Watching Melissa Terras’s inaugural lecture on a Decade of Digital Humanities at UCL this evening made me think about the first time I engaged academic endeavours in the field. Courtesy of the Web Archive, here is a report I wrote after attending my first tip academic (or para-academic) conference, Digital Resources in the Humanities, at Glasgow University, September 1998. It was originally published online in the National Digital Archive of Datasets (NDAD) Newsletter No. 4, November 1998.
On September 9th I travelled with Ruth Vyse, the University Archivist, and John Ralph, ULCC’s Computing Services manager, to Glasgow to attend DRH98, the third annual conference on Digital Resources in the Humanities. The conference was hosted by the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute at Glasgow University, and ran from Thursday 10th to Saturday 12th September. The conference focused on the use of digital technology to preserve our cultural heritage, and as such featured a wide variety of presentations about work going on in, and on behalf of, schools and colleges, museums and libraries, publishers and research organisations, mainly in the fields of the Arts and Social Sciences.
We were particularly interested to learn about developments in cataloguing data collections and providing access to computerized catalogues, and to hear what approaches and standards were being used in other large data storage systems.
A number of presentations were given by the Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS), including a reception to launch their new web site on the Thursday evening. Of particular interest were the presentation of the recent AHDS report, Creating and Preserving Digital Collections, and presentations on the work of the History Data Service and the UK Data Archive at Essex University.
Also of interest was a TV film, Into the Future: On the Presentation of Knowledge in the Electronic Age, made for the US Public Broadcasting Service by Terry Saunders. It succinctly presented many important issues surrounding the preservation of digital data (but, perhaps invevitably, it was less forthcoming with answers to the problems). In one example, the film showed how the condition of magnetic tapes containing data from NASA’s Viking Mars Lander missions of the 70s and 80s had deteriorated to the point where many were unreadable. In the following discussion, Neal Beagrie from AHDS emphasised that the fragility of computer media, and the speed of technological change made early intervention essential for the preservation of digital records. Our work with the PRO and government departments has made the NDAD project team all too well aware of this issue.
It was encouraging to note that a number of well-supported standards and effective techniques are emerging for digital archives: in some cases this means that multiple catalogues on diverse systems can be searched with a single query. Most presentations concerned systems that were accessible, completely or in part, via the World Wide Web, indicating that the Web has quickly become a preferred medium of access to such resources. An ever growing array of digital resources, including databases, text, images, audio and video, is readily accessible by users at every level, from school-children to statisticians: the challenge for designers of such systems is to provide access tools and methods appropriate to their target audience.
Although NDAD did not make a presentation at DRH98, reference was made to other work that NDAD staff have been directly involved in, including Project Earl (networking UK public libraries) and the British Library’s Electronic Beowulf, which Charles Henry of Rice University spoke warmly of in his capstone lecture The Fire In Grendel’s Eye. We hope to make a presentation on aspects of the NDAD system at next year’s conference, DRH99, which will be hosted by King’s College London.
The conference organisation was superb, and delegates were impressed with the facilities of the Gilmorehill Centre and the ancient University of Glasgow. The Welcome Reception took place in the University’s Hunterian Museum, amongst impressive relics of Scotland’s past, including Roman milestones and the death mask of Bonnie Prince Charlie. On the final night, a civic reception by the Lord Provost of Glasgow was followed by a meal of traditional Scottish fare (Scotch broth, haggis and salmon) and ceilidh, all in the magnificent surroundings of the city’s Kelvingrove Museum . In our few spare moments we also took the opportunity to visit the Hunterian Art Gallery, with its reconstruction of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s house and large collection of Whistler paintings, and enjoyed the chance to travel on the “clockwork orange”, Glasgow’s underground railway. In all aspects of the Conference, the Glasgow organising committee set a very high standard: King’s College unbdoubtedly has a hard act to follow.