Text from a short talk I gave at 'Future Digital', the closing conference of the CHASE Going Digital programme, held on 31 July 2013 at The Open University, Camden Town campus, London.
My notes from the event can be viewed on Github Gist.
Since March this year I
have been working as a Digital Curator at the British Library. By training I am
a historian and before arriving at the British Library I spent six years at the
University of Kent researching, teaching undergraduate and postgraduate
historians and working on various digital projects. So it came as a great
pleasure when Dr Nick Hiley from the British Cartoon Archive invited me to
contribute to a session on ‘Digitising the Image’ earlier this May.
On one hand
it was great to give something back to an institution and an archive which had
supported me in my postdoc wilderness, but of course the British Library is not about unthinking
benevolence so there were other, ulterior reasons for my enthusiasm. Indeed,
one great motivation for getting involved is that the Digital Curator team run a similar training programme for curators, librarians
and (to a lesser though no less important extent) administrators who work within the Library.
Digital Scholarship Training Programme, as it is known, covers many of the same
areas as Going Digital and is designed to ‘skill-up’ colleagues in the methods
and motivation of digital scholarship: so there are practical sessions on
topics as diverse as licensing, crowdsourcing, text encoding, data
visualisation, GIS, APIs, social media, managing research archives,
digitisation, and metadata (for more details on the project see the abstract of Nora and Adam's talk at DH2013).
Although we hope that colleagues leave these
sessions having picked up new skills and knowledge, the purpose is more to
prepare colleagues for being able to work with scholars who have embedded their
practice in digital scholarship; for being not put off or alienated by a
request to text mine or to visualise their collections; and for being equipped to
see the value in such endeavours even if they don’t follow them up themselves.
It is about helping librarians and curators at the
British Library acclimatise to the idea that the Library is becoming a
place full of data as much as it is a place full of physical stuff, and that there is a growing community of users who see it that way. It is, in short, about helping those who are not digital scholars engage with digital
scholarship. For digital humanities, surely the elephant in the room here, is
best served by us helping break it out of its silo, by enabling it – like many other new approaches
to humanities scholarship that have come before it – to gradually becoming a
natural component of the scholarship it is currently a radical strand of. Think
here how scholarship of race, gender and culture first broke away, proclaimed themselves as radical breaks from traditional, before their lessons and provocations becoming part of and were assimilated into the norms of humanities scholarship.
part, this point of assimilation was achieved when scholars who did not work in
those areas became able to critique
the work of those areas, and so Going Digital – like our internal Digital
Scholarship training programme – is aligned, in my opinion, with one of the
core activities the digital curator team at the British Library: to help facilitate that
integration of digital methods into the lingua
franca of HSS and in so doing show how librarians, curators and
research administrators can be key partners in delivering high quality digital
projects. Of course we cannot achieve this aim while our training programme is internally focused, and so there are plans to take this external through the delivery of training events – starting with a Digital Scholarship Doctoral Open day on 24
February 2014 – and the development of training models and materials aimed at all potential
participants and partners in digital-driven scholarly research.
Of course another of our
core activities as Digital Curators is to support, critique and experiment with innovative
approaches to scholarship and historical phenomena that are enabled by the digital
transformations taking place around us. To take, for example, the provocations
of Franco Moretti – the enfant terrible
of textual criticism – and run with them. And when we do, we attempt to use –
or encourage others to use and reuse – the rich digital collections at the
British Library. These include: maps collections; sound, audio-visual and
philatelic collections; and other digitised content. Within the latter exciting
initiatives include the International Dunhuang Project, which digitises
dispersed documents relating to the Silk Road to tell of life on this great
trade route from 100 BC to AD 1400; and the Endangered Archived Programme, an
Arcadia funded programme which supports the digitisation in situ of endangered collections around the globe.
These activities sit within
the umbrella of the Digital Scholarship department, with digital scholarship defined
here as the use of digital content, infrastructure and tools to enable new
understanding, new discoveries and new outreach, and predicated on a growth in
digital, data and collaborative-driven research.
Case studies for these
activities include work by Jeremy John, our curator of e-manuscripts, on
personal digital archives: we have after all, moved from paper based
communication to digital communication, and it won’t be long until researchers
need to trawl digital buckets of emails, digital documents and software the same
way they currently do boxes of letters and official documents. We have the digital
archive of Wendy Cope, Emory University have the digital archive of Salman Rushdie; this
combination of physical and cloud-based digital assets is the direction of
travel for estate bequeaths of the future.
Another case study is our
work with crowdsourcing and georeferencing. Earlier this year we asked the
public to georeference a selection of our digitised map collection. Not only
did they do this, thus providing for every researcher of whatever ilk reusable
KML data for these maps, but they did it before we even had a chance to
formally launch the exercise. The intersections between the various elements
that define digital scholarship are obvious but are worth repeating: we have here
digitised content, enhanced metadata, new forms of public engagement, open
data, collaboration, and a general sense that sharing is better than hoarding
colliding to form a perfect – less than 3% error perfect in fact – perfect storm.
These activities are just a
flavour of what we do. Within the digital curator team we are regularly
collaborating on funding bids, sourcing and distributing historical data, and
working directly with our collections to promote their use: I, for example am just beginning to dig through and distance read – to use Moretti’s parlance –
metadata for 50 years of journal articles under the Dewey classification of
History, circa 500,000 records which I hope will uncover interesting stories about how my own discipline has developed. Combined these activities converge on
our 2020 Vision which states that we will – I like the stress on the ‘will’
here – be a ‘leading hub in the global information network’ by holding onto (digital) stuff, enabling access to stuff, and supporting and collaborating in research
which uses that stuff.