Archives and collections are becoming much more available, but are they becoming more usable? Marcus Burkhardt finds there is still work to do to improve how researchers and other users feed back into collections. As the Open Access movement gains momentum and more digital collections are put online, it might be time to improve standards and applications that enable users to bridge the gap between individual research and lasting collections.
The recent launch of the Digital Public Library of America and the Internet Archive’s release of a vast collection of historical software once more shows that the quest for Open Access to scientific publications is just one side of the story of scholarly digital publishing. Especially in the humanities the findability or even accessibility of historical resources on the Internet is considered to be of great importance. Even if their scope is not limited to scholars the DPLA and its European pendant Europeana as well as the Internet Archive provide invaluable resources for researchers all over the planet.
When the Internet Archive released its collection of historical software it was generally applauded by commentators in the blogosphere. Yet, one criticism seemed to prevail the enthusiasm. As it is, the software collection is not easily usable. Browsing or searching the collection is difficult and time consuming since the individual items of the collection in most parts lack contextual information which would make the archive more easily searchable and would allow researchers and other users to make better sense of what they find.
To be fair, Jason Scott – the main person behind the software project at Internet Archive – noted this shortcoming duly in his blog post announcing the release of the collection. He acknowledges that the software collection is not yet perfect, but Scott makes a thriving call for people to dig into what he and his colleagues made available:
Where are the students of computer history who needed primary source material, downloadable images and PDF files of every description from which to make their thesis statements and reports?
I have to admit that I like Scott’s attitude towards publishing this collection even if it’s not perfect to a great extent. Yet, what’s the digging of researchers, bloggers, or fans worth if it has to be done over and over again? Wouldn’t it be nice to give users the possibility to feed back their research into the archive and to let them contribute to improving the archive? Or wouldn’t it be great if users could easily create exhibitions out of the source materials in order to tell a story. For sure this is – to a certain extent – already possible for tech savvy people using the JSON API of the Internet Archive. But bottom line it’s not that easy and one has to put in some effort in order to realize this. Things become even more difficult if one wishes to use the holdings of multiple digital archives and libraries to put together his or her own meta collection for the purpose of publishing it alongside a research paper or thesis.
This idea is not entirely new. Back in 2005 Moritz Baßler proposed in Die kulturpoetische Funktion und das Archiv a method for studying cultures by assembling, structuring, traversing and linking archives. Thus he argued for the need to not just publish research outcomes, but their respective archives as well. Up until now this call seems to have remained largely unanswered in the humanities. However, with the Open Access movement gaining momentum and more and more digital collections put online it might be the right time to put Baßler’s idea into practice by working on standards and easy to use software applications that enable users to bridge the gap between research publications on the one hand and digital collections on the other. The question here is not so much about the dynamics and mechanisms of how research outcomes are becoming a part of digital collections eventually, but how to create, process, and publish meta collections of the resources individual humanities scholars or research teams rely on in their research, and how these meta collections could be used to augment the digital archives of our cultural heritage as a whole.
In the course of this post I pointed out some shortcomings of the Internet Archive’s software collection. Some are self-induced and I am sure they are working on them. Nevertheless the more general point I tried to make is not limited to this specific digital collection and could in my opinion not be solved by digital archives alone. It is rather a challenge as well as a possibility that is situated in between humanities scholars and digital archivists and digital librarians respectively. There are already some projects on their way dealing with these kind of issues. One that comes to mind is the Hyper Image project which is developed by some of my colleagues in the Hybrid Publishing Lab at Leuphana University. But I am sure there are more projects out there. Or at least there should! Any pointers?
This was blog was originally published at Hybrid Publishing Lab Notepad and is reposted with permission.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
Marcus Burkhardt is a member of the Hybrid Publishing Lab within the Centre for Digital Cultures at Leuphana University, Lüneburg. The Lab explores hybrid media formats for scholarly communications in a post-digital age and develops new economically sustainable models. Marcus’ research focuses on media philosophy and the history and theory of digital media in general and digital databases in particular.