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Jennifer Bengtson

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May 6, 2011

My Project-Finding Adventure

May 6, 2011 | By | No Comments

If you follow this blog, you may have noticed that I was the last of the fellows to come up with a project. When I first applied to this program, I had an idea in mind that I thought was a “sure thing.” There was seriously no way that anyone could have a problem letting me create a digital repository to organize, store, and preserve all of the information they had been collecting over an entire career, right? I thought that this was the kind of thing that everyone wants to do, but just doesn’t have time for. So who was going be the lucky recipient of all the hard work I was about to invest in learning about and creating a digital repository? I was about to become someone’s digital hero. I just knew it.

Well, it took me two rejections to learn that, in reality, there are several reasons that people might be hesitant to allow their data and materials to be digitized. For one thing, as a bioarchaeologist, the sensitive nature of the materials I work with (human remains and mortuary related items) requires that particular care be taken. The needs and concerns of a number of players must be considered, from the researchers who curate such remains, to the living descendants of the individuals whom the remains represent. And so, although I am all for open access to archaeological data, I am aware of ancd concerned about the consequences of publicizing bioarchaeological data and research materials. As anthropologists, we need to be particularly cognizant of the feelings and concerns of living communities of people, and at the same time treat human remains (and their associated artifacts and data) with the respect and dignity they deserve. This introduces a unique set of concerns for digital humanists to contend with, and requires that the concept of “open access” be flexibly interpreted to include “reasonably-controlled access” in certain situations.

Aside from this major concern (which is somewhat archaeology-specific), there are other issues with creating a digital repository that transcend disciplinary boundaries. The first thing that pops into my head are copyright and intellectual property issues. I am not a lawyer by any stretch of the imagination, but I know that getting appropriate permissions is an important concern (Micalee, one of my fellows Cultural Heritage Informatics Graduate Fellows, wrote a great blog post about this, so you should read it if you have not done so already). Furthermore, there is the equally legitimate issue of data protection. I know that collecting data is hard work because I spent all last semester doing it. I am proud of the gigantic spreadsheet of numbers I created and I am willing to share it with others (if they want it, which they probably don’t), but I have real concerns about how it would be used and by whom. There are tons of other people with tons more data than I have, and I understand why people are protective of it.

However, despite these concerns, I remain supportive of data sharing as a fundamental component of the scientific process. How do we reconcile these two issues? I don’t know. There is a lot of data that I have permission to put into my repository, but (at least for now) the repository will not be available for public viewing. When I do get to the point of publicizing it, there will be limits on what people can access. But even so, when I can’t add the data and materials themselves directly to the repository, I do want to provide information on what type of data and materials are available and who controls access to them so that a researcher knows who to contact in order to be granted permission and access. I think this is a step in the right direction because it offers some level of accessibility/awareness of what is out there, while still protecting the interests of the researchers who have worked hard to collect these data and materials.

I have also come to the realization that an important and under-considered (by me, at least) part of the process of conceptualizing, planning, and executing a digital humanities project is properly communicating my idea to the people I need to have on my side. It is great to think I have it all figured out in my mind (which, by the way, I never really did…and still don’t). But that does little good if I am unable to convey the importance and utility of my project to others. I learned that when I am planning a project that requires that others grant me permission and access to their materials, I need to take some time to thoroughly consider their role and perspective and anticipate their particular concerns. Next time I contact somebody to request their support for a project, I know that I need to communicate that I have a good idea that I am excited about undertaking, but that I am willing and able to be flexible with my project design so that benefits are maximized for all concerned parties. This is particularly true when we are working with people who may be unfamiliar with the tools and technologies we are proposing to use. While our projects might seem perfectly reasonable, logical, and necessary in our own minds, they may seem intimidating or even pointless to others who are accustomed to keeping their research materials in notebooks, file cabinets, and private excel spreadsheets (and I readily admit that I was in the latter category until very recently). All things considered, I am pleased to be learning so much about both the technological and sociological aspects of this whole digital humanities universe. It’s gonna be an interesting academic adventure, and I think I’m ready for it.

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