Friday, 29 August 2014

Preserving and Sharing Cultural Heritage

Sampo Viiri from the Finnish Institute blogs about the Institute’s new report on digital humanities and digital culture heritage preservation.

The evolution of digital technology and online networks is shaping our lives and societies. At some point in the recent past, digital stopped being something separate from the "real" world for many of us. Now we are constantly in the network and using digital tools without even noticing it ourselves.  Digital information is increasingly everywhere and largely available for everyone.

Digital humanities, the intersection of digital technologies and humanities, involves the use of digital tools in research, teaching, scholarship and publication in humanities disciplines. Digital humanities has been a buzzword of the humanities field in the last few years.

United Kingdom has so far been seen as a pioneering country in open data and open knowledge. In Finland the Open Science and Research Initiative aims at Finland becoming the leading country in openness of science and research by the year 2017 and that the opportunities of the open science will be widely utilised in Finnish society.

However, archivists and IT experts respectively have expressed their concerns on the so called digital dark age: a phenomenon where significant amount of important cultural heritage is lost due to rapid digitisation of information and lack of reliable long-term preservation methods.

How does this change influence humanities research and teaching, as well as preservation of cultural heritage? Concentrating on the fields of history research and archives, the Finnish Institute’s new survey consults recent literature and professionals associated with the digital humanities field.

The main findings are as follows:
  •  Access to digital content online has benefited researchers and can improve geographic and socioeconomic equality.
  • Digital history may narrow the gap between academic and popular history, and increase cross-disciplinary and international collaboration.
  • New digital tools have not yet changed most historians' research methods substantially but digital tools and methods should be included in history curriculum.
  • Libraries, archives and universities see future digital preservation challenges similarly, which encourages further collaboration.
  • Digitisation projects are work hour intensive and require new skills and attitudes.
  • Private-public partnerships in the culture heritage sector are in many ways controversial but may offer good collaboration possibilities.
  • Measuring the societal value of digital humanities is difficult but might be possible in the near future.

The literature and interviews suggest that the areas of digital humanities, open knowledge and open data are in many ways connected. The main idea is linking the digital humanities scholars and digital preservers with the wider community. The GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) sector was seen as an important channel for academic research to reach the wider public. The archives and libraries need to deal with similar problems, diminishing the barriers between their fields.

Public domain picture from the British Library’s Flickr galleries.

The findings of this survey are in many ways similar to the Finnish research Tutkijoiden ääni, the British Reinventing research? report and the American Ithaka S+R reports from 2012 and
2014. They all promote collaboration within the academia and between universities and the GLAM sector.

What we would like to add is the role of non-profit organisations such as Open Knowledge or Wikimedia and the important contribution that grassroots activists have in creating and disseminating digital content. These organisations and individuals could offer important information eg. about copyrights for the GLAMs and researchers.

From a Finnish perspective, international collaboration and networking are especially vital. In Finland there are fewer universities and the organisations are smaller than in the United Kingdom. The situation calls for even more collaboration to make most use of the resources available. The Open Cultural Data and Open Government Data courses, organised by Open Knowledge Finland, are some promising projects.

The small organisations in Finland could be an asset too if smaller size means an agile organisation. Collaboration in the field is a good way to make sure that the different organisations’ metadata can communicate with each other, and organisations do not end up as silos.

Publishing cultural heritage online without restrictions helps researchers, the public and the cultural heritage organisations themselves. There are promising examples and these policies are emphasised in European Union strategies.

The new possible gap between online material and analogue content that is not digitised needs to be addressed too. There is a concern that the analogue material will become invisible for the researchers and the public, thus distorting research interests and processes.

Politics will always influence cultural heritage preservation. Archivists have so far been somewhat invisible from public discussion. They should speak up and demonstrate how archives are valuable in preserving societal memory.

There is a certain fear for private sector domination in public-private partnerships, but collaboration between the two can be fruitful too. It is worth asking, how far can you go with these private partnerships without hurting your own agenda? The private companies may want to put content behind pay walls or exploit it otherwise. Open and honest discussion between public and private organisations is needed.

There are interesting further research topics, such as measuring the overall societal impact of digital projects. Open scholarly publishing, its impacts on the knowledge gap between socioeconomic groups, and what kind of policies lead to utopia and dystopia scenarios in digital preservation are important topics in the future too.

The report presents some of the questions on a more philosophical level. Trying to provide concrete answers for practical questions would not be feasible in a report like this one, but we hope that the presented ideas, referenced literature and projects circulate good ideas and encourage discussion and collaboration in and between Finland, the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The report can be downloaded here.


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