Talking Digital Infrastructure @ the ESF, Strasbourg

Back at the end of October I attended a two-day workshop put on by the European Science Foundation (yes, Humanities research counts as Science in the European Union). The Workshop addressed the issue of Research Communities and Infrastructures in the Humanities as they are developing in a digital context. Researchers from all around Europe and involved in various aspects of Digital Humanities were invited to talk about their experiences in 5 thematic sessions. I was there, representing both HESTIA and GAP, to share my experiences of working in an interdisciplinary group, in session 4 below (for a downloadable pdf of the programme, go to:

1. Research communities and adoption of research infrastructures, both traditional (e.g. museums, libraries, archives) and digital, with a particular focus on the extent and nature of their integration
2. Re-purposing and re-use of data in digital form and how this process can engage researchers
3. Text vs. non text (audio and material) digitization in changing research practice
4. Disciplinary vs. interdisciplinary resources, and the opportunities afforded by digital technologies
5. Integrating extant resources: the role of digital research infrastructures

The ‘wrap up’, which runs to several pages and which will influence strategy on a European-wide level (see: , for me raised three key issues.

First, and perhaps most encouragingly, the ESF committee made it clear that they didn’t see it as their job to establish or enforce an infrastructure themselves: instead, there was an acknowledgement that any future, stable infrastructure had to be community-driven and would work better at local levels with user input. The role of pan-European bodies like the ESF lay, rather, in support, by maintaining scholarly standards (essential for the reusability of data), overseeing transparency of methods, ensuring recognition of digitally-based work in publication records and promotion cases, facilitating co-operation between groups/individuals, and helping to establish best practice guidelines. A tangible part of this guidance would be in offering training, so that all academics could develop a working competency in the field, though whether this would change the way or even the kind of research that was done was less clear: after all, it was said, carpenters may have put down their hand tools for electric ones, but their work largely remains much the same. Still, there was a sense that this new medium could affect the way that Humanities scholars go about their business, particularly in processing data or allowing access to raw data in a much more transparent manner. Funding agencies too had an important role by requiring sustainability, reusability and compliance with standards.

Second, it was recognised that the wheel should not have to be reinvented continually, meaning that there had to be better joined-up thinking across the pan-European institutions to ensure that academics working across disciplinary boundaries could learn from each other. As well as tools, methods and practice, data also needed to be shared, rather than being stored in ‘data silos’. The challenge, then, is to find ways of linking datasets. One solution proposed would be to embed metadata to provide a common ontology for each and every digital object, which could be recognised as generic and re-usable. But above all the emphasis was on making the data, tools, methods and practice accessible and open.

Lastly, it was felt that the digital medium presented an ideal opportunity to appeal to a much broader constituency beyond a narrow single-discipline academic circle. It would not only be the case of creating tools and methods, or presenting data, which are easy for all scholars to adopt and use; it would also be possible, and desirable, to develop the means of communicating the latest cutting-edge research to the general public. In fact, Humanities scholars, like their better known colleagues from the Sciences, could even play a role in shaping educational and social policy. It is certainly true that computer scientists are keen to work with us, for they recognise that the kinds of questions that we typically ask of data has the potential to extend the latest computing technology into exciting new areas.

As a Humanities scholar, who has been part of an interdisciplinary team for the past two years, I can readily testify to the challenges that such work presents but, especially, to its benefits and excitement. Work has never been so much fun.


About eltonteb

Lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University
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