Research in the ‘digital age’

By Richard Black|March 7, 2015|Research|15 comments

Last week my past as a scholar of refugee studies caught up with me. I was contacted by Professor Barbara Harrell-Bond – the expert on refugee studies, Emeritus Professor at Oxford, and former Distinguished Visiting Professor at the American University at Cairo and Makerere University, who inspired me as a student – and many others – to study refugees and forced migration.

Back in the 1990s, I agreed to put a digital copy of Barbara’s groundbreaking book, Imposing Aid, on my university’s website – ‘digitisation’ was in its infancy, and Barbara was ahead of her time – she had made sure she had full copyright to her own work, and could publish a digital version of her monograph wherever she wished. Barbara got in touch because she couldn’t find her book online – one website update too many had consigned it to an inaccessible archive (it is back now – here).

So, Imposing Aid is still available as an open access monograph, nearly 30 years after publication.  But what else is, or should be, digital, in this ‘digital age’?  SOAS itself has some pretty impressive digital collections – such as the Fürer-Haimendorf collection, which comprises photographs, cine films and written materials from South Asia and the Himalayas collected by the first Professor of Anthropology at SOAS, Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf; and our collection of early Nigerian Qur’anic manuscripts, digitised over a decade ago with funding from AHRC.

We are also developing the School’s e-repository, buoyed by the recent appointment of Helen Porter as our new Digital Services Support Officer in the SOAS Library – so that within the next year, all SOAS publications should be going on SOAS Research Online, with all journal articles written by SOAS staff available in full text open access format.  But as I get more into this – still as an absolute novice – it is clear that the issues around digital research are hugely complex.

A first issue is that huge spending on digitisation by organisations such as JISC, the research councils, and major foundations in the UK, US and elsewhere has really only scratched the surface of collections that might benefit from being widely or openly accessible in digital format.  For example, within SOAS, there is an emerging project to try to digitise our fabulous Swahili manuscripts collection.   Here, as with some other collections, such as the School’s unrivalled collection of Hausa popular literature, earlier funding has provided for a fully-searchable database, but fell short of providing the texts themselves online in an accessible and discoverable format.

Yet the number of potential collections to digitise, even within the SOAS collections, is huge.  Not  only are there the collections that already have a database; there are also so-called ‘hidden collections’, which exist in our archives but have only a card catalogue (or indeed no proper catalogue) and so not even visible to the wider world, let alone searchable.  Examples are found amongst our substantial collections of NGO and missionary archives, but also the School’s own archives (although these are being meticulously catalogued at the moment in the run-up to the Centenary).

There are also, of course, collections elsewhere, but where SOAS staff are integral to projects for their digitisation.  One example is the Yasna, a central ritual text of Zoroastrianism that is the subject of a current initiative within our Department for the Study of Religions.  Within this seemingly endless task, it is difficult to know what to prioritise, or indeed when to stop.  What makes a collection more or less suitable or valuable for digitisation?

Next, there is the question of how to make collections accessible and discoverable once they are in digital format.  This is a question that takes several forms.  For example, in the case of our Swahili manuscripts, an immediate issue emerges in that a good part of the collection is in Swahili in Arabic script rather than Roman script, making issues of readability (including machine readability) much more difficult.  An ideal digitisation project here would simultaneously transliterate and translate into a language of wider communication, to maximise accessibility of the collection, yet this of course makes the undertaking that much more vast.

And then there is the vexed question of the medium on which the material is held – quite a lot of my own early academic writing is in ‘digital’ format, but buried on 3½” floppy discs that probably already belong in a museum, and are frankly less accessible than if I had the work on paper.   There is a risk that material we hold in digital media will suffer the same fate in a few years’ time, even if standards exist for digital preservation and migration to new media. But format is not just about where a text is kept – because text itself is not the only format a digital collection can take.

One interesting example from SOAS is a collection of recordings of Babylonian and Assyrian poetry assembled by our Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East.  Although recorded on a dictaphone, and so not of the highest quality, they provide a unique record of how these ancient languages were ‘read’ by scholars in the early 21st century.  This is an example of how we can enrich our holdings, making them more discoverable and accessible.

But of course the School’s audio recordings go way beyond that – most obviously in the Endangered Languages Archive – generously funded by the Arcadia Foundation – which over the past decade has built up an incredible corpus of digital recordings of languages which represent not only an important cultural repository, but also a fascinating research resource for linguistics scholars more broadly.  There are many other recordings too – of languages, musical recordings, and indeed SOAS lectures (many on old-style audio tapes) that date back to the earliest days of the School’s history.

And finally, the point needs to be made that a ‘digital collection’ now means much more than a collection that has been digitised.  For over a decade now, both public bodies and private organisations as well as individuals have been producing material in digital format.  That includes this blog – and indeed any responses to it.  Should this be held for the future?  And if so how?

In his recent and excellent book on Chinese internet literature, Michel Hockx describes the challenges of archiving material on the internet that is inherently ephemeral.  His solution, an archive providing a ‘snapshot’ of the material at the time he accessed it solves the immediate problem of recording the evidence on which his argument is based, but does not provide an equivalent record to – say – the Hausa popular literature material that we have archived from an earlier age.

How should the School engage with these collections that are either born digital, digitised, or might benefit from digitisation?  Over recent years we have developed the SOAS Digital Library to address these issues, but there remains a huge amount to be done.  Should prioritisation be based on the intrinsic (or indeed commercial) value of the archival material itself?  Or should it be based on the principal that a group of researchers want to use the material in research now, and can do so more easily if it is digital (for example by bringing together partners in Asia, Africa or the Middle East with SOAS scholars)?

Whatever the solution, we need to move forward quickly.  Because – given the nature of the SOAS special collections, and our research connections around the world – perhaps no institution in the UK has a more pressing case for its archives to be openly available and fully discoverable.  And if we succeed, there is a real potential for more ‘global voices’ to be heard, both in the production and analysis of our collections.



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