• Digital Note-taking, the semantic web, and scholarly collaboration in the age of crowdsourcing

    The project I proposed in my application is an idea for a web-based tool designed for humanities scholars engaged in historical research. After a brief introduction to the application, I’ll pose some more general questions/topics.


    As a rule, the digital tools that have transformed academic research have focused on the mundane tasks of a discipline. Empirical economists and social scientists would never practice their craft without a statistical software package like Stata or SAS—tools that dramatically improve the efficiency of the cumbersome computational tasks intrinsic to their research. In the humanities however, there is no equivalent tool. Humanists have benefitted immeasurably from bibliographic software (retrofitted to take notes), digital indices, and repositories of primary and secondary literature. (In addition, new digital tools are expanding the possibilities of sophisticated digital analysis, though they typically presume a high level of technological competency.) What’s missing is a digital tool to assist with the mundane tasks compiling, organizing, and connecting historical data: the people, institutions, locations, events, and objects of scholarly interest that are the building blocks of the stories we tell.

    HistoryMaker: The application

    My proposed project would assist with the everyday tasks of historical research organization and compilation. The core idea is to create a note-taking application that organizes one’s research with a structured framework of historical data (objects of study themselves) rather than according to the sources of information about those data (as with bibliographic software like Zotero). The application will be cloud-based. The historical “facts” will be public—open for reuse, augmentation, refinement, correction, and disputation by other scholars building their own webs of data. It will also track the provenance of each data point (both by the creator of the digital object and the cited source(s) of information). However, personal notes associated with these data points (presumably treating their significance—the real interpretive work of the humanities) would remain private (unless the researcher chose to release them).

    Over time, the application, if widely adopted, could take on two other functions. First, it could serve as a platform for collaboration in the humanities and facilitate new scholarly communities (across institutions, fields, and disciplines). Second, it could facilitate the (much-neglected) relationship between the scholarly community and the wider public. Conceived as a tool for professionals, the entry of data will be limited to those with academic training in the humanities. But the resulting web of data would constitute an authoritative base of historical knowledge that would be open for public consumption, and useful for contextualizing public debates, debunking misinformation, etc. As the record of an ongoing scholarly discourse, it will also highlight the indeterminacy of historical “facts,” and (hopefully) model civility in scholarly disputation and rigorous methodologies in research.

    General Topics/Questions

    I would be interested in helping to organize a session anound any of the following topics/questions:

    • A discussion of the state of research tools (especially for note-taking and analysis)
    • How do the digital tools we use shape the questions we ask, the answers we discover, and the stories we tell?
    • A discussion of the “state of the art” for the semantic web, promising technologies emerging out of it (i.e. that would be useful for a project like this), and how humanities folks can best utilize them.
    • How do we re-envision scholarly networks in a digital age? How do we broaden these networks to include scholars without intrinsic technological interests or proficiency?
    • Crowdsourcing (I’ll confess that I remain skeptical of it) and the role of professional scholars in constructing and curating the semantic web (especially in light of Cathy Davidson’s recent blog post)?

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  1. Aditi says:

    This sounds like an interesting project, but, from my conversations with history students, one tricky part is going to be the way notes are organized.

    A really good interface for browsing and searching notes, organized by all relevant facets (vs just historical topic, or just bibliographic source) will make any new tool a great deal better than current solutions, which seem to range from stacks of paper, to collections of disorganized MS Word files to note-taking programs like EverNote.

  2. ArchMeg says:

    I also find the topic intriguing – I can easily visualize my stacks of notecards (i still use them) transformed into data clouds. However, I also imagine them buried in a larger collection of notes by other individuals as well – an overabundance of data if you will. I think the questions you’re proposing about scholarly networks and digital resource sharing are worth discussing. Are you familiar with ArXiv? http://arxiv.org/ All the math graduate student I know regularly post articles there, and it’s supposed to act as a bit of a crowdsourcing project, full of professional-level publications. Interesting to compare.

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