Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Digital Resources for the Humanities

Alastair Dunning reviews for us this year's conference on Digital Resources in the Humanities held at the University of Newcastle over 5-8 September 2004.

Project Management: Can there be a duller two words to start off any kind of article? Well, possibly 'economic costing' or 'stakeholder pensions', but project management is not far behind. But judging from presentations given at this year's Digital Resources in the Humanities Conference, it's a term with which many of those undertaking digitisation projects are going to have to become familiar.

The Digital Resources in the Humanities Conference [1] is a yearly event. Since its inception in 1996, the conference has sought to explore latest trends in the digitisation of cultural heritage; investigating how digital resources are created, managed, disseminated and exploited in research, teaching and learning. This year's conference, held at the University of Newcastle, asked delegates to explore four key themes:

Plenary Speakers

The conference's opening plenary speaker, Iain Watson (Assistant Director, Tyne and Wear Museums [2]) dealt with the second of these themes. He demonstrated how Tyne and Wear has interacted with ICT not only to focus on the traditional aims of museums (such as managing physical collections) but also on trying to help alleviate the social disadvantages faced by many in the region. He explained how it used a range of digital resources to improve illiteracy and engage the population with the cultural heritage around them.

The Rt. Hon. Chris Patten, the second plenary speaker of the event, provided a global counterpoint to Iain Watson's regional outlook. He highlighted the fact that Europe still lags behind Japan and the United Stated in terms of research and development in technology and the subsequent development of intellectual property. He urged that universities continue to be considered a primary site for the uptake of such research, combining both public and private investment.

The final plenary speaker, David Robey, sat, in a metaphorical sense, between the two previous speakers. As Director of the AHRB's (Arts and Humanities Research Board) ICT in Arts and Humanities Research Programme, Professor Robey's presentation had a national focus. He ran through the type of projects which had received funding from the AHRB in the past and gave an indication of the AHRB's strategic plans for ICT in the future.

Project Management

The tenor of the presentation, plus citations of some of the more experimental resources funded by the AHRB, brings us back to the subject of project management. It is clear that, even though there will always be scope for research carried out by individuals, for the funding bodies there is an increasing focus on team-based digital projects, where costs and workflows and outputs are much more clearly defined.

An excellent example of this was Jenny Ball's presentation on the Online Historical Population Reports Project, being run by AHDS History [3]. The project, which is developing Web-based user interface for browsing, searching, viewing and downloading almost 200,000 images of historical population reports, is unusual in employing a dedicated Project Manager. Thus Jenny's task is not focussed on structuring a database or creating appropriate metadata, but to develop workflows and documentation to ensure that the project runs smoothly and to time.

Other projects demonstrated the importance of good management. The numbers in Robert Faber's presentation on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [4] spoke for themselves: 54,922 entries, 60 million words and over 10,000 contributors to organise. It would take more than a few notes on a card index system to manage a project of this magnitude.

Mike Pringle, of AHDS Visual Arts [5], illustrated what happened when project management went wrong. Citing the great hopes for the concept of virtual reality in the 1990s, Dr Pringle looked at projects of the time and some of the flaws in their execution. With better procedures now in place, he concluded, it should be possible to organise more robust virtual realities.

Perhaps one of the most pleasing aspects of the conference was a jam-packed poster and exhibitions space. Previous hosts of DRH, the University of Gloucestershire, had put forward a prize of a digital camera for the best poster. This had inspired a flurry of submissions and the room was filled with colourful, informative posters, outlining a variety of digital projects taking place throughout the country.

Delegates were asked to survey and vote for the best posters. James Cummings, on behalf of the Digital Medievalist Project, took third place, while Gabriel Bodard and Juan Garces, of King's College London, took second place for their poster outlining some of the challenges in digitising ancient texts. The winners, however, were Nigel Williamson and Carl Smith, of the University of Sheffield, for the Cistercians in Yorkshire Project [6]. The project's recreation of abbeys such as Kirkstall, Rivelaux and Fountains illustrated that, when it is managed and well executed, virtual reality really can be astoundingly good.

The Future for Humanities Computing

The conference closed with presentations from Marilyn Deegan, from the Centre for Computing and Humanities at King's College London, and Seamus Ross, of the University of Glasgow's Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute. Both had been asked to 'speculate and imagine' what the future for humanities computing would look like. Dr Deegan took the natural world as her reference point, drawing out interesting ideas from the similarities between Internet usage and organic forms. One visual example she used showed global maps indicating the voyages of Internet-based information and their similarity to organic forms such as flowers and jellyfish. Dr Deegan also made some points about the retrieval and analysis of digital information; while there is plenty of digital information in the world (such as, she demonstrated, the various different versions of the Gutenberg Bible) bringing all this information together to compare is still a cumbersome task. Professor Ross also indicated that there was work still to do for the community. For too long, projects had been happy to showcase their resources, indicating how the technology had made the creation of their data resource feasible. Now it was time to move on from championing the technology, and re-engage with the wider scholarly community - what new discoveries does humanities computing bring to the research agenda at large?

With these questions the conference signed off, leaving Michael Fraser, outgoing Chair of the DRH Standing Committee, to thank the organisers of the Conference: Brian Stimpson, Geoff Hare, Sheila Anderson and Alastair Dunning and to invite delegates to the next two DRH conferences - at the University of Lancaster in 2005 and at Dartington College of the Arts, Devon in 2006.


  1. Digital Resources for the Humanities http://drh.org.uk/
  2. Tyne & Wear Museums (TWM) http://www.twmuseums.org.uk/
  3. Online Historical Population Reports Project http://www.histpop.org.uk AHDS History http://ahds.ac.uk/history/
  4. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography http://www.oup.com/oxforddnb/info/
  5. AHDS Visual Arts http://ahds.ac.uk/visualarts/
  6. The Cistercians in Yorkshire http://cistercians.shef.ac.uk/

Author Details

Alastair Dunning
Arts and Humanities Data Service

Email: alastair.dunning@ahds.ac.uk
Web site: http://ahds.ac.uk/

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