Thematic research collections!

My classmate, recently published a blog that focused on something that we surely all hold dear to our hearts, thematic research collections. TRCs aren’t something that I was particularly aware of before this year, and I, (and many other people, according to Kenneth Price) find the term a little obtuse. As Lily mentions, a huge concern as a student of the digital humanities is the ability to access projects and databases that you seek online. Often I have found myself clicking a hyperlink on a D.H blog, only to receive an error, as that page no longer exists. When this is the case with a digital humanities project that you have heard referenced, yet cannot access, it begins to be of greater concern. The sustainability of a research project is something that is heavily focused on within this field, what is your project’s relevance? How might it benefit the field? Is it feasible and cost-effective? And, perhaps most importantly, who will fund it, and for how long? Funding is crucial to D.H projects, and funding is, to a great extent, reliant on the use, traffic and attention your project garners on an ongoing basis. The same users who interacted with your research six months ago may not do so now, your team may have altered or depleted, your funding may have been drastically cut as paradigms shift within the field. All of these issues can sound a true death knoll for Digital Humanities projects, and this is of course a pressing issue, as we continue to evaluate not only the immediate purpose of our projects, but the lifespan of these projects too.

Thematic research collections provide an alternative to the seemingly limited lifespan of D.H projects. As Carole L. Palmer writes in the Companion to Digital Humanities, Thematic research collections are digital resources that come closer to the ideal of the ‘library as laboratory’, wherein all research is stored collectively and archived in an easily searchable manner. A thematic research collection differs from an archive in that it allows for commentary and interpretation of collected materials, allowing for a heightened amount of usability and functionality. Of course the primary function of research collections is to digitally reformat collections of materials in order to make them widely accessible and available for utilisation by a large amount of users. For the purpose of this blog, I would choose to define TRCs as large-scale text-based electronic scholarship based on aggregation that is consistently evolving and editable. Palmer defines them as, “taking a thematic approach to aggregating digital research materials, they are producing circumscribed collections, customized for intensive study and analysis in a specific research area” (Palmer, 2004).

A searchable, customisable and useable database of thematic research collections then seems like the natural progression for the field, allowing for enhanced sustainability and making D.H infinitely more forward-thinking for a field that has attempted to implement computer tools and softwares for such a purpose. The sustainability of these projects in turn then takes on greater levels of significance when we view it in light of currently defunct projects all across the digital humanities.

In terms of the model that this idealised TRC might take then, there are a few valid suggestions for options that are sustainable and functional, as well as cost-effective (Well, probably lots, I’ve just read a few). Lily mentions the current usage of scholarly databases like JSTOR, which my undergraduate institution utilised as their sole database of peer-reviewed scholarly articles for the humanities. Such is the usability and vast amount of content that is contained within JSTOR that this was both possible and highly functional, from a financial and logical perspective for such a small institution. Databases, as utilised by scholars within institutions, are highly expensive tools that it is impossible to function without. Lily suggests that the utilisation of a model similar to JSTOR in order to connect users to TRCs increases the longevity of D.H projects manifold, and this is a sound argument. The collection of TRC’s into one space, where they could be centrally maintained and funded is hugely needed.

Palmer writes on the implications of the terms we use to describe large-scale text-based electronic scholarship (something Lily also touches on), explaining the term ‘thematic research collection’ is in itself lacking in cohesion for those outside of academia and the DH community. Palmer goes on to explain the connotations associated with many alternate terms, explaining how a digital thematic research collection ‘possesses the virtues of a traditional scholarly edition’ whilst containing much more beyond a mass digitization project.

“Many thematic research collections or archives aim toward the ideal of being all-inclusive resources for the study of given topics. A good thematic research collection might begin with an edition conceived in inclusive terms. Digital thematic research collections go far beyond traditional editions in their presentation of many types of materials. They are often even more “organic” than print editions (despite their technological aspects) — that is, they grow, evolve over time, based very much on immediate circumstances.” (Palmer, 2007)
The continuously evolving nature of TRCs mean that, as Palmer suggests, they become more fluid and evolve over time. Yet, this simultaneously makes them infinitely more difficult to maintain. Consistent scholarly editing may be possible if it is maintained by the author, but beyond that, this level of fluidity becomes a problem for a project with limited amounts of people, and funding.

Of course, funding of these TRC’s is also central to their success and usability. Lily, in her blog, argues for calling TRCs ‘digital infrastructure’, based on the current trend in funding for infrastructure rather than for preservation. What I would, in turn, suggest is for the implementation of the same sort of subscription service that databases like the aforementioned JSTOR relies on. Academic subscriptions generate incredible levels of funding to go towards improvements, editing and maintenance, that can otherwise be severely lacking. They are also really expensive. Therefore they do veer fairly strongly away from the open-source community model that current trends seem to point towards. I would say though, that the open-source model is something important to strive for, if feasible, in order to allow a greater access of collections and broaden the usage of such tools. The only way to really encourage the maintenance of TRCs is to make them widely accessible. A used tool is valued and maintained. And in order to make a TRC usable, you must make it both readily available and as broad in scope as is feasible.

The real purpose of thematic research collections, or at least the purpose that i feel is the most useful, is to engage a wider group of people in digital scholarship. Particularly those who may have ignored such scholarship in their undergraduate degrees or, in the case of the public, their general lives and interaction with cultural artifacts etc. TRCs are incredibly valuable, allowing us to view a text as a fluid, evolving and constantly improving thing. They are interdisciplinary, provide useful contextual information for scholars (and, ideally, beyond this) and engage users in ways that extend far beyond traditional textual databases. Therefore, it seems fairly flawed that we still lack a central DH database on any real discernable (well, currently functional) level. It needs to be done, probably now, possibly soonish.

Green, David. “Cyberinfrastructure for Us All: An Introduction to Cyberinfrastructure and the Liberal Arts.” Academic Commons (December 2007).

Mackie, Christopher J. “Cyberinfrastructure, Institutions, and Sustainability.” First Monday. 12:6, 2007.

Rockwell, Geoffrey. “As Transparent as Infrastructure: On the research of cyberinfrastructure in the humanities.”Online Humanities Scholarship: The Shape of Things to Come. Ed. Jerome McGann. Houston: Rice University, 2010. n.p. Web.

Palmer, Carole (2004) “Thematic Research Collections” in Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth (eds) Companion to Digital Humanities (Oxford: Blackwell)

Palmer, Carole L. (2005) “Scholarly Work And The Shaping Of Digital Access.” Journal Of The American Society For Information Science & Technology 56.11 (2005): 1140-1153.

Price, Kenneth M. “Edition, Project, Database, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What’s in a Name?.” (2009).


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