The sounds of silence

I’ve been reading World War One diaries and letters (getting distracted by sources is an occupational hazard in my research) as I look for sample primary sources for teaching crowdsourcing at the HILT summer school in Maryland next week and for my CENDARI fellowship later this year.

I noticed one line in the Diary of William Henry Winter WWI 1915 that manages to convey a lot without directly giving any information about his opinions or relationship with this person:

‘Major Saunders is supposed to be on his way back here as well but I don’t know as he is coming back to our Coy, I hope not any way. We have got a good man now.’

There’s nothing in the rest of the entries online that provides any further background. It may be that sections of this correspondence either didn’t survive, weren’t held by the same person, or perhaps were edited before deposit with the library or during transcription (it’s particularly hard to judge as the site doesn’t have images of the original document), so this particular silence may not have been intentional.

Whatever the case, it’s a good reminder that there are silences behind every piece of content. While it’s an amazing time to research the lives of those caught up in WWI as more and more private and public material is digitised and shared, silences can be created in many ways – official archives privilege some voices over others, personal collections can be censored or remain tucked away in a shoebox, and large parts of people’s experiences simply went unrecorded. Content hidden behind paywalls or inaccessible to search engines (whether inadvertently hidden behind a search box or through lack of text transcription or description) is effectively hushed, if not exactly silenced. Sources and information about WWI collected via community groups on Facebook may be lost the next time they change their terms and conditions, or only partially shared. Our challenge is to make the gaps and questions about what was collected visible (audible?) while also being careful not to render the undigitised or unsearchable invisible in our rush to privilege the easily-accessible.

[Update: I’ve just realised that Winter might not have needed to provider further context as it seems many men in his unit were from the same region as him, and therefore his relationship with the Major may have pre-dated the war. Tacit knowledge is of course another example of the unrecorded, and one perhaps more familiar to us now than the unsayable.]

Quick PhD update from InterFace 2011

It feels like ages since I’ve posted, so since I’ve had to put together a 2 minute lightning talk for the Interface 2011 conference at UCL (for people working in the intersection of humanities and technology), I thought I’d post it here as an update.  I’m a few months into the PhD but am still very much working out the details of the shape of my project and I expect that how my core questions around crowdsourcing, digitisation, geolocation, researchers and historical materials fit together will change as I get further into my research. [Basically I’m acknowledging that I may look back at this and cringe.]

Notes for 2 minute lightning talk, Interface 2011

‘Crowdsourcing the geolocation of historical materials through participant digitisation’ 

Hi, I’m Mia, I’m working on a PhD in Digital Humanities in the History department at the Open University.

I’m working on issues around crowdsourcing the digitisation and geolocation of historical materials. I’m looking at ‘participant digitisation’ so I’ll be conducting research and building tools to support various types of researchers in digitising, transcribing and geolocating primary and secondary sources.

I’ll also create a spatial interface that brings together the digitised content from all participant digitisers. The interface will support the management of sources based on what I’ve learned about how historians evaluate potential sources.

The overall process has three main stages: research and observation that leads to iterative cycles of designing, building and testing the interfaces, and finally evaluation and analysis on the tools and the impact of geolocated (ad hoc) collections on the practice of historical research.

My PhD proposal (Provisional title: Participatory digitisation of spatially indexed historical data)

[Update: I’m working on a shorter version with fewer long words. Something like crowdsourcing geolocated historial materials/artefacts with specialist users/academic contributors/citizen historians.]

A few people have asked me about my PhD* topic, and while I was going to wait until I’d started and had a chance to review it in light of the things I’m already starting to learn about what else is going on in the field, I figured I should take advantage of having some pre-written material to cover the gap in blogging while I try to finish various things (like, um, my MSc dissertation) that were hijacked by a broken wrist. So, to keep you entertained in the meantime, here it is.

Please bear in mind that it’s already out-of-date in terms of my thinking and sense of what’s already happening in the field – I’m really looking forward to diving into it but my plan to spend some time thinking about the project before I started has been derailed by what felt like a year of having an arm in a cast.

* I never got around to posting about this because my disastrous slip on the ice happened just two days after I resigned, but I’m leaving my job at the Science Museum to take up the offer of a full-time PhD in Digital Humanities at the Open University in mid-March.

Provisional title: Participatory digitisation of spatially indexed historical data

This project aims to investigate ‘participatory digitisation’ models for geo-located historical material.

This project begins with the assumption that researchers are already digitising and geo-locating materials and asks whether it is possible to create systems to capture and share this data. Could the digital records and knowledge generated when researchers access primary materials be captured at the point of creation and published for future re-use? Could the links between materials, and between materials and locations, created when researchers use aggregated or mass-digitised resources, be ‘mined’ for re-use?

Through the use of a case study based around discovering, collating, transforming and publishing geo-located resources related to early scientific women, the project aims to discover:

  • how geo-located materials are currently used and understood by researchers,
  • what types of tools can be designed to encourage researchers to share records digitised for their own personal use
  • whether tools can be designed to allow non-geospatial specialists to accurately record and discover geo-spatial references
  • the viability of using online geo-coding and text mining services on existing digitised resources

Possible outcomes include an evaluation of spatially-oriented approaches to digital heritage resource discovery and use; mental models of geographical concepts in relation to different types of historical material and research methods; contributions to research on crowdsourcing digital heritage resources (particularly the tensions between competition and co-operation, between the urge to hoard or share resources) and prototype interfaces or applications based on the case study.

The project also provides opportunities to reflect on what it means to generate as well as consume digital data in the course of research, and on the changes digital opportunities have created for the arts and humanities researcher.

** This case study is informed by my thinking around the possibilities of re-populating the landscape with references to the lives, events, objects, etc, held by museums and other cultural heritage institutions, e.g. outside museum walls and by an experimental, collaborative project around ‘modern bluestockings’, that aimed to locate and re-display the forgotten stories around unconventional and pioneering women in science, technology and academia.