For academics in the arts and humanities, efforts to digitise large archives of books, folios, images, artworks and sound recordings have opened exciting new research opportunities unthinkable just 20 years ago.
But the wealth of digital material available is also posing problems. How can researchers make sense of the vast amount of data?
In 2009, Jisc – UK higher education’s IT consortium – launched the Digging into Data Challenge, which offered funding to researchers and technologists who could propose ways of working together to tackle the “data deluge”. The scheme sparked 90 projects at universities across the world.
Now the project, managed by Jisc but jointly financed by research councils in Canada, the US, the Netherlands and the UK, is calling for bids for a second round of funding.
“Lots and lots of stuff has been digitised from archives, museums, libraries and collections,” said Alastair Dunning, programme manager for digitisation at Jisc. “Academics who have used collections (in the past had to) try to search through them and find particular documents that they were interested in.”
However, the growth of high-performance computing has led to a new era of “cyber scholarship”. It is now possible to curate large quantities of digital data previously available only in hard copy – such as images, artworks and sound recordings on cassette – allowing humanities researchers to pose the kind of questions formerly the preserve of their colleagues in the sciences.
“What we wanted to do was get humanities people together with librarians and computer scientists and start (accessing) all those documents. We can ask new questions, and we can ask old questions in new ways,” Mr Dunning said. “Instead of searching for one document out of 3 million, they can start to do an analysis of the whole 3 million.”
Importantly, the second tranche of funding is not being issued to digitise new archives, but to help researchers exploit existing digital data through new computing techniques.
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Mass Communications Academic, @MMUBS. British Home Front Propaganda posters as researched for a PhD completed 2004. In 1997, unwittingly wrote the first history of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, which she now follows with interest.