Digital Preservation and the Power of Markdown

My markdown file in Notepad++.

My markdown file in Notepad++.

Many of us tend to think of digital documents as everlasting, and don’t put a whole lot of thought into how we’ll access our Word documents ten years from now. However, digital documentation tends to become obsolete within five years — as compared to a book, which lasts thousands, or microfilm, which lasts five hundred — and needs to be constantly refreshed. If you’re someone who is paranoid about losing your work, or who knows that they won’t remember to convert their documents every few years, saving important documents in markdown can be an easy way to ensure that you never lose the digitally-born documents that are most important to you.

There are a number of places to learn how to write in markdown. For example, you can take a look at our quick and easy guide to the basics of markdown, but that’s just one of many markdown language cheat sheets.

Write your document in a text editor — make sure that it’s in plain text mode, especially if you’re working with TextEdit — and save it as a .txt file. That .txt file can then be converted into other files with the styling in tact. To convert, you will probably need to download a specific piece of software. Most of us at the University of Illinois iSchool use Pandoc, but there are alternatives, if you’re interested. Using Pandoc and your command line interface, you can then convert your markdown file into whatever kind of file you need, whether that’s html, docx, pdf, or some future kind of file that we haven’t even heard of yet.

The input I put into Command Prompt in order to have Pandoc convert my document from .txt to .html.

The input I put into Command Prompt in order to have Pandoc convert my document from .txt to .html.

My file as an HTML file, viewed on Internet Explorer.

My file as an HTML file, viewed on Internet Explorer.

While this may seem like a lot of work today, it’s helpful to remember that you’re doing this for the you of tomorrow. Important research, dissertations, or even love letters can get corrupted, lost, or just become obsolete. Saving things in markdown allows you a safer route to long-term preservation in an uncertain digital world.

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Meet Elizabeth Wickes, Data Curation Specialist


Elizabeth with a rebuilt and functional Colossus computer at the British National Museum of Computing.

This post is the third in our series profiling the expertise housed in the Scholarly Commons and our affiliate units in the University Library. Today we are featuring Elizabeth Wickes, Data Curation Specialist.

What is your background education and work experience?

I started in psychology and then moved to sociology. I also have a secretarial certificate and I use that training a lot! I worked at Wolfram Research as a Project Manager and then Curation Manager before I started library school.

What led you to this field?

Data curation just finds you. It’s a path where people with certain interests find themselves in.

What is your research agenda?

I’m exploring new and innovative ways to teach data management skills, especially computational research skills that normalize and practice defensive data management skills.

Do you have any favorite work-related duties?

My favorite thing to do is leading workshops and teaching. I really love listening to people’s research and helping them do it better. It’s great hearing about lots of different fields of research. It’s really important to me that I’m not stuck in a single college or field, that we’re a resource for the whole university.

What are some of your favorite underutilized resources that you would recommend to researchers?

I think consultation services in library are underutilized, including consultation for personalized data management.

If you could recommend only one book to beginning researchers in your field, what would you recommend?

Where Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon. It’s a book all librarians should read, and it would be great for undergraduate reading, too. It’s the history of how the internet was born, explained through biographies of the key players. The book also covers the social and political situation at the time which was really interesting. It’s fascinating that this part of the world (the internet, data curation, etc.) was developed by people who were in college before this was a major or a field of study.

There are a lot of statistics out there about how much data we are producing now: For example: “Data production will be 44 times greater in 2020 than it was in 2009” and “More data has been created in the past two years than in the entire previous history of the human race”… How do you feel about the increase in big data?

Excited. When people ask me “What is big data?” I tell them that there’s a technological answer and a philosophical answer. The philosophical answer is that we no longer have to have a sampling strategy because we can get it all. We can just look at everything. From a data curation and organizational perspective it’s terrifying because there’s so much of it, but exciting.

To learn more about Research Data Service, you can visit their website. Elizabeth also holds Data Help Desk Drop-In Hours in the Scholarly Commons, every Tuesday from about 3:15-5 pm. To get in touch with Elizabeth, you can reach her by email.

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Image of Research is Open for Submissions!


In conjunction with the Graduate College, the Scholarly Commons is pleased to host the Image of Research competition for the 2016-2017 academic year!

The Image of Research is a celebration of the diversity and breadth of graduate student research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Graduate and professional students from all disciplines are invited to submit entries consisting of an image that represents their research (either concretely or abstractly) and a brief written narrative.

Submissions will be accepted through January 15, 2017, after which judges will select a list of semi-finalists. From the semi-finalists, the judges will award four prizes given as professional development travel funds:

  • First Prize: $500
  • Second Prize: $300
  • Third Prize: $200
  • Honorable Mention: $100

Awards will be presented at a reception on April 5, 2017 in conjunction with the Annual Graduate Student Appreciation Week. Attendees of the reception will have the opportunity to vote for a semi-finalist to receive the People’s Choice Award ($100).

For more information about this year’s competition, or to submit an entry, visit the Image of Research website. Past entries and winners can be viewed in the online gallery and in IDEALS.

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Online Resources for Learning Digital Humanities Skills

Learning new skills doesn't have to be a headache!

Learning the skills required for the digital humanities may require patience, but the payoff can be huge.

Learning a coding language or technical skill can seem daunting, especially when you’re not someone with a computer science background. All of the jargon, technical terms, and math may be a barrier to entry for people with a more traditional humanities background who may otherwise want to embark on a digital humanities project. Even for those who start, it’s easy to get stuck when you feel like every tutorial you try has you learning tricks for things you know you’ll never use, while you never seem to find any information about what you do want to learn.

While no tutorial is going to be the panacea to all your problems, here are a few places you can start your techy journey, created for people who may want to start slow and learn specific skills.

  • The Programming Historian — Full disclosure: I love the Programming Historian. Their lessons are written for humanities scholars by humanities scholars. No piece of jargon is left undefined, and their lesson format is both helpful for learning basics, but also explains why you will want to know this skill, and how it will be useful and relevant for the future. Lessons are presented textually, with pictures as examples. They also periodically offer practice questions for you to gauge your comprehension throughout many of their lessons.
    • Pros: Written by people who understand the way that you think, and explains the importance of learning these skills as you go along.
    • Cons: Presented as text. You do the work separately, and there’s no way to have your work checked by a program like it would be at Codecademy, or similar sites.
  • Tooling Up for Digital Humanities: Begun at Stanford, Tooling Up for Digital Humanities includes great overviews of text and spatial analysis, databases, pedagogy, and data visualization. If you need a place to serve as a glossary for terms, or just want brief overviews of what exactly the digital humanities are, and what you can do with the digital humanities, this is a great place to start.
    • Pros: Concise information regarding the main flagpoles of the digital humanities, presented in a familiar, unadorned style. Easy to read and digest, and includes introductions to major software and linking to further reading for what you may be interested in.
    • Cons: Started in conjunction with a series of workshops in 2011, the site is no longer maintained, and some information may be out of date.
  • TEI By Example: TEI By Example consists of online tutorials created to help humanists use TEI (Text Encoding Initiative). Tutorials are divided by subject, starting with the basics of TEI, then moving on to different humanity subjects, including prose, poetry, drama, primary sources, and critical editing. Each tutorial is split between the tutorial itself, an example, a test, and exercises. The really great thing about TEI By Example is that you can either go through all of the tutorials, or pick and choose what you want to learn based on either your expertise, or your interest.
    • Pros: User-intuitive and specific to the needs of digital historians. Presents information in a digestible but thorough way, and checks your work for you.
    • Cons: Stopped being maintained in 2010, and the user-interface shows its age. Information could also be out of date.

There are so many projects that a digital historian can take on, and nothing should stop you except for your imagination (or maybe your lack of grant money, but that’s a different story). While you need to learn the basics, that’s no reason you can’t tailor your experience to help you focus on what you really need, and keep from frustrating you with things that you don’t.

Remember, if you want to get started with a digital humanities project, or need help with a current one, you can always come to the Scholarly Commons, open 9 AM – 6 PM, Monday-Friday, or email our digital humanities experts, Eleanor Dickson and Harriett Green.

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Review: Don’t Make Me Think Revisited

Don’t Make Me Think Revisited by Steve Krug  is yet another updated classic available at Scholarly Commons and online as an e-book. Steve Krug of Advanced Common Sense talks about usability, which he defines as when “A person of average (or even below average) ability and experience can figure out how to use the thing to accomplish something without it being more trouble than it’s worth” (Krug 2014). Clearly inspired by The Design of Everyday Thingsthis short book is funny, full of examples, and easy to read. Throughout this book, Krug hopes to convince you that usability is an important aspect of web design and that doing usability testing can help you create better websites and apps.

Despite the title, this book made me re-think about websites, both with practical advice such as:

His “Facts of Life”:

  1. “We don’t read pages. We scan them.
  2. We don’t make optimal choices. We satisfice.
  3. We don’t figure out how things work. We muddle through.

(Krug 2014)

As well as his Three Laws of Usability:

  1. “Don’t make me think!”
  2. “It doesn’t matter how many times I have to click, as long as each click is a mindless, unambiguous choice.”
  3. “Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left.”

(Krug 2014)

And after insisting that what will work for a website really depends on the context throughout the book,  he did provide a few usability definitive answers such as:

“Don’t use small, low-contrast type.”

“Preserve the distinction between visited and unvisited text links.” (Krug, 2014)

What’s more, in this book about website development, he emphasizes empathy and being a decent human being. He describes people who create poorly designed webpages with: “There’s almost always a plausible rationale – and a good, if misguided, intention -behind every usability flaw” (Krug, 2014) He also says that web developers should work harder to make websites more accessible and that  “ …the one argument for accessibility that doesn’t get made often enough is how extraordinarily better it makes some people’s lives…How many opportunities do we have to dramatically improve people’s lives just by doing our job a little better? And for those of you who don’t find this argument compelling, be aware that even if you haven’t already encountered it, there will be a legislative stick coming sooner or later. Count on it” (Krug, 2014).

Convinced you need to start doing usability studies? Scholarly Commons can help! Check out more information about conducting usability studies at our Usability Studies page, and feel free to email us to learn more about getting started.

This is definitely a quick introductory read on the topic of usability but throughout Krug recommends a lot of further reading available online through the library! Don’t forget to take a look at some of these other titles:

Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works  by Ginny Redish.

Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability by Caroline Jarrett.

“Attention Web Designers: You Have 50 Milliseconds to Make a Good First Impression!” by Gitte Lindgaard, Gary Fernandes, Cathy Dudek, and J. Brown.

Rocket Surgery Made Easy by Steve Krug.

Guidelines for Accessible and Usable Web Sites: Observing Users Who Work With Screen Readers  by Mary Frances Theofanos and Janice (Ginny) Redish.

A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences by Sarah Horton and Whitney Queensbery.

Web Accessibility: Web Standards and Regulatory Compliance by Jim Thatcher et. al.

It’s Our Research: Getting Stakeholder Buy-In for User Experience Research Projects by Tomer Sharon.

The User Experience Team of One: A Research and Design Survival Guide by Leah Buley.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini.

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Event: Illinois GIS Day

  • What: A celebration of GIS Day, an “annual salute to geospatial technology and its power to transform and improve our lives.” The event is free, and includes a keynote address, presentations, lightning talk sessions, a map/poster competition, and a career connection session.
  • Where: iHotel and Conference Center, 1900 S 1st St, Champaign, IL 61820
  • When: November 15, 2016 from 8:00 AM – 4:15 PM; registration open now
  • Why: To spend a day with other GIS enthusiasts, to make important connections, and to learn new and important information about what is going on in the field, including a keynote address by Keith A. Searles, Chief Executive Officer, Urban GIS, Inc.
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Introducing Mark Zulauf, Coordinator for Researcher Information Systems, University Library Office of Research

Picture of Mark Zulauf

This post is the second in our series profiling the expertise housed in the Scholarly Commons and our affiliate units in the University Library. Today we are featuring Mark Zulauf, Coordinator for Researcher Information Systems. Mark joined the library in August.

What is your background education and work experience?

I got my bachelor’s degree in German from Illinois College and a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Illinois. After earning my M.A., I left campus for a few years to work in publishing. I started as an editor with Human Kinetics and then came back to campus as a technical editor for the Illinois State Geological Survey. Most recently, prior to joining the Library, I worked for over 8 years at the Graduate College, where I managed the daily operations of the Thesis Office and the Postdoctoral Affairs Office.

What is your role here at the Library? What led you into this field?

I’m the coordinator for researcher information systems, which is part of the Office of Research. I’m currently working on building out the faculty and researcher profile system Illinois Experts (which, until recently, was called Illinois Research Connections).

Having worked at the Graduate College with graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty, this project interested me because I enjoy working with researchers to help them find ways to get the word out about the exciting and important projects they’re working on. That’s what Illinois Experts is all about–it’s an easily accessible portal into the University to show the depth and breadth of research going on here on campus. It’s intended to foster connections between faculty, students, postdocs and other researchers on campus and elsewhere and to showcase the importance of our work to government, industry, and the public.

What projects are you currently focusing on?

We launched the beta phase of Illinois Experts this past spring, and we’re continuing to build the project out. We’ve currently got about 1,800 faculty profiles for STEM and social sciences faculty, as well as for researchers within the institutes under the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research. What we don’t currently have publicly visible are profiles for faculty in the arts and humanities. This is because a lot of the publications information in our system comes from the Elsevier Scopus citation and abstract database, which doesn’t provide much representation for arts and humanities researchers. We want to make sure those faculty members’ profiles are representative of what they do. So we want to flesh those out before making them public. We’re also working to expand the number of profiles in the system to include non-tenure line researchers—specialized and emeritus faculty, as well as academic professional researchers.

What are your favorite work-related duties?

As I mentioned, I enjoy working with researchers and sharing in their sense of excitement about the projects they’re working on. I also enjoy the technical side of my job—getting into the administrative interface of the system, seeing what it has to offer, and leveraging the different bells and whistles to provide a thorough showcase of research taking place on campus.

What are some of your favorite underutilized resources that you would recommend to researchers?

Illinois Experts! Beyond that, I like to highlight Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty. It’s a wonderful resource produced by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and, though it was written with biomedical investigators in mind, it covers a number of topics that are useful to all researchers. Things like negotiating a faculty position, mentoring, time management strategies, collaborating with other researchers and so on. There’s also a Chinese translation available.

For what sorts of research or questions should library users contact you for assistance?

Faculty and departments can contact me for assistance in interacting with their profiles and adding information to them. We’re happy to help them with that. Individuals can add portraits to their profiles, research statements, and other information to make them more discoverable. They can also add links to individual or lab web pages.

And anyone can contact us to ask how they can leverage Illinois Experts to find other researchers or current research. For example, graduate students can use the system to discover potential dissertation committee members, postdocs can use it find possible faculty mentors, researchers can use it to find reviewers, and so on.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Keep your eyes on Illinois Experts! We’re still building the system out and adding features. Just today we’re going through a system upgrade. In addition to the other information currently included in our researcher profiles, we’re now able to add media coverage that features Illinois researchers and the impact of their work. This is done via a connection to a service called Newsflo, which tracks media coverage for mentions of researchers and their findings.

To learn more about Illinois Experts visit their website at You can also learn about the system at the Savvy Researcher Workshop on November 15 at 3 pm.   Have any questions? Email Mark Zulaf or contact The Scholarly Commons.

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Book Review: Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling

A quick infographic I created for free using Piktochart. Learn about Piktochart in our Savvy Researcher workshops!

A quick infographic I created for free using Piktochart. Learn about Piktochart in our Savvy Researcher workshops!

Getting your content noticed int he Digital Age can be a difficult thing. Since the rise of social media, infographics have risen in popularity, becoming a popular way of sharing information. In their book Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling, Jason Lankow, Josh Ritchie, and Ross Crooks — cofounders of Column Five, a creative agency specializing in infographic design — outline how infographics became so popular, why they are an effective medium, and how to use them to express different types of information.

According to Column Five, effective communication consists of three aspects: appeal, comprehension, and retention. Infographics, when done well, have the potential to be a great method of communication, as visuals on the screen connect to information already stored in the human brain, allowing quick comprehension and better retention of what we’re seeing. The focus of Infographics is on how to utilize infographics for business or editorial purposes, but many of their conclusions about best practices will be useful to a researcher or digital humanist who wants to disseminate their data online.

The Column Five separate infographic design into two approaches: explorative and narrative. Narrative infographics tend to be illustrative and design focused and intended to inform or entertain. Explorative infographics — which are more likely to be useful to someone displaying research data — tend to be more minimalist. Their goal is to communicate information concisely using visuals that represent their data.

Several of the main takeaways of Infographics, however, are universal. First, that you need to have a specific audience in mind when creating an infographic. While you may want to shout, “I want everyone to see and love my data!” the fact of the matter is that your work will be more appreciated by certain people, and you should tailor your infographic to that audience. Second, that your infographic must have a specific purpose. Rather than throwing everything you have on your study into one infographic, take a smaller chunk of data and use it to communicate one particular message. Third, that a good infographic has beauty, soundness, and utility. No matter what the topic, if your infographic has those aspects, you’re set.

While the book is aimed towards businesses, many researchers — digital humanists, especially — can learn from the Column Five’s book when trying to communicate on the Internet. If you can create a quick infographic that follows best practices, it could make a huge difference about your audience and reach.

If you have questions about infographics, or you want to get started on making some yourself, the Scholarly Commons has the resources you need, including Adobe Photoshop CC and InDesign. You can also email Sarah Christensen ( for any questions you may have about infographics, or digital images.

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Spooky Photoshop Tricks

This coming Monday is October 31st, known to most as Halloween. Besides passing out candy and dressing up, Halloween can be a fun opportunity to learn some new effects for your Photoshop skill book. Below is a short tutorial on how to turn a relatively normal photo into a creepy, grainy one!

To start, I’ll take this photo of a photogenic Labrador Retriever and add a grainy film effect to it, so he’ll end up looking like he’s Nosferatu’s dog. The steps are as follows:

Spooky 1

  1. There are a few ways to create a black and white image, but for this image I’ll be choosing to just put a Black & White adjustment layer on it. From there, I’ll fiddle with the controls to find what looks best for my image. (So, for my dog, I adjusted the preset to Maximum Black so that the shadows really come through.)
  2. After that, you can add any other adjustment layers you think will improve the image. So I added a Brightness/Contrast layer, where I lowered the brightness to -45, and increased the contrast to 20.
  3. Create a new layer beneath your adjustment layer and name it something like “Scratches.” Select the brush tool and make sure that the size is down to 1 pixel, and hardness is up to 100%. Choose a mid-tone grey color, then create a few random “scratches” on top of the photo to give it an authentically old look.
  4. Once you’ve done that, select the layer with your original photo. Go to the Filter option on the top ribbon. From the drop down menu choose “Noise” and from there, “Add Noise.”
  5. From there, you will see a pop up screen with options for your Add Noise Filter. For this particular effect, I would suggest checking the box for monochromatic noise. You can choose either uniform or gaussian — I stuck with uniform. Play around with the percentage and see what works for you. I ended up with 38.07% for my photo.
  6. Crop however you’d like.

Spooky 2

There we have it! Your photo now looks older and creepier. Feel free to add some other effects, if you’d like. I decided to add a Hue/Saturation layer to the dog to make him green, use the burn tool on his eyes to make them darker, add and transform some text, and to add a little spider in order to make him Sparky the Zombie Dog!

Zombie Dog


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