Meshing Research and Digitisation

For all the successes of digitisation, it’s still a long, slow route from scanner to published article (or even monograph). Your team can create a rich, engaging website, but it takes plenty of time for scholars to start to work with the new material. It slips slowly into their ideas and interpretations, perhaps helped, perhaps hindered by the methodologies that sat behind the creation of the content.

It seems to me that this process could so with some acceleration, where digitisation and research projects are merged, or brought much more close together, so that the scholarly context and methodology has a much closer relationship with the digital development.

Though complex, such a model offers numerous advantages. Scholarly communities can be more closely involved in the selection of content and the methodologies by which it is digitised. Much better context can be provided, giving the interpretative gloss that provides intellectual rigour to a resource. More broadly, it embeds the digitised output within the disciplinary community – the users are already close to home.

Of course, this is difficult to set up; it requires the correct funding structures.

Within the UK, this could be a possible area of future work for the Research Councils and JISC. The Research Councils obviously have the well-established links to the research communities; JISC has the policies and management to help deliver sophisticated resources. In particular, the AHRC and ESRC, where the research demand for digitised content is strongest would seem the most likely allies of JISC.

One recently funded JISC project has hit upon this formula. The National Maritime Museum and the University of Cambridge received an AHRC grant to undertake research on the Board of Longitude papers, an competition set up by the British government in the eighteenth century to encourage the submission of ideas, instruments and data that would help solve the navigational problem of finding longitude at sea. Independently of this, Cambridge received JISC funding to digitise the related Board of Longitude papers on which this research was being undertaken. This allowed the two projects to be brought more closely together, with obvious benefits. The digitised papers are also being integrated into an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, funded by the AHRC project.

It would be great to see more of this type of project in the future.

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