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This is not an existing tools project but rather a proposal for a tools project arising from the Digital Tools Summit at the University of Virginia. For more on the Summit see or notes at

The Tool_Summit_Conclusions on the Tool Summit are being written on this wiki.


The humanities, as a scholarly disciplines, prizes individual scholarship. There is a long history of collaboration in producing joint works and analysis, but the greatest rewards go to those who have worked in isolation. The books and papers that emerge from that isolation make unique and personal contributions to scholarly fields. The book format provides a flexible medium for arguing, explaining, and demonstrating and a relatively long production period that allows for repeated interaction on a specific topic by a limited and known set of authors.

Digital tools enable a new kind of collaboration, grounded in a shared, rich representation (perhaps evolving with the collaboration activity) of textual, audio, or visual material. Digital representations of material can be searched and analyzed and altered at electronic speed. More dramatically, they lead to orderly cooperation by many, perhaps hundreds, of individuals. And all of these collaborators can access and edit the same representation of data from geographically distant sites.

Digital scholarly projects, especially if they use custom software for presentation and processing, demand a level of technical, managerial, and design expertise that content providers often do not possess. These projects require a team of scholars to handle information that is based on a well-defined methodology and technicians to design, build, and/or implement software and hardware configurations. The end-products of such collaborations are passed on to academic and research libraries and archives that must be able to collect, disseminate, and preserve machine-readable data in useful and accessible forms. At one level, collaboration diverges from a basic principle of individual scholarship. For better or worse, when a scholar decides to create or make use of shared digital resources, he loses the option of working solo. This change is not merely the formation of a team of experts, but a basic shift in academic culture. By comparison, research in the sciences has long recognized team efforts. Research reports and papers are often the product of coordinated efforts by many researchers over a long period and several members of the team will be credited as authors. A similar emphasis on collaborative research and writing has not yet made its way into the thinking of humanists, so it is not surprising that the movement toward complex digital tools — which the individual scholar often does not master and use on her own — has been slow.

Summit participants explored aspects of digitally enabled collaboration, focusing on the tools that facilitate collaboration. We believe that they enable the creation of new scholarly processes as well as dramatic increases in productivity. Such tools:

• Provide novel forms of expression (visual, virtual reality, 3D, and time compression).

• Translate between alternative forms of representation (lossless and lossy).

• Collect data with mechanical sensors and recorders.

• Track the details of collaborative activity and coordination.

• Facilitate sharing of data and complex, timely interactions.

• Enforce standards and user-defined ontologies, data dictionaries, etc.

• Analyze material based on domain knowledge that is built into the tool.

The consensus of the group was to divide such tools into two categories. The first category is not specific to humanistic research, but includes tools that ride the technology wave and appear to serve a very general audience. They include:

• Grid technologies, in particular data grids that will provide transparent access to disparate, heterogeneous data resources.

• Very high speed communication, such as Internet3.

• Optical character recognition tools that can scan-in text and image content, even content that is obscured or otherwise difficult to see.

• “Gisting” tools that translate portions of text from one language to another so that the researcher can get a simple notion of the content of a text.

• Data mining tools that find complex patterns within poorly structured data.

• General purpose teleconference.

These tools are certainly valuable and are heavily used by scholars as well as business and personal users. Academic or research applications may be secondary to commercial applications, however, so the scholarly community cannot expect tool designers to cater to its particular needs. Indeed, the ebb and flow of development of these tools is more likely to be driven by market forces and popular interests.

The second category is tools that are tailored to the humanist and to scholarly collaboration. These are what the community itself needs to design and build. They include:

• Wikis expanded for humanists. Some should support greater structure over content as well as additional editorial or quality control functionality.

• Tools to find and evaluate material in user-specific ways.

• Tools to define narrative pathways through a three-dimensional environment, attaching content to locations along the path, and with the ability to explain at each juncture why particular paths were chosen.

• Tools to translate between representation-rich formats at a sophisticated level, with annotation and toleration for limited ambiguity.

A scholar operating in an environment populated with digital data resources channels her scholarship in her choices and uses of her tools, such as mark-up, database structure, interfaces, and search engine. The scholarly environment has become more technical, and the quality of the work produced is influenced by decisions that are of a technical nature. This requires that the scholar understand the function as well as the limitations of the tools selected. Many tools must be tailored to particular uses. That is, the user determines and sets parameters to control what results are returned. A simple example is the search engine. Advanced search parameters permit the user to specify what a search returns, so that the user is not overwhelmed with irrelevant or superfluous items. However, the user also needs to be able to predict what will not be returned as results, so that blind spots do not emerge.

Because these tools are just emerging and are evolving rapidly, participants concluded that the most valuable aid for collaboration would be a clearinghouse to inform and educate digital scholars about useful tools. Specifically, they would like to see a forum for evaluating when and how a tool is usefully wielded and what undocumented bugs the tool might exhibit in its functioning. This would include a careful description of each tool and a URL link to the tool’s host site; the creator’s vision of the tool; related software tools, resource, and a list of projects which use that tool; and rich indexing and categorization of tools listed in the clearinghouse or repository.

To be even more useful, site content could be subject to a quality control process, which might include peer review of which tools are listed, as well as in-depth objective analyses of the pros and cons of the tool for various applications and necessary level of maintenance. Competitive tools in a category should be rated fairly against one another on several scales. The site should also provide relevant facts, such as dissemination history, pointers to full documentation, objective descriptions of uses by other scholars across multiple disciplines, statistics on adoption, and published results that cite the tool’s use.

This kind of a clearinghouse would require long-term funding support. However, it would be a useful mechanism for funding agencies to learn what tools are more productive, how they are being used, who uses them, and what tool functionality is still needed.

Participants also felt that there should be follow-up conferences and outreach meetings to discuss the issues related to digitally enabled collaboration. These conferences should include both those who fund tools and those who use them (e.g., grad students, post docs, and rising and established scholars). Outreach meetings could expand the digital scholarly community and target those who are reluctant or ill-equipped to take advantage of new technologies.

Collaboration that uses computer technology requires connectivity. Scholars around the world can collaborate in this virtual environment only where there is ease of communication and transfer of information. Connections between institutions have expanded greatly over the last decade, and many of the bigger and richer institutions use terrestrial fiber optic cables. As a result, many scholars routinely exchange gigabytes of data per second and humanities scholarship has become “data rich.” However, not everyone has access to high speed connections. Not all institutions provide access to sufficient bandwidth and there is a growing divide between have and have-not institutions and individuals. Scholarly teamwork that can rely on the transfer of gigabytes of memory every second will be quite different from that which is limited to 50 kilobytes per second.

In order for the evolving use of digital tools in the humanities to be explored and to blossom fully, institutions need to make certain that scholars who pioneer digital methods are rewarded and encouraged. Universities should work together to design a clear method of evaluating and appraising collaborative creation of digital data resources and other digital works. Our faculties and administrators cannot have assurance that such computer-aided research is a legitimate part of the academic enterprise until there is a process for dealing with digital scholarly works.

In the end, scholarship is the result of human thought. The tools are simply devices to aid in applying the human mind. Collaboration tools are meant to help groups of people excel in concert. With digital support, these efforts can incorporate the thought of many more individuals than those without automated support.

Written by Anita Jones and Lewis Lancaster

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This page has been accessed 14,861 times. This page was last modified on 22 May 2007, at 18:22.


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