Tuesday, 7 December 2010

On Mentors, DH and beyond

A few weeks ago Dan Cohen sent a very moving tweet about his mentor's death at the early age of 66. By unpleasant coincidence something very similar happened to me some years ago. That was long before the days of social media so the internet never heard about it, but Dan's tweet set me thinking about the question of mentoring in DH. I've been fortunate enough to have several mentors in my academic DH career, among them Lou Burnard and Susan Hockey, from whom I learned more than I could describe here about our field. But I wondered if there are certain common qualities that we see in our mentors, and why it is, therefore, that we miss them so much.

The weirdest thing about mentorship is that nobody actually signs up for it. We are all assigned mentors at the beginning of our official academic career but that's an administrative convention: those arrangements may just work out by accident but your real mentors are ones who, like cats and horses, arrive unexpectedly. At the moment I am fortunate enough to have three people I think of as mentors at UCL, all senior people, none fully DH, but all DH sympathisers. I know don't know if they even realise that I think of them as such because, let's face it, they have never volunteered and I’ve never exactly asked them. But I admire what they do and I aspire to be as good at doing it as they are and I try and learn by watching them. Does that make them mentors? I think so. Would they be pleased if they knew that's how I think of them? I hope so. But it’s strange that it's the kind of thing that is never formally spoken of until after death.

Maybe that's just being terribly British, but it occurs to me that inherent in the concept of mentorship is the question of loss. By nature most of our mentors tend to be more senior than we are. This means that we know that at some point we're going to lose them either because they'll leave, retire or at worst die. Once it’s happened, you learn greedily, knowing that your mentors won’t always be there to teach you.

So what do we owe to our mentors? I think it's the fact that we benefit from their experience. They are the people we can go to when we don't know what to do; when we feel unsure about the way our careers are going; when we want to work out how they did something right and we just can't figure out how to do it ourselves. Sometimes we just like to watch them being really good at something and to be proud of being associated with them. We hope that they take an interest in us, and share in the pleasure of our successes. But in the end a great mentor is the person who you can guarantee will pick you up when something goes badly wrong, put you back together and tell you how you can go forward, however impossible it might seem. Perhaps even more crucially, however trivial our latest crisis might seem to them, they should understand why we feel that the world is about to end, and act accordingly. No wonder we miss them so much when they are no longer there to do all of those things.

But the question of mentorship is no longer simply about the past at least for those of us in my generation of DH scholars. I recall a conversation that I had with Ray Siemens and Steve Ramsey a few years ago about what would happen when some of the great senior scholars of our field retired. We looked at each other rather uneasily and realised that we would be part of the next generation of senior people in the field, thanks to the damage wrought by the cuts of the 80s. It occurred to us that we would have to become the people who might be needed to mentor the next generation. I don’t know about Steve and Ray, but I didn’t and still don’t feel grown up enough, or nearly eminent enough for that kind of role. Personally this makes me feel rather uncomfortable; although it's a pleasant kind of discomfort. I guess it's because, as I said, you don't sign up to be a mentor, but do your best if people choose you.

It makes me wonder, though, what kind of things a mentor should do now in the socially networked age. Is the concept meaningful any more when we can tweet our hearts out about the latest crisis, and ask Facebook friends for advice? Can one mentor by email, Skype or IM, or must it be an F2F activity? Is there any point weeping into a webcam, or celebrating success via a headset? Can we mentor someone thousands of miles away as well as someone we see regularly? I think it’s an ongoing experiment, but given what I gained from my mentors it’s one I feel bound to take part in.


For JWS, 1936-2002: teacher, inspiration, friend.

“Then others for the breath of words respect,
Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect.”

Monday, 20 September 2010

Oxford past and DH future

Today I have been in Oxford, almost 14 years after I started work at the HCU (Humanities Computing Unit). It's not like I've never been there since. But I’ve just been external examiner for a PhD and I think that's made me reflect on my status, since being external in the UK system implies that you are An if not The Expert in the discipline. Inevitably that tends to make me a bit reflective about where I am, and how I got here.

I couldn't help thinking about what I'd have made of this had I known 14 years ago that I'd be a relatively senior academic at a world top 10 ranked university in a discipline with a name that was yet to be invented (Digital Humanities). I reckon I'd have been pleased, not least because at that point I had pretty much given up all hope of an academic career. But I certainly couldn't have predicted it. Nor would I have been able to guess that in my backpack would be a laptop weighing less than 1kg and an iPad. I could not have known that I'd plan my walk from the station to where I was staying using a mapping application on a device that's a phone in name, but that it would also play MP3s to accompany the journey as well as doing almost anything else I need of it aside from making tea. Nor would I have predicted that my favourite skinny-ish jeans plus my luggage and aforementioned phone would have been bought online. I mean while I was here I built the first website for my faculty. We hardly dreamt of online shopping.

So much for progress, but what of reflection? I owe a lot to this place. It was at the HCU that I really learned my trade as a digital humanist (even if we didn't call it that at the time). I will always owe a huge debt of gratitude to my colleagues but especially my then boss Lou Burnard and Stuart Lee: colleague, friend, fellow sufferer as a Leeds fan and pub quiz teammate sans pareil. It's just so sad that the HCU did not survive. But I certainly found my home in this brilliant discipline that never stops changing and growing with the technology.

I could hardly believe how lucky I was to find myself in a field in which people really wanted to hear about your work however junior and unimportant you were and who were happy to share theirs. I was indeed fortunate to be one of the few people at the time who understood both SGML and English Literature. Today’s early career scholars probably have a far more profound knowledge of the field, as well as far greater technical skills. They must regard us old fogeys with senior posts we seem to have wandered into much as we thought of the beneficiaries of the post war university expansion: lucky, but taking up jobs we could have done better. Still I thank the good fortune that led to me stumbling into the light of DH. It was so brilliant, for example, giving a talk about DH at Bangor last week. I hope some of the grad students I talked to either have or will come to share my passion for my field.

In the end I guess all this underlines the profound scepticism I have always felt about technological futurology. I could not possibly have predicted the kit I carry as normal and the uses to which I put it. But I loved the DH world in which I found myself then. It was so new and exciting. I still do: it still is. If I come back 14 years hence who knows what sort of technologies I’ll be using. But I am sure that DH still will be as exciting and that I will still feel the same.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Reading the paradigm shift?

Morning all! (Or whatever time it is for you people in North America) It's wonderful that people are so interested in this topic and have made time to write such detailed and insightful comments. So rather than write another long comment myself I thought it might be easiest just to handle them in a post, not least because some of the same issues recur in more than one comment. I don't know if you're meant to do that in the blogosphere, so forgive me if I inadvertently transgressed the unwritten law (Thinks, 'Dinsdale....' in the voice of Spiny Norman)

Anyway evidently I missed the point a bit and underestimated the possibilities of Anthologize (and yes, thanks for pointing it out, I was using UK spelling!) So I concentrated on how it fitted into my conception of the world and my interests, prominent among which are reading in physical and digital spaces. Then I went on about it, based on a partial understanding of the topic, to my friends and colleagues. Unfortunately that means that in my interactions with Althologize and its web presence I ended up behaving like a typical humanities user as we have observed them.

In other words I made assumptions based on its name (sounds rather booky) then I looked at the web page, saw things about putting posts together and making an electronic book and then publishing it. All these words said book and print to me. (Remember I am a former literary scholar) Then I said to myself. 'I don't think I need that, it makes no sense to me.' Thus I proceeded not to download it. This is exactly what users do. They get easily confused by names and descriptions and if they don't see the point of something they don't go any further especially if, ironically enough, they would have to download and install anything. In fact I actually went a bit further and did explore your web page to find out more about the project, and most people would have been long gone by then. Amanda, if you'd like a reference for this, pick just about anything we've ever written about LAIRAH from my publications page eg 'If you Build it'... in LLC

We all want to be able to say 'No but wait, you got it wrong, you misinterpreted our work, it's so much more than you thought' And now I am convinced. But you only knew what I thought because I blogged it. Most users don't do that. They just give up. We can't be there to guide them through the resource, or answer their comments and put them right (even if you have a comment function or forum most people don't use it) Thus user testing is vital because it helps us anticipate to some extent how users might react, and to fix possible problems before they happen, and in doing so undermine their trust in the resource.

Amanda makes the very good point that there are different versions of digital reading. We have not yet studied them, but this is built into the research plan for INKE At the moment we are still gathering and analysing data for our early studies, and at this point we have not found that users are switching between many different types of device. They tend to read either at a computer screen on in print. A very few of them use phones and even fewer an e-reading device, so we haven't yet had chance to compare across devices. But this might change given that iPads and Kindles are much later into the UK market. We base our findings on what people are doing because we choose to study what people are already doing in their usual context rather than bringing them into labs and giving them things to do on different platforms. That's a perfectly valid method; it's just not the one I tend to use with humanities scholar or general readers. When we do have results ready for publication I'll be sure to blog about it, since it seems like people are really interested. Needless to say that if anyone reading this would like to take part in an INKE study, please do let me know. We'd love to hear about what you do.

And yes, I guess I do come over as a nay-sayer. As someone once said to me, 'As a user studies person you'll never be popular. You come in and tell enthusiastic people what's wrong with the lovely new thing they are so proud of, and that they have to change it.' But I don't care if I'm loved for this. I do care if as a result digital resources can be improved. It can be so much better than take it or leave it. By taking a few, quite simple things into account you can make it so much more likely that your tool or resource is more likely to be used. (cf our LAIRAH checklist) So in the end I see this as necessary pain for future gain.

Finally and by no means least thank you very much indeed to Kathie for her detailed and very informative comments about the UX team on Anthologize and what you did. I'm so pleased that this kind of serious user research was being done. The other day I was talking to someone whose opinion I respect who insisted that what I was describing in the adoption of user studies in DH was a paradigm shift. I was a bit unconvinced as it sounded too large and daunting a thing to be part of but I am beginning to wonder, and that pleases me more than anyone can imagine.

I wish you'd say more about your user studies on the web page, as it's really important stuff. I also very much hope you will write this up for academic publication. I might have an idea about how to do that.... watch this space. But seriously I think we ought to talk more about this off-blog as it were. Perhaps there could be a way to collaborate on testing as part of INKE since we already have Julie Meloni as link person.

I could go on about users and readers, and believe me I often do. I'd also like to reiterate that what I was saying was in the context of the Anthologize work, but it was meant to highlight the broader issues of the importance of users studies and testing. There is so much fascinating work to be done here. Also I am truly delighted to know that people out there are so interested in these issues. I've always thought, 'Oh well this is just me and my stuff, I'll talk about it occasionally at conferences and write articles, but nobody will really be bothered.' It's so good to know that people out there are bothered, and would like to join in the debates. Maybe there is something to this blogging lark after all...

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Raining on the Parade

OK people, fasten your seatbelts, here comes my first bloggy rant. I realise these is a risk that I may upset or even offend some people I regard as good friends and colleagues. So let me first say, please remember I admire what you do, and in no way can I claim to be able to build tools, write code not related to the XML standard or anything of the kind. Also I like you. But, I also love my work and what I do and so I can't just sit here and say nothing.

There is a lot of buzz about at the moment about Anthologise. Most of it is good. I can see why. It's a great achievement to get a group of people together and build a working tool in a week. But here is my objection, was there anyone there at all that has any knowledge of how to conduct user studies of digital reading? Because I can't see any evidence of this.

The reason why this matters is that those of us who study online reading and general user behaviour can show that is that there is a very great difference between reading online and offline. So it's just not that simple to say, take blog posts, put them together, make a book, hey presto. Because if a blogger is any good s/he should know, or perhaps just intuit by accident, that people read differently online (They take in about 40% less information) Thus if you write for the online medium, you ought to do it differently than for print, and that can be a great opportunity. Thus just putting blogs together and printing them does not a literary or journalistic success make. In fact a printed blog collection seems to me to be a wounded digital object with its wings clipped. It can't make use of all its original hypertextual muscles to take off as it ought to, and so it's grounded and trapped on paper.

I love reading in print, but when I do I want to read a subtle piece of argument or something with all kinds of fascinating literary language and complexity, because print is the best place for them. They don't go over well on a blog: we just don't have the processing power to want to comprehend them online. Conversely, at least to me, blog posts seem too flat and utilitarian when printed.

So if I had been there, would I have poured cold water on the idea? Well yes I might, or at least I might have brought my knowledge to the table to take part in the discussion. But what I'd have actually said was, 'OK I have doubts, but let’s test it on the users and see what we get'.

I am really pleased that Anthologise had a UX team. But I can’t quite see what serious UX work you can actually do in a week. And this is a problem because if you are going to design something that users really want you need to study them first. You need to talk to them, interview them, observe them, feed back the results of this into the design process, try it again, retest, get more feedback etc. Otherwise there is a huge risk that what you get is a tool that people in DH love and get but other people, actual, real users don't get. But please prove me wrong if you can. I'd love to know if you can do mega rapid user testing as it might be a technique that we could use in our group. I mean that seriously.

Now it might be that Anthologise will be a huge success, and I really do wish it well. But I cannot get enthusiastic about this kind of development method for DH tools in general, because we know from our work that this kind of attitude, what we've called 'designer as user', is fraught with problems. Often we techies or DH people understand complex digital functionality, and imagine that if we can do it, anyone can. But it turns out that as a reuslt it's much too complicated for users, or they just don't see the point of it. And if that happens we know they just will not use things. If you happen to get lucky and design a tool that everyone loves and gets, good. But we find that, oddly enough, resources that work are more likely to do so if users are taken into account, and if they are not at least a third of them are likely to fail. Why take that risk? If this is just an experiment and nobody cares if it works, fine. If it's supposed to work, please involve users. In the case of Anthologise I cannot see any mention of this in future plans.

You may say that we have written possible use cases, showing people what they could do. But I have as many doubts about these as the I do with use of personae. They are a more complicated version of designer as user, because they simply replicate the assumptions we make when writing them. It's very hard honestly to imagine how someone utterly different from yourself will use something. Unless of course you've got data from a great deal of user testing. Again, prove me wrong here, tell me how you got that.

DH history is littered with tools that have been written about with a kind of missionary zeal. If you study the DH literature there are far more articles exhorting people to use tools and techniques in the mainstream than there are about people who actually do use them. This is really, really not about lack of knowledge, it's about lack of fit with what people want. We keep saying, 'If we shout loud enough people will come.' They just won't, won't, won't if what we are offering is not right. I know we love cool digital things, and want others to love them, but just going on about how great they are is not working. How long do we have to keep shouting before we realise this? It's been decades now.

Sorry I am in full rant mode now, but it frustrates me so much. This is at the core of my work, we have evidence about it, people even quote our research now. Then they just plain ignore the message of it.

I love digital things too. I want more people to use them. But I am convinced that we can only do this if we find out what users want and design for that. What's so hard about that? It might mean we have to change our plans a bit, and produce things that are simpler, but perhaps more elegant and pleasant to use as a result. It's an exercise in listening, not in imposing our own ideas. Why is that so wrong?

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Oh Canada, or UCLDH @ DHSI

Zen and the art of long haul travel.

Unfortunately the world seems to know that I have started a blog, which leads to a certain level of expectation of content being produced, which I am not certain I can live up to. But then again I fear that if I take to blogging like I have taken to tweeting this is going to take over a lot of my life, but anyway, I’ll see what happens. I often tweet on train journeys, but it’s a bit pointless when there is no internet access up here somewhere between and above Coventry and Peterborough! (I love this neat map app they have on Air Canada, it tells you where you are to the mile and what direction you are going in. I anticipate that this might get less fun soon, as in over the Atlantic, still over the Atlantic, yup it’s the Atlantic again etc) So I am going to try something new for me, blogging my journey to DHSI.

I realise that in some quarters I am regarded as the kind indomitable feisty geek girl who is afraid of nothing other than the sky falling on her head. (And that’s the kind version) But regret to inform that in fact I am quite nervous of travel, especially long trips on my own. Or at least I was. What follows is yet more evidence of the power of UCLDH to change lives, or at least mine. My travel anxiety is not of the usual kind. Unlike a very high- powered academic friend of mine, who used to be scared she would fall out of the aeroplane at high altitude, I am not actually frightened of flying. I love planes, and the smell of avgas has the equivalent allure for me that new mown grass or their mother’s perfume has for other people. In fact at an early age, before I realised that I could neither see properly nor do physics, I was determined to be a fighter pilot. So it's definitely not flying that is a problem.

For me it’s the anxiety of forgetting things. I am always convinced that something terrible will happen and I’ll leave something vital at home. I always, as a consequence, pack far too many things, especially clothes, as I hate the idea of not having quite the right thing to wear in all eventualities. Not surprisingly perhaps that one of my recurring anxiety dreams is trying to pack a case in which things simply refuse to stay, or have to be chased about the house because they won’t allow themselves to be packed. Odd I know. Most people dream of exams not prepared for, being naked giving lectures etc. Not me. Freudians out there may leave a comment. I’d be interested to know your interpretation.

Also I worry about whether I’ll get jetlagged and not be able to cope with it, whether I’ll be able to sleep when I get there, whether I will miss my connecting flight and whether my suitcase will go missing (with all those important clothes in it) In general I tend to be a positive compendium of travel-related tension. (Ooh look, right now we are between Ripon and Manchester, a good place to be, if we were not heading west) Sorry I digress

This trip none of the above has happened. I am unbelievably calm. I packed in the minimum time last night. When I thought I could not find my passport I did not yell at husband and dash about randomly, whimpering all the while. I just calmly informed him and he calmly found it for me in the place I thought I’d looked. And then I didn’t even get cross with him for being smug about it. I did not fret and wake up hours before it was time to get up. I did not dash about the house collecting things I’d become convinced I might need at the last moment. I did get a bit wobbly when dropped of at the station, but not to do that would be a complete miracle for me. I should add that another irrational enxiety on leaving home for a long journey on my own, is that something awful will happen while I’m away. It’s daft, I know but it never, never gets easier. But nevertheless on this trip, for the first time, I did not get to Heathrow feeling like a completely stressed out wreck.

How has such a transformation happened I wonder? I think it’s to do with the launch. It seems like the last few weeks were just burned out a few of my panic circuits. It’s as if I went so far into worry that I came right out the other side. For example, if you lost your beloved laptop, and indeed only computer, to a hard disk fail, what would you do? Scream, cry, throw things, panic, vituperate? All of the above would be a normal reaction. But when that happened to me a week before launch none of that occurred, just a kind of scarily controlled rationality. I phoned the support people, booked it in for a repair, wondered to myself where I’d get another one, and found a temporary replacement, all without the slightest whisper of a hissy fit.

“Now, this is not normal” I thought to myself. But apparently it is. It seems that there is at least anecdotal evidence that this kind of reaction to anxiety can actually happen. People can stand chronic fear for a few weeks, and then somehow it’s as if they can just adapt, and resume their normal lives. Usually, mind, this is in war zones or such things, but it seems like something of the kind has happened to me. I’ve just got over being stressed, and all because the continual terror of preparing for the launch with one person fewer than we should have had seems to have shot me straight through anxiety into an eerie calm. I thought this might lapse when we’d got the immediate crisis over. But it seems not. It’s as if I just can’t be bothered to get stressed about minor things such as will I have enough pairs of shoes and would I be able to carry my suitcase if I did? And all of this is the unexpected consequence of UCLDH. I think I’m pleased. I’m not completely sure that the benefit was quite worth the pain. But it certainly makes travelling much more pleasant.

Dogma

Later....

So here I am in Calgary airport, waiting for my connection to Victoria. Come to think of it, my cousin probably managed the building of at least part of it, given that the company she used to work for seems to have built most of this city. I really should have made time to call in to see her, but only thought about that last night. I was booking all this a few weeks before the launch when I didn’t have the headspace to work all that out. Oh well, next time maybe.

When in airports I always find myself thinking of one of my favourite scenes in the very fine Kevin Smith movie Dogma, in which the two angels stuck on earth for eternity find themselves musing on how airports bring out the best in humanitity. It really doesn’t come over well when described, but I fully recommend watching it. It’s extremely funny: think Milton with extra expletives... lots of extra expletives. But definitely one of my favourite movies. I am however a Smith purist. If it doesn't include Jay and Silent Bob, it's definitely not worth watching in my view.

Flight was horrible and tested the newfound Zen to the limit. Full of sceaming kids, so I didn’t manage to sleep. But still the bag came off the belt in one piece and in plenty of time to make the transfer. But yes I did worry about it a bit, I cannot lie, and did offer my usual prayer to the gods of air travel to make sure it didn’t get lost. But then, however calm you are there is no denying that long haul flying makes you feel like death. At least it does me. I am just refusing to think about what time it is at home at the moment. I have hidden the clock on this computer, as I don’t have admin rights so can’t change it. Sigh! Oh how I miss my lovely (light!) laptop. Flight has just been called so better go. More soon...When I wake up that is.

Friday, 28 May 2010

The Digital Elephant

I don’t blog much, and indeed for the first time I thought it might be a good idea to have my own pages and stop piggy backing on UCLDH. But I started thinking about how I might contribute to Hacking the Academy and into my head popped a thought that has been disturbing me for a while and has been brought into sharper focus by recent goings on at UCLDH. That is the digital elephant in the room, in other words the real cost not just of creating but of preserving and curating digital data. There have been plenty of blogs and tweets decrying or praising what James Murdoch said at the launch of our centre last week. But whatever side of the debate you are on, I am glad of the exposure, because it brings to the fore an uncomfortable truth. Whether or not you put a pay wall in front of it, digital data is not free. It is not free to create, and it especially is not free to maintain or preserve.

I say it isn’t free to create, and doubtless readers will want to know what it costs me to write this blog. Well time for one thing, that I am not spending answering email, writing research proposals, having meetings, generally running UCLDH when I have too many things to do. And in the end time is a cost, especially as UCL pay for me to work with digital material. I recall John Unsworth talking about this opportunity cost in relation to editing Post Modern Culture. That was many years ago, but still it seems not to be taken seriously.

But mainly I am disturbed by the cost of maintaining and preserving things digital in the academic and cultural sector. At the moment there is an uncomfortable conspiracy of silence about this. When the creation of such material is publicly funded there is, in truth, no money properly to maintain digital resources, and thus a serious risk that public investment and the time taken by academics and information professionals in their creation is wasted. And yet we all lie about this. Sorry, that’s a harsh word, but we do. As applicants we all cross our fingers and insist that our universities will maintain digital resources for at least ten years, knowing that there is absolutely no hope of this happening, unless the PI herself happens to have time to do this. As reviewers we know that’s the case, but we want to see good things funded, so we pretend to believe it, and funders must do the same too. No funding council I ever heard of checks to see if resources really are still there, and still usable after even five, let along ten or more years, so they also become complicit in the ignorance of the elephant.

But what about institutional repositories, you may protest. Sure resources can be put into the institutional repository or dark archived, but that’s not enough, as we all know really. The work we did for our LAIRAH project showed that users are very quick to recognise when a digital resource is no longer updated, and that as a result they distrust its content and prefer not to use it. Instead they prefer commercial resources that look as though they might work well. That’s even the case if a website looks a bit out of date, let alone having problems with the content not working properly. So it’s vital that resources are updated and maintained regularly if we are to have any hope that they will be used after their completion. But who pays? The research councils don’t and neither do universities, whatever we might promise in our grant applications. At least there may be fortunate people out there in universities with dedicated support of this kind, but I’ve never heard of it in the UK at least. I’d love to establish this kind of service at UCL, but how would we fund it in the terrifyingly cash strapped times that are ahead?

So the unpleasant truth of this is that perhaps freely available digital resources don’t work, because if you don’t have an income stream coming in, then you can’t afford to maintain them, and thus they die if they can’t be used. I know, though, that the commercial publisher I used to work for regularly does update its resources, both back and front ends and so the resources that I worked on 15 years ago still work very well. I know that not to be the case for many, if not most resources produced in the academic sector. The reason why people charge for digital resources is not only to make profits, but also to keep their products doing what they ought to.

And all this is without going into the complex problems facing us concerning digital resources in the cultural heritage sectors and in academia, all of which were created with small scale project funding, all of which work in a different way, and many of which now will not work together in any kind of coordinated system or with a common interface. The unpalatable reality is that a lot of these freely available resources might stay free in future, but will be anything but available, because they won’t work and there will be no money to maintain them, or resurrect them. And that’s a huge scandal really. The cost of creating them must run into tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of public money, which is, in effect, wasted as a result. And worse the intellectual effort of all the creators is also lost. Few people seem to care about this, but imagine what would happen if I told the humanities scholars in my faculty that every copy of their book would be pulped in ten years time and that although a library might have an archive copy, no readers would be able to use it and that unless they regularly re-edited the old word file on their computer, it too would be unusable, by anyone but a technical expert. They would be horrified, and rightly so. But this is the analogue version of what we are facing in terms of digital resources if nobody can afford to maintain them.

So what do I propose to do? Well it’s not easy to find a solution to all this, especially not in these economic times. In an ideal world we would have digital curators whose task it would be to manage the maintenance and updating of digital resources in the academic and cultural heritage sectors. And they would be funded either by universities or public funds. But is that a realistic prospect? Not now I fear.

In a sense I am doing the very thing I tend to deprecate in humanities scholarship, in pointing out that a problem exists but being unable to offer a solution. But I do feel that it’s very important at least to point out the presence of the pachyderm. It’s not a very right-on thought, but even Richard Stallman has pointed out that free speech and free beer are not the same thing. If we want free in digital terms it may be that gratis is not the sense in which we must interpret the word. We might have to resign ourselves to the fact that free equals temporary, while only commercial resources might be expected to last. Or we may have to find creative ways to make content free to access, but fund it in some other way to ensure its life beyond initial public funding. For the life of me I can’t see what that might be, but for the continued life of digital resources, I do hope someone else can, or there will be a lot of digital white elephants in years to come.