Libraries want to understand the researchers who use their digital collections and researchers want to understand the nature of these collections better. The seminar ‘Mining digital repositories’ brought them together at the Dutch Koninklijke Bibliotheek (KB) on 10-11 April, 2014, to discuss both the good and the bad of working with digitised collections – especially newspapers. And to look ahead at what a ‘digital utopia’ might look like. One easy point to agree on: it would be a world with less restrictive copyright laws. And a world where digital ‘portals’ are transformed into ‘platforms’ where researchers can freely ‘tinker’ with the digital data. – Report & photographs by Inge Angevaare, KB.
Libraries and researchers: a changing relationship
‘A lot has changed in recent years,’ Arjan van Hessen of the University of Twente and the CLARIN project told me. ‘Ten years ago someone might have suggested that perhaps we should talk to the KB. Now we are practically in bed together.’
But each relationship has its difficult moments. Researchers are not happy when they discover gaps in the data on offer, such as missing issues or volumes of newspapers. Or incomprehensible transcriptions of texts because of inadequate OCR (optical character recognition). Conference organisers Toine Pieters and Jaap Verheul (University of Utrecht) invited Hans-Jorg Lieder of the Berlin State Library to explain why he ‘could not give researchers everything everywhere today’.
Lieder & Thomas: ‘Digitising newspapers is difficult’
Both Deborah Thomas of the Library of Congress and Hans-Jorg Lieder stressed how complicated it is to digitise historical newspapers. ‘OCR does not recognise the layout in columns, or the “continued on page 5”. Plus the originals are often in a bad state – brittle and sometimes torn paper, or they are bound in such a way that text is lost in the middle. And there are all these different fonts, e.g., Gothic script in German, and the well-known long-s/f confusion.’ Lieder provided the ultimate proof of how difficult digitising newspapers is: ‘Google only digitises books, they don’t touch newspapers.’
Another thing researchers should be aware of: ‘Texts are liquid things. Libraries enrich and annotate texts, versions may differ.’ Libraries do their best to connect and cluster collections of newspapers (e.g., in the Europeana Newspapers), but ‘the truth of the matter is that most newspapers collections are still analogue; at this moment we have only bits and pieces in digital form, and there is a lot of bad OCR.’ There is no question that libraries are working on improving the situation, but funding is always a problem. And the choices to be made with bad OCR are sometimes difficult: Should we manually correct it all, or maybe retype it, or maybe even wait a couple of years for OCR technology to improve?’
Researchers: how to mine for meaning
Researchers themselves are debating how they can fit these new digital resources into their academic work. Obviously, being able to search millions of newspaper pages from different countries in a matter of days opens up a lot of new research possibilities. Conference organisers Toine Pieters and Jaap Verheul (University of Utrecht) are both involved in the HERA Translantis project which is taking a break from traditional ‘national’ historical research by looking at transnational influences of so-called ‘reference cultures’:
In the 17th century the Dutch Republic was such a reference culture. In the 20th century the United States developed into a reference culture and Translantis digs deep into the digital newspaper archives of the Netherlands, the UK, Belgium and Germany to try and find out how the United States is depicted in public discourse:
Joris van Eijnatten introduced another transnational HERA project, ASYMENC, which is exploring cultural aspects of European identity with digital humanities methodologies.
All of this sounds straightforward enough, but researchers themselves have yet to develop a scholarly culture around the new resources:
- What type of research questions do the digital collections allow? Are these new questions or just old questions to be researched in a new way?
- What is scientific ‘proof’ if the collections you mine have big gaps and faulty OCR?
- How to interpret the findings? You can search words and combinations of words in digital repositories, but how can you assess what the words mean? Meanings change over time. Also: how can you distinguish between irony and seriousness?
- How do you know that a repository is trustworthy?
- How to deal with language barriers in transnational research? Mere translations of concepts do not reflect the sentiment behind the words.
- How can we analyse what newspapers do not discuss (also known as the ‘Voldemort’ phenomenon)?
- How sustainable is digital content? Long-term storage of digital objects is uncertain and expensive. (Microfilms are much easier to keep, but then again, they do not allow for text mining …)
- How do available tools influence research questions?
- Researchers need a better understanding of text mining per se.
Some humanities scholars have yet to be convinced of the need to go digital
Rens Bod, Director of the Dutch Centre for Digital Humanities enthusiastically presented his ideas about the value of parsing (analysing parts of speech) for uncovering deep patterns in digital repositories. If you want to know more: Bod recently published a book about it.
But in the context of this blog, his remarks about the lack of big data awareness and competencies among many humanities scholars, including young students, was perhaps more striking. The University of Amsterdam offers a crash course in working with digital data to bridge the gap. The one-week, free course, deals with all aspects of working with data, from ‘gathering data’ to ‘cooking data’.
As the scholarly dimensions of working with big data are not this blogger’s expertise, I will not delve into these further but gladly refer you to an article Toine Pieters and Jaap Verheul are writing about the scholarly outcomes of the conference [I will insert a link when it becomes available].
More data providers: the ‘bad’ guys in the room
It was the commercial data providers in the room themselves that spoke of ‘bad guys’ or ‘bogey man’ – an image both Ray Abruzzi of Cengage Learning/Gale and Elaine Collins of DC Thomson Family History were hoping to at least soften a bit. Both companies provide huge quantities of digitised material. And, yes, they are in it for the money, which would account for their bogeyman image. But, they both stressed, everybody benefits from their efforts:
Cengage Learning is putting 25-30 million pages online annually. Thomson is digitising 750 million (!) newspaper & periodical pages for the British Library. Collins: ‘We take the risk, we do all the work, in exchange for certain rights.’ If you want to access the archive, you have to pay.
In and of itself, this is quite understandable. Public funding just doesn’t cut it when you are talking billions of pages. Both the KB’s Hans Jansen and Rens Bod (U. of Amsterdam) stressed the need for public/private partnerships in digitisation projects.
Elaine Collins readily admitted that researchers ‘are not our most lucrative stakeholders’; that most of Thomson’s revenue comes from genealogists and the general public. So why not give digital humanities scholars free access to their resources for research purposes, if need be under the strictest conditions that the information does not go anywhere else? Both Abruzzi and Collins admitted that such restricted access is difficult to organise. ‘And once the data are out there, our entire investment is gone.’
Libraries to mediate access?
Perhaps, Ray Abruzzi allowed, access to certain types of data, e.g., metadata, could be allowed under certain conditions, but, he stressed, individual scholars who apply to Cengage for access do not stand a chance. Their requests for data are far too varied for Cengage to have any kind of business proposition. And there is the trust issue. Abruzzi recommended that researchers turn to libraries to mediate access to certain content. If libraries give certain guarantees, then perhaps …
What do researchers want from libraries?
More data, of course, including more contemporary data (… ah, but copyright …)
And better quality OCR, please.
What if libraries have to choose between quality and quantity? That is when things get tricky, because the answer would depend on the researcher you question. Some may choose quantity, others quality.
Should libraries build tools for analysing content? The researchers in the room seemed to agree that libraries should concentrate on data rather than tools. Tools are very temporary, and researchers often need to build the tools around their specific research questions.
But it would be nice if libraries started allowing users to upload enrichments to the content, such as better OCR transcriptions and/or metadata.
And there is one more urgent request: that libraries become more transparent in what is in their collections and what is not. And be more open about the quality of the OCR in the collections. Take, e.g., the new Dutch national search service Delpher. A great project, but scholars must know exactly what’s in it and what’s not for their findings to have any meaning. And for scientific validity they must be able to reconstruct such information in retrospect. So a full historical overview of what is being added at what time would be a valuable addition to Delpher. (I shall personally communicate this request to the Delpher people, who are, I may add, working very hard to implement user requests).
New to the library: labs for researchers
Deborah Thomas of the Library of Congress made no bones about her organisation’s strategy towards researchers: We put out the content, and you do with it whatever you want. In addition to API’s (Application Protocol Interfaces), the Library is also allowing for downloads of bulk content. The basic content is available free of charge, but additional metadata levels may come at a price.
The British Library (BL) is taking a more active approach. The BL’s James Baker explained how the BL is trying to bridge the gap between researchers and content by providing special labs for researchers. As I (unfortunately!) missed that parallel session, let me mention the KB’s own efforts to set up a KB lab where researchers are invited to experiment with KB data making use of open source tools. The lab is still in its ‘pre-beta phase’ as Hildelies Balk of the KB explained. If you want the full story, by all means attend the Digital Humanities Benelux Conference in the Hague on 12-13 June, where Steven Claeyssens and Clemens Neudecker of the KB are scheduled to launch the beta-version of the platform. Here is a sneak preview of the lab, a scansion machine built by KB Data Services in collaboration with phonologist Marc van Oostendorp (audio in Dutch):
Europeana: the aggregator
“Portals are for visiting; platforms are for building on.”
Another effort by libraries to facilitate transnational research is the aggregation of their content in Europeana, especially Europeana Newspapers. For the time being the metadata are being aggregated, but in Alistair Dunning‘s vision, Europeana will grow from an end-user portal into a data brain, a cloud platform that will include the content and allow for metadata enrichment:
Dunning also indicated that Europeana might develop brokerage services to clear content for non-commercial purposes. In a recent interview Toine Pieters said that researchers would welcome Europeana to take such a role, ‘because individual researchers should not be bothered with all these access/copyright issues.’ In the United States, the Library of Congress is not contemplating a move in that direction, Deborah Thomas told her audience. ‘It is not our mission to negotiate with publishers.’ And recent ‘Mickey Mouse’ legislation, said to have been inspired by Disney interests, seems to be leading to less rather than more access.
Dreaming of digital utopias
What would a digital utopia look like for the conference attendees? Jaap Verheul invited his guests to dream of what they would do if they were granted, say, €100 million to spend as they pleased.
Deborah Thomas of the Library of Congress would put her money into partnerships with commercial companies to digitise more material, especially the post-1922 stuff (less restrictive copyright laws being part and parcel of the dream). And she would build facilities for uploading enrichments to the data.
James Baker of the British Library would put his money into the labs for researchers.
Researcher Julia Noordegraaf of the University of Amsterdam (heritage and digital culture) would rather put the money towards improving OCR quality.
Joris van Eijnatten’s dream took the Europeana plans a few steps further. His dream would be of a ‘Globiana 5.0’ – a worldwide, transnational repository filled with material in standardised formats, connected to bilingual and multilingual dictionaries and researched by a network of multilingual, big data-savvy researchers. In this context, he suggested that ‘Google-like companies might not be such a bad thing’ in terms of sustainability and standardisation.
At the end of the two-day workshop, perhaps not all of the ambitious agenda had been covered. But, then again, nobody had expected that.
The trick is for providers and researchers to keep talking and conquer this ‘unruly’ Wild West of digital humanities bit by bit, step by step.
And, by all means, allow researchers to ‘tinker’ with the data. Verheul: ‘There is a certain serendipity in working with big data that allows for playfulness.’
- Workshop programme and most slides are available at http://translantis.nl/, tab Conferences, Mining digital repositories (there does not seem to be a more specific link to the proper page).
- James Baker’s (British Library) miniblog
- Twitter hash tag #digrep14
- Arjan van Hessen’s blog at CLARIN
- A recent interview with Toine Pieters at the Europeana Newspapers site