This year’s Digital Resources for the Humanities and Arts conference (Cambridge, September 14-17) included a two-part panel on Digital Classicist (sadly divided over two days), organized by Simon Mahony, Stuart Dunn, and myself. Despite some apparently last-minute (and unannounced) scheduling changes, the panel was very successful. I post here only my brief notes on the papers involved, and hope that some of my colleagues may post more detailed reactions or reports either in comments, or as posts to this or other blogs.
I kicked off the first Classicists’ session on Monday morning with a brief history of the Digital Classicist community and a discussion of the different approaches to studying the use of digital methods in the study of the ancient world (contrasting the historical approach of Solomon 1993 with the forward-looking theme of Crane/Terras 2008, for which authors were asked to imagine their field within Classics in 2018). I talked in general terms about the different trajectories of two very early digital classical projects, the TLG and LGPN, both of which were founded in 1972. The TLG, while a technological innovative project from the get-go, and one which changed (and continues to be indispensible to) the study of Greek literature, has not made a great contribution to the Digital Humanities because of its closed, for-profit, and self-sufficient strategy. The LGPN on the other hand began life as a very technologically conservative projects, geared to the production of paper volumes of the Lexicon, and has always been reactive to changes in technology rather than proactive as the TLG was; as a result of this, however, they have been able to change with the times, adopt new database and web technologies as they appeared, and are now actively contributing to the development of standards in XML, onomastics, and geo-tagging, and sharing data and tools widely. Finally I argued that any study of the community of digital Classics needs both to consider history (lessons to be learned from projects such as those discussed above, and other venerable projects that are still currently innovative such as Perseus and the DDbDP), and consider the newest technologies, standards, and cyberinfrastructures that will drive our work forward in the future.
(David Robey pointed out that Classics has an important and unique position with the UK arts and humanities community in that the subject associations give validity and respectability by their support of and recognition for digital resources and research.)
In a paper titled The UK’s evolving e-infrastructure and the study of the past, Stuart discussed the national e-Science agenda and how it relates to the practices and needs of the humanities scholar, using as a basis the research process of data collection, analysis, and publication/dissemination. The essential definition of e-Science is that it centres around scholarly collaboration across and between disciplines, and the advanced computational infrastructure that enables this collaboration. e-Science often involves working with huge bodies of data or processing-intensive operations on complex material, and the example of this kind of research Stuart offered was not Classical but Byzantine: the use of agent-based modelling by colleagues in Birmingham to simulate the climactic battle of Manzikert. After some general conclusions on the opportunities for advanced e-infrastructure to be used in the study of the ancient world, there was some lively discussion of geospacial resources in the British and European academic spheres.
Simon gave a detailed presentation of the Humslides 2.0 project that he is conducting with the Classics department at King’s College London. Building upon the work carried out in a pilot project in 2006-7 to digitise the teaching slide collections of the Classics department (as a pilot study for the School of Humanities), which adopted a free trial version of the ContentDM management system (trial license now expired, and not renewed), the new project will utilize Web 2.0 tools to present and organize some 7000 slides with more metadata and more input from students and other contributors. A Humslides Flickr group has been established, inspired in part by the Commons group set up by Library of Congress and now contributed to by several other major institutions. As well as providing a teaching resource (currently restricted to KCL students until some thorny copyright issues have been wrinkled out), students will be set assessed coursework tasks to contribute to the tagging and annotating of images in this collection.
Due to illness, Elpiniki’s paper on Training, Communities of Practice, and Digital Humanities was not delivered at this conference. We shall see whether she would be willing to upload her slides on the Digital Classicist website for discussion.
Amy Smith (Leif Isaksen, Brian Fuchs)
The paper on Lightweight Reuse of Digital Resources with VLMA: perspectives and challenges, originally commissioned for the Digital Classicist panel, was at the last minute and for unknown reasons switched over into a panel on Digital Humanites on Tuesday morning. Amy presented this paper, which discussed lessons learned from the Virtual Lightbox for Museums and Archives project (discussed in detail in their article in the special issue of Digital Medievalist journal we edited). Some conclusions and discussion followed on the topic of RDF and other metadata standards, and on browser-based versus desktop applications for viewing and organizing remote objects.
John Pybus (Alan Bowman, Charles Crowther and Ruth Kirkham)
John’s presentation on A Virtual Research Environment for the Study of Documents and Manuscripts gave a succinct and very useful summary of the history of the VRE research that has been carried out by the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents and the humanities VRE team in Oxford. The project is one of four demo projects conducted by the second phase of work that begin with a user requirements survey in 2006-7. Built using uPortal, the VRE allows remote, parallel, and dynamic consultation and annotation of texts, images, and other resources by multiple scholars simultaneously. John showed some examples of the functionality of the VRE platform, including: the ability to show side-by-side parallel views of a tablet (different images or different renderings of the same image); the juxtaposition of multiple fragments in a lightbox; the ability to share views and exchange instant messages between scholars.
Emma O’Riordan (Michael Fulford, et al.)
In a paper that discussed another project related to the Oxford VRE programme, the Virtual Environment for Research in Archaeology: a Roman case study at Silchester, Emma discussed the origins of the VERA system in the Integrated Archaeological Database (IADB) that has been in use at Silchester for several years. The VERA system allows almost instant publication of the years results (as compared to waiting several months for paper notes to be transcribed); is cheaper than manual transcription; and more reliable than manual transcription; perhaps most importantly, the system enables live communication and collaboration between the archaeologists in the field and scholars in other parts of the world. Emma stressed one lesson from this project which was the importance of working alongside computer scientists, so that development of functionality can take into consideration the needs of the archaeologists as well as the research and interests of the programmers. It was interesting, however, that she also noted the potential pitfalls of too much tinkering with a tool while at work in the field.
Claire Warwick (Melissa Terras, et al.)
Originally scheduled in the second “Digital Humanities” on Tuesday morning, this paper followed logically on from Emma’s, and discussed Virtual Environments for Research in Archaeology (VERA): Use and Usability of Integrated Virtual Environments in Archaeological Research. Claire focussed on the evaluation of documentation of the unique needs of archaeologists in the field, and some conclusions the VERA team have been able to draw by the use of questionnaires, diaries, and anonymized interviews with the Silchester workers. Learning new IT skills was considered to be a burdern by students who were already having to learn fieldwork skills on the job; there were also new problems with the technology, as compared to the “pencil and paper” methods for which workflow and solutions had been developed over time. We look forward to a full report on the feedback and usability study that the UCL participants in the VERA project are conducting.
Original scheduled for the “Digital Tools” panel, in this paper, Building a Virtual Community: The Antiquist Experience, Leif spoke to a Digital Classicist audience about a parallel community, Antiquist (who focus on digital approaches to cultural heritage and archaeology). The Antiquist community has an active mailing list (a Google group), a moribund blog, and a wiki whose main function is announcements of events. Antiquist boasts multiple moderators, many of whom try to keep the list active, and from the start they actively invited heritage professionals who were known to them to join the community. There is no set agenda, and membership is from a wide range of industries. Over time, traffic on the list has remained steady, with an unusually high percentage of active participants, but the content of the list traffic has tended recently to become more announcement-focussed rather than long threads and discussions. They are currently considering inviting new moderators to join the team, in the hope of injecting fresh blood and enthusiasm into a team who now rarely innovate and introduce new discussions to the group. Compared to many mailing lists, the community is still very active and very healthy, however. (Leif has usefully uploaded his slideshow and commented in a thread on the Antiquist email group.)