As this blog is approaching its thirteenth birthday , I thought that it was about time that I purged some of the fluffy, ephemeral posts that really don’t need to travel with me any longer. The problem with much online media is that a post or comment, that possibly took ten seconds to write, may follow you for many years, perhaps preserved through an historian’s anxiety to not let anything go just in case it may become significant some time in the future.
So I went through the 1350 posts feeling quite dismal because most of them weren’t significant at all! There were lots of pre-Twitted aggregation posts, lots of Conference Calls for eye-watering dull gatherings, that have since been forgotten, and too many rants about politics or Web 2 or the digital humanities that possibly don’t need to be aired for eternity. Painstakingly flipping through all the posts, with an historian’s paint brush and surgeon’s scalpel, I deleted 500, or more than a third, wondering why that particular post had seen the light of day in the first place.
But whilst hitting the delete button I stumbled upon a disturbing theme. The particular robust deletion policy that I employed was if the resource I linked to was no longer available, and the post was chiefly about that resource, I would delete the post. The problem was that many of the posts weren’t simply about ephemeral matters such as a new ‘Web 2’ company (that has since gone broke) or a new tool or ill-conceived project within the digital humanities or eResearch. Many of the posts were links (broken) to significant reports, tools or services or even complete centres whose very mission it was to preserve digital data, but had long disappeared.
Where did they go?
I checked many of the links, but couldn’t find where the particular digital-preservation resource, centre, tool or report had gone to. It has simply vanished, forgotten, perhaps only existing as a line in a Resume or argument in a new funding application. So not only are we forgetting the significant projects and people that helped build the ‘digital humanities’ and the broader digital culture and economy, but we are also forgetting the very institutions, tools, and services that were actually tasked with preserving them, but failed. The problem is one of institutional failure, not of technical failure. It is funding models that don’t work, it is ineptitude, and it is a lack of historical vision to keep what is significant and ditch what is fluffy. The digital archive is the bread and butter of much future research and without it, emerging digital research will be replaced by an emerging digital alchemy.
The project identified a range of ownership and access issues, and found that many online ‘assets’ are left exposed or stranded after death. The researchers concluded that more Australians should include digital registers in, or with, their wills and these should contain passwords and account locations so that material can then be distributed by the Executor or other designated person.
- The Report is here:
- The Brochure for the project is here:
- And the website for the project is here:
There is a conference being held at the moment in Vienna, Austria titled ‘Supporting Digital Humanities’ (19-20 October). It is the first joint conference between the two major European digital humanities infrastructure projects, CLARIN and DARIAH. There is a very important distinction to be made here between ‘supporting the digital humanities’ and supporting the humanities. Accordingly, the conference’s aims are stated as thus:
Digital technologies have the potential to transform the types of research questions that we ask in the Humanities, and to allow us to address traditional questions in new and exciting ways. Supporting the Digital Humanities will be a forum for the discussion of these innovations, and of the ways in which these new forms of research can be facilitated and supported.
It is important to make this distinction explicit; that new infrastructure development must support digital scholarship (ie. the digital humanities) and not simply be about storage and publication (like older style digital projects). Infrastructures should support processes such as annotation, text encoding, mining and text analysis, and programmatic access (trough APIs) to the underlying structured data. In this way new questions may be asked or old questions asked in new ways. Often, this promise of the Digital Humanities is evoked more than it is actualised, but still I think there are enough honest researchers in the field who care enough about truth in research, that the potential research findings from these large public investments will be substantial (link).
For those interested in the Cyberinfrastructure debate within Australia for the humanities, there are a number of key documents to consider. Here is a report produced by Professor Graeme Turner for the Australian Academy of the Humanities titled ‘Towards an Australian Humanities Digital Archive‘. The report came out of a scoping study of Digital Humanities activities; in particular for consideration by NCRIS’s (National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy) investment roadmap. (Also see the Humanities and Social Sciences working group’s response to the NCRIS Roadmap review).
As a component of the NCRIS process, the National Research Infrastructure Council (NRIC) has been established to administer a programme called ‘Landmark Infrastructure Needs‘. Responses have been called for; here is a response from the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia (ASSA). And here is the response from the Australian Academy of the Humanities (AAH).
And if you don’t know what Cyberinfrastructure is; it is like a big electronic brain that connects researchers together so they can share data and work on it collaboratively and answer big questions! Here is an example from the Earth Sciences called AuScope.
Thanks to Andrew T for the (link).
Monsignor Cesare Pasini, Prefect of the Vatican Library, sent out an “extraordinary” Newsletter 5/2010 on 24 March (see full text as posted by the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog) announcing plans to digitise 80,000 manuscripts held by the Vatican Library. Planning and consulting, as well as testing of workflow and infrastructure, have been finalised. The Newsletter also discloses some details about the project: it is planned to be implemented in three phases over a 10 year period and will initially involve 60 staff in the first phase, incremented to over 120 staff in the second and third phases. A Metis System Scanner and a 50MP Hasselblad camera (“depending on the different types of material to be reproduced”) will capture the images which will be stored as FITS (Flexible Image Transport System) files, a non-proprietary file format, originally designed for the storage and transmission of mainly scientific images. The 40 million manuscript pages are anticipated (following “a rough calculation”) to take up a total of 45 petabytes storage space.
I am naturally very excited about the news. This is a very ambitious project on one of the world’s most important manuscript collections. I will keep my eyes peeled for any further details and developments. I am particularly interested in the business model that the Vatican Library will adopt in making these manuscripts digitally accessible. In particular, I am thinking of the manuscripts that are held across institutions and the potential for aggregating them (or even ‘virtually re-uniting’ them) in Virtual Research Environments.