King’s College London’s Andrew Prescott has written a knowledgeable and very readable blog post on digital humanities infrastructure in the UK. I agree wholeheartedly with his main point – there are big issues relating to the provision of services and content, in particular the commercialisation of knowledge, which the (digital) humanities community needs to address. However, to achieve this I still think there is a role for some kind of grouping round an ‘arts and humanities service’ within the UK, although perhaps with a very different focus than the erstwhile AHDS.
There are three main issues to address:
1) Liaising with publishers and librarians
As the blog posts point out, humanities scholars are unaware of much of the provision of the current infrastructure and the attendant benefits and restrictions of scholarship.
This is, I think, not surprising. Researchers are interested in developing resources for their research questions or those of their generally quite narrow community. When it comes to working out the much broader licensing deals, copyright issues and institutional demand, the responsibility falls to the librarians – digital humanities scholars rarely the time or the focus to deal with such issues.
But, as Andrew says, they need to be involved in those discussions. If the AHRC is not going to take that role, than (digital) humanities in the UK needs to find some kind of common grouping so to inform a better dialogue with librarians and publishers and get its interests heard.
2) Training, communication
The AHDS was not just about data preservation. It was also about developing a community, putting people in touch and providing expert training. If you needed to learn about scanning, metadata, copyright etc and see what others in your area were doing, the AHDS provided that forum. The Methods Network did very similar things at a more advanced level.
My guess is services like these are still very much needed. Where does that new humanities scholar go when he needs customised help with scanning, data modelling or publishing resources on the web? How do experts in the field find the time and space to exchange findings at a disciplinary and an interdisciplinary level? Possibilities for transfer of knowledge between interested parties do still exist, but the AHDS infrastructure provided a layer on top of this
3) Data storage / aggregation
As far as I understand, the US HathiTrust was partially born out of the need to provide a repository for Google digitised material, but also a common area for a variety of digitised material.
If the UK, or indeed Europe, is to create structures to free up our content for sophisticated reuse in digital scholarship, then we will need to have the the technical infrastructure to allow this to happen. Without such technical infrastructure we rely on what the publishers provide.
Of course, we have a growing system of institutional repositories and digital libraries, so there is less demand for a centralised repository. However, we do still need a way of connecting data distributed in different sources. And for that connecting to be done, there needs to be some kind of service and expertise that can help can provide the loose connections between different sources and enable innovative digital scholarship over a range of datasets.
JISC is publishing the podcast interviews with guest speakers at its JISC Digitisation Conference, held in the summer this year.
Joyce Ray, of the US’ Institute of Museum and Library Services, which funds various digitisation projects , gave a perspective on some of the challenges facing funders in the digitisation of high-quality content for education and other sectors.
Meanwhile, Kevin Guthrie of Ithika, speaks about why international collaboration is important to the digitisation of scholarly resources and what the US and the UK can learn from each other.
The Irish Government has recently announced (Word doc) four-years worth of funding, totally around £2.5m (3.5m Euro) for a Digital Humanities Observatory to manage and co-ordinate the increasingly complex e-resources created in the arts and humanities.
Initiatives like this in Ireland, the Digital Humanities Initiative in the States and the German development of digitisation infrastructure all rather put the AHRC’s decision to end funding of the UK’s AHDS to shame.
In June I gave a presentation on Digitisation Infrastructure at the UCL Summer School of publishing e-content.
The presentation looked at some of the key capabilities that are required, whether at a campus-wide, regional or national level to make sure that digitisation happens effectively, as rapidly as possible and offers value for money in the medium and long term. Some of the key ingredients were:
- A variety of data capture facilities / digitisation bureaus
- Internationally agreed file formats, preferably non-proprietary
- International co-ordination, certification, co-operation to develop international schema and vocabularies
- A range of mechanisms for delivering data, working to sustainable technical and financial models
- Long-term preservation facilities
- Staff and expertise to provide these services and the essential research and development
The full presentation can be seen here
The Centre for Data Digitisation and Analysis (CDDA) at Queen’s University Belfast, and BOPCRIS at the University of Southampton are two of the leading digitisation units in the UK Higher Education sector.
Both are engaged in a wide number of projects (such as the Stormont Debates digitisation or the 18th-century Parliamentary papers and play an instrumental part in the UK’s digitisation infrastructure.
Most notable about CDDA is that has a good relationship with local students, providing them with skills and training to undertake data capture and processing work. The centre has around 5 or 6 flatbed scanners, 4 or 5 book scanners on tables and 1 larger book scanner for more difficult material.
BOPCRIS’s jewel is its robotic scanner which using suction power to automatically lift and turn pages before taking pictures. BOPCRIS also has 4 or 5 book scanners on tables and one larger book scanner standing on its own.
The UK’s central archive for arts and humanities data, the Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS) has unexpectedly lost half its funding after the Arts and Humanities Research Council withdrew the half a million pounds it contributed towards the running of the service.
I have a slightly vested interest in that I worked for the AHDS for several years, but even then this seems a poor decision to endanger a unit that is responsible for long-term preservation of digital data, and has had a pioneering role in setting up a working preservation service. There are not many others in existence in the world.
Even stranger is the four-line justification given on the funding council’s website. Most seasoned observers will not the statements are simply not true; the lack of accompanying evidence is telling.