Towards a Methods Commons

Well my vacation is over and I’m facilitating a retreat on text methods across disciplines. (See Towards a Methods Commons.) With support from the ITST program at SSHRC we brought together 15 linguists, philosophers, historians, and literary scholars to discuss methods in a structured way. The goal is to sketch a commons that gathers “recipes” that show people how to do research things with electronic texts. Stay tuned for a draft web site in about 6 months.

Chronologie des supports, des dispositifs spatiaux, des outils de repérage de l’information

Christian directed me to a fascinating chronology of information technology (in French) by Sylvie Fayet-Scribe. It is called Chronologie des supports, des dispositifs spatiaux, des outils de repérage de l’information. and the web design isn’t the best, but it seems detailed and annotated. It seems like a good place to start if you want to understand the types of information aides from encyclopedias, indexes, and so on. Here division of time into epochs is also interesting. The bibliography is also good.

Adonis Meeting

I was a meeting organized by the Adonis project (See TGE Adonis | Très grand équipement du CNRS pour les sciences humaines et sociales) to look at international collaboration. Adonis is running a number interesting projects:

  • Revues.org is a platform for e-journals in France.
  • Calenda is a shared calendar of events for French academics.
  • Hypotheses is a shared blog environment for news about projects.
  • Lodel is their content management system for publications.

Some other projects mentioned were:

  • Plume hosts and lets people discover open source software from university research projects.
  • SourceSup is a project management and code versioning environment for academic projects.

We are struggling with issues of international collaboration, archiving data, interoperation and so on. We all see the value to large national (or international) digital archives, but the funding is oriented to projects and not long-term archiving. Some of the issues that came up:

  • Lou Burnard made an important distinciton between archiving and backup. A lot of people want backup for their work or their project and think that archiving services will provide this; they don’t really understand that backup is not archiving. That doesn’t mean that backup isn’t important. Apparently in the student riots in Paris last year a number of computers with irreplaceable data were destroyed.
  • The limitations of centralized solutions. We are all tempted by the thought of long-term central funding to run services, but there are dangers to such centralization. If central funding is cut or shifted (as happened with the AHDS) then everything disappears. Can we imagine decentralized solutions? Would they work? I’d like to see more social research initiatives that support decentralized solutions. I think in the current economic climate we have to explore these.
  • David Robey made the point that we have to do a better job of explaining the value of digital resources and services. We need to educate ourselves to gather evidence of value and that includes the opportunity costs.
  • Paolo D’Ivorio argued that there are certain primitive functions that scholarly systems need including Citation (reliable ways to point to other works), Consensus (agreement in a field as to what is of value and how to assess that), and Discovery/Dissemination (ways of finding and getting at scholarship.)

You can follow some of the meeting is you search Twitter for #ADONIS.

Drucker: Blind Spots

Johanna Drucker has an essay in the Chronicle about how humanists should be involved developing their work environments, Blind Spots. She has a nice phrase for the attitude by some scholars that someone else should do the work of developing the knowledge environment of the future – she calls it the “hand-waving magic wand approach to the future”. She concludes here essay,

Unless scholars in the humanities help design and model the environments in which they will work, they will not be able to use them. Tools developed for PlayStation and PowerPoint, Word, and Excel will be as appropriate to our intellectual labors as a Playskool workbench is to the chores of a real plumber. I once bought a very beautiful portable Olivetti typewriter because an artist friend of mine said it was so elegantly designed that it had been immediately put into the Museum of Modern Art collection. The problem? It wasn’t designed for typing. Any keyboardist with any skill at all constantly clogged its keys. A thing of beauty, it was a pain forever. I finally threw it from the fourth-floor tower of Wurster Hall at the University of California at Berkeley. Try doing that with the interface to your university library. Now reflect on who is responsible for getting it to work as an environment that supports scholarship.

We face a critical juncture. Leaving it to “them” is unfair, wrongheaded, and irresponsible. Them is us.

Johanna’s essay is addressed to scholars reminding us that we need to take responsibility for working things out. There is, however, another audience that needs to be addressed and that is the audience that believes that humanists aren’t the right people to be involved in designing infrastructure. The argument would be that there are professional software engineers who are trained to design portals for communities – they should be given the job so we don’t end up reinventing the wheel or doing a poor job. Obviously the answer lies in a creative design collaboration and humanists with computing development experience can play a crucial role in the mix, but how do we build such teams?

What Is Infrastructure?

I’ve written another essay. It seems to be what I do in Sundays. This time I’m trying to work out What Is Infrastructure and how it is different from supplies? The question is a way into trying to understand the role of big projects like TAPoR or Bamboo, both of which I am involved in (at very different levels.) As I thought about it I came to a couple of conclusions:

  • Defining things as infrastructure or cyberinfrastructure is a political move that tries to change how we frame services so we can propose different (and ongoing) ways of funding them. To be more blunt, defining a service as infrastructure moves it from something you ask for a limited grant for to something you ask for ongoing funding for (or something you set up a consortium to provide ongoing funding for.)
  • I can imagine a lighter way of weaving infrastructure out of existing industry provided stuff that we should take seriously.
  • Humanities research infrastructure should be public as in available to everyone and available internationally. Not only can the public participate in humanities research, but opening it up to the public is away of engaging them. Perhaps the relevance of the humanities lies not in their products, but in their participatory processes. Philosophy is not a science best done in a lab that will eventually produce a cure for ignorance. Philosophy is a love of wisdom we should share because we never owned it and we were never appointed its keepers.

Why not crowdsource the humanities? What would it take to make the (arts and) humanities the public disciplines? What sorts of infrastructure would engage the broader public?