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  • eScience, eResearch and Computational Problem Solving

    This module is included inLens: eScience, eResearch and Computational Problem Solving
    By: Jan E. OdegardAs a part of collection: ""Our Cultural Commonwealth" The Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences "

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Working in New Ways

In the last decade, users of the Web have gained unprecedented access to pre–twentieth-century cultural materials, but the real promise of our digital collections has yet to be realized. There is still a long way to go before we achieve even basic access to primary sources that will allow scholars and public researchers to work in new ways. A survey of special collections that was conducted by the Association of Research Libraries in 1998 found that the uncataloged backlog of manuscript collections represented one-third of repository holdings. A similar survey conducted in 2003–2004 showed that 34% of archives and manuscript repositories have at least half of their holdings unprocessed; 60% have at least one-third of their collections unprocessed. 1“Unprocessed” and “uncataloged” mean that no online catalog entries exist, nor are there in-house catalogs, indexes, or finding aids.

Users of these massive aggregations of text, image, video, sound, and metadata will want tools that support and enable discovery, visualization, and analysis of patterns; tools that facilitate collaboration; an infrastructure for authorship that supports remixing, recontextualization, and commentary—in sum, tools that turn access into insight and interpretation. Examples might include humanities text-mining (discussed more specifically below), as in the Nora project, 2or works of seemingly more traditional scholarship that rely on digital tools, such as Ed Ayers’s book In the Presence of Mine Enemies (Norton, 2003), which unfolds a tale of the daily life of ordinary people during the Civil War that could not have been researched and developed without access to the gigabytes of digitized historical sources that constitute the Valley of the Shadow project. 3

If the promise of cyberinfrastructure is to be realized, humanists and social scientists must take the lead in directing the design and development of the tools their disciplines will use. We will require support systems for that development: research centers that are national repositories of expertise, postdoctoral programs that emphasize digital scholarship, and graduate programs that train the rising generation in the methods of digital research and scholarship.

What will those tools, customized for the humanities and social sciences, do? A general answer to that question was offered to the Commission in its first public hearing by Michael Jensen, electronic publisher for the National Academies Press: “Human interpretation is the heart of the humanities. . . . devising computer-assisted ways for humans to interpret more effectively vast arrays of the human enterprise is the major challenge.” In practice, this means that tools for use with digital libraries will need to enable the user to find patterns of significance (heuristics) in very large collections of information, across many different types of data, and then interpret those patterns (hermeneutics). In the humanities and social sciences, heuristics and hermeneutics are core activities.

In the world at large, the activity of discovering and interpreting patterns in large collections of digital information is called data-mining (or sometimes, when it is confined to text, text-mining), but data-mining is only one investigative method, or class of methods, that might become more useful in the humanities and the social sciences as we bring greater computing power to bear on larger and larger collections and more complex research questions, often with outcomes in areas other than that for which the data was originally collected. Beyond data-mining, there are many other ways of animating and exploring the integrated cultural record. They include simulations that reverse-engineer historical events to understand what caused them and how things might have turned out differently; game-play that allows us to tinker with the creation and reception of works of art; 4role-playing in social situations with autonomous agents, or using virtual worlds to understand behavior in the real world. 5

We can design the software tools, computer networks, digital libraries, archives, and museums that are needed to assemble, preserve, and examine the human record in all of its “variety, complexity, incomprehensibility, and intractability,” as Henry Brady, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy and Director of The Survey Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, described it during his August 2004 testimony to the Commission. 6But many barriers stand between us and a future in which we might realize something approaching the unification of the cultural record. Some of these barriers are technical, but the more formidable ones are human and societal—whether legal, organizational, disciplinary, political, or economic. Humanists and social scientists, being experts in human culture and social problems, should be well trained to address these challenges, but they will need to begin with their own organizations, disciplines, politics, and reward systems. The next chapter addresses these challenges.

Footnotes

  1. Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing,” American Archivist 68 (Fall/Winter 2005): 208-63.
  2. http://www.noraproject.org/.
  3. University of Virginia http://valley.vcdh.virginia.edu/.
  4. Applied Research in Patacriticism, IVANHOE (2005) http://www.patacriticism.org/ivanhoe/.
  5. See, e.g., Joshua Epstein, Generative Social Science: Studies in Agent-Based Computational Modeling (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), and Edward Castronova, Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
  6. http://www.acls.org/cyberinfrastructure/cyber_meeting_notes_august.htm#brady_summary.

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Definition of a lens

Lenses

A lens is a custom view of the content in the repository. You can think of it as a fancy kind of list that will let you see content through the eyes of organizations and people you trust.

What is in a lens?

Lens makers point to materials (modules and collections), creating a guide that includes their own comments and descriptive tags about the content.

Who can create a lens?

Any individual member, a community, or a respected organization.

What are tags? tag icon

Tags are descriptors added by lens makers to help label content, attaching a vocabulary that is meaningful in the context of the lens.

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