Trinity College Dublin - Back to the future

A cutting-edge, digitally driven setting for arts and humanities research shows the importance of yesterday to tomorrow, writes Maeve O'Lynn

September 9, 2010

It is widely acknowledged that the arts and humanities do not tend to produce the same sort of quantifiable results as medical, engineering or economic research, for example. Instead, research and study in the field of arts and humanities is often focused on centuries past, whether the subject in question is literature, paintings, languages, sources, historical events, documents or archives. But the question remains as to whether this focus on the past can have relevance for the present and whether it is, in fact, a necessity in order to prepare for the future.

H.G. Wells said: "History is a race between education and catastrophe." However, in the case of the arts and humanities disciplines, this is a race that catastrophe threatens to win, as government education policy continues to value science and business, while treating the traditionally revered arts and humanities disciplines as less relevant and meaningful to today's student and in today's society.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this derogatory view is treated dismissively in Trinity College Dublin's dedicated arts and humanities research institute, the Trinity Long Room Hub.

Roy Foster, Carroll professor of Irish history at Hertford College, Oxford, believes that contrary to the idea that the arts and humanities are becoming less relevant, "the proposal for a top-flight Institute for Advanced Study in the humanities seemed long overdue for Ireland".

Foster has been an external advisory member of the Trinity Long Room Hub since the project's inception.

"This is a vital development for the higher education sector in Ireland because it comes at a time when the technology of knowledge storage, dissemination and retrieval has been revolutionised by digitalisation and electronic communications circuits," he says.

His thoughts on the building that will house the Trinity Long Room Hub are similarly positive: "A newly built state-of-the-art research centre will be able to benefit directly from this, and incorporate it in the most up-to-date way."

The Trinity Long Room Hub incorporates such developments impressively, seamlessly using new technology to promote the rich, historical archive collection owned by Trinity College, an institution founded in the 16th century. The college showcases these developments in a plethora of online exhibitions and large-scale projects, which combine a thoroughly modern approach with the culture and heritage of centuries past.

Projects such as the multidisciplinary initiative between the conservation and physics departments on the Book of Kells overturned previously accepted knowledge, such as the use of woad instead of lapis lazuli as a blue dye in the manuscript.

Frank Boland is a professor of engineering science at Trinity College, but he is involved in the arts and humanities faculty through an interdisciplinary project funded by the Trinity Long Room Hub, entitled The Book: Discovering Sounds Initiative.

"Education and learning in all disciplines have never been more relevant to the wellbeing of society," Boland says.

In 2004, the university's English faculty digitised pages from the Trinity College manuscripts of Piers Plowman to demonstrate what the medieval book can tell us about a text, the authorship of the text, the scribe and the people who had access to the document during its existence. The Discovering Sounds Initiative aims to build on that project to include voice synchronisation, offering interpretation, translation and transcription.

Catherine Kane, from the Centre for Learning Technology at Trinity College, is also involved in the project, which she believes "will enrich the users' experience, engagement and understanding of precious manuscripts and resources in the library".

"Educational establishments such as Trinity College Dublin have vast collections of precious resources that can be difficult to make available to students, from our slide collections on history of art and Classics to precious documents in our library collections," Kane says. "Using an ICT-centred approach makes access to these resources possible without damage to the originals."

The Trinity Long Room Hub is also home to the interdisciplinary Atlas of Language Politics in Modern Central Europe project, headed by Tomasz Kamusella, the Thomas Brown lecturer in Slavonic Studies in the School of Languages, Literature and Cultural Studies. The Atlas offers an insight into the mechanisms and history of how languages have been made, unmade and deployed for political ends in the age of nationalism, from the 19th to the 21st century.

The arts and humanities are not always thought of in political terms, but this project shows just how important the discipline is in being able to offer crucial insight into religious conflicts throughout history and around the world - knowledge that is of overwhelming relevance in today's divided societies.

Kamusella's project is based, he says, on the premise that "peoples and states have frequently quarrelled, gone to war, and even committed genocides over language as a symbol of group identity and group difference. But this has been so to a highly unusual extent in modern Central Europe, where the politicised equation of language with nation and state became the sole legitimising basis of state-building in the region after the First World War."

Kamusella attributes his success in getting this project off the ground to the willingness of the Trinity Long Room Hub to be more flexible in its funding than other institutions.

"Novel research, involving unprecedented configurations of scholars, subject matter and external parties in the context of the fast-changing realities of the EU and the globalising world, requires novel approaches to funding," he says.

As well as offering new opportunities for academics, these new developments in the way arts and humanities subjects are researched, taught and made accessible hold a huge appeal for students.

"Arts and humanities need to be seen as innovative and forward thinking and also need to address issues of access and accessibility," Kane says. "Today's students have grown up in a very mobile, technical world. They are comfortable with technology and its integration into all aspects of their lives. This includes education."

However, Boland urges caution to those keen to see the back of traditional forms of academic research and teaching. "There are difficult challenges regarding ensuring the credibility of sources and material," he says. "The ease and perfection of alterations to images and the propagation of inaccuracies through generations of electronic documents are two such challenges, for example."

As one might expect of members of the scholarly community at Ireland's oldest university, those at the Trinity Long Room Hub are unlikely to forget the importance of preserving historical materials and methods.

The institute offers unique opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration and international academic cooperation and debate in key areas, but still preserves a place for traditional research and teaching methods.

"Digital archives can never replace the communications circuit that is set up by people interacting face to face, and mind to mind, in a stimulating environment," Foster says.

With that interaction in mind, the Trinity Long Room Hub has already hosted a number of visiting scholars and a range of international projects are in the pipeline.

One final area in which the arts and humanities may consider looking to the past while remaining at the cutting edge of modern academic research is that of interdisciplinary collaboration. The rigid concept of individual faculty disciplines is a very modern approach, which bears little relation to the tradition of the polymath - the Renaissance ideal of a well-rounded education.

As Boland observes: "Collaboration in research between the arts and humanities and engineering is a very useful way to encourage mutual understanding of the potential of new technology and creativity in envisaging new applications.

"These ideas are making a return to the academy, through the avenues of multidisciplinary conferences and journals. But initiatives such as the Trinity Long Room Hub may be the most effective way to integrate the disciplines, in terms of academic research as well as education," he adds.

"The interdisciplinary approach of the Hub is certainly one of the factors that is already attracting substantial interest from the international scholarly community," Foster says, "but it has also given Trinity the means to contribute to Ireland's academic standing by creating the sort of intersections that have long been a feature of communities such as the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and the European University Institute in Florence."

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