Crossing boundaries in Strasbourg: a workshop at the European Science Foundation

December 10, 2010

Back at the end of October I attended a two-day workshop put on by the European Science Foundation (yes, Humanities research counts as Science in the European Union). The Workshop ( addressed the issue of Research Communities and Infrastructures in the Humanities as they are developing in a digital context. Researchers from all around Europe and involved in various aspects of Digital Humanities were invited to talk about their experiences, including: representatives from two large-scale pan-European projects, CLARIN (Common Language Resources and Technology Infrastructure: and DARIAH (Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities:; some other Brits (e.g. Graeme Earl of the University of Southampton’s Archaeological Computing Research Group:, and myself, there representing the OU projects HESTIA and GAP, to share my experiences of working in an interdisciplinary group. (For a full programme, go to:
The formal ‘wrap up’ of the workshop runs to several pages; for me it raised three key issues.
First, the ESF committee made it clear that they didn’t see it as their job to establish or enforce an infrastructure themselves: that had to be community-driven with local-user input. The role of pan-European bodies like the ESF lay, rather, in support, by maintaining scholarly standards (essential for the reusability of data), overseeing transparency of methods, ensuring recognition of digitally-based work in publication records and promotion cases, facilitating co-operation between groups/individuals, and helping to establish best practice guidelines. A tangible part of this guidance would be in offering training, so that all academics could develop a working competency in the field.
Second, it was recognised that the wheel should not have to be reinvented continually, meaning that there had to be better joined-up thinking across the pan-European institutions to ensure that academics working across disciplinary boundaries could learn from each other. As well as tools, methods and practice, data also needed to be shared, rather than being stored in ‘data silos’. The challenge, then, is to find ways of linking datasets. One solution proposed would be to embed metadata to provide a common ontology for each and every digital object, which could be recognised as generic and re-usable. But above all the emphasis was on making the data, tools, methods and practice accessible and open.
Lastly, it was felt that the digital medium presented an ideal opportunity to appeal to a much broader constituency beyond a narrow single-discipline academic circle. It would not only be the case of creating tools and methods, or presenting data, which are easy for all scholars to adopt and use; it would also be possible, and desirable, to develop the means of communicating the latest cutting-edge research to the general public. In fact, Humanities scholars, like their better known colleagues from the Sciences, could even play a role in shaping educational and social policy. It is certainly true that computer scientists are keen to work with us, for they recognise that the kinds of questions that we typically ask of data has the potential to extend the latest computing technology into exciting new areas.
I would urge anyone interested in Digital Humanities research at the OU to follow this up, either by going to the ESF website ( or else by contacting me ( On the back of this workshop, the ESF are currently preparing a document that will influence strategy on a European-wide level: the more user-input that we can garner, the better geared towards the community we can make that strategy.

Taking a GAP year

July 26, 2010

Google has so far digitized over 12 million books in over 300 languages, much of which was previously available only in prestigious university libraries. The amount of data now available, then, is enormous, which is both very exciting and has huge potential for us as researchers, but, frankly, is quite bewildering in scope. What’s there? And how can it be used? In a call that went out in April of this year (2010), Google threw down the gauntlet to the academic community to come up with some suggestions.

That’s where the GAP (or Google Ancient Places) project comes in…

As a team of experts drawn from the fields of Classical Studies, Archaeology and Computing, myself, Leif Isaksen (Southampton) and Eric Kansa (Berkeley) aim to address these two primary concerns, the what and the how, first by pioneering a search-facility that facilitates the discovery of data that is of general interest to humanities scholars (in this case, locations associated with the ancient world), and then by experimenting with ways of visualizing the results.

So with GAP you’ll be able to discover all references to a particular ancient location, and then visualize the results in GoogleEarth to gain a unique snapshot of the geographic spread of the references. Or you’ll be able to discover all ancient locations mentioned in a specific book, and visualize them in GoogleMaps as and when they are mentioned alongside the actual text (as an example, see the HESTIA ‘TimeMap’, which shows locations mentioned in a chapter of Herodotus ( In the former case you know about the place, and want to find the books; in the latter you have the book, and want to find out about the place. Moreover, you’ll be able to do this either as a scholar whose research has a historical or geographical basis, or as a member of the public visiting, for instance, an ancient location and wanting to download information related to it on your iphone―a case of literally putting knowledge into people’s hands…

Leif and I have been working on HESTIA (, an AHRC-sponsored project which investigates places that the ancient Greek historian Herodotus mentions and the stories that he tells about them. But until now we had no way of finding out what later authors said about these locations. Similarly, Eric has been working on a project called ‘Open Context’ (, which houses primary data and documentation related to different archaeological sites, posted by the very archaeologists excavating them. Again, it would be great if the archaeologist could find out what has been written about these sites, when and where…

The important thing is that this information is now available to all―and that is tremendously exciting as well as testing. Not only are digital resources transforming dissemination practices (in, for example, how scholars/experts communicate their message to a broader public); no doubt they will also change the way that we―both as researchers and members of the public―do things.

We don’t yet know where this GAP year will take us, but thanks to the challenge that Google has set us, we have the chance to start shaping research practice and help bring the knowledge derived from it out of ‘ivory tower’ institutions into everybody’s homes. Something the OU has been doing since its inception.

save Classics @ Leeds

March 26, 2010

This unanticipated post is a reaction to the news that the University of Leeds is seeking to close its department of Classics. (I guess this spontaneity is what blogging is really about.)

I went to a local comprehensive school. I decided to study Classical Civilisation on a whim: although my A levels were in English, Geography and Maths, I was enticed by the idea of being able to study an ancient culture in its entirety – without having any prior knowledge of the subject or of the languages. Leeds was one of the few universities that allowed me the scope to pursue my interests.

Of course, I had no idea what I was getting myself into – and that I would still be struggling to make sense of this world to this day. At Leeds I was introduced to the history of Alexander the Great and the Caesars, the discovery of democratic politics and philosophy, the ins and outs of Roman food and drink production and consumption (a practical class that proved most popular since, every week, a nominated group would bring in food and drink to share!), and the study of the literature in all of its glory (Homer, tragedy, Aristophanes, Virgil, Horace, Catullus, et al – and all mercifully in translation. (Is Plautus funny? The one question I remember from my first year exams – and which I still don’t know how to answer satisfactorily.) And then, when on the ERASMUS programme in Thessaloniki (another Leeds Classics speciality), I also got to experience the ancient world at first hand, not least of all by being shown around the archaeological dig at the foot of mount Olympus (where the gods were thought to reside) by the students working on the site. This bewildering array of subjects, topics and approaches that is Classics got me hooked.

I have since studied in the States, gained my PhD (in ancient Greek literature) from Cambridge, taught in Bristol, Reading, Nottingham and Christ Church at Oxford. I’m now a Lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University. I think that it’s a fair assumption that this pretty ordinary kid with pretty ordinary A level results from a pretty bog-standard comprehensive would NOT have been able to do so much had it not been for the Classics department at Leeds and all the people who worked there.

At a time when class distinctions are in danger of becoming entrenched by virtue of the economic crisis, universities should resist the pressure to downsize or scrap entirely perceived elite subjects like Classics. If they do, then, for sure, they will be the preserve of all the Borises in the world.

Save Classics at Leeds. It’s for everyone.

To dig hums or not to dig hums? Some thoughts from an early career academic using digital resources in research for the first time

March 26, 2010

This is only my second ever blog post. You’ll probably be able to tell. I’m still fumbling around for the right kind of structure, the right words, the right length… It’s a new medium, somewhere in between an email and an essay (and that’s a big gap). I don’t even know whether it’s going to be worthwhile. Will anyone read this, let alone feel compelled to respond? As a young (by which I mean in career terms, NOT age, sadly) researcher, I’m no celebrity like the don’s blogger Mary Beard ( Basically, do I have the time to do this kind of thing, when there are so many other claims on my time?

A similar question could be posed regarding the use of digital technology more generally: can only ‘mature’ career academics afford to make use of digital media in their research? And, if this is true, is that because they’ve already ‘made it’ and don’t have to worry (so much) about the value of that research not being immediately recognised? (KCL’s Charlotte Roueché raised this very point at a digital humanities seminar hosted by the Open University at the beginning of March 2010: Certainly, there are issues here that do need to be urgently addressed: whereas we’re all pretty familiar (if not entirely satisfied) with the process of peer review journal articles or books, should a website or a blog be evaluated as ‘research output’, and, if so, just how should they be assessed and by whom? And while evidence of the longevity of journals and books surround us, just who is going to look after a website or a database when the project money has run out?

I should admit that these and other concerns do worry me as the project which I’m currently heading nears its latter stages ( And yet, I’m still so very grateful for having rather stumbled into this field of digital humanities. For one thing I’m sure that including digital resources in our initial bid for an AHRC Early Career Grant greatly enhanced the attractiveness of our proposal. But aside from such utilitarian considerations, working in dig hums has been so much fun! It’s given me the opportunity to work with and learn from colleagues from different disciplines (Classics, Geography and Information Computer Technology). It’s also empowered us to formulate a series of new research questions, as our scholarly curiosity has responded to the plurality of different questions to which data can be subjected now that it is in a digital form. Most importantly, however, this new medium has the potential to take our research beyond the ivory walls of academia into everybody’s homes. This is a somewhat scary prospect, since we risk our authority by exposing our work so publicly. Yet it’s also tremendously exciting, with the prospect of reaching out to a whole new group of potential scholars – the general public – and taking them with us as we pursue our intellectual enquiry, something, of course, which the OU has been doing since its inception. I’m digging dighums.

Digging hums

March 18, 2010

Greetings all. To start in the confessional mode…: my name’s Elton Barker and I’m a lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University. That means that I study and teach all things ancient Greek and Roman – from language and literature to pictures on pots and the ideas that underpin the culture.

I’m prepared to accept that classics might not strike everyone as being particularly sexy and even less to do with the modern world. So, why am I starting a blog? Well, the immediate answer is that I’m curious to get feedback on a project that I’m currently running. Project HESTIA is using the latest ICT to explore the world of an ancient Greek historian (called Herodotus) and to bring that world into everybody’s home. (For more info go to: Therefore, I’d like to use this blog, at least initially, to tell the story of how this project came about and of the journey on which it’s taken us. But, since we’re making use of the latest ICT (a digital text, web-mapping tools including GoogleEarth, etc), I hope too that our experiences may prove of interest or even of benefit for anyone else venturing out of their dusty library into the world wide web.

Questions that this blog will endeavour to discuss over the forthcoming months include the following:

  • Can only established scholars afford to blog?
  • I dig hums, do you? What digital humanities can – and can’t – do for you.
  • Where will the infrastructure to support digital projects come from? Considering top-down and bottom-up models.
  • What happens when the money runs out? – and other horror stories arising from questions of sustainability.
  • I’m excited by having Herodotus in GoogleEarth – but will the cool kids be? Trying to make our data exciting and reusable.
  • How much ICT do you need to know to be a digital humanist?
  • The university of the air: what’s the potential to use the web to engage the public with our research, and how can we do it better?

I’ll also try to describe and comment on seminars, meetings or other projects that catch my eye. But, as with any such venture, this blog will only work if you get involved. So, comments and suggestions will always be welcome, starting now. Together I hope that we’ll make this both interesting and even fun.


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