Are You Ready for the Revolution in Scholarly Communications?

We want to make the digital environment a natural place to do scholarship.
djw_photo.jpgDonald J. Waters

“There’s a revolution taking place,” says Donald J. Waters. Digital technologies are dramatically expanding and equalizing access to resources in the humanities, he notes, with vast implications for the entire field.  As the Mellon Foundation’s Senior Program Officer for Scholarly Communications, Waters has been helping to support those at the forefront of this revolution.

According to Our Cultural Commonwealth: The report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences, the scholarly communications infrastructure consists of institutions such as libraries, archives, and museums that preserve information; systems such as library catalogs and finding aids that make information retrievable; and organs such as journals and university presses that distribute information.  All of these now have their digital counterparts. 

“While this scholarly infrastructure was built over centuries,” Waters says, “the cyber infrastructure is being built much more quickly.  At the Mellon Foundation, we want to help accelerate the next stage of this dynamic change and make the digital environment a natural place to do scholarship.”

Looking back at the development of the digital infrastructure, Waters recalls that “in the 1990s and early 2000s, the focus was on converting paper-based source material into digital formats and databases, and allowing them to be searched more easily.  JSTOR and Artstor were two databases that arose out of this kind of approach.”  

As he notes, the field of Classics was an early adopter.  One notable example is the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts, first proposed in 1985 and funded by the Mellon Foundation among others.  Another is Suda On Line, a searchable digital translation of a 10th century Greek encyclopedia founded in 1998 at the University of Kentucky

scholarly_revolution_image.jpgMapping Time [visualization of every issue cover of Time magazine, 1923 - 2009], 2009. Courtesy of Lev Manovich and Jeremy Douglass.

Moving forward from such initial ventures, Waters explains, the Mellon Foundation has been focusing on three areas.

“In publishing, we’re hoping to improve the ways in which scholars use digital media to disseminate their work.  In preservation, we’re paying more attention to audio and visual materials, where we need to overcome a host of challenges if future scholars are going to have access to these products of the 20th and early 21st centuries.  And in the field of libraries, we’re helping organizations become more conversant with advanced digital technology, especially so that materials that are currently restricted can become more accessible.”

While pursuing these goals, the Mellon Foundation is also working to help scholars develop and adopt tools that will allow research to be done directly in a digital medium.  These tools include applications for the computational analysis of large text and image collections, as well as tools for editing and annotation.

One of the most promising test beds for this work is Classics.  “Interestingly, the kinds of materials on which scholars are focusing—and I think this is a trend across many fields of the humanities—are those that we do not normally think of as the canonical works in the field," Waters explains.

One of the first major initiatives to emerge that demonstrated the value of a digital research environment in the humanities was the Integrating Digital Papyrology project, which makes previously unknown papyri available in digital form.  One offshoot of IDP was an interface, the Papyrological Navigator.  Another was Son of Suda Online (SoSOL).  “As students and scholars participated in this effort,” Waters recalls, “they saw the need for an associated editing platform.  The result is SoSol, which allows collaborators to interact more closely with the text.  Errors, additions, and annotations can now be tracked more easily, allowing for more transparency in collaboration.”

Research work could now be done natively on a digital platform. 

“With the success of these IDP tools,” Waters concludes, “we have been able to move on to three exciting new ventures.  These are the Papyri of the Early Arab Period Online, based at the Austrian National Library, the Perseids Project at Tufts, and the Digital Latin Library, which is a major advance in using digital technology to publish scholarly editions.”

“People outside the field may think there’s never anything new in Classics.  But our grantees are now extending and innovating the way modern scholarship approaches ancient materials, including materials that have never been seen before by scholars.”