Presentation for the SOLINET Annual Membership Meeting
A variation on a WebWise 2004 Presentation
By Erich Kesse, University of Florida
E p h e m e r a
C e S
I've chosen to deviate from my normal presentation, today.
This is how I usually begin. Kind'a boring isn't it?
Nonetheless, these are the project's objectives:
To create an historic atlas of Florida;
To link historical resources to that atlas, providing new geo-
temporal methods of discovery;
To construct learning modules that would acquaint K-12
students with these methods.
Ephemeral Cities is a technology project rather than a collection
I would ask you just for a moment to close your eyes and envision
"Florida". What is it? What kind of picture have you formed?
Some of you, particularly those of you from southern Georgia -
have pictured swamps or mangroves.
F L 0 1 11) A
And, for some of you, visions of gators are dancing in your heads.
Still others of you, have formed visions of mermaids! (It helps to have
eaten little and been at the bottle early for this neat trick to work.)
At least, it works well for many a college student visiting the Sunshine
State on Spring Break.
But, most of you have conjured up deep and fading memories of
Florida vacations. ... Some cut short by hurricane.
We Floridians are confounded daily by visions of Florida, well-
surpassing this brief survey. History hasn't been kind to us, either.
Florida had been Spanish, French, Spanish, British, and, Spanish
again before becoming a U.S. territory. Between times, we
maintained multiple personalities. Even today, we wave
supplemental heritage banners including the State's winter-highway
And, with 9 of 10 of us from some place else, the question arises:
"Who are WE?" Just this past weekend, I was mistaken for a
German: "What makes you think I'm German?" I asked. "Well",
responded the AIITel clerk, looking at my name inscribe on my
records, "you've got an accent!" Determined not to say a word, at the
Latin market next door, I collected groceries, in silence. So, what do
you think the clerk asks? "6De d6nde es usted? 6Brasil? she
inquired! "Where AM I?" I thought.
The trouble is, most of us don't know what Florida is.
We, Floridians like to think ourselves as part of the United States and
at one with the American South. To ensure that our vision is shared,
we share our digital content with AmericanSouth.ORG
(http://www.americansouth.org/) in numbers as great as those of
Georgia or North Carolina. Yet, we know that may a southerner
doesn't accept us as kin. "Damn, Yankees!" We hear it all the time.
Why, I even heard it just yesterday as I drove myself to the airport.
But, while Atlanta may be the capital of the new South. Miami, if you
haven't heard, is the capital both of the Caribbean and of Latin
America. It's enough to make one's head spin! ... even without the
tea-cups of dizzy-world.
When we looked at Florida through the eyes of AmericanSouth.ORG,
we saw that there was no wholly there there. Ephemeral Cities is our
attempt to anchor our communities in place, and, to demonstrate a
geographic proto-type for understanding Florida.
But, we also took note of Kate Nevin's observation that
AmericanSouth.ORG was, yet, too much the reservation of southern
Florida's digital collaborative, PALMM (http://palmm.fcla.edu/), had
purposefully begun as an effort of the state universities. We, first,
would get our bearings, build the infrastructure of collaboration
among ourselves, then turn it loose in such a way as each university
would build partnerships within its region, ... each partnership,
deepening the local representation in PALMM Collections.
Ephemeral Cities marks the time when that time had come.
When I moved to Florida, an elderly gentleman would grab me on my
nightly walks around the neighborhood that once had been the
University of Florida's campus. He would hold me by the elbow and
guide me from block to block as though I might have been naughty
In front of each house, he'd shuffle to a stop. "Miss Emma lived here
when I was a boy," he might say. "She was an upright woman. '
would boll-up peas she, herself, had planted." He'd gather-up a
breath as if tasting history. "Don't ya know, her husband, Jimmie,
was a no account ..." And, of course, I didn't know.
The marvel of those walks, night after night traveling the same
blocks, was that the stories were never the same, never repeated.
Each night, he would bring the neighborhood's characters back to life
in a sequence spread like peanut butter over time.
I hope you'll forgive me if I don't detail the importance of Miss Emma
or No Account Jimmie in the limited time I have available today.
We believe that the common characters of history may have
something to tell us. Think of their stories as street-theater that -
how might a playbill put it is "A STORY FOR OUR TIME!"
President B enters a grocery store, encounters clerk C. A few short
words later maybe about the price of milk or barcode scanners -
and history has changed, forever. I assume that you all recall the
story of the first President Bush's campaign foray into a supermarket.
The event is recorded in newspapers and even in books but,
wouldn't it be interesting to compare, say, the President's letters to
the First Lady on the day's events with the clerk's and the bag-boy's
diary recollections of the event?
It doesn't take much research in a University Library to realize that
the history of a place, and of a people in that place requires searching
beyond University collections, and deep searches into the text of
documents. No one cultural institution holds everything that we might
want to reference or know.
'S`E A R C H
In fact, Ephemeral Cities recognizes that the history it seeks to
uncover, in many cases, is not held by any cultural institution. So, it
lends an ear to the community, and calls out: "Become a part of
history !" "Make history, your story !" Or, to borrow a turn of phrase
from Monty Python: "Bring out your dead !" Remember, the man in
the cart is not quite dead yet.
I like to tell the story of Mary Todd Lincoln. In 1868, Mrs. Lincoln's
maid, Elizabeth Keckley wrote a tell-all tale of life in the Lincoln
Whitehouse. Appropriately entitled, Behind the Scenes, it is virtually
the only such published account. By contrast, a contemporary
presidency will generate at least two purportedly intimate accounts.
And, recent presidencies have generated far more than that!
The title among those digitized by the University of North Carolina -
Chapel Hill exposes a vindictive, mean-spirited woman. History
remembers her so, rather than as the tragic figure later cut for Mrs.
Obscure, even today, among the archival collections of Transylvania
University, alma mater of Todd men, letters of a younger Mrs. Lincoln
under-pin the rage of a woman all but abandoned. They lend
reasons to Mrs. Lincoln's apparent irrational fits of anger. And
rationale for partnerships among archives, libraries and museums.
One assumes that the price of milk will remain a constant of historical
price comparisons, a surrogate for the economic health of the nation.
But, who will long remember, much less understand, the importance
of a barcode scanner in presidential politics without museums
preserving and interpreting the artifact.
Ephemeral Cities postulates that uncovering this hidden history can
lead to a sea-change in our understanding of history.
History, for too long, has been capitalized rarely socialized.
Politics aside It really does "take a village", as Hillary Rodham
Clinton put it, to revive a community's long past sense of itself.
More importantly, Ephemeral Cities suggests that, by bringing
together a whole communities' resources, we can SEE change. And,
if we can see it, we can understand it.
So, here's a graphic example. Ephemeral Cities will repurpose the
historic Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Florida, making use of their
wealth of detail and accuracy. Scanned earlier, and digitally restored
to their as published state, we've subsequently geo-rectified the
maps, so we could use known earth coordinates, as a means of
laying one map atop another.
Here, new uses changed the character of Tampa. This block near
the waterfront went from shopping district to after-hours
entertainment center, as transportation took more goods inland and
as more goods took more men to handle and deliver them. Following
Geo-rectification, buildings are indexed both graphically and textually.
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Graphical indexing placement of the red dot associates relatively
precise longitude and latitude with the building. Textual indexing
records street location, building number and name and any other
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Textual indexing becomes the base of a gazetteer or place-name
authority file that will be augmented subsequently with information
from city directories, land ownership files, and other information
sources, all to facilitate discovery.
So, here's the concept in action. (N.B. This is still a demonstration,
representative of the web-site still under construction.) The user has
zoomed into a location of interest on a period Sanborn map : here,
Gainesville, 1884. The user may either point and click, or, construct
a particular search strategy; here, by building Information.
In this case, the user has decided to search "Building Use" for "Cigar
The cigar factory in this block is identified by a red dot. If the user so
desired, all of the cigar factories in Gainesville, or, in any or all of the
target cities could be seen.
Clicking on a red dot (or, on any building) displays all of the known
information about that building's use and occupants at that
approximate time in history. Advanced queries will allow searches of
building uses and occupants over time. As we've already seen, this
information is extracted from name-rich resources.
When the user clicks on an alternate use say, Grocery red dots
indicate the location of other grocers. My favorite proximity study is
that of schools to churches to saloons and their impact on public
By clicking the red dot of any of these locations, information about
that location is displayed. Clicking either a use or an occupant's
name launches a query against targeted collections. Retrieval lists,
sorted by holding institution, display a thumbnail together with brief
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A selection invokes a new browser window to display the selected
resource, within the holding library's web space.
This information collection strategy, by the way, works well for a small
community of targeted web-sites but does not scale-up well. We
hope to see our other methods the concept of geo-temporal
searching, for example, adopted by what are known as OAI
harvesters, such as AmericanSouth.ORG. A harvester is a tool that,
like Google, goes out and collects this information in advance. But
for the moment, harvesters collect only information about Internet
resources. They don't collect or mirror or duplicate the actual
resource as they would need to, to find information from within
Cities' partnerships are structured as originally envisioned
(the Florida digital cooperative) in hub and spoke fashion.
and highly skilled activity is centralized; all else is
The hubs of this pilot project are Gainesville, in north Florida; Key
West, in south Florida, and Tampa, in mid-Florida. These cities were
chose, first, for their willingness to participate in a project with several
significant technical challenges; ... as for the depth of their local-
history collections, each representing a different state of Florida; ...
and for the strength of their digitization programs.
The Gainesville partnership brings together several strong local-
history collections, all but one with a history of digitization.
The Key West partnership likewise brings together strong local-
history collections, and again all but one with a history of
The Tampa partnership brings together strong local-history AND
museum collections, As well as a demonstrated commitment to
The project also draws on the PALMM collections and the
contributions of institutions across the state. We're confident of
success. And, many of our partners outside this project have begun
digitizing local- and regional histories.
Now, let's look at variations on the hub and spokes.
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This model of imaging is typical of the PALMM program. Small
institutions scan; feed to hubs that manage the images created,
which feed to a central archive. This model emphasizes preservation
while, at the same time, moving more complex and more expensive
tasks up the line.
This text processing model demonstrates additional centralization.
All page images pictures of pages are sent to the University of
Florida, which will return searchable text versions to those web
servers capable of searching document texts. In this case, the Prime
Recognition software being used for text conversion is extremely
expensive to license and maintain.
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The query model demonstrates, by far, the most centralization.
model gives the Internet user one-stop-shopping, as it were.
EpC [Epoc] Server does the labor of searching multiple sites
returns a unified list of resources to the user.
Quickly, targeted materials include: archives, books and pamphlets,
maps and plans, photographs and postcards. And, here, I should
interject, ORAL HISTORIES as well.
Also targeted, there will be serials, and especially, newspapers, and,
finally, artifacts and specimens. Regarding specimens: You may not
know that train transportation was King in Florida during the period of
this Project's interest. A motto of Florida's economy could then and
might still be: "Tourists in! Vegetables out!"
Having seen the demo, some of you are probably wondering "Isn't
there tons of labor involved?" "How do they do that?" I have the
proto-typically Florida answer:
For those of you who recognize the second question: "How do they
do that?" from the Britta TV ad featuring children, you know that
there are boat-loads of unemployed mermaids. Specifically, the
mermaids known as:
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Imaging or scanning to "capture" the name-rich resources (city
directories, property records, census information, etc.) used to
populate the maps.
Text conversion using highly-accurate software to turn page-images
into searchable text.
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comertralrig on name-n2h rE-SOLIrCeS
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vllh hlejhly aCCUrate 00tiCal Ch.J1.!L1t.-; Recogmifloii (OCR)
Parsing, to take searchable texts and break them down into types of
information: names, addresses, race, occupation, age, etc.
Name Authority, to ensure that systems and users can differentiate
between Able Smith (1880-1935) and Able Smith (1900-1975).
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A u t hority
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And, the twins, mark-up and tagging, to hide this differentiating
information within the text, so search systems can use it but human
readers will not be distracted by it.
New methods and programming will arise from the project's murky
deep and we hope will be adopted in other states to build the
Our faith in automation is boundless. We've made the following
Everything can be fixed in place and time,
Semantic Processes can be applied to automate this work
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I should make clear, here, that our users are (anticipated to be)
historians, genealogists and students, ... but also naturalists, real
estate agents, land developers and certainly, not last and not least,
tourists on "voyages out of the ordinary!"
If you would like more information on the technologies we employ,
these links should be helpful.
T F dsi in re vi o
The Florida partners invite you to join us in reviving other Ephemeral
Kate Nevins is SOLINET's Executive Director. Her observation was voiced at an
American South planning meeting (Atlanta 2003).