Summit meeting of Digital Humanities Centres

Originally posted at blogs.oucs.ox.ac.uk on 20 July 2010 by Martin Wynne. IT Services at the University of Oxford has decided to delete a large number of historical blogs, and this is one of a number of posts related to the Oxford Text Archive which are being re-published here, after being laboriously retrieved from the archive provided by the Wayback Machine.

centerNet had their first international summit at King’s College London on the 3rd and 4th July 2010. The summit was supported by the NEH and organized by Neil Fraistat and Kay Walter. The summit was a chance for directors of centers and funders to talk to each other, to to develop collaborations, and to develop regional groups.

I was invited as the initiator of CHAIN as well as wearing my hats as member of the CLARIN Executive Board, member of the steering committee of the Network of Expert Centres in Britain and Ireland, and representative of Oxford University, along with David Robey.

For an overview of the proceedings, I recommend Geoffrey Rockwell’s blog:

http://www.philosophi.ca/pmwiki.php/Main/CenterNet2010

I will focus here on the elements of relevance to Oxford.

I am pleased to say that we are involved in many of the most important initiatives: CLARIN, DARIAH, CHAIN, Bamboo, Network of Centres, centerNet; we certainly seem to be involved in more things than anyone else!

The regional breakout group for Britain and Ireland discussed recommendations to funders. We identified a barrier to collaboration in that  institutions are in competition with each other for funding. And we discussed how this could be addressed by financial incentives for collaboration. There are funds for regional collaboration in devolved countries (e.g. Wales, Scotland) which have produced useful results. One way to foster cooperation would be to give more incentives to share resources and services.

Funders insisting on sustainability plans involving institutional buy-in and embedding (as JISC do, for example) can help to improve institutional policies and develop capacity. Funders could also help with the promotion of infrastructure and standards: they could give a big boost to (bottom-up) initiatives that promote collaboration and cooperation by using grant conditions and recommendations, at least suggesting these them as ways to promote re-use and linking of data, and thus obtain impact and value for money. There would be no cost to funders to do this. But not all institutions can build a DH centre, or a comprehensive institutional repository, or other services. What is the incentive for big centres to collaborate with small ones? What could be a business model for institutions with well-developed infrastructure to support others?

The AHRC have said that they won’t fund or get involved with infrastructure, so there seems little to discuss with them, unless we can suggest small and cheap things to make an impact. Networks and workshops can be useful, but current schemes are directed at new initiatives, and are short term. Short term funding doesn’t help to sustain the outputs of these activities.

It was strongly felt that we, the researchers, should provide evidence of value in terms of improved or transformed research and teaching and other impacts, via “compelling case studies”. And we felt that the current impact agenda, for all of its faults, could be an opportunity, because it may be a route to rewarding reusability and sharing of resources.

Discussions about the mission, structure and business model for centerNet foundered a little on the notion of ‘center‘. I argued that it was not necessarily desirable for an institution to organize itself with a digital humanities centre, but rather that computing in the Humanities could be promoted and supported by other means. Furthermore, the promotion of centres, and the promotion of the ‘discipline’ of Digital Humanities, risk ghettoization and a reduced relevance of digital activities to the mainstream of research in the various disciplines. It seems that the experience and outlook of the University of Queensland, at least, is in line with ours.

Invited speaker Jon Orwant from Google tried to be controversial, and succeeded with the provocative assertion that funders should only promote bottom-up initiatives  I pointed out (the “good question” cited in Geoffrey’s blog!) that we have decades of experience of bottom-up creation of tools and data, which has resulted in fragmentation, with a variety of standards, data formats and licensing arrangements, and that this is currently the biggest barrier to progress. So the provision of some infrastructure, or at least promoting the adoption of some shared policies and standards, is the key challenge today. Although I would agree that this could be done in as light-weight a manner as possible and so as not to thwart innovation and bottom-up initiatives.

In fact, successful infrastructure initiatives, such as CLARIN, are bottom-up in the sense that the researchers and technologists identified the problem of fragmentation and went to the funders asking for money to build research infrastructure.

In summary, I believe that centerNet is a very useful vehicle for us here in Oxford as a way to connect with numerous centres, communities, regions and funders. In particular, our ongoing involvement can play an important role in:

  • linking our services and resources to users;
  • building collaborative projects;
  • dissemination of our research and other activities;
  • advocacy for digital humanities to funders and politicians and other bodies;
  • international expansion of research communities and collaborations.

To get a visual flavour of the proceedings, you can see some photos: John Unsworth’s photos

The centerNet website is at:

http://digitalhumanities.org/centernet/

And the new beta site:

http://digitalhumanities.org/centernet_new/ [visited July 2010]