from Flickr. Come on app people!

map: when marking up sets that relate to a particular place (especially outside Balliol, such as college livings, formercollege properties or addresses on old letters) I like to pin one or two (more makes it crowded and messy) to Flickr’s map – even though it does then label each mapped photo as taken in that place, which is hardly ever true in our case! This means that users who browse the map for a place that interests them will happen across Balliol’s relevant historic photos during their own search, rather than my waiting for them to make a structured investigation for e.g. documents about that place, which they might never do. And then they might just get interested…

groups: I’ve joined and posted photos to a number of Flickr group pools – these usually have quite narrow remits, and are a way of becoming visible to different and perhaps unexpected potential audience. Here’s my list of groups – some predictable (Archives & archivists on Flickr), others perhaps not quite so much so (Tulips in Bloom) Come and have a look!

  •     Manuscript Journeys (16 members)
  •     Oxfordshire Churches (241 members)
  •     Art of Heraldry (390 members)
  •     Tulips In Bloom (80 members)
  •     Manuscripta mediaevalia (395 members)
  •     archives & archivists on flickr (226 members)
  •     The Great War Archive Flickr Group (540 members)
  •     Oxford Colleges (82 members)
  •     Oxfordshire Gardens (25 members)
  •     Historical Type and Lettering (553 members)
  •     Sealing Wax (95 members)
  •     ArchivesOnFlickr (298 members)
  •     Handwritten Ledgers (19 members)
  •     converted buildings (15 members)
  •     Archivists (23 members)
  •     Old Paper (15 members)
  •     Book Inscriptions (169 members)

Any recommendations of other Flickr functionalities I should explore? suggestions welcome!

To sum up: Flickr has a dual function for my image collections: as a structured ‘digital repository’ – of facsimiles only, I hasten to add! – to refer enquirers to who have already been in touch about something specific; and as an opportunity for serendipitous discoveries that may provoke a view or two, or may lead to more browsing, focussed interest and an enquiry.

23 Things for Research roundup

It’s taking me a long time to work through the Bod’s excellent 23Things for Research exercise, but I haven’t forgotten about it, or stopped working on Things, and I’m already thinking of Things I’d like to add to a more archivists/manuscript curators/archival scholars & researchers-specific similar project… here’s a roundup of the Things with links to the Bod’s posts setting out each Thing task, and to my posts about them – more posts & links to come:

Things 1-3: Project orientation, create a blog, set some personal project goals – my post

Thing 4: signing up – no post

Thing 5: Explore others’ project blogs – my post

Thing 6: Online personal brand – my post

Thing 7: Twitter  – my post

Thing 8: RSS feeds – my post

Thing 9: Social stories tools – my post and P.S.

Thing 10: Facebook – my post

Things 11 & 12: LinkedIn & Academia.edu – my post

Thing 13: Presentations & podcasts – my post

Thing 14: Wikipedia – my post

Thing 15:  Podcasts & videos – my post

Thing 16: Sharing research online – my post

Thing 17: Exploring images online – my post and P.S.

Thing 18: Creative Commons & copyright – my post

Thing 19: Reference management tools – my post

Thing 20: publishing links – my post

Thing 21: online scheduling tools – my post

Thing 22: GoogleDocs & Dropbox – my post

Thing 23: to sum up – my post

Thing 14

Thing 14 for 23Things for Research is Wikipedia.

Well, we all know and use Wikipedia. I think it’s a great thing – but like most powerful tools, it’s a good servant but a bad master. That is, if you don’t know anything about the subject you are using it to research, you had better be armed with very good critical skills.

Wikipedia may have a strong citation policy, but I very often find that the citations are either without value, very biased or simply broken links. However, when it works it can be very useful.

I find Wikipedia most useful for quick guides to a subject about which I know nothing at all, to give an overview of aspects I should probably be aware of, and to provide a few links for other places to look that are likely to be relevant. I would give it credit in a bibliography as one of the sources consulted, because that’s only the truth. But I would never quote its content – nor take seriously anything that did! We all know the old chestnut about a giraffe being a hrose built by a committee. So I thought I’d check an article on a subject that isn’t one I work on directly, but which interests me and about which I already know something – from printed academic sources – to see whether cracks appear. I’ve combined this with another favourite function of Wikipedia – its cross-language article links.

For instance, lately I’ve been investigating the early documentation and translation of the revelations of St Birgitta (Bridget) of Sweden. There isn’t much about this online in English; logically, a lot of it is in Swedish. I read Swedish, and I know something about Birgitta and medieval text translation. But for this particular subject, I don’t know the specialist terms in Swedish that would get me good search results. So I started by looking up ‘Birgitta of Sweden’ on Wikipedia. Turns out she’s listed as Bridget in English, and the neutrality of the article is disputed. I don’t think it’s a particularly well-organised or helpful summary of her life, works or reception, and there aren’t enough footnotes or links. And, major omission, there isn’t a description in this article of, or a separate article about, Birgitta’s Revelations, her body of written work – at least not in English. In fact there’s very little about her writings at all. There isn’t even a link to the English translation of her Revelations that somebody has put into Wikimedia Sources. And that’s a whole other can of worms in itself.

The articles in different languages are definitely not translations of each other – in this case at least they are not organised in the same way and they emphasise different aspects of her life, works and influence. It was worth looking up the French, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, Norwegian and Danish articles for sections on iconography, a chronology, lists of scholarship on the subject in different languages, and even different facts about her historical and political position. The articles vary widely in their length, structure, content and focus.

I find the talk (editing discussion) pages are often full of rather cranky and pointless back-and-forth.

The English article on Bridget of Sweden is one I’d be tempted to ‘improve’ if I had time – maybe after I’ve learned more about the subject myself. This was a test case for this post, but I have found similar problems with articles on other European saints before, many of which are stubs or orphans.

Wikipedia is a good place to gather information on a subject and set out a general introduction to it, preferably in a clear, structured way, before sending the reader off in other directions of more in-depth investigation with (more or less vetted) links to further reading. Wouldn’t it be great to have a list of surviving copies of Bridget’s Revelations in Latin and various European vernaculars – manuscript and early printed editions, of course – with links to the holding institutions and to online images or critical apparatus where available! This is exactly the kind of thing that needs researchers and curators from different countries to contribute, while not needing to formally collaborate. But by nature it isn’t coordinated, and it’s highly fallible. If I were marking student essays, I’d start the course with a notice in large red letters saying that any essay with actual Wikipedia citations would be sent back with the advice to do some real research.

Things 11 and 12

Things 11 and 12 for 23Things for Research are investigating LinkedIn and Academia.edu.

I haven’t signed up for either before. Re Academia.edu,  I’m not an academic and don’t feel the need for a place to list my CV or publications (of which there are none anyway, just lots of citations/acknowledgements in other people’s work, and those are not substantive but generic ‘thanks to librarians and archivists in this long list of places I did research’ type things). Could it be any use to people who are thinking about PhD proposals or looking for pre-qualification work experience in archives or…? I don’t know. It does seem very specifically for career academics whose main function is getting research published. At least it has categories for ‘talks’ and conference papers. I haven’t looked at the teaching side yet – maybe that’s just listed in one’s CV.

I only know LinkedIn from the incessant stream of ‘invitations’ I get from people I know or don’t know to join it, and those of course make me not want to. I feel these are much more personal networks about individuals than I need professionally. I don’t have much of an individual or personal professional profile anywhere. Perhaps I should? So far I’ve felt my online work time was better spent improving the visibility and content of the collections I look after. And I wouldn’t want it to become yet another communication stream I constantly have to check – though I suppose, as with flickr, facebook or twitter, any communication via these networks could easily be filtered into my work email inbox.

Still, my philosophy, for the purposes of 23Things for Research at least, is: New Things Are Good. Therefore, into LinkedIn and academia.edu I go…

LinkedIn signing up review:

  • give my home postal code? you are kidding! the work one, of course.
  • sigh – Industry categories include Libraries and Information Services but not archives… I chose the latter.
  • I skipped the ‘import email contacts’ bit – I am not inflicting any of those annoying emails on anyone else! I’m sure I can find useful contacts by myself…
  • haha the account confirmation email went straight to the junk mail box! this is going to be a problem…
  • now – how am I going to tailor my contacts here? is it worth having more or less a replica of my personal facebook friends, only all of us have our Work Faces on in LinkedIn? Do I want to make Connections with everybody who’s ever sent me an enquiry? Should I restrict my connections to librarians, archivists, curators, conservators? How does this work? I will have to see…
  • It might possibly be useful or interesting to see who’s looked at my profile on LinkedIn, but the thought of every profile-owner being able to clock my visits, in person, not just as ‘a reader from Milton Keynes’ or whatever the blog monitors often show, is not so nice. Hmmm.
  • I wish it would not use ‘school’ when it means ‘ tertiary education’.
  • What I can see about other people is quite restricted with a free account – I can’t see the names of people I know and work with!

Academia.edu signing up review:

  • Academia.edu is very creaky at the moment, I will have to update later…

I am getting dizzy from all these passwords, clever PW management tricks or no… can’t spend any more time on this today. Conclusion: for both networks, so far, from me, a big hmmm…


A PS about another of the extra posts, this one on ‘Blogging to engage’ – the college archivists have a collective online presence at Oxford Archives but it doesn’t provide any way for us to pool our knowledge or make our frequent collaborations visible and available to researchers. Many of us only work for our colleges one or two days a week, and all of us have a hard time just keeping up with the incoming enquiries and improving the descriptions of our collections. But as a group, we have tremendous amounts of knowledge of the kinds of information that has been accrued over the centuries in Oxford archives, much of it as yet unplumbed, waiting to be unlocked by researchers in all sorts of fields. What’s the best way for us to help them to do that? Something to think about, even if most of us don’t have time – or quite possibly remit from our respective employers – to do that.