A few years ago Private Eye made a quip which clearly assumed that only the well-to-do could afford to keep a horse or pony. In the following issue a correspondent took them to task for this, saying that second-hand tack and the goodwill of a local farmer with a spare corner of a field made this possible for people who would not count themselves as wealthy.
The present-day model of a digital humanities project can be a little like that: a much smaller affair put together in odd moments with additional labour from cheap sources such as graduate students and living on a corner of a server in space that can be spared (the equivalent of that pony in the field). I have remarked on this before.
It wasn’t always like this. Recently I read an old conference presentation from IASSIST, which alluded to projects I was involved with or whose content I used back in the years around the turn of the millennium. (I have fond memories of an IASSIST conference I attended in Edinburgh.) It was an era of ambitious, generously funded projects linking many institutions. I think for example of Intute’s attempt to catalogue resources in the whole range of subject disciplines.
Even before the credit crunch the tide was turning against projects on this scale. Intute was killed off because no institution was willing to take it over; perhaps it would have been better if it had remained as several separate services, some of which might at least have found homes. Rather like the robotic scanner which was too costly for any one institution to house. I recall also the insistence that another project I worked on was ‘unsustainable’ and the data would have to be ‘repurposed’ (though it seemed to be serving its intended purpose well enough).
So many potentially valuable resources lost because there was no ‘corner of a field’ to put them in and a managerialism that will not allow a small amount of time to be dedicated to maintaining them. (I’m not really thinking of Intute now, which would have increasingly suffered from incompleteness and link rot without significant effort.) My work in research data management has made me aware of the long-term value of preserving digital material, but all that is necessary for it to be lost is for it to fall into the hands of those who don’t understand that value. And like that pony, it need not be very expensive to keep.
One website I developed, Hidden Lives Revealed, happily made the transition to a new host (migrating it was simple and quick), and is running smoothly to this day because all the software I equipped it with still works. It seemed like a large site when I created it (we stored the files on a supercomputer at Manchester University) but as is the way with these things the amount of filespace it occupies would now seem insignificant. As its upkeep is funded by a charity I cannot imagine it has been expensive to maintain. It seems to be a matter of chance whether a resource survives, quietly cropping the grass, in this way.
Almost every job I apply for requires ‘attention to detail’ and ‘communication skills’, often with an interest in the ‘user experience’. I feel these are often lacking in the recruitment process itself.
I helped to create a tutorial for support staff at Bristol University, now known as ‘InfoSafe’, which dealt with data curation and storage. Amongst other things, we explained how you could use file and directory names constructively for easy retrieval. Some employers could do with studying this advice. I’ve just downloaded further particulars of a job I’m interested in, and the file name is of the form ‘123456’ or simply ‘Job Description’. Would it be so hard to include the job title – in abbreviated form if necessary? Maybe the organisation’s name too, given that the file is likely to be downloaded by people outside it?
Another regrettable trend, which I put down to tidy-minded HR departments, is an absolutely formulaic invitation to interview. So much so that in two recent cases, instructions about a presentation to be given at interview were contained only in an attachment, with no reference to the presentation or the attachment in the body of the message. So easy to overlook, especially when many emails now come with a string of otiose attached files. It’s basic email etiquette that if there is important information in an attachment, the body of the message should indicate this.
No wonder the skills I referred to in my opening sentence are in such demand!
I’m involved in a project for training support staff to deal with non-research data, and it reminded me of something that happened a few years ago. I was at a college reunion dinner, and the head of the college remarked that while they used to have a record of which student had been in which room in a given year, that information was now lost ‘because we now computerise the room lists’.
Now why should computerisation mean that this information was lost? Why not save the room list each year on to a spreadsheet or text file which could be archived for posterity? And/or print out the list in hard copy and archive it along the room lists from earlier years? Of course this means adding another stage to the process. When the list was on paper there was a physical object to be dealt with, and the procedure at the end of the year was to send it to the College archive. A computerised list can be all too easily deleted when no longer of immediate use, and a new procedure is needed to make sure that it is archived at the end of the year. But it’s hardly much of a burden to do this – just a question of introducing this into the routine of staff at the college.
Why do it at all? Not just so that nostalgic students can occupy their old rooms when they return for reunions. Future historians might be interested for example in how r0oms were allocated to women (at first) and chosen by women (later). I was at the college soon after women arrived and we knew what principles were applied, but that memory could be lost over time. Or the information might be of interest to a future biographer of someone at the college. What view did they have from their window when they were writing this poem? Who were their neighbours?