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.