Remembering Roy Rosenzweig

Roy Rosenzweig

Where to begin? It’s the only possible response when asked to remember Roy Rosenzweig. Academics are fortunate if they are able to become pioneers or innovators in a single field; Roy managed to found or advance at least three fields: social history, public history, and digital history. And we often suspect that pioneers and innovators have character flaws associated with the dogged pursuit of the cutting edge: narcissism, aggression, humorlessness. Yet everyone who knew Roy was amazed at his unparalleled combination of brilliance, insight, and incredible hard work with humility, generosity, and laugh-out-loud wit.

Eight years ago I received a call from Roy, who had heard through a mutual acquaintance that I had moved to Washington. I only vaguely knew of Roy, and had no idea why he should want to talk to me, but nevertheless agreed to meet him for lunch. I’m so profoundly thankful I answered his call.

Roy and I ate at a restaurant near his house and had some nice conversation. I thought little of our casual meeting until a year later, when Roy called me to say that he had just gotten a grant and had remembered a few points I had made over lunch and how relevant they were to the grant proposal. The only thing I could only remember from a year earlier was that Roy was bursting with energy and ideas and had consumed more coffee over lunch than I drink in a week. We met again for lunch and by the end of the meal he had convinced me to come work with him.

That’s how it began for me, and for countless others. Sitting on a panel with Roy at a conference, meeting randomly over coffee, receiving a congratulatory email from him about an article you had written. No matter how trivial the reason behind the first contact, Roy would remember you, and he would often move these minor encounters—the kind most of us have every day and think nothing of—onto a path toward collaboration and friendship.

I know of no one with as large an address book and as many friends as Roy. But he didn’t just collect these acquaintances superficially, for show or for his own career ends like so many people do on Facebook or LinkedIn. As his social histories of the United States also emphasize, he viewed every human being as a special resource who brings unique talents and ideas into the world, and he liked nothing more than to connect people with each other.

Almost every topic of conversation prompted a welcome referral from Roy: “You should talk to my friend so-and-so, who has done some really interesting work on that subject.” The history of family photos? “She wrote a great article on that.” Standards for library catalogs? “Met this guy at the Library of Congress.” Byzantine art? Documentary filmmaking? Preservation of eight-track tapes? Him, her, and you’re not going to believe this but here’s an email address for you. Now go contact them.

But Roy didn’t just bring his many acquaintances together. He reveled himself in collaborating with others. Roy found it deeply unfortunate that unlike in the sciences, the humanities suffered from a serious lack of collaboration. He scoffed at the mythical ideal of the intellectual toiling alone on the great book. Roy co-authored over a dozen major works, not to mention the scores of highly collaborative digital projects at the Center for History and New Media, which he founded at George Mason University in 1994.

A typical but still remarkable moment occurred when Roy received the Richard W. Lyman Award (presented by the National Humanities Center and the Rockefeller Foundation) in 2003 for “outstanding achievement in the use of information technology to advance scholarship and teaching in the humanities.” He got up on stage, used his computer to project a giant list of names onto a screen, and said, “These are all of the people I collaborated with on the projects that this award honors. These are the people that did the work, and I want to thank them.”

Of course, that was just Roy being his usual humble self. Roy’s collaborators will readily admit not only how wonderful but also how daunting it was to work with him. To paraphrase Paul Erdös, Roy was a machine for turning coffee into publications and websites. With his incredible mind and a large coffee nearly always by his side, he was able to produce such a wide and deep array of creative works. When we were writing a book together I would slowly plod along while insightful, beautiful prose seemed to pop off of his laptop at a disturbingly rapid pace. Working with him on a project forced you to elevate yourself, to do the best you could do.

Long before Roy became ill, the staff at the Center for History and New Media would ponder (when Roy was out of the room) what we would do decades hence, when we expected Roy would finally leave this world. In the spirit of Roy’s humor, some of us decided that we would simply have to preserve his brain in a giant vat of fresh-brewed coffee. Others took their cue from science fiction and thought we could transfer his mind onto silicon for the continued benefit of future generations.

If only we could have done so. But perhaps in a partial sense that is what has happened over the last decade. Roy’s thoughts and vision sit on the Center for History and New Media’s server, silently connecting with thousands of people every day, and his books and articles connect with thousands more.

If only those people could have met Roy Rosenzweig in person. He would have liked to have had coffee with them.


Thanks for Everything, Roy

Roy RosenzweigMy dear friend, close collaborator, and brilliant and generous colleague Roy Rosenzweig passed away yesterday after a valiant battle with cancer. He was 57. I will write much more about Roy’s greatness as soon as I’m able. For now, profound sadness. A tremendous loss of a wonderful human being.

News Podcasts

History Conversations Launches

Congrats to my friend and colleague Tom Scheinfeldt, assistant director of the Center for History and New Media, on his new podcast, History Conversations. “An occasional dialogue with historians and history lovers about their interests, their ideas, and their lives in history,” as Tom puts it, the podcast gets off to a great start with a dialogue with Peter Liebhold, Chair and Curator of the Division of Work and Industry at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Tom will undoubtedly have all kinds of guests on this podcast (in the same way his blog covers amateur as well as professional history), but it doesn’t hurt to start at the top, and especially to learn how Peter moved from a background in engineering and photography into the museum world. Also interesting are Peter’s reminiscences about the major changes at the Smithsonian over the past 25 years.

Definitely worth a listen.

Firefox News Zotero

Zotero Partners with Mozilla: Firefox Campus Edition

Firefox Campus Edition logoIt’s been a very busy summer at the Center for History and New Media, and especially at the Zotero project. We had our own “Summer of Code,” our ranks swelling with fantastic interns and our code repository and site expanding from their efforts and the hard work of our core staff. In case you missed it, a major upgrade was released last week with many new features and improvements and support for countless new sites. (I’ll blog about several of the new features in the coming weeks, since they lay the foundation for new kinds of digital research.)

We have also been working on several major partnerships, one of which will launch tomorrow, August 22, 2007, when the Mozilla Corporation releases Firefox Campus Edition, which will ship with Zotero preinstalled.

Firefox Campus Edition Landing Page

It’s really exciting news for us, and should greatly expand the already large Zotero community. Firefox Campus Edition will be featured on the Mozilla home page and will be marketed to colleges and universities. It will be available for download at when it launches.

But we’re just getting started. Watch the Zotero blog and this space for more major news and partnerships in the coming weeks and months.

Blogs News Software

Creating a Blog from Scratch, Part 9: The Conclusion

Since its inception until today, this blog was powered by code I had written myself. Some people thought this took a lot of work; to be honest, it was just a few days of simple coding. As I noted at the beginning of this series on “Creating a Blog from Scratch,” rather than using existing software or services, such as WordPress or Blogger, I wanted to write my own blog code so that I could experiment with the form of the blog. In general, I found it to be a great exercise that I would highly recommend. It helped me understand the genre of the blog, challenge long-standing assumptions of form and function (like the tyranny of the calendar, now gone on most blogs), and think about ways one might customize a blog to fit academic needs.

But starting today, this blog will be powered by WordPress, not my own code. Am I a hypocrite? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that by switching to WordPress I have had to abandon some quirks of my original blog that had made it unique and that represented the accumulated wisdom of writing my own code. No, in that I feel I’ve learned enough in the process of the last two years that I can bend WordPress to my will enough to satisfy my need to customize and adapt.

More important, I had other needs that I just didn’t have enough time to implement by writing more of my own code, and there were other features of WordPress–a terrific open-source project–that I really wanted:

  • It took two years, but I’ve decided after initially disparaging comments (sentiments echoed recently by some well-known bloggers), I actually do think they are important to a blog and that my critics were right that the blog suffered without them. So starting today I have comments at the end of each post. (My old posts will remain free of comments since I have left them in their original format.)
  • I had also worried that the blog comments would be a haven for spam, but after the release of the wonderful reCAPTCHA system–which helps the Open Content Alliance transcribe digitized books while preventing spam–I felt that relatively spam-free commenting was possible.
  • As successful open-source software, WordPress has engendered a universe of helpful plugins, modifications, and documentation. For instance, this blog is now Zotero-compatible, thanks to the WordPress COinS plugin by my colleague Sean Takats. And of course reCAPTCHA came with a plugin for WordPress too.
  • WordPress’s system for drafting and editing posts is far more advanced than the basic screens I created. Writing this post is taking me about half the time it would have taken in my old system.
  • For the past six months I have been using ma.gnolia to add small posts to my feed (and to the sidebar of my old blog under “Briefly Noted”). I now can do this just as quickly using WordPress, and plan to post much more frequently starting in September.
  • Despite my best efforts, my old blog code failed to output valid XHTML, which I believe is increasingly important in a world where non-computer devices (such as the iPhone) are browsing the web and RSS feeds. WordPress automatically writes pages in XHTML.

I suppose I should rip off of my sleeve the badge of honor from my home-grown blogging software. But I like to see the switch to WordPress as just another step in the continual improvement of this blog, and look forward to many more years of writing in this space.


Goodbye My Own Blogging Software, Hello WordPress

After two years of using blogging software I wrote myself (what I’ve generally referred to as “my lousy 200 lines of PHP”), I’ve moved this blog to WordPress. If you’re reading this post, I’ve been successful in doing so. I’ll write a longer post soon about why I abandoned my own code, but for now I just want to give a very big thanks to Jeremy Boggs for helping me make the switch (and for doing much of the work). Thanks, Jeremy!

News Podcasts

Digital Campus Podcast Launches

I’m excited to announce the launch of Digital Campus, a new podcast that explores how digital media and technology are affecting learning, teaching, and scholarship at colleges, universities, libraries, and museums. In the inaugural podcast our feature story covers the controversy over whether Wikipedia is a useful or problematic resource for students. In the news roundup, we wonder if the launch of Windows Vista has any significance, ponder the rise of Google Docs as an alternative to Word, and cover recent stories about Blackboard‘s patents and their social bookmarking site, And at the end of the podcast, we share links to the best wiki software and sites on digital maps and books.

I share the virtual roundtable with Mills Kelly and Tom Scheinfeldt, and we’ll be sure to draw from the vast talent at the Center for History and New Media and other digitally savvy domains in subsequent episodes.

Interested? Take a quick listen, or go ahead and subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or your favorite podcatcher.

News Scholarship Software Tools

NINES Officially Launches

As someone keenly interested in the possibilities of digital scholarship as well as nineteenth-century British and American intellectual history, I’m delighted to hear of the official launch of NINES (Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century Electronic Scholarship), which allows researchers to search, organize, and annotate over 60,000 texts and images. A screencast of how to use Collex, their powerful web application, would be helpful for new users.

News Zotero

Zotero Is Here

For those who haven’t heard yet (it’s amazing how quickly the word spreads through the blogosphere and beyond): On October 5, 2006, at 10:47 p.m. ET, the public beta of Zotero went live on our spiffy new site. In addition to releasing the software to all comers, we’ve also expanded the documentation and set up areas of the site for Zotero users and those who want to build upon the software. If you have a question or want to discuss Zotero, we have some forums too. A few other release notes:

Remember that you’ll need Firefox 2.0 to run Zotero. Fortunately, Mozilla has just posted release candidate 2 of Firefox 2.0, which means that the final version is imminent and there’s virtually no reason not to upgrade. (If you have other Firefox extensions that don’t work with Firefox 2.0, the creators of those extensions had better get to work.)

Already, coverage of the launch has been fairly extensive, with some early reviews going up on blogs. Check our our home page for a live (and unfiltered) feed of what people are saying.

If you want some behind the scenes discussion about Zotero, check out Dan Chudnov’s podcast interview of me, Josh Greenberg, and Dan Stillman. The podcast has several exclusives, including the other names Zotero could have had (and why we went with an Albanian word).

As a beta release, Zotero still has a few rough edges, and undoubtedly it won’t please everyone on every matter. But we think it’s pretty darn good for a 1.0 beta and the basis for even better releases and features in the near future. And more important, as our unofficial motto from Voltaire at the Center for History and New Media asserts, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Had we gone for perfection, no one would be using the software today (or even next year). Zotero is actually shipping, and it’s free. So give it a try and tell your friends.

More here soon.

Firefox News Zotero

Introducing Zotero

Regular readers of this blog know that over the last year I have been trumpeting our forthcoming software tool for research that will enable vastly simplified citation management, note taking, and advanced scholarly research right within the Firefox browser. Over the past year, I have called this tool SmartFox, Firefox Scholar, and Scholar for Firefox. The domain for the original name was already taken, and the latter two names were too confusing (“Is that the same as Google Scholar?”). Last Friday, a final name was given to the project, a website launched, and a lucky group of people received the first beta. The word that will be on everyone’s lips this fall: Zotero (zoh-TAIR-oh).

I’ll write much more in this space about Zotero over the coming year (and beyond), since I conceive it not just as a free EndNote replacement (actually, it’s already much better than EndNote in only its 1.0 release), but as a platform for new kinds of digital research. The best place to begin to see what Zotero can do is by heading over to the site’s home page and the quick start guide.

But I wanted to devote this first post on Zotero to those who did the incredible job of developing the software: Dan Stillman, Simon Kornblith, and David Norton. While several of us at the Center for History and New Media thought deeply about what such a tool should look like, Dan, Simon, and David brilliantly executed our plan—and added countless touches and ideas of their own. When you see how amazing the results are, you’ll really appreciate their work.

Even though we’ve been relatively low-key about promoting Zotero as we fix some last-minute bugs, I’ve gotten dozens of messages over the last few days about the project. My blanket answer: we’ll have a public beta by the end of September 2006—thanks, of course, to Dan, Simon, and David.

Stay tuned to this blog and I’ll explain some of the more innovative features of Zotero. I’ll also show how researchers can best use the tool, describe how other software developers can extend it and link it to other web tools and services, and drop hints about our ambitious long-range plans.