Humanities Computing Unit - Oxford University
The Higher Education Funding bodies in the UK recently called for bids to develop subject-based faculty 'hubs' or gateways which locate, catalogue, and give access to digital resources suitable for use in Higher Education teaching and research as part of the new Resource Discovery Network. The new faculty hubs will further develop the design and purpose of the existing centrally-funded gateways, amongst which ADAM (Art, Design and Media), IHR-INFO (History), and SOSIG (Social Sciences) currently have some remit for humanities disciplines.
The Humanities Computing Unit has been invited to submit a bid to develop the proposed Humanities Hub of the new Resource Discovery Network. The proposal draws upon existing work relating to subject gateways within Oxford, in particular the HumBul Gateway for the Humanities and, on a smaller scale, the Computer-Assisted Theology gateway, as well as other gateways within the UK and beyond.
This paper will focus on a particular issue which lies at the core of any subject-based gateway, the criteria by which resources are selected for inclusion within the gateway. Subject gateways explicitly state or at the very least imply a concern that the resources catalogued are quality-assured, an assurance based on human intervention. But what does quality mean in this context? Against what criteria and with what authority can an individual resource be deemed fit for inclusion and therefore deemed fit for purpose?
Gateways tend to fall into two basic types. To a large extent the HumBul Gateway and the Computer-Assisted Theology gateway demonstrate both types. The Theology gateway was developed by an individual enthusiast with a keen interest in the possibilities offered by the Internet for teaching and research and with specific subject expertise. Gateways of this type are numerous on the Internet and indeed many of the existing gateways to humanities subjects fall into this category. For the purposes of this discussion such gateways may be termed amateur gateways since their development is often dependant on one or two individuals, often without formal institutional support and frequently presented with little information about selection criteria, intended audience, available metadata, consistent classification, advanced searching and so on. What these gateways can offer however, is a subject practitioner's view of the Internet with evaluative as well as descriptive annotation for each linked resource; they derive their authority from the recognised expertise of the subject specialist. The second type of gateway, one which to a large extent the new HumBul strives to be, and which may be termed the professional gateway, are fewer in number (certainly for the humanities). The professional gateway is identified by institutional and sometimes national support, developed by a specific project team, and constructed along the lines of an advanced library catalogue (often drawing its cataloguers from amongst subject librarians). The professional gateway offers durability, structured and easily retrievable data. On the other hand there is a tendency to hide from the end-user the evaluative judgments made about individual resources held within the virtual collection despite publication of the criteria by which resources are selected for inclusion. Both types of gateway contend with the inherent tension between trying to be a digital library (cataloguing and dissemination) and something like an academic reviews journal (discovery and evaluation).
The EU-funded DESIRE Project, "Selection Criteria for Quality Controlled Information Gateways", developed and published a list of quality selection criteria designed as a reference point for subject-gateways (see <http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/metadata/desire/quality/title-page.html>). The criteria presented were arranged under five headings which may be summarized as relating to: audience, content, design, maintenance or durability, and comparison with related resources. Under each heading a number of sub-categories contain a series of questions to be considered by resource contributors to subject gateways. The categories are comprehensive and the questions detailed. The application of this criteria is intended to highlight quality and limit quantity. The ADAM and SOSIG Gateways, for example, either explicitly draw attention to this particular set of criteria or have developed a similar set for their own resource contributors.
Leaving aside the issue of whether such a comprehensive approach to selection criteria actually serves the purpose for which it was designed, it is significant to note that the wide range of questions which are required to be answered satisfactorily before a resource can be admitted into the catalogue bear little or no relation to the metadata available to the end-user. For the most part the user of gateways such as the two mentioned above are presented with fairly sparse metadata consisting of title, subject, description and so on. Whilst the cataloguer is forced to make evaluative judgements about resources, the user has little notion of what these judgements might have been. The mere fact that a resource has been included within the gateway is, it seems, assumed to be enough. Descriptions are short and objective, and rarely is an indication given even to the contributor's identity or authority for making such judgments.
A fundamental question which underlies this paper is whether there is a need for detailed quality assurance at all when the effort might be better expended on more comprehensive, factual, metadata to assist the searching and delivery of a gateway's holdings. The combination of professional cataloging and amateur evaluation appears to be successfully provided by services like the Internet Movie Database and to some extent by commercial ventures like Amazon.Com. Both these databases, however, concern themselves with offline media available to their users only with some additional effort. The Internet subject gateway, of course, catalogues resources sharing the same digital medium as itself. It is intrinsic to an Internet gateway to not only point away from itself but to actually take the user to those resources using the same mode of delivery. One might argue that providing reviews of Internet resources is a superfluous activity given that the function of a gateway is to take the user to the objects which they might inspect for themselves, a task which neither the Internet Movie Database nor Amazon.Com can undertake.
On the other hand, as this paper will argue, given that academic subject gateways have an additional role of providing access to digital resources suitable for teaching and research the Internet offers something which the offline media cannot: a full integration of the resource catalogue, resource evaluation, and the resources themselves. It is only the combination of all four fundamental elements, discovery, evaluation, cataloguing and dissemination, which moves us towards a gateway which is subject-based, academic, and Internet integrated, a combination which lies at the core of the proposed Humanities Hub.
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June 9, 1999 - June 13, 1999
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