You are here

Discoveries from the Harvard Library Innovation Lab

Libraries of things, maps and memories, and looking for law in all the wrong places.

Libraries of Things presentation

Did you know there is a library in Philadelphia where patrons can borrow neckties? Or that a number of libraries in the Midwest make fishing rods available for loan? As part of her Library of Things project, Rachel Karasick looked into how libraries collect and categorize physical objects that are not books or media. Many libraries throughout the country maintain collections of arts and crafts materials, musical instruments, kitchen gear, home repair and gardening tools, and toys. Karasik not only explored the diverse materials that make up these collections, but also examined the challenges of cataloging such non-traditional items using a system originally designed for books.

Zeena Agha spent most of her summer in Harvard Library’s Map Collection pursuing her project, The Place That Is Ours: Imagining Palestine-Israel Through Maps. In the project’s first phase, now complete, Agha focused on partition: the boundaries drawn by colonial powers and the United Nations that defined Israel and Palestine. Comparing Jewish and Arab maps, Agha demonstrates the different ways in which the region has been represented. On early Jewish tourist maps, for example, land occupied by Palestinians was often depicted as if it were vacant.

“I wanted to examine the role of place in memory,” Agha said. “I wanted it to be tangible, something you could hold onto.” The product of her research is a collection of maps and an accompanying narrative that explores how the same land is represented differently depending on the cultural and political alignment of the mapmaker.

At some point, most of us have made a change to a Word document, hit save, and then realized that we made a mistake or lost some important text. We end up kicking ourselves for overwriting our earlier work, wishing we had some way to go back to the previous version. The solution to this problem is something called version control. As Miglena Minkova explains, version control is “a systematic way of recording changes to documents over time.” A version control system records differences between earlier and later stages of a document, making it easy to retrieve previous versions. These systems are widely used by software developers, but Minkova’s project, Git Physical, seeks to introduce artists and designers to the tools and practices of version control. At the end of this summer, Minkova held a workshop for non-developers in which she taught participants how to use Git, a popular system for version control.

Projects by Matt Miller and Reid Whitaker used data analysis to gain insight into legal documents. Making use of data made available through LIL’s Caselaw Access Project, Miller’s Linked Open Data for Case Law project seeks to make that data easier to access and use. Through a process called data remediation, Miller collected, analyzed, and normalized case data from Illinois opinions. He then enriched the data by linking to other sources. Miller pulled the names of judges out of the case data, for example; compared the different forms of each judge’s name against a master list (i.e., an authority file); and then linked the names to the judge’s page on Wikipedia. “The goal,” Miller stated, “is to make as many connections as possible between sources.”

Reid Whitaker spent his summer Looking for Law in All the Wrong Places, examining the non-legal sources that judges cite in their decisions. Judges primarily cite legal sources to support their arguments, but they also draw support from dictionaries, disciplinary journals, census data, textbooks, historical sources, newspapers, philosophy, and literature. By considering the non-legal sources that judges cite, Whitaker raises a number of questions: “How do judges make arguments in opinions? What is within the scope of law and what is outside it? Do judges get technical facts right? Do judges use the same sources as experts or as the lawyers arguing the case? What is a legal question and what is a factual question?” Finding that it is not currently possible to look up what nonlegal citations are made in cases, Whitaker built a program that can mine case data and extract citations to everything from an entry in a 19th-century medical dictionary to a song by Bob Dylan.

By Thomas Dodson. 

Published on October 4, 2017.