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CLIFFORD ANDERSON: Welcome to the NISO 2021 panel on the Digital Humanities. My name is Clifford Anderson, and it's my distinct pleasure to welcome you to this panel. The Digital Humanities is a diverse, vibrant, and rapidly expanding community that brings together faculty researchers, information professionals, and technologists, among others, to expand our understanding of the human condition. As a librarian myself, I'm grateful to NISO for helping to develop and support the standards that make these projects in the digital humanities both scalable and supportable over the long term.
CLIFFORD ANDERSON: So for today's panel, I'd like to introduce the two panelists, Dr. Keith Breckenridge and Dr. Katrina Fenlon. Dr. Keith Breckenridge is a professor and acting director at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, WISER. He writes about the cultural and economic history of South Africa, particularly the gold mining industry, the state, and the development of information systems.
CLIFFORD ANDERSON: His book, Biometric State, in Cambridge in 2014, shows how the South African obsession with Francis Galton's universal fingerprint identity registration served as a 20th century incubator for the current systems of biometric citizenship being developed throughout the South. With Professor [INAUDIBLE] he currently manages a grant from the Mellon Foundation for Intra-Institutional Digitization Projects in the South African Universities.
CLIFFORD ANDERSON: Our other panelist is Doctor Katrina Fenlon, an assistant professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research focuses on the changing shape of a scholarly knowledge ecosystem. She employs qualitative methods to study diversifying forms of cultural evidence and humanities scholarly production, along with their implications for information practices, digital curation, data models and standards, and research infrastructures across disciplines.
CLIFFORD ANDERSON: Dr. Fenlon will speak first, followed by Dr. Breckenridge. We will then open the floor to questions and conversations. So Katrina, Dr. Fenlon, me I turn it over to you.
KATRINA FENLON: Great, thank you so much, Cliff, for that introduction. And thanks to everyone for being here today. I'm really excited for this conversation. So I'll be speaking today about my research on sustaining digital humanities scholarship and particularly about thinking beyond standards what libraries and other organizations can do to support community-centered sustainability for digital scholarship.
KATRINA FENLON: So I'll start by providing some context and then delve into a review of what's been done on sustainability and what the gaps might be as a way of providing some conceptual framing or reframing for understanding what sustaining digital scholarship means. And in this talk, I'll be offering more provocations than answers as I'm in the early stages of a case study project to understand sustainability for digital collections in different contexts.
KATRINA FENLON: So I'll start with some context for understanding why sustainability is a problem. Across disciplines, the growth and evolution of digital scholarship has overwhelmed our traditional systems for the representation and communication of research. So in the humanities, digital scholarship is producing resources that range very widely beyond our traditional concept of a publication.
KATRINA FENLON: Resources that incorporate not only narratives and media, but also data sets and link data, interactive and functional components, taking forms like digital scholarly editions, databases, collections, layered visualizations and mapping projects, models, simulations, and so on. So we can characterize digital humanities scholarship as having these properties. Its media rich, its often, but not always, data centric, it's often interactive or performative or experiential.
KATRINA FENLON: It's dynamic in the sense that interactions with the users determine its form and it's often constructed by algorithms or by computation happening in the background. And it's always evolving. Projects are rarely ever considered complete or done. So it's subject to ongoing change. And above all, it's highly heterogeneous. So no two projects look alike.
KATRINA FENLON: They're often built on bespoke technical infrastructures. Innovation is the goal of many digital humanities projects. Innovation not only in substance, but in form. So we have a sense of what digital humanities scholarship looks like. And I think you can intuit some of the reasons why it's difficult to sustain. We also know that it's increasingly common. So digital humanities collections exist on every campus.
KATRINA FENLON: In one recent study, about 50% of faculty create digital tools and collections, and the vast majority of those are intended for ongoing use by scholars and by the public. But the vast majority of those are also not sustained or preserved by any system or by any institution. Sustainability is a chronic and systemic problem in the humanities and the digital humanities.
KATRINA FENLON: Even on campuses with digital humanities centers, there's rarely any kind of end-to-end solution for caring for digital projects from their conception to their ultimate disposition. And I think if you're here, you're probably acquainted with the scale of the problem. The number and accumulation on every campus of digital humanities projects that are difficult to keep alive on the web.
KATRINA FENLON: So despite the fact that most of these projects probably fall within the scope of a preservation institution, like an academic libraries preservation mission, most of them aren't subject to any formal stewardship. This is because sustaining them is extremely hard for some of the reasons I suggested and for other reasons. I mentioned the technical vulnerabilities. The custom infrastructures on which these things are built.
KATRINA FENLON: They're often fragile, technically speaking. I mentioned their heterogeneity. It's hard to shove them into a common infrastructure. They resist standardization and they resist common forms of storage. But there are other issues, too. They have contexts dependencies. So it's unclear what sustainability and preservation really mean for different kinds of digital scholarship.
KATRINA FENLON: We know that it's context dependent. They're also built on short term funding. They're heavily dependent on their creators to survive. So they don't always get handed off. And there's also a lack of clarity about what an institution owes digital scholarship. What the value proposition of digital scholarship is for an institution, or how institutions should understand the ownership of projects that are often collaborative and distributed across institutions.
KATRINA FENLON: And of course, the biggest concern is that most institutions that usually take responsibility for the long term care of digital scholarship, like libraries, don't have the capacity to sustain the resources that scholars are developing. So my hope is that with our conversation today, we can come to some more conceptual clarity about what sustainability means for different kinds of projects, different kinds of scholarship, and talk about some research directions that I think are promising for ensuring more widespread sustainability for digital scholarship.
KATRINA FENLON: The first question I'd like to pose is, when we talk about sustaining digital humanities scholarship, what are we actually talking about sustaining? In the body of work that exists on sustainability for digital humanities, which is large and growing and vital and important, there's often implicit and often vague understanding of what sustainability is or what its object is.
KATRINA FENLON: So different pieces will write about sustaining projects or sustaining organizations or sustaining digital artifacts or tools or research infrastructures as holes. But many of them don't explicitly characterize what the object of sustainability is while recognizing that sustaining digital humanities is a major and urgent challenge. So I was thinking it would be helpful to reframe the body of prior work on sustainability and DH and maybe help us see where some of the gaps are.
KATRINA FENLON: So I'm going to suggest this framing. Right now, my research is engaged in a comprehensive review of what's come before on this long-lived and hotly-debated question. And I'm reviewing research on empirical work on sustainability, reports on specific projects and their strategies, studies of infrastructure, organizational studies, surveys of digital humanities centers and libraries, theoretical and editorial work on conceptualizing the problem.
KATRINA FENLON: In my review of the literature that's come before on sustainability, most of it seems to fall into two categories. So the first consider sustainability as pertaining mainly to the long term viability of technical artifacts or outcomes of digital humanities projects. So this bears a very close relationship to literature and digital preservation.
KATRINA FENLON: The difference, which isn't always explicit and which is sometimes a blurred line, is that the inflection of the term sustainability, when it's applied to digital humanities scholarship, is on the continued maintenance and even development of these technical artifacts of the products digital humanities scholarship. While the inflection of digital preservation is usually on putting things into ambre, keeping them as they are, and making only the changes that are required to ensure continued access without sacrificing any meaning.
KATRINA FENLON: So the first body of work-- the first category that I think is helpful to consider is understanding sustainability as being about artifacts and their long-term viability, their continued development. The second category considers the viability of organizations. So it's about organizational resilience. Those organizations of different kinds at different levels that create and maintain the artifacts. So it's focused on the resilience of units like digital humanities centers and labs, digital scholarship units, repositories, cultural heritage organizations of different sizes, and even projects themselves, but from an organizational perspective.
KATRINA FENLON: So what it would mean to keep them viable to align them with existing institutional structures and so on. So the first body of literature on the long-term viability of technical artifacts generally leaves us with partial technical solutions. The progress of that lit is focused on technical or maybe sociotechnical solutions to the problem of sustainability, which is to say, what are the technical interventions we can make to help keep these kinds of artifacts thriving for longer?
KATRINA FENLON: What are the infrastructures we can build or the institutional policies we can implement? The social and technical infrastructures and workflows, the data models, the standards, the documentation that will ensure products of digital humanities scholarship will last over time. And we'll talk more about breaking down that category of literature and those strategies in a moment. But the second body of work on sustainability as organizational resilience focuses on what we might call management or administrative solutions.
KATRINA FENLON: How to organize staffing. How to pursue economic self-sustainment. How to manage and acquire resources over time to ensure the viability of the organizations or the units that are responsible for these outcomes. And how to forge collaboration or alignment between curation and institutions like libraries and digital humanities initiatives. There's a much smaller third category of work, which I'd like to highlight.
KATRINA FENLON: And my current research project might be understood as falling into this category, which focuses on sustainability as community-centered and community-driven. So it treats the sustainability of digital scholarship, the outcomes, the projects themselves as being driven by communities-- research communities and communities of practice. And which, in turn, considers the sustainability of digital scholarship as being a matter of sustaining those communities.
KATRINA FENLON: So understanding this mutual dependencies among communities and projects and technical artifacts. OK, so I'd like to come back, for a moment, to the first category of work because it's where I see great alignment with NISO's interests and with the conversation that came out of digital humanity sessions last year at NISO plus around what kinds of metadata do digital humanities projects require?
KATRINA FENLON: What tools are available? Whose role is it to be documenting these projects and creating metadata? How to create effective linked data to link projects together. So what in the existing literature on digital humanities-- what's focused on sustaining the viability of artifacts-- of technical artifacts?
KATRINA FENLON: Those approaches have fallen into these kinds of groups. So some is focused on building aggregations that pull data or resources together on the idea of scaling up to obtain critical mass to ensure sustainability. Some are focused on a more distributed approach. So implementing linked data and distributed web services as a way of ensuring the sustainability of the technical outcomes of digital humanities projects.
KATRINA FENLON: Some are focused on implementing standards and best practices stemming from the professional world of data and digital curation and archiving. And some are focused on building infrastructures to host advanced media and publishing projects over time. So taking a step back, over the past couple of decades, we've seen so much change-- so much distributed development in how humanities scholars are doing scholarship, and then how they're sharing that scholarship with one another and with the world.
KATRINA FENLON: So taking a very broad conception of what research infrastructures are, we have seen trends in the right direction making these technical interventions developing the technologies that support these kinds of structures over the long term. And yet, we still see the systemic failure to sustain digital humanities projects. So the question is, why aren't these developments enough?
KATRINA FENLON: Why aren't standards enough? Why isn't the shared infrastructure enough? And how can we shape infrastructure going forward to sustain digital scholarship more broadly without attenuating the diversity of that scholarship? The reason that standards in infrastructure haven't proven sufficient despite the progress it made, which is very substantial and very exciting and innovative, the reason it's still so hard to sustain these projects partly comes down to the challenges that I've already mentioned around technological vulnerability and institutional capacity.
KATRINA FENLON: But I'm going to add a couple of challenges to the mix based on my research on digital collections over the past several years. The first challenge I'd like to highlight that makes this problem so thorny is that the connective tissue that holds digital objects together, that makes them meaningful is often invisible. It's often dynamically constructed or sometimes it's even implicit in the design of work.
KATRINA FENLON: So I'm going to give you an example of it. An example that I've published before at the joint conference on digital libraries in 2019. The Shelley-Godwin Digital Archive. So this is a digital humanities project. An effort to bring together the manuscript works of the Shelley-Godwin family of writers including, for example, the handwritten drafts of Frankenstein, the manuscript.
KATRINA FENLON: This digital archive can be understood as a whole complex digital object. It works as an interactive website, but we can understand it as or model it as a set of relationships among a bunch of components. So those components are things like page images, scripts and utilities that bring different pieces together, transcriptions of those page images that have been encoded in TEI, narrative components that articulate what the meaning of different manuscripts is or what the meaning of the site as a whole is or that contextualize those primary sources.
KATRINA FENLON: And then, the data models that inform how all of this functions. So on this image, I have depicted those components and shown some of the relationship between them, most of which are direct relationships that are formalized in some way. For example, as hyperlinked URIs. So the scripts and utilities in Shelley-Godwin explicitly refer to all of the components in order to construct or enact the functional website.
KATRINA FENLON: But there's also a set of relationships that make Shelley-Godwin meaningful that are not so direct. That are, in fact, inferential. So, for example, the page images and the encoded transcriptions exist side by side in the comparative reading viewer that Shelley-Godwin created. That juxtaposition is nowhere explicit in the coding of the site.
KATRINA FENLON: It's dynamically constructed by a query submitted by the user. So the site also relies on a utility called unbind. It's a Python utility to create shared Canvas manifests, at least in a previous iteration of the site. These underlie the interactive reading viewer. And that utility computationally constructs the manuscript each time that a user turns a page or opens the archive.
KATRINA FENLON: The standards that govern how that utility works are well-documented, but the pieces exist in a distributed environment in a GitHub archive. Also in API calls to the Bodleian digital libraries. So the way this archive is constructed is largely metaphorical. So that connective tissue that I'm talking about that's often invisible, difficult to capture, dynamically constructed, or implicit in the design of these projects and their interactive forms.
KATRINA FENLON: That is a challenge that standards and infrastructure can probably address a sufficiently extensible, semantically rich model for representing these kinds of artifacts for the description and packaging of these kinds of complex digital objects for the recording or advanced capture of interactive objects. These are technical advances that are already happening. The standards for doing this exist, they're just difficult to systematize.
KATRINA FENLON: But there are a couple other challenges for which there might not be a technical solution. One of those is that maintaining the technical artifacts of digital humanities scholarship often entails maintaining the workflows that lead to the construction and development and maintenance of those artifacts over time. So when you're talking about sustaining a digital object, you're also talking about sustaining the teams and the processes that make that digital object possible.
KATRINA FENLON: And a third thorny issue that I'd like to raise is that ownership matters a great deal. So communities that create these projects have deep investments in the projects they create. Many of them are unwilling to hand these projects off to curation institutions. Many of them wish to retain varying levels of power over and responsibility for the ongoing development of their efforts.
KATRINA FENLON: And of course, in some cases, it's simply unclear when they're done or when they're ready for handoff. So there's a need for institutional partnerships that keep varying levels of control in the hands of communities. And those models, they're in need of development. So my current research and my future work is focused on community-centered sustainability strategies.
KATRINA FENLON: I'm conducting a set of case studies of digital humanities projects and the communities that are creating them and maintaining them, how they interpret and implement sustainability in their own work. And then, considering also roles-- supportive roles that curation institutions like libraries can play in supporting communities and sustaining their own work over time.
KATRINA FENLON: I guess what I'd like to leave you with is that we have the relevant technical standards for solving many of these problems. What we have an urgent need for is best practices and workflows for things like articulating multifaceted and granular sustainability requirements. So breaking digital projects down into their components. Into the technical artifacts and the data that comprise them, but also the relationships among those things, the workflows, the human aspects, and understanding how sustainability requirements differ for different pieces of projects.
KATRINA FENLON: Understanding the ways that different aspects are contributing, not only to the resources at the end, but to scholarship in general, and letting that guide sustainability efforts. We also need best practices and workflows for representing and documenting and archiving these complex and computed and networked digital objects. I think we have the standards for it. But what's lacking is guidance that will help make implementation more systemic.
KATRINA FENLON: And finally, and this is where my research is centered now, we have a need for models of partnership between curation institutions and digital humanities communities that are equitable and indefinitely ongoing. And that leaves the balance of control, as long as it's useful and desirable, in the hands of the communities that are creating this digital scholarship. So thank you very much.
KATRINA FENLON: I'll leave it there for now and pass it back over to Cliff.
CLIFFORD ANDERSON: Thank you very much for that really provocative talk. And as a librarian, I completely recognize the issues that you're talking about and the importance of the research. So it's fantastic that you're conducting it and look forward to hearing more about your outcomes in the future. Now, I'd like to turn it over to Keith-- Dr. Breckenridge. Would you take to the stage, so to speak?
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: Well, as soon as I get my screen to display. No. This is OK. OK, can you see my screen and me and hear me?
CLIFFORD ANDERSON: Yes we can.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: Thanks, Katrina. Yeah, it's really-- it's great to be able to follow Katrina because, of course, everything she describes is exactly what we-- the same problems that are present here. Of course, in some ways, they're elaborated. It'll be great to be able to compare notes at the end of this, I think. The idea for us was to choose-- other people less choice and time restrict their options across the university system.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: We end up with a much better shared skill sets and at least a common set of problems. So that was the idea. But we really ended up with a completely different-- nobody wants to play that game. Everybody is very interested in what you call bespoke solutions. And maybe your way of thinking about it is being about really thinking-- trying to figure out what the relationships in the communities actually look like.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: And how to sustain models rather than these-- the projects might be a more helpful way of doing it. But let me elaborate a little bit on where this is going. So this is a discussion-- very light discussion of existing digital humanities projects. And I'm not going to be very detailed about what I would call the problem children because they are people we're working with. And I don't want to identify them.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: Anybody who sees this will be able to quite quickly work out who I'm talking about. And these are people-- these are friends and collaborators. What I'm interested in describing is the general problem, which I think you'll recognize as being, more or less, the same thing as what Katrina has described. So South Africa has a complicated history of what we could call digitization projects.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: Because under Apartheid, it was really a precocious child. Had very close relationships with IBM. The state and IBM worked very closely together at the end of the 1960s. South Africa was very rich in that time and really interested in providing a-- lots of ways of describing this, but a trophy information system. And they worked with IBM to build a very large population registration project called the Book of Life.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: Big 50 story building in Pretoria. Big IBM 360 system in the basement of the building. Everybody was supposed to carry this document around to track everything about them. With race as the core of that, race classification at the core of it. But it was meant to do all sorts of other things. It was meant to provide the state with a survey of all skills in the society.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: Meant to check your way you lived and who lived with you. All of the things that we think of as being typical of Scandinavian society. But the South African Population Registration Project was really modeled quite closely on Israel's. And it's interesting to look at where we are now and in the informational differences between the societies. The Book of Life project was a complete failure.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: No one participated in it with any enthusiasm. And one of the main reasons was it was an attempt to try and centralize and control driver's licensing. And just have to stop thinking about how driver's licensing works and how important it is to different people to understand that people resisted it all over the country. And they didn't actually plan the inclusion of the African population in the control of the driver's licensing project.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: Africans were meant to be regulated by this thing called the [INAUDIBLE] Bureau, which was like a panoptic labor control system, which really fell apart 5 to 10 years before the Book of Life project began. OK, so the IBM thing, it's an interesting history. But the main point from our point of view is that IBM did leave behind something we call STAIRS. And STAIRS is a government document-- an official government system for looking at archival repositories and libraries.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: And they put a terminal into every major library in the country-- little private collections all over the place. And they pay people to go and capture a flat file inventory of all these documents. And these things are old, but you cannot find them. You can see them. These are pretty straightforward flat file database system, which is really quite remarkable systematic.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: So it works. No one was asked how they wanted to do it. IBM came in, they put these black screens in front of people, and everybody had to capture it. Insofar as the digitization goes, the system worked very well. What obviously didn't work was IBM's relationship with the project was enormously problematic. It was really troublesome for the global corporation, which there is a middle of the 1980s, IBM retreats from South Africa with its tail between its legs and leaves behind a really small piece of the company called InfoPlan.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: That all is in the background is this history of highly controlled, no choice based library systems. What happened after 1990 is something a little bit-- it has similarities and it has important differences. The Mellon became involved in digitization in the libraries in South Africa. This is the very early days of Jstor and Ithica.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: And the South Africans were trophy almost. An example of how to bring in diverse new collections. They worked with separate collections in the United States called Aluka. And eventually, those things all found their way into Jstor. South Africa project is really a big part of how that was done. It was a much bigger deal on the Jstor end than most people realize, with South Africa sitting on the governing body and basically shaping that process in the Metropolitan area and in the American side.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: They got large grants from Mellon to push forward industrial scale digitizing of what we call the politically correct archive. This is what we call the struggle archive. These are the records that, if you like, were invisible or inaccessible and weren't available to contrast with this very meticulous collection that had been driven by IBM. But it combined two things that didn't work well together.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: They hired some of the leading historians to specify exact numbers of which kinds of documents they needed to collect. And they didn't want to walk into the library and scan the largest collections they could find. They wanted representative pieces. This was a catastrophically difficult way of managing it. Worked very well. And they began to get pressure from Mellon to increase the output.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: They wanted more TIFF, basically, from the project than the South Africans would provide. Everybody we got quite early on were bad tempered and angry with each other. So there were problems of productivity. They wanted millions of TIFFs and the South Africans were producing thousands. But that wasn't the key issue. The really important thing was the dawning realization that the South Africans had given up control over the high-resolution images.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: They got quite well into the project. They got letters from New York instructing them to put all the high resolution TIFFs onto hard drives and ship them to Aluka. So that was traumatic for the people who were involved in it, this realizing that, in fact, what they've done is participated in offshoring the digital heritage of the country. But a whole set of other very difficult problems also emerged in about five years into the project, around 2002.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: And the first one-- these are all the same things Katrina has been talking about. So who owned this project? Which institutions were going to pay for maintaining the high resolution repositories? Who was going to pay for the renewal of the platforms? And who, in particular, was going to pay for the skills development? So you had all these really well-skilled Americans coming out to the country, quickly setting something up, spending a week here, and then leaving.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: And the librarian and some archivists had absolutely no purchase on any of that, and no idea of how to actually foster that kind of skill locally. So at about very-- at the end of the second term of the Mellon grant, there's a huge falling out between the librarians in this and the South African historians. And the local people, basically, accused the Mellon Foundation of conducting wholesale digital imperialism.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: So that was clearly unfair. And there were lots of examples of how it worked. So South Africans complained, for example, that they weren't allowed access to South African collections that were hosted in the United States. These are actual materials produced by South African political organizations, but held in libraries in the United States. But the American libraries had access to the materials that were digitized here.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: That had been unnoticed in the licensing agreements with Mellon when they set it up. So the famous conundrum is this-- South African internet browsers looking for the anti-Apartheid movement would find themselves confronted with what was then a subscription notice from Aluka saying, I'm very sorry. You don't have access to your own national heritage.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: You'd better come to an American university and sort that problem out. And you can see how this really wouldn't work very well. So the imperative of decolonizing the digitization economy, the infrastructures and systems, was present 20 years ago, long before the wider preoccupation of decolonising the way in which [INAUDIBLE] in universities. But it is very difficult to do, which is really my point. So one of the main problems has been-- and there are many examples.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: This is a really lovely collection of South African rock art, also funded by Mellon. They have, I think, 50 terabytes of images of this wonderful southern African rock heritage-- rock art heritage. But it's built on a custom system. There is a database behind it, but there's no institutional project. There's no-- the faculty that houses it does not see the ongoing reproduction of this collection as something that they are responsible for.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: All of these out-sourced projects. People assume that the Mellon Foundation is going to be there forever to sustain them. And it is clear that the Mellon Foundation has other things on its mind, right? They are really preoccupied with the United States. Now, the Trump period of the post-Trump period has created a feeling of-- probably correctly-- a need to address how the politics of heritage works in the United States, particularly.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: So the South Africans find themselves outside of that nice fat fundraising prospect. There are examples of things that have worked very well. That have worked a little bit like-- not the InfoPlan, the IBM STAIRS project. And Dspace is one of them. I'm not even sure the people in the outside know about Dspace. It's an MIT source digital repository project. It was funded by Carnegie.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: And you can find hundreds of instances of more or less exactly the same project in not just Southern African universities or African universities in general. And one of the reasons is just to pick up on the point that Katrina made is that Dspace basically buys directly into the library workflow. So you have a way here of controlling the submission of all, in particular, postgraduate dissertations that go in through Dspace.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: Students now have to submit a digital copy of the dissertation. That's become part of the degree granting infrastructure. The way in which the systems function. People don't acknowledge how much Dspace has changed the political economy of research. So you can now find honors, masters, PhD dissertations, seminar papers, unpublished work.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: And all of these institutions that would never have been possible before. You can do amazing-- much more inclusive and extensive body of research. Of course, the irritable decolonizing-- critics would say, what we've done is we've made all of this available to people who never have to visit the continent at all. They can do all their research sitting in Ann Arbor or wherever else it is.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: And there are also lots of problems with Dspace. I think the biggest problem-- there are many problems. They have a lot of problems with the file qualities. The scanning hasn't all been done very nicely, as is often the case with the Google scanning project. But the real problem is the feel and the basic beauty of working with-- very few of the Dspace repositories are actually nice to work with.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: They're corrosive and really not fun at all, but do provide huge amounts of data. OK, so the idea was that a group of us across five South African universities and many other universities are involved in this. The idea was to basically offer people a limited number of software choices and say, OK, you build-- you want to build a repository, you have to do it-- would not have to.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: But we would encourage you to do it with-- or with something like Omeka. If Omeka is not going to be enough, if you really need more customization, then Drupal was your-- the third option. The worst case possible with Drupal is a pathway towards sustainability.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: We know how to build it, we know how to find people, who know how to use it. And it also does lend itself towards, really, pretty systematic standardization across the platform that you can do that opposite. And there are examples of where that has happened. I've put links up here in case people want them. I'm not going to click on them here. But the regional champions for AtoM were Michele Pickover and Gabriele Mohale, who work at the Historical Papers Archive at the University of the Witwatersrand.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: They've done amazingly-- I mean, systematic careful work with AtoM building up tens of thousands of really wonderful items in the [INAUDIBLE],, which is probably the strongest university held archive of historical papers collection. Karen Hamilton and her team at UCT have done something similar with a 500 year archive. They've worked very intensely with AtoM to get the specification as precise as possible and as extensive as possible.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: There's quite a lot of Drupal around. DISA, the big project that was part of Aluka and has used Drupal to sustain its collection. They have no budget for that. So they're really using Drupal and learning it as they go. They have no real funding for the hardware that's involved and a really enormous digital collection that's now held without [INAUDIBLE] at all.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: And then, what we hope to do is to use Omeka. We looked around. We spent a lot of time thinking about this. OK, so Omeka is the way to go. We're going to find-- we're going to just say there's one way to do it. Everyone's going to learn this one way. And then, we'll need people across the different campuses to support and help each other.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: And people, I think, are committed to that idea that they need to learn the system. But there are real problems in reaching lift-off. Lots of people install Omeka. They create an account. And that has everything to do with all the issues that Katrina is describing. There's no sense of ownership, there's no real community behind these projects, there's no institutional support.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: And the most important thing is there's no university-based work for pushing of these items into Omeka. There are lots of ways we can do those things, but we haven't. So one of the problems with the standard systems, I think-- and this is particularly true, it has been with AtoM, is what we call specification fatigue. People really don't want to comply with all the different elements that are required in order to do this properly.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: To do it in a standard way. And there's a real worry about finding people who have the care, what one calls that the professional ethic to do this capturing carefully. And I would be interested to know how that works in the United States. Is there some kind of aptitude test you can subject people to do to see that they're going to endure this kind of metadata fatigue for decades or at least years.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: The costs of sustaining these projects are-- no one will take responsibility for them. No dean, no especially university financial officer. The most important public argument people make is about classification system. So they argue that they're-- the decolonizing of this archive, which was very careful about how it's separated ethnographic objects.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: So certain things would be in-- praise poems would be in an argument-- would be in an archive of oral materials. Headrests would be in another archive. And these collect-- these people assembling these new materials arguing that we need to be able to break down these categories and these objects need to be able to, basically, engage with each other across the different classification systems that are integral to these standards-based system.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: And that's true even for the division between curators and the public. They're much more interested in opening-- seriously opening these collections to people's own contributions so that they can introduce oral testimony from families. And I realize that this is not specifically a South African problem, but it's really at the core of how people feel about these tools and their discontent, if you like, with being constrained by them in the way that we originally designed.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: There's a very powerful interest in what Katrina called bespoke design. And they seem obsessed with, basically, doing this in a way that is distinctively beautiful. And that means the theming that's possible with the standard platforms is anathema to them. This is very problematic and sad and difficult because it makes it extremely-- it's one thing to say we need CSL competence.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: That will solve the problem. We have nowhere near that kind of-- that is simply not a skill set available to us. And so what we have is much more conventional graphic design that's being used without any real engagement with these standards-based systems. OK, and then, my conclusion to all of this. It does feel to me like we're trapped in a basic feature of modern capitalism, which is that the people who are good at things can elaborate enormously powerful and beautiful and productive platforms.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: They are managing to do that. But there's something almost intrinsic to that, which is this bespokeness that makes it of almost no value to the general project and the real serious project which is that we need to find ways of addressing the systems break down. The fact that it's not doing this across all of the universities in a meaningful way.
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE: And I will stop there.
CLIFFORD ANDERSON: Thank you, Keith. That was, again, a really fascinating presentation. And I think we can learn so much from just reviewing the history of digital humanities, even going back prior to the term to think about the large scale digitization projects that you discussed. We too often think we're just starting a totally new from scratch and not considering the preconditions. So really welcome you're bringing that to light and sharing that with us.
CLIFFORD ANDERSON: And especially the international perspective, which is, I think, again, just as representing this panel and that we have a lot to learn from. So I'd like to thank you both, again, for these presentations. Really rich, really stimulating. I think they'll provoke a lot of conversation. And I'd invite those who are attending now to join us in the chat and continue the conversation there.
CLIFFORD ANDERSON: So thank you, again, and look forward to having a good discussion. [MUSIC PLAYING]