Virtual Research Environment for the Humanities

Ruth Kirkham, project manager

2005: requirements gathering. Go to humanities researchers, and see what they wanted --- not build it first and force it on them. How would it integrate into their daily work, what tools do they currently use, what would be useful. 6 months. Towards the end, four demonstrations to run past them:

  • Research discovery service (already in place in medical sciences; pushing Oxford humanities research into the web). Because Oxford is so decentralised, people didn't even know what was happening within faculties (people talk within colleges instead). Customising medical discovery solution to the humanities.
  • Physical tools: digital pen and paper (also done with biology vre), allowed digital notetaking. But libraries would not allow anything in the building with ink in it! Are working on pencil version. Hasn't been followed up so far, will likely get resumed next phase.
  • Access grid, personal interface. "But we have books, I want to use my office." Overtaken by developments like Skype.
  • English department, Jane Austen manuscripts being digitised and compared: cross searching of databases into their environment: English Books Online, Samuel Johnson dictionary, 18th century bibliographical dictionaries, etc. This did not become fully flegeded service, but has gone forward.

Ancient Documents demonstrator got more funding, became more robust, fully functional mockup. The English engagement was going on while the ancient documents work was going on, and is on-going. The VRE for docs & mss funded last year, March 2006-March 2009: broaden outputs from previous project and working them into the VRE. Focussing on those two demonstrators.

Development & user requirements are iterative: feedback from users every three months. Now have functioning workspace; most goodies are on the development site, not the more public site. Most work is still with the ancient documents people. Recently have started speaking to English again. Archaeology Virtual Research Environment at Reading (VERA) is trying to pull in data from databases; working with them to situate artefacts within their archeological contexts; currently proof of concept. (The Reading work is on a pre-literate site at Silchester, so the data isn't there yet, but the conceptual work can still be demonstrated.)

Recently moving to generic RDF triple store, which will accommodate disparate unstructured data better. Of course not well optimised for access like relational databases are, so ultimately may be scalability issue (but probably not in this discipline). Annotations stored as RDF, as well as metadata about images fitting an ontology. Had to homebrew ontology, what was out there did not match requirements. Intend ultimately to link to CIDOC ontology (museums & archives), which is gaining them traction for artefacts like monuments.

Hey, the ontology website is hosted in Greece. Must keep in mind for next junket. :-)

Lots of linked images of the same artefact, varying from each other minutely; no standard to capture that distinction. Other VRE is looking at polynomial texture map: how the object reacts to light, a polynomial for each pixel. Need lots of photos (30-50). Effect is virtual "moving a torch across" the artefact, seeing it under different lighting. (Is not going so far as a 3D model.) Archaeologists already using this tech live. There will be bulk photo'ing of the Vindolanda tablets at the British Museum July.

Plugging in work from Ségolène Tarte also working for Prof Bowman: imaging ancient documents, image analysis of artefacts. Removing woodgrain from pics of stylus tablets, to highlight the writing.

Will be pursuing collaboration with Aphrodisias project at King's College --- and anyone else relevant in the field.

Oxford CMS is SAKAI. Intend seemless integration. Classicists haven't picked up on CMS yet as a practice. Publishing images, annotations to repositories not something on the classicists' horizon yet (too traditional, and community moving very slowly in that direction), but Oxford institutional repository very much interested. Will wait on institutional repository to give the lead, and the team will do the interfaces to it. Single button deposit vision would make life easiest for them. The project is careful to follow the users and not dictate solutions to them.


  • Cool -- and useful --- eye candy
  • They know well the cultural resistance they will find, so they are developing features slowly and incrementally; and always what the users want and see the point of, rather than what is blindingly obvious (e.g. electronic publication)
  • In the humanities, it's all about the metadata, not the data. (The data are just photos)
  • Hence the embrace of the woolly mess of RDF --- a very far way from the rigid schemas of CCLRC
  • Portal environment for collaborationware, and to provide access to online databases. Just access: they're not going to try and RDF the Perseus project (mercifully)
  • On the other hand, bold vision of mashing up classics and archeological data (from VERA) to situate their data in context.

    • That's the kind of cross-disciplinary work that needs to happen and doesn't
    • They're lucky to have champions in both disciplines who "get it"
    • Mashing up RDF with RDF? It'll be wonderful when it happens; it'll also be very difficult.

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