Digitisation, linked data and Schrodinger’s Cat

In March 2014, the Australian Digital Humanities (dha2014) was held in Perth.  I was not in a position to write or present a paper, but I was encouraged by colleagues at Curtin University to submit an application for Birds of a Feather session .  We did not quite know what that meant, but we thought it sounded interesting.  In preparing for the session, I brainstormed my ideas with Karen Miller and other staff from Curtin Library, Kathryn Greenhill at the School of Information Studies and Erik Champion, Professor of Cultural Visualisation at Curtin. Together, we explored ideas about sharing digitised resources and creating linkable descriptive data, including who had responsibilities for creating the images and the metadata sets, what sorts of metadata or digital formats were required, how that was managed, and what this might mean in terms of educating digital humanists and library and archive staff.  If the debate at the conference was half as good as the brainstorming sessions, we were on a winner.

Come March, and Karen was able to attend, but Kathryn had to beg off.  I roped in some additional support from colleagues at the conference, purchased some cheap plastic windup birds and a penguin shaped pencil sharpener, and we were off.   I stated from the beginning that this was a discussion forum and that I was looking for ideas, details and suggestions.  Really good comments or a brief discursion on a particular topic in the discussion would lead to a prize.

We lead off with a quick overview of my take on what seemed to me to be the shift in researcher expectations from the GLAM sector.  Libraries and archives have traditionally been about pointing to a resource in their collection, and then letting the researcher make of it what they will.  Museums and art galleries (art museums in the wider world), present objects from their collection but also expand on and create further meaning from the object.  For museums, it seems to me that the story, not the object, is the principle objective of displays. I explored this through the metaphor of Schrodinger’s cat, who may or may not reside in a box in the collection. With digitised information, we were now being asked not just to put up the object and point to it, but also to explore the object and value add, with metadata tags, RDFa or TEI encoding and so on.  This would be well beyond the experience or expertise of many collecting institutions and professionals, and I wondered how researchers and institutions coped if their expectations clashed.

The response from the attendees was great. We explored different ways of making information available, and looked at the ways in which historians and archivists can work together to create great projects, as well as working through what was and was not a reasonable expectation. The consensus appeared to be that well described images, and datasets,  were enough to start the digital research process. Additional resources, including preservation funding, imaging technology  and so on, needed to be discussed at the start of a program, with clear expectations from all parties as to what would be the end product.  Lack of digital expertise within the collecting institutions could be matched with expertise, either hired in or within the research community, provided all parties understood the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches.  Like the brainstorming session a few months before, we had been on a winner.

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