Digital Classicist: Classical studies facing digital research infrastructures: from practice to requirements

Apologies are due to Agiatis Bernardou. I am a couple of weeks late posting my discussion of her paper in the Digital Classicist Seminar Series, Classical studies facing digital research infrastructures: from practice to requirements. Agiati is from the Digital Curation Unit, part of the “Athena” Research Centre, and her talk focused in the main on the preparatory phase of DARIAH, the European Arts and Humanities Research Infrastructure project. She began by outlining her own research background in Classics, which contained very little computing (it surely can’t be coincidence that the digital humanities is so full of former and practicing archaeologists and classicists).

DARIAH is technical and conceptual project. With the aim of providing  a research infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities across Europe. In practice, it is an umbrella for other projects, involving a big effort in the areas of law and finance, as well as technical infrastructure. A key part of this is to ensure that scholars in the arts and humanities are supported at each stage of the research lifecycle. This means ensuring that the requirements at each stage are understood. The DCU was part of the technical workpackage in DARIAH, and was tasked with doing this. Its approach was to develop a conceptual framework to map user requirements using an abstract model to represent the information practices within humanities research.

This included an empirical study of scholarly research activity. The main form of data collection was interviews with humanities scholars. The design of the study included transcription, coding and analysis of recordings of these interviews.  Context was provided by a good deal of previous work in this area, in the form of user studies of information browsing behaviour. In the 1980s, this carried the assumption that most humanists were ‘lone scholars’, with little interest in, or need for, collaborative practices. This however gave way to an increasingly self-critical awareness of how humanists work, highlighting practices such as annotation, which *might* be for the consumption of the lone scholar, which equally might be means for communication interpretation and thinking. This in turn led to a consideration of Scholarly primitives – low level, basic things humanities do both all the time and – often – at the same time. Agiatis cited the six types of information retrieval behaviour identified by D. Ellis, as revisited for the humanities by John Unsworth: Discovering, associating, comparing, referring, sampling, illustrating and representing.

The DCU’s aim was to produce a map of who does what and how. If one has a  research goal, for example to produce a commentary of Homer, what are the scholarly activities that one would need to achieve that, and what processes do those activities involve. To this end, Agiatis highlighted the following aspects that need to be mapped: Actor (researcher), Research activity, Research goal, information object, tool/service, format, and resource type.  The properties that link these include hasType, Creates, partOf, Searches, refersTo and Scholarly Activity.

A meaningful map of these processes must include meaningful descriptions of information types. DARIAH therefore has to embrace multiple interconnected objects, that need to be identified, represented, and managed, so they can be curated and reached throughout the digital research lifecycle. In this regard, there is a distinction that is second nature to most archaeologists,  between the visual representation of information, and hands-on access to objects.

The main interest of Agiati’s paper for me was the possibilities the DCU’s approach holds for specific research problems. One could easily see, for example, how the www.arts-humanities.net Methods Taxonomy could be better represented as a set of processes rather than as a static group of abstract entities, as it is at the moment. But if one could specify the properties of a particular purpose, the approach would be even more useful: for example one could test the efficacy of augmented reality by mapping the ways scholars engage with and use AR environments.

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