August 3, 2010

Anthologize: a blog-to-book tool

Thanks to the folks at George Mason U.'s Center for History and New Media, who put on the One Week | One Tool "digital humanities barn raising" last week, and the dozen digital-humanities coders and other scholars who worked hard last week, the world now has Anthologize, a Wordpress 3.0 plug-in that will allow someone to pull together blog entries for a book or book-like project.

This entry will discuss both the tool and the process I watched from afar (at least through the #oneweek Twitter entries).

Anthologize as tool

I've had the URL for Anthologize since this morning, and I've had other tasks today, so I didn't get around to installing Wordpress and Anthologize on a directory of a server until this afternoon. WP took a few tricks to install (and about 10 minutes, the double the advertised time but who's counting?), but Anthologize was activated in one click. It's a simplified tool without too many options at the moment, but here's roughly what you do to turn blog entries into one of several output formats:

  • Create a project entry (title and author)
  • Create parts within the project
  • (Optional:) Provide a URL for another blog's feed to pull in entries from the external blog
  • Slot individual blog entries into the parts of the project
  • (Optional:) Edit individual entries within the parts
  • Tell Anthologize what you'd like for dedication, acknowledgments, etc. for the whole project
  • Tell Anthologize what format you want the project exported into (PDF, ePUB, RTF, or TEI) and what size paper (letter or A4).

That's all: 5-7 steps. I gave it a run with two external blogs, one MovableType and one Wordpress, and it pulls in whatever text is in the feed RSS, a file with the latest N entries in a format that the blog administrator chooses. So if you pull in material from an external blog where the RSS feed is only a teaser of longer entries, you don't get the full text. The blogs I chose didn't have images, so I couldn't test the formatting of images, but the tool handled both blogs reasonably well, given that one RSS feed was only teaser text rather than the full entries.

There is a user group available in Google groups, and I suspect various issues will be picked up within the first week of availability. For example, apparently one of the requirements is that the server have PHP5 (a recent version of one of the underlying tools that Wordpress uses). We'll see what else pops up very quickly, since I suspect some people are going to try this for real work projects. Some of the things this could be useful for:

  • Publishing one's own blog that already exists
  • Remixing a set of other blogs in a theme, such as
  • a "current-event instant book" to capture what people were writing about a current event. Because one of the output formats is the Text Encoding Initiative, which is one tool for analyzing text, I can imagine some research projects being assisted this option.
  • Setting up a book-length project. Example: writing a first draft of a text during a semester, bit by bit, and then sending the output to RTF, which can be edited in a word processor, or to PDF for less formal projects (such as making the compilation available to students for free). Yes, this would work for math and other technical fields, since there is a LaTex plug-in for Wordpress.

I'm a little surprised that the group chose a blog-to-book tool since there are other, similar tools for this task compared with some of the other options they were considering. But the alternative that I've tried (Feedburner) is more difficult to manage and doesn't allow the reformatting/importing/remixing that Anthologize makes available. And it's available to anyone who runs a Wordpress site without too much additional technical knowledge. Another feature I think is specific to Anthologize: TEI as an output format.

One more item: Because of the community of coders that this team is connected to, I suspect that it will become more polished and useful over the next year or so. (My personal request: a checkbox-and-arrow system to allow group selection of entries to move to the book's catalog of items.) That community is available because of the social environment of its creation.

One Week | One Tool as proof of concept

The weeklong work to create Anthologize was possible because of funding from the National Endowment of the Humanities and its Office of Digital Humanities, organized by one of the best-known digital-humanities centers as a summer institute/workshop. In some ways, it was a proof of concept: can a short-term gathering produce a useful tool? The answer is obvious to anyone who knows individuals or small teams who have produced software in a short time. But this was done on a different theory of action, not knowing what might be produced, a get them to come, and they will build IT model. Was it wise for NEH to bankroll a humanities BarCamp with a mission? I think you can consider the concept proved in the Christopher Marlowe sense if not a mathematical-proof sense.

There are a handful of blog entries written by One Week participants, but because they kept the tool under wraps until today, the entries are less detailed than I hope to see in the next week or so. One critical question: how did the group make the decision to create this particular tool? The first day was apparently devoted to brainstorming ideas, which the participants narrowed to six finalists and then the eventual project. I know the other finalists, and I thought three other possibilities were equally viable: a timeline tool (or extension of existing software to create timelines), geotagging for archival databases (such as the Omeka online exhibit package), or a "Ken Burnsish video in 5 minutes" tool, the multimedia equivalent of Anthologize. You'll see outsider/nonparticipant feedback last Tuesday morning on the finalists in the Twitter feed (#oneweek), which appears split between academic and public historians, with the academics more interested in the blog-to-book and timeline possibilities, and the archive/museum world interested more in the others. Maybe my heart is partly in the public-history world, but I thought the group would go for the geotagging or Burns-o-matic options, if only because there were well-known tools for the other tasks. In particular, I was guessing that an Omeka geotagging plug-in would be the choice, or maybe something to add timelines to .kml files. So I'm intensely curious: what was the reasoning of participants to make Anthologize rather than the other finalists?

Another question, which Tom Scheinfeldt has been writing about: how do you manage an impromptu team for an urgent task, and how does the team work? In some ways, this is the micro-question to match the macro-politics of open source (see Steve Weber's 2004 book, The Success of Open Source). Suggestion for the next One Week | One Tool workshop (and, yes, I'm betting that there'll be a second edition): invite an urban anthropologist. (Anyone written an anthropology of a physical barn-raising recently? I vaguely recall there being an article from the late 1950s on Amish barn-raising, but I suspect its authors are no longer available.)

Bottom line: Anthologize is interesting both as a package in itself and as a test of academic short-term projects in the humanities.

Listen to this article
Posted in The academic life on August 3, 2010 3:17 PM | Submit