White Rose Libraries Digital Scholarship Event

Last week I attended an event in Sheffield that brought together colleagues from across the White Rose consortium (Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York) to explore developments in Digital Scholarship. Whatever that might be...

Indeed, several speakers throughout the day drew attention to potential problems of terminology - the other common descriptor is Digital Humanities - with Ben Outhwaite in his keynote differentiating between the plain scroll and the later codex to illustrate that technology has always facilitated new methods of analysis and that digital technology isn't qualitatively any different. Digital Humanities is simply humanities research driven by the opportunities offered by new media.

Anne Horn, University Librarian (Sheffield), conversational in her introduction, provided a preliminary definition and elicited perspectives from the audience. Anne emphasised interdisciplinary collaboration, with the Library as an active participant - a theme that recurred throughout the day - and suggested that communities coalesce around both technology and processes as well as content and datasets. She talked about the challenges of building and sustaining the broad range of knowledge and skills required, an area in which the Library has a clear role.

In one of several academic viewpoints throughout the day, Mike Pidd described how the Digital Humanities Institute at the University of Sheffield is self-funded through project collaboration and supports technology R & D in the humanities with services ranging from data acquisition, data modelling and data management to data visualisation and preservation and sustainability. We learned about just a few of the projects within the HRI, like The Digital Panopticon which has brought together genealogical, biometric and criminal justice datasets held in the UK and Australia to explore the impact of different types of punishments on the lives of 90,000 people sentenced at the Old Bailey between 1780 and 1875. The scale of the project is impressive having linked records across 45 separate datasets both public and commercial (e.g. Ancestry UK) illustrating a common challenge negotiating with data providers.

Other projects are Locating London's Past*, Old Bailey Online*, Linguistic DNA and Mark My Bird all of which are capturing and reusing data in innovative ways, backing up Mike's statement that "data is just as important for your career as publishing books and articles".

* Raw XML data from London Lives and Old Bailey Online is available from Sheffield's data repository ORDA

The Library Showcases, reprised in the afternoon, were an opportunity for us to learn about digitisation projects within archives and special collections across the consortium:

The presentation from York, for example, emphasised the complexity of these types of project requiring a broad range of skills from traditional document preservation, digitisation/ingest and development of an editorial interface (the editing tool for the Archbishops' Registers is available from github.)

Digitised excerpt from Henry VIII's divorce from Anne of Cleves (Archbishops' Registers)

High quality digital images facilitates zoom-in with no loss of fidelity

A couple of academic viewpoints spanned lunchtime with Louise Hampson from the Centre for the Study of Christianity & Culture at the University of York and Brett Greatley-Hirsch from the University of Leeds. 

Louise talked about the legacy issues of migrating CD Roms to internet based resources, both practical difficulties for a small team and (re)negotiating usage rights while Brett immediately won over the room by saying that libraries should be recognised as active collaborators and not mere support services.

Brett has come to Leeds via Australia and Canada and introduced us to Digital Renaissance Editions which publishes open-access electronic critical editions of non-Shakespearean early modern drama.

The second of my Library Showcases was Sheffield's National Fairground & Circus Archive, a "living" archive actively "contributing to the organisation and promotion of shows and festivals" and drove home yet again the broad range of skills required to curate digital material.

All of which brought us to an energetic keynote from Ben Outhwaite who described a somewhat fragmented landscape at Cambridge with various pockets of work that perhaps lack cohesion across a University where STEM subjects tend to prevail. The University is beginning to look at the area strategically however, to support their digital humanists who might be collaborating with scholars elsewhere through the Digital Humanities Network, a university funded, short-term, strategic initiative. Ben also talked us through the high profile Casebooks Project, making available the astrological records of Simon Forman (1552-1611) and Richard Napier (1559-1634) "unparalleled resources in the history of early modern medicine".

The best projects are idea-led not technology led, according to Ben, and there needs to be a real scholarly need, a theme that came through strongly in presentations throughout the day with digital technology an integrated aspect of all projects. Digitisation, though, undoubtedly leads to more opportunities. 

Crucially "You can't do anything without data, collect and look after the data rigorously".

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