Take aim for high-tech tools

A £4m AHRC fund will allow researchers to update and improve their digital resources. Neha Popat reports

October 8, 2009

It is perhaps no surprise that researchers in the arts and humanities have not been as quick to exploit digital technologies as their peers in other disciplines.

But now, at least some of the difficulties they have faced in updating their research environments will be alleviated by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

It is providing £4 million of capital funding as part of a scheme to ensure that researchers have the latest electronic tools and databases at their fingertips.

The scheme, Digital Equipment and Database Enhancement for Impact, aims to give arts researchers the technology to make the results of their work accessible to wider audiences.

"Allowing researchers to remain at the forefront of these rapidly changing technological developments will increase the potential of their research to make a greater impression on society," said Gary Grubb, associate director of research at the AHRC.

Precisely what will be made available through the scheme remains to be determined: arts and humanities researchers will work with technologists to develop ideas. But to demonstrate the types of project that it might cover, Mr Grubb cited two past successes.

The first is the Codex Sinaiticus Project, which transcribed, digitised and unified the manuscript of a Bible that was handwritten in Greek more than 1,600 years ago. Now researchers everywhere can access and study the manuscript.

The second is the Medieval Soldier Project, which has made the service records of 250,000 soldiers from that period available online.

"By using the latest technologies, we hope research will be able to maintain its international presence and increase its appeal to an audience it may not have reached in the past," Mr Grubb said.

Appetite for instruction

The decision by the AHRC and the Joint Information Systems Committee last year to stop funding the Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS) - a digital repository - has led to suggestions that researchers have been hampered by a lack of facilities. Although the site remains active for resources, the vast majority of the support activities it once provided have ceased.

Sheila Anderson, director of the Centre for e-Research at King's College London, which now manages the service, believes that the popularity of the resource demonstrates the research community's appetite for digital information in the arts and humanities.

"The AHDS still gets as many visitors to the site now as when it was fully operational, which shows how much it is valued," she said.

Emphasising the limitations of the resources available to researchers at present, Ms Anderson said the much-needed funding provided by the AHRC's scheme would be widely welcomed.

"It is a step in the right direction ... this call acknowledges the value and importance of digital resources and technologies to the community," she said.

Two-pronged approach

There are two strands to the AHRC scheme. The first will look to support the existing research environment by helping researchers buy and maintain equipment and facilities. The second will aim to enhance the impact of research council-supported projects.

Under the scheme, arts and humanities researchers will be expected to consult with specialists when developing their proposals to ensure that the technology they are bidding for is accessible and appropriate for their purposes.

Approved proposals, which will receive between £50,000 and £1 million, are expected to begin next March and to run for up to one year. But this timescale worries Ms Anderson. That the capital funding is provided for a "limited time only" raises questions about how high-tech infrastructure will be funded once the cash set aside for the project has been allocated and spent, she said.

With research in the arts and humanities increasingly reliant on a digital framework, continuing financial support is an issue the AHRC must consider, she added.

"The arts and humanities has always been a poor relation of the sciences with regards to digital technologies, largely because of the nature of its research. As it engages further with the digital environment, it will require more resources and support," she said.

The closing date for applications is 5 November.



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