I am now back from Kalamazoo in safety, but very very short of sleep, so if this makes no sense I apologise and may redact later. I will write about Kalamazoo eventually, but the short version would be that it was great. I wanted to clear some more backlog, though, and I had to do something fairly simple because on the morning of the day I flew back overnight, I had to stay awake until David Ganz had finished delivering his second Lowe Lecture in Palæography, which I went to. So, here’s a thing. A little while ago News for Medievalists did their characteristic content-scrape of an article from a site called Science News Western Australia, which reports on a new initiative being run by the Australian Research Council Network for Early European Research.
Basically, they wanted to build a ‘medieval manuscript commons’ on the web. (I use the past tense because, what you would not realise from News for Medievalists’ 2011 version, this was being reported on in 2009, and the aforenamed Network ceased to be funded in late 2010. So this initiative actually never came to pass and never will, but that actually doesn’t hurt either my point or, it would seem, News for Medievalists’s ethic of business.) The responsible party, one Dr Toby Burrows, had just completed a project to digitise and webify information about medieval manuscripts in Australian collections, a thing called Europa Inventa that does exist and which you can look at, and was reported as explaining:
“It will be a meta-framework which sits over the top of all the existing data, but is not intended to replace that data,” he says of the service which is likely to be hosted in Europe and be free.
UWA is funding Dr Burrows’ research with a UWA Collaborative Research Award of $8000.
So, I imagine that he was fairly happy even if the project never actually completed. Now, this project might sound a bit vampiric, basically being paid to siphon traffic to your site on the basis of others’ content (much like Medievalists.net, in fact) but I think we can agree it would be useful to have a global repository of this kind of information. It’s almost surprising no-one’s thought of it before, isn’t it? And yes, you’ve guessed no doubt, of course they have and we’ve reported on it here before, Columbia University’s Digital Scriptorium. It seems clear that the Commons one would have rendered the Scriptorium redundant, or vice versa; the aim is the same and they would have competed, however useful either might have been.
My point is that we really only need one global service of this kind, and in fact that if there are two then both of them directly attack each other’s raison d’être. And yet we see this repeatedly not just here but in other fields too, and usually funded as here on the alleged basis that no such service exists. For example, you may remember that a long time ago I worked on such a project at the Fitzwilliam Museum about just how we would go about uniting disparate databases of coin information for sharing across the web.1 This was the first wave of semantic web stuff and looked quite powerful, though money to take it further than proof-of-concept has not, I believe, been forthcoming. But very shortly afterwards I was contacted by someone else who’d had the same idea and wanted to do it slightly differently but also, naturally enough, wanted to make use of data that others had already catalogued. That gap is still there, so presumably there’s room for a third of these databases but as we’ve just seen, the fact that something already exists to do one of these jobs doesn’t necessarily preclude others arising, all trying to be the one ring to bind them all. It feels as if the web, with its amazing searchability, on which these endeavours are all intended to sail, ought to prevent this happening; if not earlier, the funding bodies all ought to be capable of operating a FWSE and finding the older projects themselves and then at least asking, “Is this really new?” But since we’ve reported here before on people getting vast awards to allow them basically to reinvent hyperlinking, I suppose I’m not surprised this doesn’t work.
Less cynically, though, these endeavours can’t be as useful as their founders and funders presumably did all recognise they could be as long as they have competition. I realise that’s not very free-market but these are supposed to be public services, not profit-makers, and so they won’t follow capitalist rules. We really wanted, on the COINS Project, to set it up so that anyone who’d digitised a numismatic collection could dump that data into the central repository we didn’t get to set up and someone, with a bare minimum of crunching code, could suck it in in fields people could find things with consistently. This, like Monasterium.net or other such repositories, required people to be willing to do that. A small digitisation project probably will, but these big umbrella projects presumably can’t or they lose their `market space’. And I’m just not sure this actually helps us, in the long run. Perhaps the answer is just to wait for semantic web stuff to advance far enough that our home computers will be able to identify correct mapping of such data automatically. And meanwhile, as Magistra pointed out a while back in a different context, someone who has such information that they really want to be out there has got to pass it to everyone who’s subsequently going to work on it. But until funding is all international (and until funding committees can do a websearch, perhaps) this separation of endeavours is going to continue to be a problem I fear.
1. Any minute now the paper talking about this project as a whole will be out as Jonathan Jarrett, Achille Felicetti, Reinhold Hüber-Mork and Sebastian Zambanini, “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: numismatics and the COINS Project” in Brent Nelson & Melissa Terras (edd.), Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture, New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies (Tempe forthcoming), pp. 000-00. Any minute.