For the past three days I’ve been attending a Winter School, which is the first component of the CHASE Arts and Humanities in the Digital Age programme. I’d been a bit unsure about how useful the programme would be to me, as someone already familiar with Digital Humanities, as it is more aimed at Humanities students who are interested in using digital as part of their research, and exploring different ways that this can be done. However, I thought it would be a good opportunity to consolidate my existing knowledge into a strong foundation of what ‘digital’ means when applied to Humanities research, to take part in a Digital Humanities project with other students, and more generally to meet people with similar interests to me and learn from each other.
Open Access and the Humanities
The first day started with a keynote speech from Martin Eve (Birkbeck) about the current state of Open Access for Humanities research. Having worked previously in Scholarly Communications, and as I intend to make my research as open as possible, this was really interesting to me – much of my previous work in the area has revolved around the sciences, as this tends to be where the bulk of research funding ends up; however, in the Humanities there are different issues that need to be considered.
In particular, Martin spoke about what the notion of publication means for different disciplines, and the practicalities surrounding this – while the main reason for publication is usually considered to be communication about the author’s research, they also need to take into account that their publications will be used to assess their quality of research for the REF (Research Excellence Framework). For Humanities projects, paying for Open Access to research via the Gold model is often a problem due to low funding, particularly if the output is a monograph rather than an article, as these tend to be considerably more expensive.
One way in which Martin is aiming to work around this by setting up a new platform, the Open Library of Humanities. This is based on a similar principle to the physical sciences preprint server arXiv, by asking for donations from academic libraries to cover the costs of running the system, but making the outputs available to everyone, regardless of whether or not they are from a paying institution. They have also been developing new tools to convert articles to XML for typesetting, and then to use this XML to generate PDFs, which then replaces one of the functions of a traditional publisher. So far, this model seems to have been successful – over 200 libraries now make financial contributions, and 18 journals are on (or supported by) the platform. Download statistics look promising, as they seem relatively high when compared with subscription-based platforms. In general, I think this seems like a really good idea.
What is particularly interesting is how Martin and the team have re-thought a publishing model outside the traditional expectations of what it might involve, with the idea of gearing it specifically towards being a sustainable way of publishing Humanities research. This is an innovative way of subverting the imposed Open Access models, while taking user needs and the principles of Open Access into account. I am really keen to see how it develops and hope that it will become an important tool for Humanities disciplines, as well as providing insights to the Scholarly Communications community.
Digitisation, Metadata and Markup
Martin’s talk was followed by an introduction to the principles of digitisation, metadata and markup from Paul Gooding (UEA). He started off by talking about the reasons we might have for choosing to digitise a particular object or collection, and about the different techniques and equipment involved in small- and large-scale digitisation projects. Paul particularly highlighted the work of Google Books and HathiTrust in digitising large quantities of books by scanning them and using OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to identify letters in the text.
We then went on to think about the usability of a digitised resource – if you are making the resource available for other people to use, you will need to think about what they will want to do with it and how they will get there. Here, Paul referenced Mitchell Whitelaw’s excellent article on ‘Generous Interfaces’, which has provided a lot of food for thought for my own research, in terms of thinking about how a researcher with minimal technical skills might want to interact with a resource that is based on Linked Data.
Finally, after a brief introduction to the concept of metadata, we split into groups for an activity. Each group was assigned a digitised object and asked about how we would present it within a web interface, keeping our target audience in mind. My group was lucky enough to be given the Natural History Museum’s Dippy the Diplodocus, which provides a huge amount of potential for a variety of resources, all targeted at different user demographics. After some discussion, we proposed a resource aimed at members of the public, with basic information on the landing page, including a fact file on Dippy and a ‘Where am I now’ feature, to show at a glance where the exhibition tour is currently located. This would then lead to a more detailed view including timelines, both of discovery and of geological periods, as well as a map of the location where Dippy was found, and a profile on the person who discovered the skeleton. Additionally, this would link to the catalogue record containing the full metadata for Dippy, which might be of more use to an academic audience.
It was really interesting hearing the other groups’ presentations about their own resources, which included a film poster, a rare edition of Harry Potter, and a figurine of a character from a computer game. The results from each group really highlighted the importance of thinking about audience from the very initial stages of designing a digital resource.