Researchers in Information Studies at the University of Glasgow are opening up museum and heritage collections through their pioneering use of digital technology.
The University of Glasgow has been a leader in the field of Information Studies since the 1980s. Bringing together expertise from the humanities and technology, Information Studies’ (formerly known as Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute (HATII)) cross-disciplinary approach impacts on research across the University, equipping their graduates with the critical skills to respond to and shape our increasingly digital lives.
Glasgow’s history of combining the humanities tradition of critical, qualitative thinking with innovations in technology has enabled high-impact research such as the Historical Thesaurus of English and new critical editions of the works of Robert Burns and Allan Ramsay. Digital humanities at Glasgow is about using digital tools to explore complex questions. Over the past five years, Information Studies researchers at Glasgow have generated over £2.2M in research and commercial income in recognition of their strength in these areas.
In a world where we’re increasingly asking what the human impact is of the data collected on each and every one of us every day, the cross-disciplinary approach of Information Studies at Glasgow and our researchers’ ability to deal with complex, messy questions is becoming ever more relevant.
“I think the challenges that humanities throws up to other disciplines is that people are complicated and people’s lives are complicated, and we don’t ever do things in these perfect ways,” explains Dr Ian Anderson. “An algorithm can’t necessarily solve that, much as lots of people like to think it will. We ended up with global financial crises because people put a lot of faith in algorithms. We need to have that qualitative sense of the type of information that we have – are dealing with, have dealt with in the past, are dealing with now, and will deal with in the future.”
Opening up collections
The Open Collections project at Kelvin Hall is a prime example of where humanities expertise has combined with technical knowhow to explore tricky datasets. Items sat in collections across Glasgow are being made accessible to the public, no matter what institution they are visiting. It brings together the diverse and extensive collections of Glasgow Museums, the Hunterian Museum and the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive.
The Open Collections system will automatically harvest data from the three institutions’ separate collection management systems. The idea behind the new collections system is to break down the institutional walls between the collections, facilitating discovery of related items in different collections. Much work is being done to align the way data is structured between the individual institutions.
The project echoes the ethos of the physical Kelvin Hall – a centre of excellence which brings together research, teaching, public engagement and health and wellbeing: visitors to the Glasgow Club fitness facilities at Kelvin Hall can wander into the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive and watch footage from over 100 years of Scottish history, while regular visitors to the Riverside or Kelvingrove have the chance to see the Hunterian’s collections.
“… what we’re doing with the Open Collections site actually goes very much against the current in terms of information provision. What we’re seeing increasing is information siloes, and we see that across news organisations, we see that across cultural heritage organisations, that people build fences around their stuff. They conceive of this as being this distinct entity which has no connections or interrelations in anything else which goes very much against the entire principle of what hypertext and the web should enable... It was only universities, and particularly a research university, and particularly Glasgow who has this history of its own collections who could start, who could say: actually you know what, let’s try and do something a little bit different here.”
Dr Ian Anderson
Building research opportunities
The University of Glasgow's planned Research Hub will provide a new, dedicated space for thematic research across all disciplines.
Lorna Hughes, Professor in Digital Humanities, is excited about the possibilities the Research Hub has for cross-disciplinary working for Digital Humanities researchers.
"The key thing about the Research Hub is adjacency," she explains. "For me it’s not about a shiny new building where all our researchers will be with all their toys. It’s about adjacency to people from other disciplines and other subject areas, and while the computer science people will be in there, for example, we [also]work with Glasgow Polyomics (a University service which provides omics analysis and bioinformatics support) a lot on DNA sequencing related to historic collections and materials."
Professor Hughes is keen to share knowledge between disciplines and institutions, believing the Research Hub will be an opportunity for Information Studies researchers to apply their strength in working with complex, messy datasets to wider research: "It’s not just about humanists having access to technology from the sciences, it’s about the sciences benefitting from the humanities approach to working with material culture, working with objects, working with data...Understanding how complex data can be manipulated and analysed at scale is something that we really do bring to the table."
"I think why the Research Hub is just the logical place for digital humanities to flourish is that digital humanities since its inception in the late 1940’s is collaborative, you can’t do digital humanities by yourself. I cannot work by myself; I have to work with engineers, with librarians, with archivists, with technologists, with computer scientists, with medics. It’s just not possible to do digital humanities projects in isolation; they are by their very nature collaborative projects."
Museums of the future
This cross-disciplinary ethos carries on through Professor Hughes’ ambitions to set up a Centre for Museum Futures at Glasgow. Professor Hughes sees Kelvin Hall as the prototype model for the museum of the future, enabling collaborative working on museum collections, audiences and space between diverse disciplines such as arts, humanities, social science, science, computing, engineering, medicine and life sciences:
“There’s some very interesting analysis to be done in terms of audience understanding and interpretation, as well as just the physical mass. Glasgow Museums has something like three million museum visits a year, so working with that kind of data. Then the other thing is the physical space, the physical container that the museum is in, how can we create spaces that are more than just big white boxes with art on the walls that people walk around?”
Kelvin Hall’s mix of audiences and collaboration between partners provides researchers at the University of Glasgow with the unique opportunity to pursue these ideas beyond the theoretical – to test, change and adapt.
“The building blocks are here already,” says Professor Hughes, “it’s just a case of consolidating it.”
About the researchers
Professor Lorna Hughes is Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow, where she is Head of Subject in Information Studies. Her research addresses the creation and use of digital cultural heritage for research, with a focus on collaborations between the humanities and scientific disciplines.
A specialist in digital humanities methods, Hughes is the author of Digitizing Collections: Strategic Issues for the Information Manager (London: Facet, 2004), the editor of Evaluating & Measuring the Value, Use and Impact of Digital Collections (London: Facet, 2011), and the co-editor of The Virtual Representation of the Past (London: Ashgate, 2007). She was the Chair of the European Science Foundation (ESF) Network for Digital Methods in the Arts and Humanities from 2011-15, which developed the NeDiMAH Methods Ontology for the Digital Humanities (NeMO). Other notable prior digital projects include the AHRC-funded “The Snows of Yesteryear: Narrating Extreme Weather” and the Jisc-funded digital archive, “The Welsh Experience of the First World War.”
Dr Ian Anderson is a Senior Lecturer in Information Studies. His main research interest is in the field of Digital Heritage across the archive, library and museum sectors. He is interested in particular in examining the relationship between users, creators and information systems in the cultural heritage sector.
Dr Anderson is currently Principal Investigator (with Professor Ronan Deazley and Professor Martin Kretschmer, School of Law) on the “Copyright and Risk: Scoping the Wellcome Digital Library” project. This is part of CREATe, the RCUK Centre for Copyright and New Business Models in the Creative Economy.