AUSTRALIA: E-research to revolutionise humanities

An online tool to be designed by a researcher at the University of Western Australia will enable a scholar in a remote part of the globe, or even an astronaut with some free time, to access the world's rare medieval vellum manuscripts and carry out in-depth investigations with just a few clicks.

Dr Toby Burrows, Digital Services Director of the ARC Network for Early European Research, hopes the day will soon come when a humanities scholar will also be able to explore a whole body of data to conduct intensive research without having to leave his or her desk.

"While many scientists have access to massive worldwide e-research datasets, the humanities have lagged behind - until now," Burrows said.

He has been awarded funding to help him continue his work in improving the effectiveness and applicability of e-research in the humanities. His project is in collaboration with the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield, which, like UWA, is a member of the 16-strong research-intensive Worldwide Universities Network.

"Humanities scholars have been using computers for 60 years," Burrows said. "A Jesuit priest, Father Roberto Busa, was the first to digitise medieval texts, copying the works of Thomas Aquinas into a computer in a way not dissimilar to the early monks who painstakingly copied the Bible word by word."

Now there are large numbers of humanities resources available in digital form. "Almost every English book published between 1473 and 1800 has now been digitised, for example, but this does not add up to e-research in the scientific sense," he said.

"We need to add new layers to this. The sources of data need to be joined up, to enable researchers to pose large-scale questions across the whole corpus of material. The best way forward involves the use of Semantic Web technologies: uniquely identifying objects, people and concepts, constructing graphs to describe and navigate the relationship between them; and linking them to all kinds of relevant digital data."

The Humanities Research Institute at Sheffield uses text-mining software to identify, extract and encode personal names found in more than 190,000 digitised pages of The Old Bailey Proceedings Online.

"Sheffield is one of the leaders in this field," said Burrows. "Designed and conceptualised properly, e-research holds out great promise for the humanities."