We’re five weeks into Digital Cultural Heritage now and I’m starting to notice that certain words are becoming regular parts of the DCH vocab. Notable amongst these are metadata and crowdsourcing. I’ve already talked about metadata in a previous post. So now it is the turn of crowdsourcing to be understood.
I personally like the idea of crowdsourcing. It bridges that gap between the ivory towers of academia and the person on the street (or in front of the screen). Sometimes, as with so many good things, it can be misused. You end up with the equivalent of sweatshops, where volunteers are used to do the simple but time-consuming jobs like tagging. Other times, it works fantastically as a collaboration where everyone learns from everyone else. A great example is Measuring the Anzacs, which encourages citizen historians to tag and transcribe records of Anzac soldiers. While academics benefit from the additional help in tagging and transcription, the so-called ‘crowd’ have the opportunity to see behind the statistics to who the soldiers really were.
The thing about crowd sourcing is that it needs people to engage. That is when it works at its best.
Let’s be honest. No one is going to spend their time tagging or transcribing medieval manuscripts unless they are interested in it. The nature of crowd sourcing is that it is never a random crowd who engage with the project but individuals who are interested in the topic. For example, a marine biologist will most likely not engage with a Shakespearean project but an member of an amateur dramatics group might do. Thus, the need for engagement in crowd sourcing means that most projects ends up being group sourced by default.
These groups may not be structured or chosen on purpose but they are united by common purpose. So you end up with a group sourced project who are all engaged with your project.
And if you’re honest with yourself, you would rather have a small group of actively engaged people than a large group of vaguely interested people who don’t really care.
I have been obsessed with the legends of Merlin and Arthur since I was in primary school. My copy of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s trilogy has had it’s spine broken time and time again till it’s more white than purple. I can name at least 10 knight of the Round Table without including King Arthur. But I’ve always been told that serious academics/historians don’t look at myths and legends. They concentrate on facts and what is provable (clearly those people don’t fully understand the nature of Early Medieval historians like Gildas). So my desire to have a reason to dig into my obsession has alluded me until now.
That’s the wonderful nature of the Public Humanities MA here at Sheffield. When it comes to our dissertation, anything goes so long as it can engage the public and relates back to the Humanities. So I’ve chosen to explore Arthurian legend.
Originally I was all set to look at a single character: Sir Gawain. He’s Arthur’s nephew, the oldest son of Lot of Orkney, and one of the chief knights of the Round Table yet he is slowly disappearing or being divorced from his original character in many contemporary reinterpretations. My plan had been to look at how the character changed and the reasons behind this, e.g. what influence did trends in society have on how Arthurian characters are presented.
That has now changed. It’s amazing what a little research can do. Instead of focusing on how characters can change, I’m looking at exploring themes within Arthurian legend. Or, to be more specific, the theme of family. Not many people realise that Arthur was fostered throughout his childhood (someone had to raise him if Merlin took him from his parents) or that Mordred (the son who killed him) didn’t meet his father until at least an older teenager. In a society where more and more children are cared for by the state, in single-parent families or blended families, this theme is one that still has relevance today.
It is themes such as this that has encouraged me to focus my dissertation around a legend that many people don’t know the whole story of. I’m hoping that by engaging people with lived experiences that chime with the themes, I will be able to place Arthurian legend back in a relevant light, beyond that of a good fantasy story.
I thought it was about time that I gave an update on how our group project was going. As you may have read in a previous post (Wardsend Cemetery Project), we are working with the Friends of Wardsend Cemetery to raise the cemetery’s profile. We’ve since decided on a plan and split up the tasks , which will be the subject of a later post I suspect. It is how we’ve structured the group that I want to focus on in this post.
The reality is that in a group of strong characters choosing one person to be the “project leader” was more likely to end with personality clashes than a satisfactory outcome. Instead, each task has been allocated a SPOC who will be the lead on that part of the project.
Using the term ‘SPOC’ is, for me, a loaded term. Used in businesses, it is often the person at the end of a telephone who is called when something (or everything) goes wrong. In my last job, they were the equivalent of the ‘IT Crowd’ but less annoying. Thus, using the word SPOC was a laughable but frustrating moment for me. It summed up a lot of what I had disliked about my previous job, where my answer frequently was “have you phoned SPOC?”, while being unable to deny the sense of allocating ‘SPOC’s.
The reality is that having a SPOC is our equivalent to a task leader or subject matter expert. Only we’re all equal partners (so no leaders) and none of us are 100% experts on any of the areas we’re focusing on. So a SPOC provides each task with a person who is 100% committed to completing it and can feed back on it to the group while accepting that none of us are fully equipped to do this project on our own. Though this is a very different purpose to the SPOC I was used to, which was largely a subject matter expert for IT, it has suited our group in terms of a more democratic approach to a group project.
In another life, i.e. the three years between my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, I spent some time working in the “real world”. This included 20 months working in information management (IM). In between trying to teach 40 year old men why they need to include a date in the file name and filing old paper records, I learnt all about the wonders of metadata.
Data about data.
That is basically what metadata is. But it is this data that allows us to find books (information) in the library because their title (metadata) has been catalogued (a form of management). And the same principle works with any information. A company’s archives need to be searchable but also stored safely. So we use it’s metadata to provide some order to how they are stored and to make sure we can find the ones we need easily and quickly.
This week I’ve been reading for seminar 2 in Digital Cultural Heritage (it’s finally started!). While reading the Digital Cultural Heritage Roadmap for Preservation, I was struck by how much of the preservation methods were effectively IM! They were encouraging the use of metadata to catalogue cultural heritage so that it could be stored safely but remain accessible. A basic element of information management!
So while I know there will be a lot (LOT) more to DCH than just managing information, it is interesting to see how much overlap there is. This only reaffirms my belief that, far from wiping out the information management professional, technology has made it even more imperative that we train up people who can manage information.
Museums and galleries need IM as much as businesses do.
One of my modules this semester is looking at “computer-assisted approaches to text analysis”. Or at least that is the module overview says. In reality, we are looking at research questions in the humanities and how digital methods for text analysis and corpus linguistics can help us answer them.
From the first two seminars, the idea that has stuck with me is that most humanities research does not go beyond forming a hypothesis. If we take a scientific approach (as digital humanities borrows a lot form computer science, this isn’t difficult), we can read a history or English research paper as an exploratory discussion of the topic. However, the conclusion often does not beyond what we have discovered through the course of this discussion.
Why is textual analytics different? The main reason, and the one I am interested in, is that we can look at a larger sample of data by using computers. We can compare different elements of multiple texts, allowing us to understand them quantitatively as well as qualitatively.
For example, my chosen thesis topic is on how the presentation of Sir Gawain changes in Arthurian literature and film. I could just use a close reading approach but this would be largely reliant on my own interpretation of the texts and small samples of data. In other words, qualitative research. If I use digital methods, I can compare the frequencies of adjectives related to Sir Gawain within each texts. This will allow me to demonstrate how Sir Gawain’s identity has changed through time, making my research quantitative.
Why add this quantitative element to humanities research? By adding an analytical aspect to research, humanities researchers can prove their hypothesis instead of relying on their own intuition and interpretation.
This week, myself and the other students doing public humanities were finally given a brief for our group project. We are going to be working with the Friends of Wardsend Cemetery to develop their public engagement.
So far, we have no idea what we will be focusing on but there are some great topics we can choose from. From the military connection with Hillsborough Barracks through the freak shows and Native Americans, there is definitely a wide range to choose from. However, in regards to what we want to do to realise the project there are definitely some clear ideas developing. We are all interested in conducting oral history interviews to collect the memories and stories of those who live around the cemetery. I’m also considering how I could turn the stories we collect into a story map in order to provide digital engagement for those who can’t physically visit the cemetery.
Overall, so far it looks like it should be a really exciting project. Admittedly I do enjoy visiting cemeteries so a chance to explore the history of one is fantastic. I’m visiting the cemetery today so we will see what that inspires as well.
Today is the start of Spring Semester. So of course that means new modules to start prepping and reading for.
This term, I am focusing exclusively on digital humanities although one of the modules does include a public engagement element to it. I will be taking Digital Textual Analysis and Digital Cultural Heritage as my two taught modules, which I’m really looking forward to. The textual aspects of the Introduction to Digital Humanities from last semester were really interesting and forced me to look at many familiar texts with new eyes. So learning more about using digital methods for analysing texts is right up my street (and my dissertation). As for Digital Cultural Heritage, I currently have no idea what to expect. However, from working at Stonehenge I have seen some of the amazing digital uses within heritage (anyone else visited the Stonehenge exhibit?). So to say I’m looking forward to this semester is an understatement.
The final part of this semester isn’t a taught module. Instead, we are running a group project with an external partner. The aim is to eventually run an event presenting our research that will engage with a wider audience. It’s exciting and terrifying all at once. I don’t know much about who we’re working with or what it will be focusing on but I’m looking forward to finding out. It’s definitely a bit different to a taught module but that is half the fun.