DigiHist Blog – Jon Berndt Olsen

Wiring about History and Memory in the Digital Age

DigiHist Blog – Jon Berndt Olsen - Wiring about History and Memory in the Digital Age

East German Newspapers Now Available Online

For those who work on East German history, but do not have ready access to historical runs of newspapers at their home institutions (for instance, here at UMass, we have some years of Neues Deutschland, but not every issue and ordering different reels through ILL can be a bit of a hassle some times), there is a new way to gain access!

The Staatsbibliothek (StaBi) in Berlin received a grant from German Research Society (DFG) to digitize three of East Germany’s most important newspapers – Neues Deutschland, the Berliner Zeitung, and the Neue Zeit. Access is controlled through a login, but anyone can sign up for a free account using xlogon.net (a provider of openID accounts). The login protocol is rather odd, but it works. First set up the xlogon.net account. Then on the StaBi page, click on the radio button next to xlogon.net. Enter your user name. This takes you to the xlogon.net interface. You need to retype in your email address and your name. When you confirm this information, this will now redirect you back to the StaBi, where you can begin searching.

Once logged in, the interface is both sophisticated and simple at the same time. Users can browse the newspapers chronologically, go to a specific issue, or initiate a full text search. You can choose to browse just one paper, two papers, or all three. The same parameters can be set when searching as well. When you use the search function you get a results page that looks like the image to the left. By default, the results return articles that match your search chronologically. You can click on one of the matching results or click on a year on the right-hand sidebar to narrow your search even farther.

Narrowing the search, as here to a year, like 1988, now only lists articles for that year. Clicking on an individual article returns a new interface, depicted on the right. Here you can browse through the paper page-by-page, view the original printed page, or cut and paste from the full text (presumably from OCR) on the right.

All in all a very handy tool for those of us who work on East Germany!

Google Art Project

Google launched its new Google Art Project website the other day and I’ve been spending some time these past few days poking around museum collections from around the world. The technology employed here is both basic (high resolution zoomable photographs) and extremely advanced (streetview-style walk-throughs of the physical museum spaces).

I’ve have long been a fan of high resolution photography employed by virtual museums. Not every museum is thrilled about displaying their works of art at such high resolutions, fearing that others could produce high quality prints from their collection without paying for the necessary rights. Google’s solution to this is to employ technology that does not let a user save these images to their computers (except one can always employ a screen capture). It does appear that the level to which a user can zoom in on an object varies greatly from museum to museum. However, there are some works of art, like this painting by Hans Holbein the Younger at London’s National Gallery. The very high level of zoom allowed with this object exposes elements in the painting (like the cracking of the paint) that would normally not be visible to the naked eye. However, with this particular image, one exciting aspect of viewing this painting “live” is that a skull at the bottom of the painting appears to the viewer only when you walk from one side to the other (in this image it just looks like an odd-looking object coming up from the carpet). It would have been nice to have seen Google try and integrate that experience here as well.

The walk-through element reminds me of an experiment launched by the Fraunhofer Institute in the late 1990s when they partnered with Germany’s two federal history museums – the Haus der Geschichte and the Deutsches Historisches Museum. Although the experiment proved to be too bandwidth intensive to maintain the original 3-D user driven walk-through, they have preserved some of that experience with a series of short videos demonstrating what that virtual museum experience once looked like.

The innovative addition that Google has brought to the virtual museum tour is that instead of constructing a virtual replica of the museum using CGI (basically drawing on the world of computer gaming to construct an entirely virtual replica) utilizes 3-D images of the museum itself. Google spent hundreds of hours after each museum closed to the public to utilize its “streetview” technology to map out the interiors of each of the museums that are featured in the collection. To see what I am talking about, take a virtual tour of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence or the White House!

Has Google transformed the idea of a virtual museum? Maybe… It is not a great departure from what we have seen before, however, Google has certainly raised the bar and added some very cool features!



Two New Controversies in the Digital Books World

This past week has seen a few new controversies crop up in the realm of digital books. In one case the result was a court-ordered shut-down of a website and the other saw the French government subsidize the distribution of recent French language works.

The “pirate” website Library.nu was closed as a result of a court order in Munich after allegations that the website was trafficking pirated copies of copyrighted material. What was interesting about this particular pirate website was that it did not distribute popular best-sellers in an attempt to break digital rights management software of ebook readers, but rather focused on the scanning and distribution of scholarly works. Most of the works on the website fell into the category of “orphan works” (out-of-print, but still under copyright), but also contained works by popular authors such as Salman Rushdie and Jonathan Franzen.  Many of the ebooks that were posted for download were textbooks and technical manuals, which are extremely expensive to purchase in print format.

A coalition publishers, including powerhouse firms such as Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Oxford University Press. Unlike many pirate websites that specialize in sharing music or software, Library.nu allegedly hosted more than 400,000 scanned PDF files directly on their servers and provided links to even more titles. As the popularity of ebook reading devices takes off, we will undoubtedly see an increase in such sites popping up across the web.

For more on this, check out these related articles: The Guardian, Huffington Post, The Verge.

Bibliothèk Nationale de France

In a related bit of news, the French government just passed new legislation that would subsidize the digitization and commercial distribution of French language works that are out-of-print (but presumably still under copyright) by the French National Library (Bibliothèque Nationale de France). The government has pledged 30 million Euros to digitize between 500,000 and 700,000 works for preservation and eventual commercial distribution (with the BNF taking a 40% cut of the profits for all ebooks sold).

As one can imagine, the publishing world and authors have reacted quite negatively to this new law, claiming that their copyrights are being violated. Copyright holders do have a chance to opt-out, but have only six months to file the necessary papers. The confusing language of the law can be read in English translation here.

It will be an interesting area to watch over the coming year. Will more and more national libraries begin similar mass digitization projects as a means to compete with the likes of Google Books? What makes the French example so interesting (or disturbing) is that they not only plan to scan these texts for preservation efforts, but also plan to commercialize the distribution of these works.

For more on the French case, see: Le Temps, PaidContent, and Engadget.


Digitizing the Stasi Past

One of my favorite digitization projects to talk about (as a sort of “work of wonder”) is the digitization project to reconstruct thousands of shredded documents that were once housed at the East German secret police (Stasi) headquarters in Berlin.

Activists were able to save some 15,000 sacks of shredded paper from being destroyed in 1989. Now, however, archivists have to try and put the shredded pieces of paper back together – this is no easy task! It has taken nearly 20 years to create a computer system capable of accomplishing this task, but it looks as if progress is finally being seen.

The archivists use scanners to scan in all of the bits of paper and the computer attempts to piece them back together – like one huge puzzle. The computer is trained to look not color variations that could or should go together, but also analyse the edges of the paper to see if they physically can be placed next to each other. Unfortunately, the computer program is still having difficulty putting together words, sentences and content. This might seem strange, given the fact that text recognition has been so well developed already. However, the Stasi developed its own manner of writing reports that is difficult for outsiders to decipher, with many references to code words, assets and operations that do not make sense out of that spy-world context.

Developing this complex process has not been cheap. The German federal government has already invested about €6 million (approximately $7.9 million). To develop the technology, the federal government turned to the Fraunhofer Institute, the same people who brought you the MP3 by the way. The initial trial period is supposed to run just under two years and attempt to recover about 400 of the sacks of shredded documents. If the Fraunhofer Institute can demonstrate success, it is expected that the federal government will then contribute additional funds to complete the digitization process.

Here’s a five-minute video from Deutsche Welle TV (in English) that highlights the progress that they have made thus far. It is really worth watching!

Found Sounds

Two researchers at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park discovered a really unique piece of history this past week – the only known recording of Germany’s first chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. The wax cylinders that were found had been recorded in Germany in 1989 and 1990. Not only do these cylinders contain recordings of Bismarck, but also of the German general Helmuth von Moltke, who was 89 years old at the time, making him the only known person born in 1800 or earlier to have their voice recorded.

Another bit of interesting historical novelty comes when one looks at what Bismarck, Moltke and others on the cylinders decided to record for posterity – readings of poetry, literature, and songs in German, French, English, and Latin. Moltke cited lines of Shakespeare and Bismarck even sang a portion of the French National Anthem – a bit strange given the fact that it was his war in 1870 and 1871 against France that led to the founding of the German Empire!

In order to recover the sounds from these wax cylinders, the researchers employed a device known as an Archeophone, which is able to transfer the sounds on the cylinders to a CD without causing the type of damage that a regular wax cylinder player from the period would cause to these fragile pieces of history. Here is a short video that demonstrates how the Archeophone functions.

If you are interested in learning more about this discovery, here are a few links for further reading:

iBooks Author

Apple announced today that its new iBook Author application for Mac, which is a free download, although you must have Lion installed, has been downloaded 600,000 times since its launch last week. This is far less than Apple’s new iTunes U application, which reached a total of 3 million downloads in the same time period, but still demonstrates a strong interest in do-it-yourself publishing.

Amazon was the first one out of the gate promoting this new trend in self-publishing with its new lending library for Kindle, which allows users who own a physical Kindle tablet (not just use one of the Kindle apps for the iPad or Android) to download and “rent” free Kindle Edition books. Most of these free books are self-published books unique to Amazon, not commercially available titles. Authors who join the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Select series are paid royalties of $1.70 per borrow.  However, the big difference between the KDP Select program and Apple’s iBook Author is pricing system. Whereas Kindle is experimenting with a flat fee to authors for royalties, Apple is offering their standard 70/30 split (70% goes to the author, 30% to Apple). Interested in getting started? Check here for more information.

I’ve been playing around with the new iBook Author software this weekend and I have to say I’m pretty impressed with it so far. The interface is very similar to Pages, with less flexibility as to how the formatting can be set. There are currently six templates that you can chose to work with – ranging from classic to modern. Each has its own layout, which the user can somewhat customize, but not alter the overall format. The key element that iBooks Author can provide that Amazon’s Kindle format cannot is the ability to imbed photo galleries, video clips, interactive images, as well as Keynote presentations. If you are aiming your publication at an educational audience, you can also integrate multiple choice review questions.


Time will tell which format wins out or if Amazon will be launching a similar interactive format that is compatible with the Kindle Fire tablet. Now that Apple has released iBooks Author, Amazon might need to play catch-up with some self-authoring tool of its own.  The other wild card here in this field is Google, which might also be getting into the self-publishing market leveraging its experience with YouTube to move into the print medium.

Apple’s iBooks for Education Event

Yesterday was a big day for Apple and textbook publishers like Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw-Hill, which combined control the vast majority of textbooks in the academic marketplace (together about 90%).

The thrust of Apple’s presentation (you can watch it here) was aimed at the sciences, whose textbooks are typically very heavy and can easily cost over $100 each. Most of the high costs are attributed to the high cost of production – glossy paper, color printing, and binding. Apple’s solution forces textbook companies to bring this cost down to $14.99 or less. Of course, students can’t resell these iBooks that they purchase as they might be able to do once a semester is over. Although the first batch of iBook Textbooks will be in the sciences, I’m confident that history textbooks won’t be far behind.

However, these new textbooks accomplish exactly what I had been dreaming of – a multimedia approach to textbooks. In many ways, these new textbooks are very similar to some of the first educational multimedia CD-ROMs that were popular back in the 1990s. Instead of just including text, graphs, maps, and images, these new texts can include fancy animation, video, audio, and other new ways of delivering interactive content. Apple’s updated iBooks 2 application allows students to take notes, mark up the text with virtual highlighter, and search through the textbook for key words. To see an overview of the new iBooks for Education, you can look at Apple’s video or at Engadget’s video hands-on.

Of course, students (or schools) need to invest in iPads in order to make use of these new textbooks. With iPads starting at just under $500 for an 8GB model, this does represent a significant initial investment. On the other hand, if students are saving $85 to $100 per title, this could be a smart investment if spread out over a four-year college career. Yet, the basic iPad probably won’t be enough for keeping a library of iBook Textbooks close at hand. Why? Because these new iBook Textbooks take up an enormous amount of memory compared to the previous generation of e-book texts. Those previewed at the Apple launch event came in at a size between 800MB to 2.77GB. With titles taking up this much space, you won’t be able to keep that many of them on the 8GB version, thus forcing students to purchase one of the larger models.

If rumors are to be believed, Apple will be launching a new iPad 3 model sometime this spring – maybe even as early as this March. Apple might decide to keep the iPad 2 in production at a discount (similar to its current strategy with the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S), allowing the higher capacity models of the current iPad 2 model to be sold at a more competitive price to students and schools.

Apple might not have found “the” solution, but they have made a good effort and have come closer to redefining the modern textbook than any other company so far (Microsoft – where are you?). I’m looking forward to giving a few of these titles a spin in the near future.