From paper to data

June 23, 2000

Susan Whitfield once worried that her 'techie' research would hinder her career. As a showcase conference opens, she asks universities to reward digital work in the arts

Paper and printing, revolutionary inventions in the history of scholarship, were quickly exploited by Chinese Buddhists and, by the start of the last two millennia respectively, were in widespread use.

There is no doubt that digitisation, the computerising of information, will prove to be similarly momentous. And just as it took several generations for scholars to realise the potential of paper and printing, so academics today are struggling to understand the changes digitisation will bring to their world. As the novelist Andre Gide remarked: "One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time."

In the past few years the Buddhist community has again been among the first to grasp the potential of this new technology. Just as Buddhists seized on paper and printing as a means to propagate religious texts, so the past decade has seen the computerisation of the Buddhist canon.

When I started the International Dunhuang Project in 1993, aimed at increasing access to the great cache of early Buddhist manuscripts discovered by accident hidden in a cave along the Chinese Silk Road, I had several meetings with fellow curators also wishing to embark on digital projects. We were all fearful of choosing hardware, software and methodologies that might become obsolete and even more fearful of becoming technicians rather than scholars - none of our institutions could offer adequate technical support. Seven years later, and one of the group is still vacillating about which techniques to use. He may not have made the items in his care any more accessible, but he still has time to look at them himself. The rest of us, as feared, have developed into hybrids - techie-scholars - with inadequate time to master either field.

Universities and, more importantly, the funding councils that measure and monitor what academics do, are lagging behind in the digital revolution - at least in terms of recognising and rewarding digital research. The research of young academics, under great pressure to publish traditional scholarly articles in order to secure jobs, is measured by the rules of the councils' research assessment exercise. Many create digital resources to aid their research, but these electronic files may as well be index cards kept in the researcher's study - they will receive no credit in the exercise. New technology is being used but not exploited.

The researchers will be offered no technical support by their university - which will not want to waste funds on endeavours attracting scant research kudos. Nor can they expect help from doctoral students, once the students realise that digital research will not help them along the traditional academic career path. Tetrabytes of digital data sitting on home computers are fast becoming obsolete, like unpublished manuscripts in desk drawers. If the RAE were to encourage collaborative digital projects, then scholars would think it worth the time to make existing data public, and others would be encouraged to embark on new digital projects.

The Labour government is hoping to raise a new internet generation of scholars. By starting to build the infrastructure now for evaluating digital data in the next RAE, the funding councils would ensure that these scholars' skills are not wasted. They would also lead the academic community worldwide in being the first to make the imaginative leap necessary to value a new technology.

Citing digital texts will become routine as researchers compile metadata - hidden headers which provide information on the date of creation, date of each revision and authors - and as libraries recognise their role as preservers of digital data as well as print and paper media. And the RAE could also grade ejournals just as print journals are graded.

The collaborative nature of digital work is less problematic: it is a model already commonplace in science. Database designers, programmers and inputters will receive joint credit just as do senior scientists - who conceive an experiment - and the postdocs and laboratory assistants who implement it.

But collaboration must be on a broader scale, and this is where groups such as the California-based Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative - which overlays historical data with digital maps - will play an increasingly important role. ECAI is developing software that allows researchers to place their data online - to publish that manuscript in their desk drawer. The ECAI conference next week, hosted by the British Library, will showcase digital projects as diverse as Welsh saints, burial structures in Tennessee, African languages and sacred space in China. Some already make use of ECAI tools, others may find ECAI a useful collaborator.

The fact that the corpus of paper manuscripts and printed documents from the only extant Buddhist library of the first millennium AD can now be accessed by scholars worldwide, with images at least as legible as the originals, shows that digitisation is here to stay. Once scholars have this sort of access they will not surrender it. Instead they will demand solutions to the problems impeding its use. We cannot see the shore at present but this does not mean we are going to drown. Nor can we turn back. Our world is expanding and the next generation of scholars will think us rather quaint for our concerns, just as we wonder at the Victorians' fear of travelling faster than 25 miles an hour.

Susan Whitfield is head of the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library, London.

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