Launching the Visual First Amendment

I am pleased to announce the launch of the Visual First Amendment, a project I have been working on for the past year with my colleague Dr. Chris Sula, and our wonderful group of graduate assistants.
But while the project took life this past year, it was born a few years back, in the semester of Spring 2006. I was teaching Information Policy and we were discussing in class the erratic nature of Supreme Court decisions. VisualFA
How is it possible, students asked, that requiring students to salute the flag was considered constitutional in 1940 (Minersville School District v. Gobitis), but three years later, the Court ruled that this requirement violates students’ free speech (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette). Is it because the understanding of freedom of speech has changed so dramatically over the years, or is it because the composition of the court has changed? How do such changes in the court affect rulings? Can we predict how someone will be vote if we know their nominating president, their gender, their religion, their law school?
These are all questions that can be answered, but until recently, with the rise of empirical legal research, finding these answers was a labor-intensive process in which the researcher would have to sort case-by-case, justice-by-justice, to identify any patterns in the connections between cases, justices and topics.
My colleague Chris Sula, whose research areas are in information visualization and digital humanities, also takes a great interest in First Amendment rights, and we joined forces to turn this idea into reality.
What followed was a year in which Chris and I, alongside with our graduate assistants, collected data from various sources (First Amendment Center, Wash. U, LII, Oyez, Wikipedia and more links), in various sizes, and in various formats. We met weekly as the VisualFA took shape. As we moved through the stages of development we discussed our vision for the VisualFA, we looked and many examples, thought of our target audience, what questions we would like to answer, what underlying data would we need to answer that, where do we get it, what format does it come from, how do we define the fields, what networks are we linking, how do we balance narrative with visualization, how do we present the tool. We read extensively about empirical legal research and contextualized our work with larger theoretical frameworks, particularly Critical Information Studies. We looked for software solutions that are open-source and easily manipulated. Our graduate assistants used their coursework to contribute to the projects, using courses in information visualization, government information, legal sources, programming, GIS and more. We rolled the project out slowly, not advertising it, but showing it to small groups, including during presentations at the GL15 and iConference. We introduced it to a group of student in the Fall 2013 semester, and two of our graduate assistants, conducted user/usability studies during Spring 2014.
And now: Drumroll: We are ready to officially launch the VisualFA. We consider it in perpetual beta and have many plans to development. But since those are never done, there is no end to how long you can delay the release. We encourage you to use the VisualFA and write to us and let us know about your experience. We are seeking suggestions to improve the tool, as well as intuitional partners (ACLU, Georgetown, any takers?). You can contact us at or @VisualFA

NYPL Map Warper tutorial

We are pleased to present to you a new edition of the Map Warper tutorial, created Dec. 2013 and uploaded March 2014.
In this tutorial, you will learn how to use the New York Public Library’s Map Warper tool to bring the past into the digital present.
This tutorial will show you how to overlay historical maps onto present day locations by georectfying, or warping maps from the NYPL collection.
The Map Warper allows you to align an historical map with its contemporary counterpart.
Rectified maps can be useful for a variety of reasons. “They can be used to study the rate of population growth, or the effects of a natural disaster on the landscape, or maybe you just want to compare your present day neighborhood to what it looked like in the past” (Rossy Mendez & Eric Mortensen, 2014, unpublished map tutorial)
Rectifying maps contributes to the public domain. Once a map is rectified it becomes part of the NYPL rectified map collection and can be used and accessed by subsequent users.
The Map Waprer allows users to become urban archeologists using digital tools to dig into the past and connect it to the present.

This tutorial was created by Corina Bardoff, Leah Honor and Bill Levay, MLIS candidates at Pratt Institute, School of Information and Library Science. This project was as assignment for the course Information Services and Sources. The class partnered with the Map Division at NYPL to update their tutorial, which was very long (over 10min.) and outdated.
Working in groups of 2-4 students and using Camtasia, the class created eight tutorials. All were excellent in their own way and the competition was hard, but ultimately the good people at NYPL, led by Matt Knutzen selected this tutorial (See on NYPL website).

The assignment helped students demonstrate several of Pratt SILS program-wide student learning objectives, specifically in the area of
Communication – Students demonstrate excellent communication skills and create and convey content
Technology – Students use information technology and digital tools effectively
User-Centered Focus – Students apply concepts related to use and users of information and user needs and perspectives
LIS Practice – Students perform within the framework of professional practice

We are glad to have had this opportunity to work with NYPL and look forward to future collaborations.

2013 booklist

[complete list] First, for the quick and dirty reviews. I end the year on a strong note with The correspondence of Paul Celan & Ilana Shmueli. The correspondence spans the last year and a half of Celan’s life, before he took his own life at 50. Shmueli is a Screen Shot 2013-12-26 at 7.51.19 PMchildhood friend to Celan, they reunited many years later, when she lived in Israel and he in Paris. They became lovers and confidants. During this year and a half, they met on three occasions, once in Jerusalem and twice in Paris. They corresponded daily, and one can not help but notice how efficient airmail is, a 3-4 day turnaround time in 1969-70). The letters are beautiful and painful and raw. She is both needy and strong and all there for him at the same time. He in sinking into depression and manages to emerge and embrace her here and there. He sends her poems and they write about poetry and his depression and together provide great insight into love, art and depression.
Best fiction books of the year are Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, The Son by Philip Meyer, and Pow! By Ma Yan (2012 Nobel laureate in literature). All three books do a wonderful job in transporting the reader to another world, another existence, and justify a totally different moral framework. All three books made me more understanding towards the “other”. Adam Johnson’s The orphan master’s son, belongs here are well.
Notable mention, also in the fiction category, goes to Claire Messud for The Woman Upstairs.
Best non-fiction go to David McCullough’s The greater journey, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve and The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. McCullough’s book on Americans in Paris between 1830-1900 was a great book to read as a backdrop for my visit in Paris. I learned so much about the state a medical training, or art and art trade, of sea voyages, of much much more. America was very backwards in many ways. Greenblatt’s The Swerve is another magic book. Concisely packed into 368 pages is the story of the recovery in the early fifteenth century of a Roman Screen Shot 2013-12-26 at 7.49.30 PMmanuscript by Lucretius. And with that a history of literacy and the power of the written word, popes and anti-popes and the bloody wars between them (the Middle Ages certainly make you feel better about the 21th century), and Epicurean philosophy and More’s concept of Utopia (which was a bit lost on me).
The third book in the category is The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, a book that was so well covered in reviews, it needs no introductions. Of course, of special interest (let’s face it, I’m not into biology) were the privacy and research practices that were taken at the time, or lack thereof, and to what extent this became a game changer. And if I were to predict, this game is about to change again.
What disappointed? First on the list is Just Kids by Patti Smith. I will not deny I read it through, but I found the writing to be rather plain. It has plenty of pace but little emotion or insight, and very little beauty. Another disappointment was Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. This time last year is was hailed on all the book shows as one of the best of 2012. I made it to about two-thirds of the book with a growing sense of discomfort, before deciding that these are all very twisted people and that I want no part in it.

And now, for the numbers:
I read a total of 22 books this year (down from 31 last year). Of these 12 (58%) were from the library and 10 were bought. I read more print (14) than kindle (8) books. Half of the books I borrowed from NYPL (6 of 12), were kindle books. Six of the books were in translation (from German, Swedish, Chinese, Portuguese) and three were in Hebrew.
I learned of 12 of the book from book or radio reviews, six were recommended by friends, and four were picked up while browsing in bookstores.
NYPL continues to be my first choice, although I can’t control the flow, and often end up returning books unread, or not even picking them up (The Goldfinch awaited me twice). My favorite bookstore continues to be Book Culture and Amazon plays an important role as well. I also buy quite a few children’s books as gifts, and for that Bank Street Bookstore is the only place to go (and they both need website makeovers).
Next year I’ll have 3-year cumulative data and will post aggregated stats with tables, and until than, I wish us all a great year in reading.

Power New York

@UWS café, one Wed. in Dec., 9am
The early hours are the hours of the regulars. The woman in the back grading papers, the other woman with a book, and the man with the newspaper. This week the mommy table is empty, school’s probably out.
The local daily parliament is in session: Four-five men in their 70’s sit and discuss politics and poetry and foreign-relations. Without a doubt retired professors. Today they are in the company of a 40th-ish looking man, a younger version of themselves. He must be a therapist or coach or social worker or wise man. Or perhaps, as my colleague C. later suggested, he was running a focus group. He was talking to them about aging. I am too far to be able to hear every word, but I hear some. The young man says: aging is about having to learn to do new things. There is a brief silence as people gather their thoughts. One of the professors, possibly the philosopher, says “Well, that depends on how you contextualize learning” and a conversation begins.
They are giving examples from their lives and attaching it to some philosophy or world view. It sounds like they are experiencing something very meaningful. They are relaxed and laughing and speak in turn.
My café-au-lait and cinnamon swirl are made to perfection. I am reading Paul Celan. This is here, the time is now.
@Downtown Chelsea-Union Square café, mid-Nov., shortly after the NYC primary elections
This place is power central. Not the cut throat Wall Street ends justify the means way, and not the power hungry of DC politics, but there is certainly a vibe here, an energy all its own. The power in fueled into positive energy by some measure of thoughtfulness or awareness or sensitivity. Or not. Sometimes it is just power.
Shortly after the NYC primary election I was sitting @ tarallucci e vino, absorbed in my book and not paying much attention to the conversations around me. Some twenty minutes later, and shift in tables. The two guys at the table to my right get up and leave, and a young man takes their table. I look up and move my stuff to make room. The young man to the right of the table that just left, is all excited and starts a conversation.
Did you hear what they were saying? He asks me, and proceeds to tell the newcomer and me, that the two both worked for the primary candidates, Quinn and de Blasio. They were both telling insider stories of their candidates, calling them drunk and abusive and rash and so on. And the whole time they are talking, I am tweeting live what they are saying, says our local host.
I am speechless on so many levels, but my first though is not, how could you, but, those two guys must have known this would happen.
So much for trust.
But most days it is not like this at all. People are civilized and are having pleasant conversations. My least favorite are the interviews. Interviews don’t seem to take place at offices anymore, just in cafés. Most of the time it becomes obvious very early on that this is going nowhere, but the interviewee is still trying to give it all she’s got. My favorite are two people with some work connection catching up. There are artist and designer, nutritionist and web designer. People working in the same office, people who went to school together. They are for the most part doing interesting things and often sound very invested, although almost as often they are trying to sell themselves. Yet, they are not robotic and not uniform. Each one has a unique personality and is candid about their strengths and weaknesses.

@upstate café, Winter Solstice
Sitting here at the crossroads of route 23 and 22, the people around me are a mix of weekenders as myself, the local antique shop owner, a few people who may be local or weekenders. The weekenders of Columbia County are unlike those of the Hamptons (designer cloths) or the Berkshires (tweed). This is the land of sensible wool, solid leather shoes, a bit of country plaid or a cashmere sweater. At the table across from me are two couples. They could be us, including the prerequisite European accent. They are discussing the upcoming winter solstice, and each one offers something related. One of the men says the word Bravado. Actually, what he says is the efficacy of false bravado. Hands down a winner for the power of self-assurance.
@nyc subway #2train. Dec. 17, 9am
They were already on the train when I got on at 96th st. Not my first choice, being stuck in a crowded rush hour morning train with an entire third grade, but here I am. And it soon becomes evident that it’s not really so bad. A group of kids around nine years old are seated along one side of the car, and an equal size group is standing. In all about 15 students, one teacher and one assistant. The kids are quiet and well behaved. The teacher is engaging them in an activity. She is calling out a letter of the alphabet, and the students call our professions that begin with that latter. It’s going pretty well until Q is called and no one comes up with a profession. The teacher, unfortunately, does not have a backup plans. I say to myself quarterback in hope that one of the kids will use it, but they are either too decent or don’t hear me. Now the teacher moves on to singing Christmas songs, and she does so in a delightful way. The kids know all the words are in singing in rounds and with a sweetness of children. I am humming along and smiling approvingly and exchange a smile with the woman standing next to me. She is half of age, of a different race, and she too does not look like she grew up caroling. It is in the subway where the best of the city comes together and I have my E.B. White moment.

Capturing government websites during the 2013 shutdown

The shutdown of the U.S. government between Oct. 1-16 left government websites in varying stages of disarray. Some agencies shut their websites completely, others remained accessible although no longer maintained, and others still seemed unaffected.
Libraries and commercial vendors stepped in to fill the gap. Librarians created LibGuides with updates on the status of government websites and sources, and commercial vendors provided temporary complimentary access to their databases that are based of government information. In the few days that past since the reopening of the government, these LibGuides ceased to exist and commercial access removed (in fact, access to Social Explorer ceased two days before the shutdown ended). This should not be surprising given the nature of immediacy of websites where here-today-gone-tomorrow is the prevailing approach and the historic value of documenting transitions is overlooked.

I thought it worthwhile to document government websites during the shutdown and was looking for a way to do so quickly and with the limited technology tools and skills available to me. The immediate solution was to capture government websites with Zotero and create a library of websites at the time on the shutdown.

Zotero is an open source bibliographic citation manager from George Mason University. It can be integrated to a web browser and when clicking ‘add’, it will capture the website displayed in the browser, saving a screenshot of the website as well as the bibliographic citation. It is quick and easy to use and answered the needs of this project.

My first priority was to capture all official government websites. Using the A-Z list from, I captured 405 websites from the legislative, executive and judicial branches as well as quasi-governmental websites. All the websites are available from this Zotero library.
Screen Shot 2013-10-20 at 6.34.38 PM

Next, I decided to capture the official social media websites used by the U.S. government. This part of the project was done by my colleague Anthony Cocciolo. We based the capture of social media sites on work previously done for the End of Term Harvest. Anthony wrote a script for a program that would crawl all the social media websites, import them into Zotero and capture their screenshots. The result is a library of 1356 government social media websites.
Screen Shot 2013-10-20 at 6.37.57 PM
The final step of this project is still in progress, and includes adding tags to all snapshots. These tags can allow future researchers to search the collection applying different filters such as shutdown status (Completely shut down, Available but not updated, No apparent change), by branch of government (Executive, Executive Office of the President, etc) and by agency (Dept. of Labor, Interior, etc.). These tags must be added manually and I will continue to do so over the next few weeks.

While we recognize this is not a true archive, we hope this capture will help those who are interested in learning more about the status of government website during the shutdown.


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