Much has been achieved in the attempt to bring the world’s manuscript and incunabula collections online. Millions of dollars have already been spent on digitisation projects and related activity, and for the most part, with considerable positive impact on public access, scholarship and research.
One of the earliest major initiatives was ‘Project Gutenberg’ in the US, which has continued to grow, releasing out of copyright, mainly canonical literature freely onto the web. Perhaps ironically, named for Gutenberg, not just the first movable type publisher but also a designer in his own time with a precursory ethos akin to William Morris, the digital service is itself very poorly designed. In the early days it was not possible to manipulate HTML much beyond the excitement of text on screen. In those days a spinning @ sign was the web at its most scintillating. Now though, the Internet has seeped into environments beyond <simply placing text online. /> We expect to interact with it on multiple devices anywhere, from 3” touchscreens to 60” flatscreens. We have become used to broadband speeds experienced on our sofas inconceivable to the military in the 1970’s and 1980’s. We play, we learn, we travel virtually.
There is not a great deal of point in predicting the future, as we never seem to remember that what we are experiencing at almost any given moment was itself rarely predicted. The only secure conjecture might be that the entity that is the wireless Internet is likely, in the future to be viewed on both smaller and larger screens at ever increasing speed and at greater levels of pervasiveness in terms of both society and individual psychology. Additionally, it might be possible to say that less and less data will be held personally. The Apple iCloud is a glimpse of how our devices are likely to use cloud computing. This is not a new concept of course. Corporations have used this kind of sharing technology for some years. iCloud though, is the first to propose using it for shopping lists.
So much has been accomplished. Two of the most important step changes in commercial computing are actually based on successful marketing and sales rather than principally on hard programming. The financial success of Microsoft Windows and Apple’s iPod, two very different business icons have each enabled their parent companies at key points in the development of the web to reinvest very considerable amounts of money in further research and development. In this sense, everyone who bought Windows in the 1990’s and every person who owns an iPod, iPhone or iPad is an active player in the information revolution, not merely a passive consumer. Our age is truly, as was the case with the industrial revolution, a collective effort.
Having placed us in our current (which is not a word with much long-term currency), context we should think of the inevitable. Computing will continue to transform our daily, personal and professional lives. This blog is concerned with digitisation and academic/commercial partnerships in the digital humanities. Virtual made physical made virtual: the circle of modern life.
Following the success of Gutenberg, the second major leap in the field of digital texts and manuscripts is one that now, I would argue, represents something of a developmental plateau. It is has been the state of the art for many years. ‘Turning the Pages’ is now in use across universities, archives and museums around the world. The British Library was amongst the first to explore fully the possibilities of multi-layered digitisation to create movable images. The ability to, albeit awkwardly recast the experience of interacting with a codex (more commonly known as ‘reading a book’), has proved very fashionable with both funding agencies and scholars. Digital manuscripts are now more accessible and more visible online. Turning the Pages and its comparable technologies have only one paradox – we appear to have reached the last page and no one seems to know where to turn next.
In addressing problems of technology in research it is considered good practice to ask this question; what problem are we trying to solve? This can be a valid approach of course, but I do not think it is necessarily sufficient for a discussion led by design questions. To be blunt, this is the most pedantic, dry and functionalist way to approach the future. To view the future of digital research simply as a process of solving problems would be analogous to addressing climate change by debating the colour classification of wheelie bins.
In any case, in the field of digital manuscripts, ‘the problem’ has in effect already been solved. To begin with there was nothing wrong with the original objects. It has yet proved impossible to produce digital surrogates of the physical materials that also reproduce their sheer power and authority. I have seen autograph manuscripts of Virginia Woolf’s novels in both digital form and as the original; long, angled spider-drawn handwriting on rough yellowed paper, smelling of faded gardens, with aggressive crossings-out indenting the next page. These are objects of immense and indiscernible human weight. Holding a Woolf manuscript is to hold death and life at the same time.
As an aside, the most powerful physical object I have ever held followed a long journey deep underground beneath The British Library in London. My colleague drew from the shelf a large box, thin but rising past my waist from the floor. She lifted it carefully onto a table and opened it. Pulling back the acid free paper she lifted the volume out. It was a music manuscript. As she raised the front cover and pulled it open I could see, quite clearly, neat rows of staves. There were exactly forty of them dropping from the top of the pages to the bottom. The piece began with only one voice but quickly grew more complex. As we turned the sheets. I saw that this was the Forty Part Motet by Thomas Tallis, the great Elizabethan composer. My colleague said, ‘I want you to hold it before I tell you something.’ I took the item in my white-gloved hands and waited. She told me that in the original performance the forty singers surrounded Elizabeth I in a circle in order for her to experience the full splendour of Tallis’ masterpiece. ‘This,’ said my colleague, ‘is the copy that the Queen was holding during that performance.’ The circle of Elizabethan life.
How do we respond, when designing digital environments, in order to come close to replicating what it means to researchers, perhaps even emotionally as human beings, to be near objects with such power? What might we be able to design which moves beyond increased access by the digital surrogate or the frankly, second-rate experiences offered by touchscreen versions? What problem are we trying to solve, is not a question inspirational enough to meet the demands of researchers wishing to interact with, discover new ideas within and perhaps even be moved by historical materials.
A more engaging question might be – what might we not yet know? As this question is in essence unanswerable it seems to me to be a good place to start when considering how technology might intervene between a researcher and their object. Research in the humanities is concerned with unearthing. As in archaeology, our role in designing research environments is more than providing the appropriate tools, it is also about presenting an environment rich enough to offer up discoveries in the first place. Bare earth is useless, as are small libraries and underfunded digital projects.
There have been attempts at designing what amounts to virtual reality in the fields of cultural heritage and historic collections. Most recently, the bespoke but relatively flexible technology offered by Second Life allowed for a number of interesting bodies of work. In recent years, at King’s College London, a team of researchers have very successfully replicated some of the architecture of antiquity by rebuilding Roman theatres in considerable detail using innovative techniques in humanities computing. Some of these environments could only now exist in virtual worlds. In Rome only the bare skeletons of the stones lay forever whitening under unrelenting sun. In Second Life they are given new life and perhaps for the researcher a richer one, as it is possible to go inside the structure of ancient buildings in a way impossible previously. In other academic disciplines too the use of computing has at worst been intriguing, at best transformative in terms of opening new paths of investigation, or in some cases whole new sub-disciplines.
There have been many attempts over the last ten to fifteen years by the humanities research community and indeed by libraries, to engage with new communities and disciplines. Most consistently, there has been an active dialogue between librarians and archivists, often supported by academics working across many fields of enquiry. This has produced real content and it has helped to engage the public too in research materials and processes. The popular success of genealogical investigation on television is as much down to the availability of collections on the web as anything else.
Although there has been progress in the research community searching beyond itself for ideas and partnerships there has yet to be a meaningful engagement between academia and commerce in the field of digital humanities research.
In 2007 the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, (EPSRC) funded a potentially important network that was intended to develop links between academic computing and the games industry through work being carried out in Artificial Intelligence. Based at Imperial College London, the initial network of 24 academics and six gaming companies were certainly asking interesting questions. Unfortunately, this was a project conceived in academia rather than the industry. Its ambitions were, if I might be so bold, typically low and predictable. The primary outcome was to be a series of events bringing interested parties together. This was achieved but little else appears to have emerged. From the three years of funded work, only one principal research paper is currently available on the project website, published in 2007. One problem might be that this was the only nationally funded project of its kind between the gaming industry and computing academics in the UK during that period. The project was intended to bring together UK Higher Education, with its 6 million students and 300,000 academics and the commercial research and development departments. The project was awarded around £83k to engage with an industry worth, according to Reuters in 2011, and estimated $65 billion worldwide.
Reading through the project aims in relation to an industry second only in financial success to film in the creative arts, (and quickly catching it), gives the impression that not only was the ambition not matched by the funding, but that also there may have been a lack of real purpose to the discussion. It is not enough to simply nod sagely and agree that it might be important for universities to work with industry. There must be a reason to do so.
Such a reason is to be found not by asking the question, what problem are we trying to solve, but rather the question, what might we not know?
In 2007 the next phase of the information revolution was ushered in by the release of the first iPhone. This device brought touchscreen technology into daily life and should be recognised for doing so, despite other smaller scale initiatives. It was a leap beyond the iPod because it was pointing towards human connectivity via handheld devices, not purely the act of building personal collections. There will always be other companies involved in the unstoppable tide of product and service development but Apple are currently the most important and focused of the large corporations. A strategic lead towards personal devices and away from desktops, to communal collecting on iTunes and presumably shared handheld digital lives through the successors to iPad and iCloud are all notable not purely because of their invention, but also because of their scale. Where Apple have led most consumers and other companies have been keen to follow.
Where we are now is not the only place we can be. We have a unique ability to assess the past and build the future.
When a researcher looks at the original of, for instance, an illuminated manuscript, what are they looking for? The medieval age seems almost unbounded in its continued ability to surprise us. Presently, a researcher can search for the physical location of such a codex, visit it for an agreed and invigilated period of time, perhaps even touch it. As with the Woolf materials this experience is not currently possible to exceed through the use of computing. There is no problem to solve. The physical interaction is simply as good as it gets. However, if we ask what might we not know about this manuscript, we open up further research questions that might genuinely be transformed by technology.
An autograph in the professional world of special collections is a manuscript in the hand of the author, as in the case of Woolf’s novels or Tallis’ Motet. A holograph is an item in the hand of a person, such as a letter, or in extreme cases, death warrants, plots, adulterous notes and confessions – libraries are not generally records of happiness.
To engage new research questions we should begin to work on these kinds of documents with a significant industry, or at least through some of its technology in creative ways, beyond the textual replication of Project Gutenberg and even the more interactive surrogates of Turning the Pages. It should be possible to coordinate, through the large educational consortia available to us, initial discussions with commercial technology companies. We live in an age defined by information, perhaps even more so than science and yet it is science, technology, engineering and medicine disciplines that have dominated the interaction between commerce and academia.
The creative industries are net contributors to national GDPs in most European countries, North America and Japan. The same is the case for the pharmaceutical industries, yet it is those who have close working relationships with universities and academic researchers. Product and service development in the digital arts and humanities have consistently failed to attract inward investment from related industries for many years, despite being the principal training grounds for most of that industry’s workforce and possessing enormous potential as research bases for blue-sky technologies.
The past is a place of riches. We find ourselves, or at least versions of one another there. Museums are microscopes onto the activities of the lost. Libraries contain what they thought.
A holograph redefines the phrase ‘ghost written.’ Holographs are all that is left of most of us. The public interest in the supernatural has always fascinated me. Its nondisprovability provides the natural gathering place for a fundamentally agnostic society unable to fully disbelieve in God. The risk is too great for most. Regardless of belief systems, the combined profits of all those pseudo-documentaries shot by infra-red cameras in cellars and rural staircases could easily support the investigation of the living dead – those holographic materials held in libraries.
The most dynamic technology change now occurring across film, computing and television is the development of 3D. High Definition has for the most part arrived and analogue is dripping away. The 3D experience is set to filter down to lower-priced hardware over the next couple of years and research and development is advancing towards being able to trick the eye without the addition of glasses. The gaming industry too is a major player in the development of human-computer interaction.
If you lift a Woolf autograph up the indentions of a desperate pen can clearly be seen through the paper. Holding the Tallis manuscript at eye level it is possible to follow the notation in exact strikes of chords. I once watched a conservator raise red paint from a medieval illuminated manuscript with a knife so small it could only be performed under magnification. Beneath the paint he found unknown gilt and a reworked shape. It showed a 14th Century error and provided a 21st Century new understanding.
Project Gutenberg and Turning the Pages were important steps but if we ask what might we not know, then discoveries of our past could be made using technology such as 3D imaging. In order to make progress when designing research environments it is essential to think the unthinkable. If we need hologram versions of holographic materials we will also need to create the partnerships between academia and the commercial companies capable of funding such work. These partnerships are essential in any case to a vibrant academic community. Science has already proved that theory.
We play, we learn, we travel virtually. We meet, we share, and we design in reality.