Research intelligence - Let's dig a little deeper

Humanities set to benefit from second round of international digitisation project. Hannah Fearn reports

April 28, 2011

Credit: Roger Bamber/Alamy
Fresh frame of reference: Digitisation is allowing humanities scholars to ask new questions of their extensive archives

For academics in the arts and humanities, efforts to digitise large archives of books, folios, images, artworks and sound recordings have opened exciting new research opportunities unthinkable just 20 years ago.

But the wealth of digital material available is also posing problems. How can researchers make sense of the vast amount of data?

In 2009, Jisc - UK higher education's IT consortium - launched the Digging into Data Challenge, which offered funding to researchers and technologists who could propose ways of working together to tackle the "data deluge". The scheme sparked 90 projects at universities across the world.

Now the project, managed by Jisc but jointly financed by research councils in Canada, the US, the Netherlands and the UK, is calling for bids for a second round of funding.

"Lots and lots of stuff has been digitised from archives, museums, libraries and collections," said Alastair Dunning, programme manager for digitisation at Jisc. "Academics who have used collections (in the past had to) try to search through them and find particular documents that they were interested in."

However, the growth of high-performance computing has led to a new era of "cyber scholarship". It is now possible to curate large quantities of digital data previously available only in hard copy - such as images, artworks and sound recordings on cassette - allowing humanities researchers to pose the kind of questions formerly the preserve of their colleagues in the sciences.

"What we wanted to do was get humanities people together with librarians and computer scientists and start (accessing) all those documents. We can ask new questions, and we can ask old questions in new ways," Mr Dunning said. "Instead of searching for one document out of 3 million, they can start to do an analysis of the whole 3 million."

Importantly, the second tranche of funding is not being issued to digitise new archives, but to help researchers exploit existing digital data through new computing techniques.

Expanding horizons

For the first time, the UK's Economic and Social Research Council is taking part in the project, which means that the challenge will be open to a wider range of disciplines.

"The content and the expertise we need is in different areas and different research groups across the world," Mr Dunning said. "What will be different this time is that we have got more people on board.

"We have more interested bodies in the US, and even though some countries aren't involved, such as Australia, researchers from those areas are interested in applying."

The projects funded in the first round are now starting to deliver results.

John Coleman, professor of phonetics at the University of Oxford, was involved in the Mining a Year of Speech project, which sought to ask new research questions of an archive of recorded speech, ranging from household conversations to formal council meetings, church services and legal proceedings.

A sampler of the archive will be available in the coming months and has already attracted interest from oral historians, English language teachers and US legal scholars.

Professor Coleman said that the key to successful bids in the second round would be access to "a large quantity of relevant and interesting material" by international groups of researchers that could demonstrate genuine partnership.

"It's important that humanities scholars aren't exclusive or sniffy about the technical people. If they think, 'We are the real scholars and we just need a bit of IT support to help us', that's not going to work," he said.

Peter Ainsworth, emeritus professor of French at the University of Sheffield, took part in the Digging into Image Data to Answer Authorship Related Questions project, which sought to compare large numbers of digitised images of medieval manuscripts to test theories about early authorship.

"We have a hypothesis that we built out of our traditional scholarship, but the high-performance computing dimension (makes it) an entirely different ball game," he said.

"We're going above and beyond what we thought was possible with traditional research methodologies, which would not produce the results we are getting."

Professor Ainsworth said he would like to see some of the second-round funding go to existing digitisation and data-mining projects to ensure that the work already started by the challenge could be shepherded to completion.

Applications to the project should be submitted to Jisc by 16 June.

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