Let’s Dig a Little Deeper @timeshighered

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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Wherefore art thou, Haldane? State plans for humanities research

“I recently wrote a post for the blog “Humanities Matter” drawing attention to what I felt was a new level of government influence over the funding of humanities research, as evidenced by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ research allocation for 2011-14. An article by Iain Pears in the London Review of Books came to very similar conclusions, and last week The Observer picked up the story.

In its report, The Observer focused on the conspicuous presence of the government’s “Big Society” agenda in one of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s highest-priority “strategic research areas”. In addition to the deepening convergence between BIS priorities and the AHRC’s delivery plan, I cited evidence to The Observer that direct government pressure had been placed on the British Academy to adopt its “national priorities” or lose funding (see my letter to its leader, Sir Adam Roberts, published in Times Higher Education on 10 March and as yet unanswered). But I did not assert that the coalition had directly instructed the AHRC to embrace the Big Society, and the AHRC has firmly denied receiving any such direct instructions.

Fortunately, this confusion has not obscured the bigger issue, which is now being debated widely in the blogosphere and in the mainstream media: to what extent should the government be able to dictate priorities for humanities research?

At one level, of course, the government is responsible. Both of the dual funding streams – quality-related grant distributed via the Higher Education Funding Council for England and other bodies, and postgraduate and project funding through the likes of the AHRC and the British Academy – are supplied with public money, for which the government is accountable. But there is a rich and valuable tradition in this country of public funding for sensitive areas relating to news, the arts, education and the like – where free expression is at stake, and where public expenditure is meant to sustain a diversity of views – being held at arm’s length from the state.”

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