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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

25 February 2012

Thinking about Infrastructure

A colleague drew my attention to NicolaOsborne’s liveblog of the very interesting event at the University of Edinburgh on 24 February 2012, Digital Scholarship: A Day of Ideas. It is wonderful to see that Edinburgh University, which, through EDINA and other activities, has made such important contributions to the growth of digital scholarship over the years, is continuing to develop new initiatives – the appointment by Edinburgh of a Dean for Digital Scholarship is particularly noteworthy. Mind you, it must be admitted that the idea of digital scholarship creates some problems. One worry that constantly nags away at me is whether we should privilege the digital in the way that we do. Other technologies have the capacity radically to transform humanities scholarship – it is possible, for example, that nanotechnologies, by offering new approaches to the conservation of cultural heritage, have just as much to offer the humanities scholar and curator as the digital. Perhaps we should be thinking as much about nano-scholarship as digital scholarship. Certainly, it would be worrying if humanities scholars restrict their engagement with technology to the digital.

My reflections on the day derive from Nicola Osborne’s liveblogging, so apologies in advance if I consequently get hold of the wrong end of the stick here and there. Melissa Terras in her presentation evidently demonstrated very vividly the way in which digital resources and tools have transformed the practice of humanities scholars over the past twenty years.  Yet, as Mel pointed out, there is a fundamental dilemma here. The most important developments have not been driven by scholars, but by libraries and commercial publishers. The resources which have become indispensable to humanities scholars are commercial packages such as Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Early English Books Online or the British Library’s Newspapers Archive. As Laura Mandell has emphasized, these resources are designed on the model of the library microfilm surrogate, intended to enhance public access to library collections. Their searchability is very limited, and they are often positively misleading. The digital humanities, as formally constituted through centres such as UCLDH and the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London, have been largely irrelevant to this process, and have general not produced any resources which have had the same impact on scholarship as these commercial packages. If a scholar working on the early nineteenth century was asked to choose whether funding should be used to secure access to The Times Digital Archive or to continue a project like Transcribe Bentham, most would unhesitatingly choose The Times.

One of the most urgent issues for digital scholarship (as Laura Mandell has emphasized) is to develop closer links with librarians and publishers to influence the creation of these commercial packages. But it seems that, floating around the Edinburgh day, was the suggestion that a far more critical issue is one of infrastructure. In particular, in both Jane Ohlmeyer’s presentation and in some questions after Mel’s presentation, seemed to be flickering the idea that in some the United Kingdom had taken a step backwards by ending funding for the Arts and Humanities Data Service and by not taking a sufficiently active role in the European Dariah initiative. The way forward, it appears to be suggested, is to invest in infrastructure, and the UK, it is also suggested, has characteristically thrown away an early lead in this area.

I must admit instinctive nervousness about infrastructure, which can only be explained in terms of my own engagement with digital developments. The British Library, through its Initiatives for Access programme between 1994 and 1997, established a remarkable portfolio of pioneering digital projects, including Portico, the first British Library website, the Burney Newspapers digitisation, Turning the Pages and Electronic Beowulf. Indeed, in many ways this programme explored almost all of the aspects of the technology which have subsequently preoccupied us. There was clearly a need for these activities to build closer links with work in other sectors, particularly that of the JISC, but in many ways the British Library mapped out through Initiatives for Access a remarkable template for future. But, at the conclusion of the programme, the Library’s view was that the most pressing need was investment in technical infrastructure, particularly given the Library’s ambition to embark on legal deposit of electronic resources. So, a large and ultimately unsuccessful programme to procure a major piece of new technical infrastructure was put in place, and the British Library threw away the advances that it had made in the 1990s. It is striking that the British Library has since failed to exercise any decisive leadership on the development of wider digital scholarship in the humanities. There have been some interesting developments, such as the UK Sound Map or the Codex Sinaiticus project, but the major British Library developments have been through commercial partnerships, as with the newspapers. Digital scholarship has been sacrificed for infrastructure.

For scholars working within British universities, the three most important pieces of infrastructure provided by the universities themselves are barely mentioned or discussed. These are: the network provision through JANET; the collective licensing of commercial digital packages through JISC Collections; and the NESLI2 licensing of access to online journals which (although extraordinarily complex and often fraught) provides access to the enormously expensive journal packages of publishers such as Elsevier or Wiley-Blackwell. Take any of these components away, and the digital revolution described by Melissa would disappear overnight. These provisions are not cheap – online journal provision for a publisher such as Wiley-Blackwell can still easily cost a university library over a million pounds a year, even with the discounts negotiated through the NESLI2 agreements. All British universities libraries spend the bulk of their acquisition budgets on the provision of online resources – a fact of which most academic users seem blissfully and happily unaware. However, these pieces of infrastructure bring enormous benefit, one of the most important of which is an equality of provision across UK universities. I feel strongly about this, because while I was Librarian at the small university in Lampeter, the excellent work of JISC Collections meant that I could easily build up a portfolio of electronic resources which, in those areas taught at Lampeter, bore comparison with much larger universities. Contrast this with the appalling situation in the United States, where very large and wealthy universities can afford a huge range of subscriptions to electronic resources but smaller colleges have nothing at all. For example, look at the library catalogue of St Vincent’s College in Pennsylvania, an excellent Catholic liberal arts college very similar to Lampeter, which lists just four very limited electronic resources. This is an immense digital divide, which the work of the JISC has ensured does not occur to the same degree in Britain (although there are exceptions, such as Parker on the Web, where the scandalous refusal of Stanford University Library to agree terms with JISC Collections mean that this important resopurce is unavailable in most British universities) .

At this level, Britain possesses an infrastructure which has successfully fostered digital scholarship in the arts and humanities. In this context, clearly the most important priority is to protect this infrastructure, and it is an infrastructure which is under threat. It is a constant struggle to negotiate affordable rates for journal subscriptions. In this sense, the recent Elsevier boycott is beside the point – many other publishers, such as most notably Wiley-Blackwell, are equally culpable of what is really nothing more than exploiting monopoly advantages. In the current financial situation, sooner or later, some British universities will not be able to afford to continue subscriptions to journals or databases which scholars have become dependent on. What happens to the digital revolution then?

These seem to me more pressing structures of infrastructure than refighting old battles about the Arts and Humanities Data Service. The withdrawal of funding was very sad, and at King’s College London we are enormously proud of the way in which Sheila Anderson and her colleagues have created from the Arts and Humanities Data Service a tremendously successful Centre for eResearch which in many ways is pushing forward new methods of researching in even more remarkable ways than under the AHDS. The Arts and Humanities Data Service was established in the mid 1990s at a time when it was assumed that much of the creation of digital content would occur within universities and that some kind of infrastructure was necessary to facilitate this. AHDS was also intended to promote awareness of the need for sustainable standards. AHDS was certainly successful in ensuring this attention to appropriate standards, and some former components of the AHDS, such as the History Data Service, Archaeology Data Service and the Oxford Text Archive, have flourished notwithstanding the loss of central AHDS funding, and still perform this function very successfully. But the question must be asked – is the vision of large quantities of university-created digital content requiring central curation still the most pressing issue? Isn't this a vision more appropriate to 1995? David Robey has consistently stressed how the AHRC is still funding many research projects which have a digital content. A list of some of these is available here.

So the loss of funding for the AHDS has not inhibited the engagement of humanities scholars with digital methods – do we in fact need that sort of function at all? Most of the projects funded by the AHRC of this kind represent small-scale activities of the type which Andrew Green of the National Library of Wales has called ‘boutique digitisation’. Andrew argues that the major issues for both humanities scholars arise from the impact of commercial initiatives such as Google Books, and I feel sure that, in thinking about infrastructure, it is these wider more strategic concerns which are more pressing than whether we have data repositories to support small-scale low impacts projects such as Transcribe Bentham or the 1641 Depositions in Ireland (and, yes, I would include projects like Electronic Beowulf in this category as well). We need infrastructures which will instead address our dangerous dependence on commercial initiatives by a range of companies from Gale to Google.

In this context, I think it could be argued that the United Kingdom is in fact now pointing the way forward in terms of the necessary infrastructure in a rapidly changing digital environment more effectively than through models like the AHDS, which reflected the situation in the mid 1990s. Indeed (and I’ve hesitated in case I am being unduly chauvinistic here, but I don’t think I am) I think there is a danger in the UK being asked to turn the clock back by those who are only just reaching the stage that Britain reached fifteen or more years ago.

One important point to bear in mind is that Britain today is very different to Britain fifteen years ago. Having worked in Wales, Scotland and different parts of England, the impact of the creation of an increasingly devolved country (or countries) is one of the most important issues. It is indeed striking that an Irish scholar speaking in Scotland refers to what Raymond Williams called ‘the Yookay’ as if it was a single entity, which it is no longer. The AHDS reflected an assumption about the type of infrastructure for Great Britain which was appropriate in London in 1995 but no longer fits Great Britain today. Many of the most important recent initiatives have stemmed from the devolved nations where national governments have been undertaking interesting investment in digital infrastructure. For Wales, I have described some of these in my recent article for Lorna Hughes’s book on Evaluating and Measuring the Value, Use and Impact of Digital Collections. An activity like the Welsh Journals Online project, partly funded by the Welsh Assembly Government and co-ordinated by the National Library of Wales, is, as Andrew Green has described, consciously designed to seek to counter the baleful cultural effects of a project like Google Books. Likewise, the People’s Collection, which was a manifesto commitment of the last Welsh government, anticipates on a smaller scale many of the features on the major Digital Public Library of America which looks likely to be the single most transformative piece of infrastructural work for digital scholarship over the next few years. Catcymru, providing integrated access to all Welsh libraries, is again a remarkable illustration of the way in which the evolved nations are using digital infrastructures to create a new sense of national identity.

A similar story could be told in Scotland, where for example Scottish universities have been pioneering new methods of securing joint access to on-line journals and databases, and the National Library of Scotland has been working with Scottish universities to develop projects to provide (for example) on-line access to collections of maps. But where it seems to me that in Britain we are engaging with more current issues of concern than is evident from Jane Ohlmeyer’s description of the situation in Ireland is our awareness of the issues posed by the commercialization of digital scholarship, of which Ireland seems blissfully unaware. It is in the initiatives that are responding to this threat that Britain is still taking a lead. Open access is an obvious area, and the work of the JISC is promoting awareness of the issues around open access has been critical here. There are rumours (no more than that, sadly) that a ruling will be made that only work available on open access may be submitted to the REF, and no more important measure could be taken to support digital scholarship at the moment than the implementation of such a ruling. Repositories remain a key tool for tackling such issues, and again I think Britain has been leading the way here – one of the most interesting projects with which I have ever been involved was the Welsh Repositories Network, which ensured that every university in Wales has an open access institutional repository – that’s an amazing achievement, and needs to be trumpeted more. Other projects which I think point the way forward more firmly than hankering after the AHDS include the British Library’s Ethos project to make doctoral dissertations more easily available. We might also point to recent work on research integrity which seeks to link data curation more closely to the research process, and support for these initiatives is perhaps more pressing than worrying about storage services.       
In short, the issues confronting digital scholarship in the humanities are less to do with the storage and curation of data and much more to with creating models which resist the commercialisation and commodification of knowledge, and save us from the maw of companies like Microsoft and IBM. Here, I believe Britain still continues to point the way. It is very tempting to feel that digital issues an be resolved by the purchase of a splendid piece of kit, and I worry that such an instinct too often pervades our thinking about infrastructure. In the sciences, such large initiatives are often tied to research questions which cannot be addressed without major investment in equipment: think Hadron Collider, Square Kilometre Array, Diamond Light Source. But in the humanities our thinking about infrastructure is too often disconnected from research issues. We worry about creating services. Maybe we shouldn’t.   


  • Annette Strauch aus Eichenberg says:
    25 February 2012 at 12:14

    Good post I am reading while at a party. Saw the link on Twitter. Nano-technologies for the Humanities I find interesting, Andrew - not just digital. Yes, research issues are most important. Interesting you mention the online access to maps. In Wales, the Digital Chaucer sounds good. There is no easy access though which is a shame. Copyright issues stand in the way...Crowdsourcing does not work there that well. Digital Humanities in Wales - looking forward to see the developments. In Germany, we look to King's and UCL, very often to Melissa Terras. As you say, Britain points the way, England and Scotland.

    Research infrastructures.

    Maybe everything will fall into its place - somehow.

  • Alastair Dunning says:
    13 March 2012 at 16:06

    Some very good points here, Andrew. I think you are right that a centralised AHDS model for data curation is no longer the default service for the digital humanities community in the UK. But there are still some pressing reasons for having a grouping of arts and humanities experts that can provide some kind of service, for three main purposes

    1) Is to provide a contact and liasion point between librarians and publishers
    2) Is to assist with training and communication within the digital humanities community
    3) is to help provide some kind of technical infrastructure to provide an alternative to what the publishers offer.

    JISC offer some of these things, but I fear they may not be there for ever.

    I've blogged a bit more about this at

  • James-C says:
    15 March 2012 at 08:18

    Good post overall. While I don't hanker after the AHDS as a whole I do see a loss in the provision of specialist technical advice. I'm regularly approached by academics wanting help or support that they are unable to get at their home institutions. That they are able to find such support locally (as the AHRC claimed) is a myth. It is hard for them to approach community sources (e.g. mailing lists) because often they don't know the type of advice they need.

    The easy open hosting of large research datasets for their researchers is also something that UK HE institutions are also poor at doing without putting lots of barriers in front of usage. (JISC is good at encouraging some forward thinking in this regard, but even the best universities are still poor at it IMHO.)

    I like the supposed rumour of open access requirement for REF... I don't believe it though. I assume you've seen this analogy: http://tinyurl.com/teleporting-duplicator (I liked it so much I created a tinyurl). However, it isn't just open access of secondary research outputs that is needed, but both the underlying data and source code of any software. It should be the norm in HE that all outputs (articles/data/code) of any publicly funded project should be openly available under an open licence for re-use. I recognise this is but a toothpick in the gaping maw of the commodification of knowledge output but I think it an important shift that is still needed if we are even going begin to protect such output from revenue-based silo-building.

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