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iSGTW Feature: Extreme makeover: humanities research goes digital

Feature - Extreme makeover: humanities research goes digital

The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank uses electronic media to collect, preserve and present the true stories and digital records of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which devastated regions of the United States in 2005. This map indicates some of the locations from which stories have come.
Image courtest of HDMB

The sciences have welcomed the digital revolution with open arms. They are at home with it because it is their creation, and because they have traditionally depended on developing new technologies to solve problems.

For scientists, e-research extends possibilities and enhances long-established work patterns, such as working in teams spread across geographical and cultural spaces. It is a powerful tool that allows them to delve more deeply and deliver results more quickly and accurately than ever before; it has given the sciences a huge injection of new energy.

But what is e-research doing for the humanities?

In humanities, the strongest tradition has been that of the solitary researcher: reading, working with words and ideas, testing them in debate perhaps, and then writing them down.

The last transformative technological breakthrough for the humanities may well have been the printing press and mass publishing, five centuries ago.

Genres and traditions have thus safely evolved around print formats. Photography and film further changed the way events could be recorded and related, but the documentation and replication made possible through the printing press is so far unrivalled.

The digital revolution is changing all that.

Paul Arthur says the humanities are on a strong e-research learning curve, and that grid technology has much it can offer.
Image courtesy of e-Research Australasia

E-research is only just being discovered by most in the humanities, and the changes its adoption entails are much more extreme and rapid than for the sciences.

An even greater challenge is that e-research involves the pain of self-transformation: it requires a massive shift in the way humanities researchers work, the products they create, and even how they think.

At the heart of this change is the new capacity for connectedness that information technology brings-connectedness of information in and between databases, between the sciences and humanities, between experts and the public, and between communities across the world.

And it is not vast computational power that is required at this stage. Rather, what is needed is a focus on the seamless integration of the electronic resources currently being developed in isolation by numerous institutions and universities worldwide.

The humanities are still at the building blocks stage of adopting grid technology, perhaps a precursor to a next phase when grids will be a natural solution for humanities research applications.

Currently, projects such as the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank and the Australian Public Intellectual Network are two very different examples that serve to point to the amazing explosion of e-research that is changing the face and character of the humanities, beyond recognition.

- Paul Arthur, Curtin University of Technology and the Australian National University

Paul Arthur is a research fellow at the Australia Research Centre, Curtin University of Technology and an adjunct fellow at the Research School of the Humanities, Australian National University, Australia. He is presenting a keynote speech on humanities and the e-research revolution today at this week's e-Research Australasia conference.

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