Collaboration, Costs, and Digital Resources


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.


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5 Responses to “Collaboration, Costs, and Digital Resources”

  1. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Nicely done, Eleanor! You provide useful information for Peter Reill’s meeting with the Mellon Foundation in February.

    Though the U.S.’s educational system is larger, less centralized, and therefore more unwieldy than the U.K.’s, I would be interested in hearing from readers whether devising an agency analogous to JISC in the U.S. would be out of the question. You provide compelling arguments for such an entity’s cultural and financial value.

    If creating such an entity is possible, how do we encourage its construction?


  2. Eleanor Shevlin Says:


    As I was writing this post, I wondered whether functions such as negotiating with vendors and fostering a more unified approach to addressing scholarship and teaching within our ever-shifting digital environment could be adopted by an existing organization such as the NEH. The new grant initiatives for funding digital projects that NEH has put forth over the past few years are good starts, but developing a strategic plan for digital priorities and benefits that would serve as a recommended national template for colleges and universities could perhaps succeed in advancing a coherent, national agenda. Moves to have the federal government negoitate directly with pharmaceutical companies to lower drug prices have been hindered as well as thwarted, but the attempt to do so offers an example of the desire to have government negotiation with commercial entities to effect a public good. Moreover, commercial vendors of information may be more amenable to such negotiations than drug companies. For one, it would expand their market. And second there are still some subscriptions fees under the JISC model for select products. Collaboration between the government and the commercial for these purposes would seem to offer benefits to the educational community and the public.

    The BOPCRIS 18th century parliamentary papers digitisation project, was completed in 2007. It serves as an example of collaboration involving JISC, the British Official Publications Collaborative Reader Information Service (BOPCRIS) at the University of Southampton, the British Library, and the University of Cambridge, and ProQuest. The 2007 report indicates that this resource is available free to UK institutions of higher education, but in the US and Canada (and elsewhere) one’s library must subscribe through ProQuest. The Text Creation Partnership (TCP) seems the closest thing we have to such partnering and collaboration.

    On a different note, I have provided the actual links for select JISC projects because some might find the projects themselves of interest.


  3. Anna Battigelli Says:

    I agree that inviting organizations like the NEH or the Mellon Foundation to negotiate with vendors might be a good idea.

    We also need our professional organizations, such as ASECS and MLA, to argue convincingly for the value of eighteenth-century classes (and, in the case of MLA, of humanistic teaching generally).


  4. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Peter Reill has summarized the responses he received to concerns about access in preparation for his meeting this week at the Mellon Foundation. The original letter appears in the ASECS Newsletter. I think it is worth reprinting here so that readers can see his thoughtful assessment of the situation and perhaps extend the discussion further. It is not too late to send responses to Peter:

    Dear Colleagues:

    In early December, I sent out a notice asking for your input to help me formulate questions and propose answers in preparation for a meeting at the Mellon Foundation. The meeting will discuss the increasing digital divide occurring in the scholarly world between those who have ready access to expensive databases and those that don’t. The response has been heavy, more that one hundred people having written me emails and others having talked to me about the question in meetings I attended.

    All of the respondents agreed that the problem is grave and becoming more acute, especially given the horrendous economic situation we are now facing, which is strongly impacting universities and colleges, large and small across the nation. It especially touches independent scholars and newly minted PhD’s who have no institutional affiliations. In many cases the plight is more frightening than I had imagined where some schools and universities didn’t even have such basic tools as JSTOR. But for all, even those with ready access to most of the major databases, it is becoming increasingly clear that these tools have become essential, especially for people working with English language sources and in art history. And many have underscored the point that this digital divide not only affects the individual research of academics but also makes an important difference on what they can teach and how. Therefore it is a question central to the whole educational endeavor. Of the databases mentioned most considered essential were ECCO, the Burney Papers, EEBO and ARTFL, though others such as Project Muse and LION were cited. Many respondents emphasized the importance of these databases by quoting Robert Hume’s remarks that “a university that does not have ECCO is not a serious player in eighteenth-century British and American studies—in literature or in anything else. Any institution giving graduate degrees in eighteenth-century subjects reduces itself to below minor-league status if it does not provide ECCO to its students—and is putting its publishing faculty at a crippling disadvantage.”

    In my opinion the problem is self-evident; its solution much more difficult, unless one assumes the Federal Government will follow the French model and digitize its cultural heritage, a highly unlikely proposition. Amongst the most interesting solutions you have proposed are the following, which I have culled from your answers. Since many of them were focused on ECCO and the Burney Papers, both licensed by Gale-Cengage, I spoke to their representatives to gauge their reactions. Their reactions were not written in stone. The representatives have proven to be open to discussion, as I assume other licensing corporations will be, and I hope these discussions will advance both through our efforts at ASECS and even more as a result of the Mellon meeting.

    I have summarized your suggestions and Gale-Cengage’s response. At the end of this report, I address some concerns members expressed concerning differential treatment of database access between other national organizations and the United States.

    The most common suggestion was that corporations such as Gale-Cengage create a business model that allows for individual subscriptions. So far, they have been reluctant to do so, citing the costs of administering such a program and the inability to set a price that would be affordable (the person with whom I spoke suggested an individual price of one to two thousand dollars a year, obviously well beyond the means of most who do not have access to these databases). So the crucial question here is whether some sort of model can be proposed that allows for affordable individual subscriptions. I suggested that such subscriptions be administered by societies such as ASECS, and though the Gale-Cengage people did not totally discount this idea they were dubious. As an addendum, they were opposed to the outright licensing of databases to societies such as ours.

    The second most common suggestion was that the licensing corporations agree to the formation of consortia or “buying clubs” of schools, universities and other groups that would enable more general access to the databases at costs much lower than individual institutional subscriptions. According to the representative with whom I spoke, Gale-Cengage now has nothing against such consortia; in fact they encourage them and say that they might even offer discounts to these groups. The representative mentioned such groups who have done so or are in negotiation to do so including GWLA (Greater Western Library Alliance), The Oberlin Group, NERL (NorthEast Research Libraries Consortium) and CIC (Committee on Institutional Cooperation). Thus this is a route we should encourage and certainly try to help devise means to make it easier and more cost effective to implement, perhaps with the support of the Mellon Foundation.

    I raised the question of licensing agreements and their restrictions. Who is allowed access and what are the restrictions? The answer was that staff, students and faculty of the institutions subscribing to the databases were allowed use. I then asked if Gale-Cengage would permit access by alumni. It was a question to which they had no definite answers—one that could be discussed. If alumni were allowed to use the databases of the universities from which they received their degrees some of the problems of access would be solved, though perhaps the increased numbers would make it more difficult for the license holders to sell and maintain their product. It’s an area in which we as a society and the Mellon as convener of the meeting of a group of societies similar to ours in size and mission should address and perhaps hammer out a solution agreeable to the license holders. Still such a solution does not address the needs of students, alumni and faculty who attend colleges and universities that do not hold the license.

    Finally, in terms of solutions, I suggested one proposed by a number of colleagues, namely the creation of “digital fellowships,” in which host universities, colleges and Gale-Cengage award database access as a fellowship to applicants, where the fellowship holder did not have to be in residence, just in digital residence. Though such a fellowship would not allow the holder to taste the joy of using great research libraries and would miss out on the contact that being in such an institution provides, they certainly would begin to link scholars, especially junior and independent scholars, with the digital world and with institutions associated with their project in a meaningful manner. Obviously such an arrangement would need the universities’ willingness to administer the fellowship application, but that cost would not be great and the impact of such a program would, I believe, be very important. The representative to whom I spoke was intrigued, in fact excited by the idea and certainly led me to believe that this was a distinct possibility, a very promising sign.

    I realize that my discussions were focused upon only one licenser of databases, but for our society, it is one of the most important. Further, I believe that whatever we can get one of these companies to accept will very easily be accepted by others doing similar lines of work. Of course, nothing can solve the core problem. These databases are produced by corporate entities whose major task is to turn a profit—that’s why they exist. In this climate our major goal would be to conclude as many deals as possible that open access. In one sense our situation also explains the disparity between what we in the United States face compared to our colleagues in Great Britain and to a lesser extent Canada. When Gale-Cengage sought to license ECCO in Great Britain, they negotiated with JISC, a nationally funded organization, which cut a major deal with them for a very large sum that then made the database open to all academic users in Great Britain. A similar deal was made with RKN of Canada. Since we have no national organization or organizations with the cash or the authority to represent our universities and colleges, such agreements are impossible. Unless we can convince the NEH, NSF and NEA along with foundations such as the Mellon to assume this role, we are left alone. Hence we are forced to find alternative solutions to making the databases as open as possible. Let’s work together and see if we can be successful in this crucial undertaking.

    The Mellon meeting is scheduled for the first week of February, please send me any further suggestions or remarks you have concerning this issue. I will keep you apprised of the meeting’s conclusions and any other further developments. For those who wish to discuss these issues at our meeting in March, please attend the panel organized by Eleanor Shevlin and Anna Battigelli. See you there.



  5. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    A belated thanks, Anna, for posting Peter Reill’s summary of the responses he received about the problem of inequitable access to commercial databases that have become crucial to eighteenth-century scholarship and teaching.

    The ideas proposed are all worth pursuing. The proposal for offering digital fellowships, for instance, displays creative thinking and is worth exploring. Yet such fellowships, even if a large number was offered, would seem to increase access to only a few and not ultimately offer a broad solution. (That said, I am certainly in favor of pursuing this possibility; such fellowships would at least enable some scholars without institutional access to make use of these tools.)

    I especially hope that we can we find a way to convince organizations such as the NEH, NEA, NSF, and Mellon to establish a consortium that would provide leadership for setting a recommended national agenda for scholarly digital projects and goals and that would serve as a representative body to negotiate with commercial vendors pricing that would result in wider access to wider numbers of higher educational institutions. If we look at the JISC reports, we see that this British organization is also making the case to the British public about the value of investing in these tools. One non-academic constituency that might be tapped to generate interest in making these resources more affordable is the genealogy market. Along with national organizations, many state humanities councils fund programs in public libraries and elsewhere that promote programs in which humanities scholars present their work to the general public. Often these programs entail discussion series of various books and public lectures. Offering accessible talks to the public in which scholars showcase work enabled by digital tools would also help advance broader awareness. PBS, C-Span’s Book-TV, and the History Channel also have potential. It would be wonderful if PBS’s History Detective could feature a few segments on what Gale’s Burney 17th and 18th newspaper collection and its 19th-century counterpart or Evans’ American periodicals offer in investigating the past.


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