Trinity College Dublin - The porous university

Ireland's oldest university unveils an innovative way to unite scholarship and business. Eddie Lennon reports

September 9, 2010

For many years, Ireland's oldest third-level institution has been finding novel and dynamic ways to engage with the world, but the latest example is its most significant to date. The Trinity Long Room Hub, the university's new arts and humanities research institute, represents a promising synergy between arts and humanities and several globally significant industrial partners that, at first glance, looks improbable. In development for the past seven years, it was grant-aided €10.8 million (£8.87 million) by the Irish government, enabling Trinity College to erect a new building to house the project.

The impetus to create the Trinity Long Room Hub (which got its name from the famous Long Room housed within the university's old library) came from the realisation that research in arts and humanities is "far too fragmented", says Jane Ohlmeyer, Erasmus Smith's professor of modern history at Trinity College, and one of the Trinity Long Room Hub's founders.

Trinity College has a well-established academic reputation and outstanding library resources. "However, we realised we were not making as much as we could of these phenomenal assets," Ohlmeyer says.

It used to be the case that only faculties such as pharmacy, science and engineering would link up with major multinationals on groundbreaking research collaborations, or have any real impact on the economy in terms of providing new jobs. But that is changing. Now Ireland's rich diversity of government-supported research and development projects is being carried out by many of the world's leading corporations with a significant presence in Ireland, in partnership with arts and humanities disciplines at Trinity College.

The objective of the Trinity Long Room Hub is to bring together an eclectic group of disciplines to work on new and exciting projects. One of those projects, the 1641 Depositions, is a pioneering partnership with IBM, the universities of Aberdeen and Cambridge, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences and Trinity College Library.

A major rebellion erupted in Ireland in 1641 that resulted in a considerable loss of life. Many people were murdered by the insurgents and in reprisal killings by government forces. Others were expelled from their homes in the middle of winter and died from cold or disease. The Irish government of the time took several thousand witness statements from mainly Protestant settlers about their experiences of the rebellion. These statements, which are kept in Trinity College Dublin's library, run to 19,000 pages but are difficult to read.

So why is IBM getting involved in a project based on history? Marie Wallace, senior research and development manager at IBM LanguageWare, explains that the complex, unstructured and very challenging data contained in the project will help IBM to teach computers how to understand natural language. IBM LanguageWare, innovative new software that the company is currently developing, will be able to summarise, correlate and analyse vast quantities of information.

The critical-analysis skills for which academics in the arts and humanities are well known will be available with IBM's new, highly focused software. It will be relevant to a broad range of people carrying out research, who will be able to "ask" the software questions about a specific body of knowledge, and it will extrapolate conclusions and provide all the necessary answers.

It will remove the need to read endless pages of documents - and it will all be available on the internet. The project is part of IBM's vision of a "smarter planet", and its objective to develop software that will be of value to millions in their everyday lives.

Wallace says working with the humanities is exciting for IBM because "we get a completely different perspective and insights that we can apply in different areas to create entirely new products. We can make parallels and apply what we learn from the 1641 project to areas as diverse as law enforcement and financial services."

Yet another groundbreaking Trinity Long Room Hub project is happening in partnership with Microsoft, and it involves creating a virtual research environment for humanities scholars.

"We have all these electronic resources on the web: some commercial, some freely available. But they're digital ghettos - they don't talk to each other very well. With a lot of the searching that goes on, only a small amount of material is being searched," Ohlmeyer says.

"What we're doing with Microsoft is creating a network where all these digital ghettos work together. We're collecting manuscript sources and other primary and textual visual documentation into a virtual room, along with all the relevant published material available on the web. The aim is to bring information together in a seamless, interoperable way."

This innovative project in the world of arts and humanities is likely to be of major interest to historians, genealogists, academics and students. Like IBM's 1641 initiative, it will make life a lot easier for those who use it, and will save a lot of time, Ohlmeyer says.

Extending this research technology would be of obvious commercial value to Microsoft. Universities everywhere that teach humanities would conceivably be interested in subscribing to it, as would public libraries. And, Ohlmeyer adds: "Once it is developed it should be very easy to customise for specific purposes."

Although the service could be subscription based, it is expected to be available free of charge to researchers in local and national libraries.

"Microsoft Research collaborates with the world's foremost researchers in academia, across industries and governments, to advance research and fuel innovation. Our collaboration with the Trinity Long Room Hub is just one of the many ways we are integrating with leading academic institutions worldwide to further innovation," Alex Wade, director for scholarly communication, Microsoft External Research, says.

Matthew Causey is senior lecturer in drama at Trinity College Dublin. He is also director of the Arts Technology Research Lab, which is part of the School of Drama, Film and Music. He has been involved with the Trinity Long Room Hub in the development of a proposed new doctorate in digital arts and humanities, for which a consortium of Irish universities has recently secured substantial funding from the Irish government as part of Ireland's smart economy.

Along with Microsoft and IBM, Google and Intel have signed on as industrial partners to the new PhD programme.

These four companies will work in tandem with Trinity College's PhD students on new and cutting-edge research projects. These will range from human-computer interfaces (similar to the technology used in the Wii game console) to new forms of interactive performance, ranging from cinema to live events.

Dublin is clearly a city rich in the arts and humanities. From its various theatres and lively music scene to the Oscar Wilde Centre for Writing, it offers a wealth of information and learning for all practitioners. But this knowledge was not, until recently, being shared as well as it could be. A recent report by Trinity College academic Johanna Archbold, Creativity, the City and the University, was published as part of the Trinity Week 2010 festival. In the document, Archbold highlights eight cultural institutions - the majority of which are based within a square kilometre in the city centre in a "cultural cluster" - offering new and exciting opportunities for synergies with each other, with many significant opportunities for collaboration that have yet to be explored.

Between them, the institutions hold priceless collections consisting of millions of manuscripts, artefacts and paintings, treasures of historical relevance to Ireland and abroad, and each hosts public programmes encouraging interaction with these treasures.

At the launch of the report, Trinity College provost John Hegarty said: "The rationale for the Creativity, the City and the University report was that Trinity College together with Dublin's major cultural institutions could combine their efforts further and enable progress to the forefront of creativity and innovation in the cultural sector. The challenge now is to exploit even more the connections and to learn from international experience in this regard."

World-famous alumni

Trinity College Dublin's arts and humanities faculty boasts some world-famous alumni. Some of the most well known include playwrights Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde; Bram Stoker, author of Dracula; Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels; and philosophers George Berkeley and Edmund Burke.

The university has a strong academic reputation and outstanding library resources, including volumes dating back to 1592, when the university was founded. Its legal deposit library receives a copy of every book published in the UK and Ireland every year.

Trinity College's position as a world leader in arts and humanities research and thinking is well established.

It was ranked 41st in the world for arts and humanities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2009, and is 12th in Europe - which sees it placed higher than any other Irish higher education institution.

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