There and Back Again

When I met Jill O’Neill yesterday, her first question was, “How is the dog?” I ought therefore to assure readers that Beatrice came through her toxic dose of chocolate as sweet and dumb as ever.

All the travel yesterday went as well as could be asked, if it be granted that it involved waking up at 3:45 in the morning. No traffic, no cancellations, no delays, and no one even squeezing into the seat next to me on either flight (though on the return flight I was seated behind a knee-masher; he reclined till the crossbar of the tray table crushed my patella, then — as I tried to maintain some degree of leg space — bounced his seat back to make sure that he gained every millimeter of reclining space possible, which was important because he was in the exit row seat without a seat in front of him). I got home early, to Pippa’s surprise. She had a great time with Beth, and came home cheery and agreeable.

What I said at the SSP-TMR turned out to depart more or less significantly from what I expected. Jill had been in touch with me several times, which was very helpful, but arriving on the scene and sizing up the people there, and hearing the kinds of thing they came to Philadelphia to talk about, I realized that I had not arrived at as focused a sense of the occasion as would be most productive. I scribbled through the morning session, excused myself early from lunch, and came up with a different set of points.

What I wanted to propose — whether it came through or not, I suspect I could have made my points more clearly — was the relatively bleak situation for discovery tools in the humanities, compared to the snazzy, elegant tools in the scientific, technical, medical sector. Once I caught on to the difference, it made sense; STM searching involves data sets that lend themselves to orderly definitions and manipulation, and there’s a lot more commercial-industrial value in the databases in STM fields. So as I say, it makes sense that discovery tools have a big head start on tools in the humanities. At the same time, “scholarly publishing” does indeed include the humanities, and there’s a sense in which the digital transition in the humanities poses a more pointed challenge to the inherited models and assumptions about scholarly publishing. With that in view, I described a series of desiderata. For the vast audience of non-expert users, search tools need to be much more intuitive and effective; the user community with which I’m most familiar engages two discovery methods, a bibliographic interface that baffles even committed researchers (I won’t name proprietary names), and Google. Each of these, for different reasons, returns less-than-satisfactory results. The humanities in general, and the theological academy in particular, stand very far behind STM sector for the useability of discovery tools.

(It occurs to me that another piece of this puzzle may involve the various levels of users, and their capacity to interact productively with databases. Even a lower-level inquirer into STM research quite probably brings more rich acquaintance with structured inquiry than many advanced scholars in the humanities. This may engender a cycle of success-and-improvement that leaves humanities search lagging.)

So, useability constitutes a goal for non-expert users, but for more adept users “useability” (in a different sense) would be great, too — but the advanced useability, involving full, standards-compliant mark-up, rich metadata, and so on.

On behalf of all humanities users, though, I urged the SSP to look forward to a digital-media future, rather than backward, toward a book-and-card-catalog past. Open access (made possible via online distribution, made practicable by the capacity for unlimited exact copies), non-verbal media (increasing amounts of scholarly communications will involve audio files and images, not solely alphanumeric information), and developing business models that support these endeavors with a basis that doesn’t rely on restriction and control (the ol’ copyright model).

I’ll try to add more reflections on the earlier sessions, but I have an all-day faculty meeting today. . . .

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