Researching Baseball’s Cultural History Reinvented

Researching Baseball’s Cultural History Reinvented

August 08, 2018 | ITHAKA | NEWS

Baseball has been a mainstay of American culture since the 1800s. Not only do millions watch games, myriad fans pore through player statistics, collect baseball cards, and immerse themselves in the game. And then there are those who make baseball their life’s work, delving into the sport’s history and its cultural and socio-economic impacts. Baseball historians do their work by heading into print and digital archives and sifting through materials, hoping to discover stories that have not yet been told or, in a culture rife with myths, looking for new insight and even truth.

This week, we get a glimpse into how the work of these historians might be changing with the help of technology and some creativity. JSTOR Labs and Library of Congress Labs (LC Labs) released two new online applications, Cultural History Baseball Cards and Mapping America’s Pastime. Both applications are in pilot stage, the results of a week-long flash build hosted at the Library of Congress to spur innovation and find new ways to use and connect the growing number of digital collections available to researchers. The event, dubbed “Inside Baseball,” incorporated collections from the Library of Congress, JSTOR, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), and Wikipedia. The results were presented at an event in Washington D.C. alongside a discussion of baseball and its impact on our history and culture with ESPN’s Clinton Yates, sports historian Rob Ruck, and mathematician and New York Times best-selling writer Jordan Ellenberg.

Cultural History Baseball Cards, produced by JSTOR Labs, uses the metaphor of the baseball card, but replaces the batting and pitching statistics with data regarding the number of scholarly articles, primary source images, multimedia files, and memorabilia related to the player. Jackie Robinson’s card, for example, lists 486 scholarly articles from JSTOR, sixty-one images from the Library of Congress, NMAAHC and Wikimedia, and nine other multimedia files, printed primary sources and records of physical objects. Researchers can follow links to these resources, browsing through all the material from each collection related to the player. There’s also another twist: cards are not just for players, but for managers, executives, and other people involved in America’s favorite pastime — together, these cards tell the story of baseball in America. LC Labs took the challenge in another direction, creating a website that maps documents and other materials from the collections to relevant geographic locations across the United States and overlaying data from other sources like team and stadium locations.

“We were thrilled to collaborate with the LC Labs team and to flash build alongside them,” said Alex Humphrey’s, JSTOR Labs’ Director. “As a die-hard baseball fan and history buff myself, I’m excited by the additional learning opportunities enabled by Cultural History Baseball Cards and Mapping America’s Pastime. I’m also hopeful that the work showcases an engaging and useful way to use linked open data to connect diverse collections that will inspire others to undertake similar creative approaches in other fields.”

Talking about the one-week build process, which was a new approach introduced to the LC Lab’s team by JSTOR, LC Labs Senior Innovation Specialist Abigail Potter added: “It was great to jump right in and start sketching out ideas on paper. Getting user feedback almost immediately was at first intimidating but it really helped us focus on what would be useful to people who would actually use the tool we were building. We learned so much by setting out this dedicated time to problem solve and try new approaches. We’re looking forward to testing the process with an internal team next.”

While Cultural History Baseball Cards and Mapping America’s Pastime create new prototype resources for serious and casual researchers, they also demonstrate the power of our library and museum archival collections. Once digital, they can be mined, utilized, brought together, and reimagined through linked open data.

“It’s amazing to see once-analog collections combined and transformed in ways that bring new perspective for researchers and the public,” said Humphreys. “With these experiments, we’re just beginning to harness the potential.”

For more information:

Livestream video of Inside Baseball: Baseball Collections as Data https://youtu.be/OUZynlvsQSo

JSTOR Labs
Cultural History Baseball Cards
Alex Humphreys
JSTOR Labs Director
alex.humphreys@ithaka.org

LC Labs
Mapping America’s Pastime
Abigail Potter
Senior Innovation Specialist
abpo@loc.gov

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