Report: After the AHDS: the end of national support?

A panel discussion at the opening of the recent Digital Resources in the Humanities and Arts conference at Dartington College of the Arts posed the question what happens after the end of the Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS); is this the end of national support?

The Arts and Humanities Data Service is a national service with the primary role to preserve, curate, and provide access to the digital output of the humanities in the UK. The Service is also active in the enhancement and promotion of digital scholarship in the UK as well as internationally. After eleven years of service, the AHDS recently lost its funding from the JISC (Joint Information Services Committee) and the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council). The Service will cease to exist in its present form in March of 2008.

The panel discussion was introduced by the head of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s ICT in Arts and Humanities Research Programme, Professor David Robey. The other members of the panel were Dr Lorna Hughes, director of the AHRC ICT Methods Network, and Professor David Shepherd, Director of the Humanities Research Institute.

Professor Robey stated that the end of the AHDS may be decisive in the history of digital scholarship in the UK as this may be the end of national support. It is national support that has defined digital scholarship in the UK for many years and has helped the nation to become one of the world-leaders in the field. Without a national approach, the field may flounder or return to the dark days of scattered digital scholarship with little coherence or ambitions as a field.

At the present time, the AHDS preserves over one thousand projects in various digital forms, some of which include the Stormont Papers (the complete collection of the parliamentary debates of the Northern Irish Parliament under British rule), and Designing Shakespeare, (a multi-media database of the performances of Shakespeare over a forty year period). The collection of the AHDS is undoubtedly one of the most important digital collections in the world and some of it ‘born-digital’ collections exist in no other location.

The panel discussed some of the problems that may occur after the closure of the AHDS There is no indication as to what will happen to the collection after the closure, except that the responsibility for preservation of the individual project may be handed to institutional repositories. Although institutional repositories are responsible for collecting, preserving, and dissemination the intellectual output of universities in a digital form, there are some reservations, as express by David Shepherd, that institutional repositories are up to the task. Preservation requires projects to be prepared in a certain way and is an ongoing process. It also requires the ability to deal with complex data in various forms. There is also the serious problem that not all universities have institutional repositories, ironically including King’s College; London, the principal home of the AHDS. Although institutional repositories may one day be able to handle the tasks of the AHDS, there was great concern, as expressed by all members of the panel, that this was yet some time away. In the longer term institutional repositories may be able to look after complex data, but not now. David Robey also expressed the loss of the AHDS may also mean the end of its integrated catalogue to search the collections under its umbrella.

Dr Lorna Hughes, the Director of the AHRC Methods Network, stated that the decision to cease funding of the AHDS came at the same time that digital resources had reached a critical mass and access to this was altering the very nature of scholarship across the spectrum. To withdraw funding now may impact upon the ability to reuse this significant resource and to curate and present it in a user-friendly and innovative way in the future.

The program that Lorna Hughes is Director, the highly inventive Methods Network, also ceases to be funded in 2008. The Methods Network is involved in numerous activities to promote the use of digital technologies in the humanities through workshops and other events. As the name indicates, the Methods Network is active in promoting digital scholarship through connecting individuals across various disciplines through such things as the computational methods that they employ in their work. For instance, scholars may come together through tools (like text mining) or through methods (like visualisation). It is this cross-fertilisation that is vital to the promotion of digital scholarship as a field, not only because of the economic efficiencies that it provides, but also because central to the concept of ‘innovation’ is the sharing of knowledge across disciplinary and institutional boundaries.

Lorna Hughes also lamented that there was a serious dearth of tools available to scholars to properly exploit digital resources; perhaps another activity that could benefit from greater central coordination. One way that this could be achieved is through online resources such as the community platform being developed by the Methods Network. It is hoped that this community platform will continue part of the work of the Methods Network in a virtual form and carry on the conversation that will take digital humanities and its methods forward.

David Shepherd discussed what universities can do in this post-AHDS period. His own experience from running the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield; one of the UK’s premier centres within the Digital Humanities, is that institutional repositories are no where near close to being able to support complex data as made by HRI Sheffield. He made the case that universities now have additional responsibilities now that the AHDS is gone, but there is a gap between what they can do and what is needed. 50% of all projects funded by the AHRC in 2006 had some sort of digital output that indicated that we cannot now make a divide between the digital and the posing of research questions.

The demise of the AHDS is a challenging period and institutions need to move quickly to overcome any gaps in the services offered by the AHDS.  If they don’t move quickly, there is a danger that some of the digital output of the humanities in the UK will be lost along with the skills needed to preserve and provide access to this data.



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