Lost in Digitization? Go to the Data Re-Use Charter!

The realization of the DARIAH Data Re-Use Charter, which was not much more than a nice idea last March, has gained momentum over the past weeks. With increased manpower, we hope to have the actual Charter up and running about a year after the idea was first drafted and presented. I am used to working fast, but this is going very fast, even for me. It also requires quite some intellectual flexibility to see ideas come and go, be filtered, developed, abandonned, new ideas being introduced… The work to be done is on the one hand very conceptual (always keeping in mind what’s in there in terms of systemic advantages for each actor) and on the other hand very down-to-earth, trying to figure out how what we suggest will offer a solution to a concrete issue they encounter.

The general idea of the Charter is to fluidify the relationships between Cultural Heritage Institutions, Scholars, Equipments, Data Centers and Research Institutions, who all work on digital data based on objects preserved by Cultural Heritage Institutions. By allowing a simpler communication between all of these actors, the aim is that all of them have their work better recognized and the data is preserved, enriched and used in a much more stable and transparent way.

Let me take you on a journey through a couple of use cases.

A young and innocent scholar finds (online) the scan of a book he wants to quote in a small Academic paper. He doesn’t find information about the re-use and citation policy of the holding institution. In fact, he doesn’t even know what he should be looking for (if he is very young and didn’t listen carefully in his methodology class, he might well not know at all that you are supposed to quote any internet source – but that’s another problem). Let’s assume he knows there are conditions to be respected before using and quoting as scan: He still doesn’t know where to look for them or whom to contact to get the information. By default, he will either not use the scan or use it without naming a source. Needless to say, this story can repeat itself identically quite a few times, the holding institution losing every time an occasion to make its resources known and scholars losing every time a little more the courage to take the time to look elsewhere than in googlebooks.

A less young and less innocent scholar needs technical equipment to scan an artefact on site. He knows it won’t be easy to get it, he writes an application and can finally use the equipment to do his scan, but in the end, he doesn’t receive enough funding to use or even store all the data gathered while scanning. He, and everyone else wanting to work on this artefact, will need to go through the same process for the next research project. Part of the work remains unseen and hence inexistent, while a reference database of such missions would make the Equipment’s work more visible and possibly allow to mutualize some missions instead of repeating them.

Another scholar (this one is me) regularly receives e-mails from other scholars telling her “I checked online and you seem to be the only one working on this author/manuscript, could you send it to me or give me more information”. Most of the time, there is nothing I can do but tell the colleagues to go through the whole process I went through myself: contact the director of the institution, explain your research project, and, if you are lucking, get information on the re-use condition not too long after you have sent your e-mail. This is lost time and energy for different reasons. First, I am very likely not the only one working on those authors and manuscripts, I simply have a better web presence. And if there was a registry where researchers interested in this topic could be put in touch with the holding institution’s re-use conditions, everyone could proceed much faster in their actual job, which is neither to send e-mails to people of whom you don’t know what their general attitude towards data-sharing is nor to wait for answers nor to answer again and again the same kind of e-mails – but to curate or enrich the data.

Another scholar is working on an author that used to be famous 200 years earlier and whose descendants are still keeping books and autograph manuscripts. The heirs are not willing to deposit the books and manuscripts in an archive, since those have a sentimental value to them, but they are willing to have them scanned and used by researchers. Scholar and descendants need to find funding for scanning and for storing the digital data and they need to find an agreement for a shared use of the data. This is tricky for several reasons. First, Cultural Heritage Institutions are usually only willing to store scans of their own collections, not of private ones which they don’t physically possess. Then, if the scholar is an independent one (and there are more and more of them in the world of precarious researchers we live in), there will be no clear research institution to host the scans. In this case, there needs to be a context in which an Equipment and a Data Center can be associated – at minimum cost – to a scholar initiating a research project and a family willing to put scans at the disposal of the scholarly community, be it only so that the metadata associated with the artefacts can be registered in larger repositories and thus made accessible to said community.

Other use cases we went through include special collections with specific rights associated to the content (for instance when copyright hasn’t expired or for particularly precious or sensitive artefacts) which need to be treated separately from the general policy of an institution, scholars who may not want to make public that they work on a specific item or topic, or the ever-so-scary wish of cultural heritage institutions to include “raw transcriptions” done by scholars to their reference metadata, making most scholars run away for fear that this will ruin their Academic reputation until the end of times.

In fact, there are so many constellations of blocked data usage we come up by every work session that this is clearly a change of mentality we are trying to push forward with the Charter. The end product should, in the current state of our thinking, brainstorming and developing, be a webpage working half as a Memorandum of Understanding generator, half as a social network bringing actors together.

Whatever what it will look like in the end: It can change things for our research practice. It can bring people together who have similar interests but don’t really know it. It will not bring more funding, but it might prevent from doing the same task twice, leaving room for new experiments. It will not change the amount of items Cultural Heritage Institution possess, but it will make them more visible, richer, more sustainable. And that is a change we can all benefit from.


Anne Baillot

I studied German Studies and Philosophy in Paris where I got my PhD in 2002. I then moved to Berlin, where I have been living & doing research ever since. My areas of specialty include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history. I am currently working at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin as an expert in digital technologies for the humanities.

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