Together at the Seams: Tim Sherratt and metaphors of access, C-EBLIP Journal Club May 11, 2017

By Craig Harkema
University Archives and Special Collections, University of Saskatchewan

Sherratt, T. (2017). Seams and edges: Dreams of aggregation, access & discovery in a broken world. [online] discontents. Available at:

As a librarian who has focused on digital initiatives over the course of the past 8 years or so, I’ve followed with great interest the many projects and programs that have emerged out of Australia during this time. I find myself regularly checking in on some of the incredible hackers, artists, culture curators, and innovators from Oz.  Their names – Tim Sherratt  (formerly at the Trove, currently at the University of Canberra), Sarah Kenderdine (University of New South Wales), Paula Bray (DX Lab, New South Wales), Mitchell Whitelaw (Australian National University) and Seb Chan (Australian Centre for the Moving Image), among others – continue to pop out of my mouth when discussing digital cultural collections with my colleagues.  So when asked to select and lead a discussion about an article of my choice for the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice (C-EBLIP) journal club, I knew I’d likely pick something from one of the above.

As it happens, three years ago I was lucky enough to be in Canberra and stop in to visit the good folks at the Trove.  Near the end of my time there, I had the chance to talk with Sherratt, standing out just a touch in his casual attire, wearing red Converse Chuck Taylors. Mostly we chatted about these sorts of initiatives as platforms for developing tools and about the possibilities for use and reuse of digital content found in places like the Trove, Europeana, DPLA, and, on a much smaller scale, Sask History Online (the project I was leading at the time). Later that week he presented a talk called “Seams and Edges: Dreams of Aggregation, Access, and Discovery in a Broken World” at the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) Conference.  I’ll get back to it in a bit, but I feel this particular talk/blog post is as good a place as any to begin learning what Sherratt’s work is about. I think the Trove itself is a great example of how these large initiatives can support a wide range of research and public interest objectives; objectives we as library people should be most interested in.

Although he has now moved on from the Trove, Sherratt’s influence on the program will undoubtedly be long lasting. As much as anything, he has advanced the concept of the Trove as a platform for building tools and collections through the API. Trove is much more than a search engine that delivers results instantaneously. I’m hopeful this will continue in his absence and in the wake of massive budget cuts from the Australian government. Not surprisingly then, part of the Trove’s mandate is to develop a systems infrastructure and community that encourages and enables folks to reuse content. For Sherratt, the Trove has been just that, a store of valuable, quirky, surprising, and baffling materials that can be pulled apart and woven back together. It’s clear that he has developed a multifaceted and multilevel scholarly practice over the past several years, one that follows from a concerted effort to take a different tack from many of his peers:

A scholarly practice that has room for the angry and the weird alongside the rigorous and detached. That sees in digital technologies not just the chance to crunch huge quantities of data, but the opportunity to tinker with our preconceptions, to be playful and political, to explore emotions as well as evidence, to create bots as well as books ( “#Borderfarce…”, September 2015).

He has long been illustrating how this can be done and, often using the Trove’s API, has developed several new approaches to exploring and interacting with the content.

One example of this is his Eyes on the Past project, an experimental interface built in a weekend – the quick agile development worth noting – using facial recognition software. Like his Faces project, it is meant to reinforce to users that history is made up of stories about real people. The interface allows users to navigate the collections by scanning the faces and/or eyes of the individuals who are featured in the textual content. As he says in “Seams and Edges”:

By focusing on the stylish minimalism of the search box, we discard opportunities for traversing relationships, for fostering serendipity, for seeing the big picture. By creating experimental interfaces, by playing around with our expectations, we can start to think differently — to develop new metaphors for our online experience that are not framed around technological conquest.

The ability to work with content in these ways enables Sherratt and others to develop news ways of engaging with culture and history. Which brings me around to one of the reasons Sherratt’s work is so interesting to me and, as it turns out, to the folks who showed up at the C-EBLIP journal club.  I think as 21st-century librarians and archivists we should consider more carefully the metaphors and jargon used by purveyors of systems and content providers, and indeed those used by ourselves.  As the title of the article suggests, Sherratt hones in on problems associated with the terms “seamlessness” and/or “seamless discovery” – metaphors matter. Pursuing “seamless discovery” in the wake of Google means engaging with questions of politics and power.” So what does it mean, for example, when Ex Libris promotes Primo (their discovery layer) as providing “users with a consistent discovery across devices, quick access to frequent actions, and seamless patron services – all from a single, intuitive web interface.”  More importantly, what are we giving up and what do our users need to know when using a system that promises seamlessness and quick access? As Sherratt suggests, “seams are not simply obstacles to a smooth user experience, they’re reminders that our online services are themselves constructed. There’s nothing natural or inevitable about a list of search results.” Do we consider this every time we perform a search? Do those we help work with these systems? And what role do we play in revealing seams and edges? Or in the development of systems, tools, and approaches that help us become aware of and engage with them?

I’m not sure Sherratt’s work is explicitly a call to action, but for me, his hacker ethos combined with critical approaches to historical research challenge me to consider the standard ways we do our work. The profession would be well served by challenging the status quo more often and by developing our own creative solutions to our own complex problems. By making room for the angry and weird, tinkering with our preconceptions, and developing new metaphors, we have the opportunity to make important changes to the way people interact with the information we help provide and preserve.


This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

Reflections from the C-EBLIP Journal Club, Feb 23, 2015

by Carolyn Doi
Education and Music Library, University of Saskatchewan

For this iteration of the C-EBLIP Journal Club, I decided to feature an article from outside the LIS literature that deals with the topic of reflection, creative processes and digital technologies in the classroom:

Kirk, Carole, and Jonathan Pitches. “Digital Reflection: Using Digital Technologies to Enhance and Embed Creative Processes.” Technology, Pedagogy and Education 22, no. 2 (July 1, 2013): 213–30.

This paper caught my attention for several reason. The discussion of creative processes and incorporation of technology in the classroom is particularly interesting to me and these are topics that often come up when I discuss teaching strategies with other librarians. I was also looking forward to exploring the idea of reflection, both in the classroom and as part of the research process. This is something we have discussed in our institution and in particular through our own Library Leadership Development Program.

The authors of this paper are both scholars at the School of Performance and Cultural Industries at the University of Leeds who have shared the results from a teaching and learning project called Digitalis (, which “investigates ways in which digital technologies can be used by teaching staff to facilitate reflection on creative practices within performing and creative arts disciplines” (p. 213). The study used action research methodology led by members of a cooperative inquiry group who incorporated reflection and digital technologies into their own teaching practice. They took this a step further and also incorporated reflection as one of the four project phases (planning, action, collection and reflection).

The study featured modules in five areas of study: performance design, dance, music, theatre & performance and museum studies. In each module, students were asked to reflect on their learning and experience, assisted by different types of digital technology. In one example, students in a second year compulsory Dance Choreography course were asked to use a flip camera to capture thoughts, ideas and observations, which were used in combination with written reflection and posted to a private blog. The other modules used varying types of reflective processes. Methods of digital capture included flip cameras, audio recorders and digital still cameras. Digital reflection mechanisms included blogs (on Blackboard), PowerPoint and Photo Story 3.

In some cases, the technology may have interfered with the process of critical reflection as some students ended up “concentrating too much on slick production values to the detriment of critical thinking” (p. 224). The paper mentioned that ease of use was an important factor in getting students to feel engaged in the reflection activities. One recommendation that came out of the paper was that digital reflection technologies should be introduced incrementally, as opposed to all at once.

We discussed the value of incorporating technology into the classroom, and also of the importance of not letting the technology ‘get in the way’ of the learning process. Some in our group remarked that they were still surprised that the incorporation of technology in the classroom still might be a barrier for some students.

The paper reports that students found digital reflection to be advantageous when ‘looking again’ at material which would otherwise have been lost in the creative practice. The digital capturing acted as a way they could benchmark their own impressions of the event, and allowed the performer to experience being an audience member of their own performance.

We discussed the benefits of reflection in two veins: 1) for integration into the classroom and 2) for integration into our own practice. Some questioned the viability of incorporating reflection (especially non-written reflection) into library instruction as we are often faced with the challenge of limited classroom time where it would be difficult to follow up with students. Librarians who teach in disciplines outside of the arts felt that they might just not be able to get their students to try a less conventional reflection method such as video capture. The article prompted some to think about video capture as a means to document and reflect on one’s own teaching practice. Others were thinking about incorporating reflection into other aspects of practice or research, or are currently embarking on projects that do incorporate an element of planned reflection.

The journal club is always an engaging gathering and it’s been interesting to see the various opinions and perspectives that emerge out of the group discussions. I look forward to many more discussions around the journal club table in the coming months!

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.