Greg Crane, Digital Collections, and Higher Edformatics

8 Mar

I attended Greg Crane’s BNN talk yesterday, “Libraries and the Transformation of the Humanities: What Role Will Libraries Play, and What Can I Do About It?”  It was thought-provoking, to say the least!  My attempt to summarize just of few of his wonderful ideas (in bold), with random thoughts afterwards (sometimes his) not in bold. (You can also search the Twitter feed for hashtag “#BNN” from 3/7/11).

  1. Primary sources should be in digital, accessible, open collections. This much I knew Greg would say–after all, he did start the Perseus Project and famously ask “What do you Do with a Million Books?”  This is not a new idea, but it’s a basis for everything below so I include it.
  2. Making the collections play nice together is key. This makes sense, too. Lots of individual, isolated collections idiosyncratic as to format are not as helpful as groups of them. Because who wants to visit 22 different sites and make comparisons of texts that have extensions of, say, .doc, .txt, .xls, .ppt, .pdf, .jpg? We control the metadata and encoding of the information in digital collections, and the more thoughtful we are about how we do this, the more useable the end product.
  3. That when you “read” the global collections you think differently. A major theme of Greg’s: that a big growth in our learning and scholarship will come from the new ways of thinking we get when we can use computers to help us analyze and visualize in new ways the huge breadth of materials that are increasingly available. Think learning analytics, informatics, Freakonomics, data mining, data visualization, GIS, statistical analyses of huge corpora of information. Think ethnographic interview of all the people who ever lived. Then imagine that kind of perspective feeding back into the reading of a particular text or the structuring of a particular course or the definitions of literary genres or the way we teach language or any other seminal activity of learning.
  4. That making digital collections and making them talk to each other and helping people use them to think differently and learn better is the soul of the library.  Well, as Greg and others have asked, when people can get access to information on their own (which has been the case for a while), what does the library do? One thing it might do: shift its focus to facilitating the creation and curation and coordination and interconnection of all sorts of new collections of information. Not just having one person on staff be thinking about this. But have, say, 80% of library staff be thinking about this. As Greg notes, nobody but libraries really ever thinks about collecting information altruistically, for the sake of humanity, making it it all work together, and helping people use it. It’s in our blood.
  5. Why not turn this thinking on the information produced in the University and, thereby, rethink Higher Education? A provocative side point. Imagine, says Greg, all syllabi or course bulletins as being marked up and collected and searchable and analyzable, just as you might already be imagining, say, all the novels of Flaubert. What a rich field of data on how we as a nation, world, planet conceive of the information you need to access and process to learn something. Or on what topics we even chose to teach. Or on mastery of what sequence of topics a discipline requires. Greg has other thoughts, too: Integrate an informatics-y knowledge of your curriculum with the information in the library. Such a hybrid you could turn into a dynamic personal learning environment serving up information in a preordained pattern automatically, as you need it. Or you could turn it into a sequence of dynamically-generated, formative assessments delivered automatically, and integrated into your learning.
  6. The Humanities needs a Lab Culture. This is a great idea (in my opinion). Scientists, says Greg, have for a long time been treating undergraduates like peers, getting them in the lab, and on research teams, co-authoring papers, etc., and generally just including them early in the production of knowledge. In the humanities, though, we have a “virtuoso” culture that limits your scholarly production until you’ve been highly credentialed.  The higher, the fewer. And that distances us from students, squelches their voice, makes humanities less fun, and undermines student learning. We need instead to rethink humanities scholarship and our relationships with our students–to create something more like the apprenticeship to a community of scholars that is Science education.
  7. The need for analysis of a huge new world of data coincides happily with our need to give humanities undergraduates real opportunities for scholarship and research. Well, if you were to suddenly say, OK, students in the Humanities, go research and publish! What kinds of research would they do that would be meaningful? Well, it just so happens the rapidly increasing collections of digital information are a wonderful place for them to start–you don’t need to be a native speaker of Latin (!) to analyze Latin language corpora; in fact you actually might learn more about Latin as a language in looking at trends across a broad scope of documents, or drilling into particular linguistic structures, or helping generate new glossaries, or comparing uses of a word in different contexts, or helping encode newly digitized texts.  There’s an almost infinite need for processing, editing, annotating, describing, encoding, analyzing of new collections, and the work is pedagogically effective, immediately useful, and valued, and the work is accessible to students, and it’s exciting. It’s a perfect storm, but for the good!
  8. Online Collections are Politically Revolutionary. If you let anyone have access to shared data, and you let anyone research and produce scholarship on that data, you might just move closer to a democratic, collaborative, open, global society. As Greg noted, the West doesn’t own the Classics; in fact folks in the Mideast might think themselves with reason the inheritors of the people who lived a long time ago in the same places they do now. The point is that if West and East share a common ancestry, a common dataset, a common information pool, and collaborate in making meaning of that, and listen to each other, good things might happen. Imagine this happening across disciplines.
  9. Just call it Humanities. Yes, the humanities are increasingly digital, and that is changing the way we do things. But that goes for everything. And making a distinction–in format, if you will–between digital and analog humanities creates and artificial separation of valuable approaches that ought to be feeding each other.

2 Responses to “Greg Crane, Digital Collections, and Higher Edformatics”


  1. Learning Analytics | Theatrical Smoke - August 9, 2011

    […] Analytics, and it has potential too. I’m indebted to Greg Crane for this key insight (see my post from last Spring). We have collections of data from systems–be they computer systems or […]

  2. syllabus analysis machine » THATCamp New England 2011 - October 18, 2011

    […] Crane had this idea to gather all syllabi, encode them, mark them up a bit, and then analyze them as a data set that […]

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