Home > The New Media, Web/Tech > Brief Review of CLIR and Tufts: Rome Wasn’t Digitized in a Day: Building a Cyberinfrastructure for Digital Classics

Brief Review of CLIR and Tufts: Rome Wasn’t Digitized in a Day: Building a Cyberinfrastructure for Digital Classics

This weekend, I finally made it through the most recent report on cyberinfrastructure and digital Classics.  As the title of this post indicates, it was produced by the Council on Library and Information Resources and Tufts University, a longtime leader in the field of digital Classics.  The report is massive, running to over 250 pages, and gives a feeling of exhaustiveness.  The bulk of the report consists of a series of case-studies organized into the various allied- and sub-disiplines of Classics (Philology, Archaeology, Papyrology, Epigraphy, Prosopography, et c.).  For most case-studies there is abundant technical detail as well as some information on the guiding principals of the project, intended end-users, funding sources, and institutional affiliation. There is a pronounced emphasis on the core area of Classics and the analysis of texts of various kinds (inscribed, on papyrus, in edition, et c.), and with this emphasis on texts comes a corresponding emphasis on mark-up technology, collaborative editing, and various image-to-text initiatives like Greek and Latin OCR.  The report’s scope, detail, organization and bibliography make it a must read for anyone interested in the work of digital humanities, digital Classics, or the future of the discipline Classics.  It is the type of report that any graduate student going on the job market should at least skim to become familiar with the basic terms, programs, and projects in the field of digital Classics.

While I am hardly qualified to comment on the content of the report, a few things struck me as worth pointing out:

1. New models of collaboration for new kinds of texts.  The most exciting thing about this report are the new perspectives on scholarly collaboration. At the center of these new perspectives are a set of new tools and collaborative environments which are designed to produce new kinds of texts.  In general, these texts are dynamic, multilayered, and designed to take into account both the work of numerous contributors. The next generation of scholarly editions, for example, will be increasingly transparent allow the end user to understand the processes that produced certain editorial decisions and, if necessary, filter the various editorial decisions to produce new versions of a text in keeping with new analytical, interpretative, or methodological positions. The same collaborative environment extends to epigraphy, papyrology, and even archaeology (in some way) where scholars have developed ways to work together to pool resources from around the world and to create new groups of texts. These new collections of texts are born digital, making specialized bodies of material (like epigraphical and papyrological corpora) more widely available, and more susceptible to re-analysis and re-interpretation.  The scalability of digital technology allows multiple scholars, a wide-range range of end-users, and diverse digital objects (texts, images, and interpretative methods) to all exist in the same place at the same time. These are new, transparent, and productive scholarly environments.

2. Human infrastructure.  There is no doubt that the projects described in this report are exciting, but I felt that the report took the notion of cyber-infrastructure a bit too literally at times.  In places the projects described by the CRIL and Tufts teams stood strangely disembodied from larger social, institutional, and professional pressures and incentives. While the report made an obligatory mention of studies of scholarly collaboration, professional pressures, and potential end-users, I was not as easily able to grasp the creative environments from which these innovative programs sprung.  In particular, I struggled to identify the research questions or, more broadly, the scholarly discourse that inspired these new approaches to age old problems.  I recognize, of course, that large-scale digital initiatives often take into account a wide range of initiatives, research questions, and stake holders, but at the same time, scholarly collaborative while sometimes altruistic, rarely exists without some common research objectives. Moreover, these research objectives must exist in an environment where administrators, technical staff, and colleagues have the interests and the resources to promote and encourage innovation. The human infrastructure necessary to support cyber-infrastructure projects, to my mind, is far more crucial to their long-term health than the relatively ephemeral character of technical detail.  And this human infrastructure extends to how we teach students and the nature of academic and scholarly expectations. With more dynamic and robust tool available, it is curious that the willingness to avail oneself to these tools remains, to some extent, optional within the academic discourse. In other words, the eventual success of a digital infrastructure project will depend on the willingness of an editor, a peer reviewer, or a conference panel to expect a scholar to use a particular corpus of material.  The human infrastructure, then, represents a dense and complex web of knowledge, traditional practices, and support infrastructure that, to my mind, is far more important than the tools and vision at the root of a cyberinfrastructure project.

3. The Social and New Media.  Another slight oversight in this comprehensive report is the absence of any real discussion of the role of the public backchannel in Classics cyberinfrastructure.  By digital backchannel I mean both blogs and the growing role of social media in stimulating discussion among scholars of the ancient world on topics both digital and traditional.  I am not one of those people who think that blogs are the new academic journals or who even press for new media spaces to carry substantial weight in tenure, promotion, or professional development decisions. On the other hand, I have argued that blogs occupy a novel and useful place in the expanding digital information ecosystem of Classics.  And bloggers and their blogs, like many other larger, more integrative digital infrastructure projects, have not come to terms with the tricky task of curating and preserving the huge quantity of analysis, discussion, and even knowledge produced through these new media.  With the growth of Twitter, Facebook, and other even more ephemeral social media portals the issue of curation has become even more tricky. If we imagine social and new media applications as playing a role in our digital future as scholars, then these outlets have to become part of the conversation of the digital future of the discipline.

4. Mobile Futures.  Finally, I was surprised that mobil computing did not occupy a more significant place in this report.  If I understand the global trends in computing, the future is in mobile devices and applications. In fact, I read the report on my iPad. I do realize, of course, that some of the mobile computing “revolution” will involve us just doing on a mobile device what we’ve always done on a laptop or a desktop, but there is also a trend toward re-imagining how we work and how we disseminate data over mobile devices.  As we look ahead, it seems clear to me that mobile devices, the cloud, and even greater degrees of integration and communication will produce new challenges for curation and new opportunities of realtime collaboration.

As I said at the top, this report is a roadmap for anyone interested in the state-of-the-art in digital Classics and presents a brilliant case study for the impact of humanities computing in one field.  Any gaps or oversights, are incidental and tied more to the goals of the project than any shortcomings of the authors.


Categories: The New Media, Web/Tech
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