Plea to save arts data service

June 15, 2007

Academics have described a decision to cut funding to a valued service for the arts and humanities as a "scandal".

More than 800 people have put their name to a petition on the 10 Downing Street website calling on Tony Blair to urge the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to reconsider its decision.

Over the past 11 years, the Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS) has brought together hundreds of online teaching and research resources, ranging from electronic texts to video interviews, collections of letters, maps and images covering the disciplines of history, language, literature and linguistics, archaeology, and the performing and visual arts. It also provides help with the creation of digital resources.

Opponents say the AHRC has not taken adequate steps to ensure the preservation of the material and fear that a decade's worth of data could be lost when funding is withdrawn in March.

The petition, which describes the AHDS as having "pioneered" awareness and use of best practice in preserving digital data, says: "We believe that the withdrawal of funding for this body is a retrograde step which will undermine attempts to create in Britain a knowledge economy based on latest technologies."

A statement on the AHRC website says the Council believes arts and humanities researchers have developed significant IT expertise and that researchers and universities now have the ability to put together websites.

But Susan Hockey, emeritus professor of library and information studies at University College London, fears that universities do not have the technical expertise to deal with complex multimedia arts and humanities resources.

Without the service, which is also funded by Jisc, she warned, "The UK will revert to the situation where projects become 'islands' in their own institutions, maintained only by enthusiasts who might leave or lose interest."

Tim Hitchcock, head of the Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities Research Institute at Hertfordshire University, is digitising 19th-century Old Bailey records. With no funding to create an alternative archiving solution, he told The Times Higher he could be forced to destroy the data once the project is complete.

The AHRC said it had become harder to justify the cost of running the service, estimated to be about £2 million a year.

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