Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The_Lex v. The Wisconsin Historical Society: Weekend Two

This looks pretty advanced compared to what I was using

Took another trip to The Wisconsin Historical Society this past weekend. This time, I reserved a Zipcar, drove up Saturday morning, studied all day then drove back after a Nepalese dinner. Proved more efficient, more affordable and heck, even more fun as I got to listen to my iPod over car speakers.

Even after the $10 in tolls, $5 max per day parking fee at State Street Campus Ramp and mileage costs, the Zipcar route ended up more affordable than the bus and hotel route. Top that off with driving a hybrid Honda Civic that averaged 40 mpg even on the highway, I think I did quite well, even by environmental standards.

I decided to take the trip spontaneously. The last weekend I went felt kind of disappointing. Not only did I not find anything that felt useful, I didn't even finish looking at everything, just a bunch of letters with really bad handwriting. Leaving, I planned to come back some day. . .when I budgeted for it.

Come the past Friday, though, and I hankered to get back up there. All week I had been studying the books in my home library on the topic of Brook Farm, George Ripley and the controversy between the old school Boston Unitarians and The Transcendentalists. I had first gone up to The Historical Society to find a source that would shed a light on Ripley's inspiration to start Brook Farm. By Friday, I hadn't found the answer to that question at home, either. The compulsion to do more research at The Historical Society had dug its feet into my attention, and it wouldn't go away until I scratched the itch.

I get crazy like that.

During the five hours at The Historical Society, I spent them all in the microfilm room, reading those damned letters with bad handwriting.

First off, I want to thank JohnnyHank for the tip about using the microfilm machine from the last entry. The ability to move the part that holds the microfilm, the lense and the light helped a ton.

Since Ripley occasionally wrote upside down, sideways and whichever way he desired to end his letters back on the first page, rotating the view could prove valuable. Sure, whoever made the microfilm would put another copy of the first page at the end of the letter, this time upside down or sideways. Reading the upside down stuff out of order had its uses, nonetheless, especially when trying to find my place on the microfilm when I first arrived at The Historical Society.

The biggest benefit from JohnnyHank's tip was that he got me to question what I knew about the microfilm machine. When you don't know much, questioning what you know has its benefits.

Last entry, I wrote in the comments that I thought I was projecting the wrong side of the microfilm until I put it through the machine in reverse. At that point, I realized the text was printed on the microfilm at a 90 degree angle, and I thought that was the only issue.

Boy, was I wrong. The text was on the right side of the microfilm, but I had loaded the film incorrectly! I probably should have realized that originally when I couldn't rewind the film. The way I had loaded it, I could only advance the film.

This past weekend, though, while rotating the lense/film holder, I noticed a diagram on the machine that showed how to correctly load the film into the machine. After loading the film correctly, I could move it forwards and backwards, providing me a lot more freedom. The "prehistoric" microfilm reader also made for easier reading than a computer screen.

It makes for easier reading, at least, when you have the correct kind of light. The first machine I had was in a pretty bad position. It had too much overhead light from the fluorescents up above. I don't know exactly how to describe other than imagine driving at dusk time, when it's the hardest time of day and night to see. You think you know what you're seeing, but you're not so sure. Everything is obscured and illusionary. You have to concentrate and spend a lot of cognitive energy to make sense of everything around your car that you just want to pull over, take a breather and wait until the sun sets to see better again.

Or maybe I can better describe by saying the text looked especially smudged and blurry. It looked like someone wrote something with a pencil, erased it then smudged it all over the place with their hand when they tried to brush away the remnants of the eraser on a piece of paper.

The whole lighting situation got so bad that I had to move to another microfilm reader. Less light rained down on it, so I had an easier time reading it. The handwriting still sucked, but I didn't have to squint or think so hard to try translating what I read. I didn't have to try figuring out whether light was causing the problem with the interpretation or if I just found the handwriting troublesome.

Within a couple hours I had read or scanned through the rest of the letters and picked out ones that I wanted to scan onto my flash drive. I chose a long one written while in Europe that mentioned Brook Farm and a bunch of other ones that proved especially difficult to read. Most of those amounted to ones written by Ripley's wife at the time.

Scanning from microfilm proved a chore in itself. I zoomed the view of the microfilm much bigger than "fit to page" or 100%. I would guess that I had zoomed it into 125% to make reading it easier on the eyes once I had printed it out on paper, which I plan on doing, too, to further help not damage my eyes. Biggest problem with scanning the pages in at 125% is that I had to take two scans of every full page.

Things get even more complicated from there. I had to highlight part of the view on the computer of what I wanted to scan. This part got tedious because the person who made the microfilm copied the pages in a weird sequence. Maybe Ripley has some responsibility for the strangeness of the layout. The letter would start out with a view of one page, the next page on the microfilm would have two pages of the letter on it, the next microfilm page would only have one letter page, then two letter pages, one letter page, two letter pages, etc. etc.

To scan these varying layouts of one page, two page, one page, etc., I had to keep manually moving the microfilm reader attached to the computer. Advancing, rewinding, rotating, changing the brightness and a whole bunch of features I could control with the computer. Moving the microfilm side to side, though, I had to play with the reader manually.

Whoever makes that hardware and software needs to add in controls to move the film side to side. Not only would it be more convenient. Having that capability would also help to navigate the film more precisely.

Fat chance programmers will listen, though. In my experience these days, a good user interface has gone out the window as a priority.

I ran into a weird issue after a bit. The external microfilm reader for my computer had somehow slid too close to the reader connected to the computer to the left of me. The source reel for Ripley's kept getting stuck on the other machine, causing my reader to hiccup and fail to advance. The reel on the right would try to pull over some film, it hiccuped then just stopped.

After awhile of just trying to work with it, not knowing the problem and not wanting to bother the attendant, the reader and the computer simply stopped communicating. The computer wouldn't acknowledge the existence of the reader. The software shut down. The attendant fixed the communication issues by turning off the reader then turning it back on.

The collision between the machines kept occurring, however. Enough frustration led me to figure out the problem. Separating the two readers from each other fixed the problem for the rest of the day.

So by the end of my session there, with only a half hour left until The Society closed, I had scanned five letters, half page by half page. Even more annoying, each half page has its own PDF file. If I had Adobe Acrobat and not just the Reader, I can merge these files together instead of having these files all over the place.

Right now, I have all the half pages in separate folders according to which letter they correspond to. Handling the scans in this fashion gets on the nerves of my anal side. Beggars really can't be choosers, though, can they.

The scans I got, sadly enough, may not be very useful to me. In fact, the collection of letters may not help much with my paper. I've already written enough tonight, however. This part of the story will have to wait until another day.

Relevant Links: Adobe Acrobat, Brook Farm, microfilm, George Ripley, JohnnyHank, The Transcendentalists, The Wisconsin Historical Society, Zipcar

Sunday, June 07, 2009

My Trip to the Wisconsin Historical Society: Another Shout Out to Historians

I'm typing this one up on the Smartphone on the way home from Madison, WI. I came up last night straight out of work on a bus (with the L in Chicago su-cking!), stayed a night in a hotel that couldn't filter out the sounds of revellers at the bar across the street then got up this morning, had breakfast and got to the Wisconsin Historical Society at 10ish. An hour behind schedule, but it's the weekend.

I spent the day doing my first ever active historian work. A young guy and an older guy gave me an intro to the archives room then fetched me the commonplace book for George Ripley from the years 1822 to 1840.

George Ripley pretty much founded the Brook Farm Association of . . ., the socialist-Associationist community I'm currently trying to write about. I've written a little bit here and there about Ripley and Brook Farm. Most of what I've written lately has been to complain that Ripley should have kept more journals or, at the very least, provided much more articulate reasons as to his motivations for starting Brook Farm and why certain organizational processes were started there. That way, people like me could evaluate the results of Brook Farm better.

Ripley used his commonplace book to write down quotes, his thoughts on philosophers and critics and, near the end, he used it to work on projections for calculating, budgeting and figuring out the feasibility of crop growing on Brook Farm. I used to use my Palm Pilot for the same thing and have started to do so with my Smartphone.

I pored over the commonplace book for a half hour or so. Ripley organized it by subject pretty well. He probably did so for his own benefit, but it certainly helps the historian. He should have put more of his thinking and kept writing in it. I have the feeling that he just got too busy after 1840, trying to publish magazines, working on cyclopedic collections of philosophical and critical writing, trying to make Brook Farm work then working his ass off to pay debt leftover after Brook Farm dissolved.

The biggest faux pax on my part consisted of planning to use pens to take notes. The Society asks researcher not to. Doesn't take too much thought to understand their reasoning. Pens have a higher chance of leaking and exploding ink all over these mostly one-of-the-kind artifacts. Pencils and hands may smudge graphite on the documents, but I think there's a much smaller chance of the happening. I didn't to take any notes, though, so I didn't break any rules.

Even though if I destroyed that copy of the book, it wouldn't be as bad as other documents. Harvard University has the original copy, and this is just a copy. Yeah, getting another copy would probably be a huge pain the ass, but at least I wouldn't have been responsible for destroying a one-of-kind artifact that makes up our cultural heritage.

Doing that would just make me feel like a big jerk.

Done with the commonplace book for the moment, I went down to the microfilm room. No problem finding the microfilm I wanted since the older guy from the archives printed out a page that had the information for me. Just took me a minute or two to figure out the organizing system.

The first microfilm machine didn't help me, but the machine didn't do anything wrong. It was an old school machine that pretty acts as a projector on a screen with user interface device to navigate through the microfilm. The problem lay on the film: the text was published on the film so it was rotated 90 degrees to right-side up. I would have to twist my head 90 degrees on end then put some cognitive load on me to translate rotated print into correctly angled print. Gravity and our sense of balance really makes things difficult for us that.

Now that I think about it, my neck wouldn't have enjoyed twisting itself like that for hours on end.

I wandered aimlessly around the room until I discovered something amazing: computers set up to read microfilm. I've never seen that before! One of the staff helped set up one of the computers, showed me how to load the film then set up the computer so the text was rotated correctly. The coolest feature which I didn't have the opportunity to use: the microfilm computer will scan directly to a flash drive (hopefully in PDF form). Awesome!

The microfilm contained letters that Ripley and his second wife sent his sister, Marianne. First challenge from the outset: no table of contents, no index and no search feature. I have to find what I'm looking for by reading/scanning the whole text in some systematic fashion. I took probably the most obvious system: start at one page then read until there are no pages to read.

The second problem, and by far the worst of the two, all the letters were handwritten. Even worse, Ripley had horrible handwriting. His wife had more aesthetically pleasing handwriting, looking all neat and uniform, but she didn't allow for any white space in her letters. She made everything as tight as she could. Without the white space, it just looked like little pretty scribbles.

Ripley didn't even bother to stay neat with his handwriting. He wrote his letter like he signed it at the end. He had plenty of white space, but he just in a script and didn't think about making it easier to anyone else to read it. Sure, maybe he wasn't thinking of me or another historian when writing his sister, but how easily could his sister read his handwriting.

For both Ripley and his wife, reading the English was like reading another language that I'm trying to learn. There was stuff in there I could understand easily enough. As I learned different scrawlings I could read those particular scrawlings better.

When I came upon a scrawling I couldn't understand right away, though, I went into translation mode. Sometimes I just stared at the word until I could make it out. Other times I stared at the word, tried to pick certain parts, tried to pick out letters or just let the first word that it look like catch my attention. I would just keep whispering that word or let the parts that I picked out run around in my head. That sometimes worked.

A more holistic approach generally worked best, though. I would take chunks of words, legible and illegible, then through my understanding of the words I could, the logic of English syntax, sentence structure and probably other linguistic words I don't know or can't think of at the moment, and also visual pattern recognition of words, I could translate most of the gibberish.

Remember me saying that reading text at a 90 degree angle because the microfilm was published that way would cause a large cognitive load? I can't imagine how well my brain could on top of reading text at an angle, handle essentially having to interpret chicken scrawl. I think my brain might have exploded all over the microfilm monitor!

There's just one more element that made the microfilm research difficult. This one probably comes from reading any microfilm, however. The quality of the copied pages varies, from page to page. To adjust for easier reading, I had three settings: zoom, brightness and contrast. Zoom and brightness helped a lot, but I have no idea if the contrast setting even did anything. Having to change these settings for practically every page su-u-cked!

I sat at the microfilm reading computer for about four hours and didn't read the whole microfilm. I started reading it word-for-word. I didn't think I could just scan because the squiggles on the screen didn't even look like they spelled anything. Just squiggles!

I had set my phone to have alarm go off at 3, though. The last bus from Madison to Chicago left at 4:30, and I wanted to make sure to grab a bite to eat and some water before leaving on the 4 hour ride home.

When that alarm went off, I snoozed it for 5 minutes. I started scanning. Of course, I started finding references to my research topic at this point. None of them held relevance to the my writing, though. Argh!

I don't know if reading the microfilm word-for-word for about 3 hours primed my visual pattern recognition or not, but within that last half hour, I was able to get through quite a bit and get enough gist of it. Enough of a gist to know that what I'm reading didn't have anything.

Nonetheless, at 3:30, fighting against my nature, I accepted defeat and got out of there. I had just enough time to grab a burrito and some water then get on the bus home.

I will have to visit Madison at least once more to scan the rest of that microfilm. If what I believe is on there is on there (as another historian cites in a book on George Ripley), I must get that information!

After my experience today, I must give a shout out to historians out there and exhort my readers to do the same. Researching and writing history is a labor intensive vocation. The reward for it probably doesn't provide nearly the compensation that equals the labor power that goes into it.

So, historians, my hat goes off to you.