On February 19 and 20 Yale will host a graduate student symposium, The Past’s Digital Presence Conference: Database, Archive and Knowledge Work in the Humanities. A quick survey of the conference program and available abstracts indicate several topics that dovetail with issues or subjects that have engaged emob. Jessica Weare’s paper, “The Dark Tide: Digital Preservation, Interpretive Loss, and the Google Books Project”, for instance, examines the discarding of material evidence in the process of digitizing, Vera Brittain’s The Dark Tide. Similarly, Scott Spillman and Julia Mansfield’s presentation, “Mapping Eighteenth-Century Intellectual Networks”, discusses their work on Benjamin Franklin’s letters and their relationship within the Republic of Letters. The conference’s purpose also addresses many of the questions we have been posing on this blog:
■ How is digital technology changing methods of scholarly research with pre-digital sources in the humanities?
■ If the “medium is the message,” then how does the message change when primary sources are translated into digital media?
■ What kinds of new research opportunities do databases unlock and what do they make obsolete?
■ What is the future of the rare book and manuscript library and its use?
■ What biases are inherent in the widespread use of digitized material? How can we correct for them?
■ Amidst numerous benefits in accessibility, cost, and convenience, what concerns have been overlooked?
Peter Stallybrass is offering the keynote, and Jacqueline Goldsby will be the colloquium speaker, while Willard McCartney, Rolena Adorno, and others will appear on the closing roundtable. Such a lineup points to the range of perspectives represented. The conference is free to all affiliated with a university.
Among the places this conference has been announced is the JISC Digitisation News section of the UK Digitisation Programme website, and its announcement emphasizes the participation of students “from around the globe.”
Collaboration as it occurs across boundaries is the implicit topic of this posting, and I wish to use reports from the JISC website both as a springboard and as a contrast in the discussing the topic.
A 2008-2009 JISC report, Enriching Digital Resources 2008-2009, Enriching Digital Content program—a strand of the JISC Online Content Program—features a podcast with Ben Showers. Because of the national nature of JISC, the program described offers a unified, coherent approach to advancing digital resources for its higher institutions of education; it represents a collaborative agenda. In this podcast Showers explains the purpose of the program: Rather than fund the creation of new resources, the program invested £1.8 million to enhance and enrich existing digital content while also developing a system for universities and colleges to vet and recognize this work. He then turns to explaining the following four key benefits of this program:
• “unlocking the hidden—making things that are hard to access easy” to obtain and preserve. To illustrate, he uses CORRAL (UK Colonial Registers and Royal Navy Logbooks) project as an example of opening up primary data to make it not only much more available but also to preserve it.
• enhancing experiences of students. Here Showers exemplifies the Enlightening Science project at Sussex that offers students opportunities to watch video re-enactments of Newton’s experiments and read original texts by Newton and others.
• speeding up research—once a document has been digitized, there is no need to repeat the process. The document will now be available for all other researchers to use.
• widening participation—engaging broader audiences including not only faculty and students within Britain’s educational community but also participants globally.
Turning to the new goals for the 2009-2011 program cycle, Showers notes an emphasis on the “clustering” of content, that is bringing various projects together and establishing, when appropriate, links among them. Another focus is further building skills and strategies within institutions to deliver digital content effectively. Finally, he mentions the strengthening of transatlantic partnerships, and here the US National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is given as an example. Of course, there is a long history of scholarly collaboration between the NEH and British institutions—perhaps most notably the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC).
Indeed, through collaborative digital grants offered by JISC and NEH several transatlantic projects are underway or near completion, including the Shakespeare Quartos Archive, a collaborative effort involving Oxford University and the Folger Library, and the St Kitts-Nevis Digital Archaeology Initiative, undertaken by Southampton University and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Charlottesville, VA, to advance scholarship on slavery. There are several others as well.
Both the goals and benefits detailed by Showers are ones that would attract the support of diverse parties, and they do parallel many arguments being made on this side of the Atlantic for such work, including ones advanced by the NEH. Moreover, this and other JISC reports suggest that JISC has also helped broker mutually beneficial relationships between British universities and commercial vendors such as Cengage-Gale and ProQuest. Yet another JISC report, The Value of Money, offers arguments that we need to be making and also points the obstacles and divides affecting various types of collaboration in the United States.
After offering the following figures on the return of money invested in the JISC,
• For each £1 spent by JISC on the provision of e-resources, the return to the community in value of time saved in information gathering is at least £18.
• For every £1 of the JISC services budget, the education and research community receives £9 of demonstrable value.
• For every £1 JISC spent on securing national agreements for e-resources, the saving to the community was more than £26.
the report summary offers the following remarks:
These are the figures revealed by a recently-published Value for Money report on JISC services. Although many countries have centrally provided research and education networks, and some have provided supplementary services, no other country has a comparable single body providing an integrated range of network services, content services, advice, support and development programmes.
The cost-effectiveness of JISC is again highlighted in two sidebars:
These figures suggest that for every £1 JISC spent on securing national agreements for e-resources, the saving to the community was more than £26
The added value, equivalent to more than £156m per year, suggests the community is gaining 1.4 million person/days, by using e-resources rather than paper-based information.
The end of the summary further reinforces why investments in JISC benefit the UK as a whole:
The value of JISC activities extends beyond the benefits identified here. Education and research are high-value commodities that play an important role in the UK economy and underpin the UK’s global economic position.
The JISC’s “Value of Money” report contains the types of arguments and data that we in the US need to be making. While our system of higher education does not operate under the centralized system that characterizes that of the UK, the push for more transparent reporting on and assessment of what our various universities and colleges are delivering perhaps provides an opportunity for new forms of collaboration. Through national scholarly societies, the NEH, Mellon Foundation, ALA, and more, we need to supply some “noisy feedback” from a dollars-and-cents/sense perspective about what investing in digital resources means not just for our institutions of higher learning but also for our society.