© Toby Burrows, 2011. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial licence
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This paper examines the work done by the Australian Network for Early European Research (NEER) to build a national digital research community in this field. Funded through the Australian Research Council's Research Networks programme during the period 2005-2010, NEER's overall goal was to enhance the scale and focus of Australian research in medieval and early modern studies. Developing and implementing appropriate digital technologies was one of the main methods used to address this goal. In the end, NEER's digital programme produced three main services: a service for collaboration (Confluence), a service for the publication and storage of research outputs (PioNEER), and a service for identifying and engaging with the objects of this research (Europa Inventa). This paper evaluates the effect of these services on Early European research in Australia. It also considers their future, now that government funding for NEER has ended.
The main government funding body for research in higher education institutions in Australia – the Australian Research Council (ARC) – established a Research Networks programme in 2004. Its purpose was to build large-scale groups of researchers and encourage them to collaborate across institutional and disciplinary boundaries. In all, twenty-four research networks were funded under this programme, with a total of AU$42 million being allocated over a five-year period (2004-2009).
The Network for Early European Research (NEER) was one of only two ARC networks in the humanities (Trigg 2006). It was based at the University of Western Australia, where its executive and secretariat were located, even though most of its academic activities (conferences, seminars, and workshops) took place three thousand kilometres away on the Eastern side of Australia. More than 350 individual researchers registered as Network participants. They came from most of Australia's thirty-nine universities, and ranged from eminent academics through to postgraduate students and early career researchers. The Network also included institutional members, among them several of the larger Australian universities, and a number of industry partners, drawn from commercial publishers, public collecting institutions, and community groups.
NEER was able to draw on a strong existing tradition of collaboration among Australian researchers. The Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (ANZAMEMS) has been active for many years (Condren 2010), and its journal
Before NEER was established, Australian researchers were
already productive and internationally recognized for the quality of their work. NEER
worked to develop a nationally coherent and planned framework for this research, with
five main themes: Cultural Memory; Social Fabric; Intellectual Formations: Science,
Medicine and the Environment; Religion and Spirituality; and Early
European/Australasian Connections. Many of NEER's academic activities were organized
around these five themes, with each area arranging and supporting conferences,
seminars, postgraduate advanced training workshops, and meetings to develop specific
research agendas and collaborative grant applications. NEER also supported smaller
NEER pursued formal links with international research groups in the medieval and early modern field. In particular, it was one of the organizations which supported the formation in 2006 of CARMEN (the Co-operative for the Advancement of Research through a Medieval European Network) as a new umbrella group for medieval research in Europe. NEER co-hosted CARMEN's 2007 meeting in Prato, Italy. CARMEN has since become a vehicle for the coordination of grant applications across the European Union, and has established a number of smaller thematic groups.
The ARC expected its research networks to be active in the development of shared information technologies and knowledge management tools, new databases, and new technologies for communication and interaction. These activities were seen as part of the essential e-research infrastructure which would be needed to underpin collaborative research in a national setting. An agenda of this kind was an integral part of NEER's vision (Burrows 2005). A digital environment was crucial if NEER was to become a true research community. Traditional face-to-face academic activities – conferences, meetings, training programmes and the like – would be insufficient to develop a real sense of shared research purpose across the Australian continent.
Implementing a digital environment for NEER was not a straightforward process. There were no existing Australian and international examples in the humanities which could be readily copied or adapted, and there were no suitable computational models of humanities research processes on which to base an integrated software solution. Moreover, NEER had only very limited funds for software development and maintenance. The only viable strategy was to identify existing software which could be quickly deployed, did not require extensive support or modification, could be used by all participants, and met NEER's main requirements:
NEER did not set up its own computing infrastructure. Instead, it contracted with I.T. units at the University of Western Australia to host the digital services developed by NEER. This meant taking into account a series of additional factors, including the operational plans and priorities of these I.T. units, and their preferences and capacities for software support and maintenance – particularly in relation to Open Source software.
The collaborative service – Confluence – was the first to
be implemented. Launched in February 2007, it contains separate work areas for
each of NEER's fourteen research clusters, as well as general spaces for
postgraduates and early career researchers, the digital programme, and the NEER
Management Committee. Each NEER participant also has his/her own personal space,
for promoting their own research, recording work-in-progress, and managing access
to other websites and blogs. Each space contains a mixture of web pages, comments,
and attached files (including documents and images), as well as a
Developed by the Australian company Atlassian, Confluence is used by more than three thousand academic, public sector and commercial organizations. One of its most important features is the ability to control access to specific spaces and pages, and to limit who can do what within the site. While much of the material is freely available on the Web, some areas are restricted to NEER participants or to specific groups within NEER. Each user belongs to one or more user groups, and each group has a mixture of viewing, editing, and commenting permissions in one or more spaces. Authors can restrict access to individual pages.
The reaction to Confluence has been generally positive. It was used extensively by the NEER Management Committee for discussions and documentation, and by a majority of the research clusters for sharing plans and ideas. A significant number of individual participants have developed and extended their personal spaces. Postgraduates and early career researchers, in particular, have been enthusiastic about using Confluence to keep in contact with each other and to get themselves known in the wider research community.
NEER's second major service is its digital repository of research outputs, known as PioNEER. Launched in 2009, it was developed in partnership with the University of Western Australia Library. At that time, the University did not have an institutional repository, which meant that the selection, acquisition, installation, and configuration of suitable hardware and software had to be done from scratch. The software eventually selected was the DigiTool digital asset management system from Ex Libris (Burrows 2007).
Most academic researchers are reluctant to deposit their research outputs in institutional repositories (Henty 2007; Kingsley 2007; Rieh et al. 2007). There are various reasons for this, including a lack of awareness, concerns about copyright and quality, and lack of time. Discussions with NEER participants revealed many of the same concerns. While senior researchers could see the merits of having a single location for getting access to the output of their colleagues, they saw little incentive to invest their own time and energy in depositing publications. Postgraduate students and early career researchers, on the other hand, were more enthusiastic about using PioNEER to promote their work.
As a result, NEER staff took the initiative to collect and deposit material, and to identify and link to objects already available in institutional repositories or on the Web. They liaised with researchers in order to obtain publication lists from them or from their websites, and worked through the processes of obtaining electronic copies, checking copyright, creating metadata, and submitting the items to the repository. PioNEER was also made available for direct deposit of material by participants, but very few items were deposited in this way. As of 31 December 2010, there were 180 items in PioNEER. While the initial focus is on journal articles, the coverage of the repository also includes some monographs and theses.
The third of NEER's major digital services is a database of information about nearly two thousand Early European artworks and four hundred medieval manuscripts held in major Australian libraries, galleries and museums (Burrows 2008). Known as Europa Inventa, this database provides the first unified access to information about materials of this kind in Australia. It reuses metadata from the cultural heritage institutions themselves, reformatted within schemas based on the Categories for the Description of Works of Arts (CDWA Lite) and the TEI Guidelines for Manuscript Description. Europa Inventa does not store digital images of manuscripts and artworks; instead, it simply points to such files on the server of the appropriate institution.
Europa Inventa builds on earlier printed surveys and catalogues, which tend to be restricted in their coverage, are frequently out-of-date, or inconsistent in the quality and depth of the information they provide (Manion and Vines 1984; Sinclair 1968; Tomory and Gaston 1989). The on-line catalogues and databases containing information about these materials vary greatly in quality, coverage, and searchability – and some are not available on the Web at all, particularly in the gallery and museum sectors. Australian holdings are poorly represented in international resource discovery services.
Europa Inventa was launched in 2010, but is still only at the first stage in its development. Its future role is indicated by a recent grant from the Australian Research Council to a team of researchers from the University of Melbourne, the State Library of Victoria, and the University of Western Australia. This project will result in thoroughly revised descriptions of all the medieval manuscripts held in the State of Victoria. It will also produce fully digitized versions of many of these manuscripts. The new descriptions will feed into Europa Inventa, while the digital images will form the basis for a new medieval manuscripts website from the State Library of Victoria.
Australian Research Council funding for NEER ended in June 2010, and the ARC has no plans to revive its Networks Programme. However, it has recently funded a Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions which is based at the University of Western Australia and builds on the collaborative framework established by NEER. The Centre will receive AU$24.25 million over seven years and is expected to be able to support the continued existence of Confluence as a vehicle for communication and collaboration. ANZAMEMS is committed to continuing NEER's postgraduate training seminars, and has expressed an interest in including Confluence among the services it provides to its members. As a scholarly association, it may also be willing to encourage and promote the contribution of further material to PioNEER, which will continue to be hosted by the University of Western Australia.
Europa Inventa will also continue to be hosted at the University of Western Australia and is already serving as a platform for new research projects. A medium-term goal is to develop e-research services like annotation, integration and visualization around Europa Inventa, in much the same way as the Aus-e-Lit project is adding these kinds of tools to the AustLit database (Gerber and Hunter 2010). Another goal is to expose the metadata from Europa Inventa into a Linked Data environment, with the aim of cross-linking with European and North American databases that contain records for similar types of material. NEER has already been closely involved in the work of the CARMEN Medieval Manuscripts Research Group, which has been examining the application of these kinds of Semantic Web technologies to medieval manuscript research. A European Science Foundation Exploratory Workshop on this topic, held at the University of Birmingham (U.K.) in April 2009, resulted in the development of a Road Map to guide future plans and funding applications. These developments have been inspired by several innovative European projects working on the application of the Semantic Web to cultural heritage collections, notably MuseumFinland and MultimediaN e-Culture (Hyvönen 2005; Hyvönen et al. 2009; Van Ossenbruggen et al. 2007; Schreiber et al. 2008).
More generally, the landscape for collaborative e-research services in the humanities has changed significantly in Australia in the six years since NEER was established. Humanities researchers found it difficult to articulate their needs within the constraints of Federal Government programmes like NCRIS (National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy) and NeAT (National e-Research Architecture Taskforce) during the period 2005 to 2011. But there is now an explicit recognition that the humanities should be specifically provided for in the next round of e-research infrastructure funding, and new programmes like NeCTAR (National eResearch Collaboration Technologies and Resources) appear to offer much greater opportunities for humanities researchers. Nevertheless, discipline-based research communities like medieval and early modern studies will still need to be able to conceptualize their e-research requirements in sufficiently generic terms. The experience gained from NEER's digital programme is likely to be an invaluable part of that process.