Column: Lars Burman

Release the collections!

Column by Lars Burman, Chief Librarian at Uppsala University Library, on how digitisation of cultural heritage collections can lead to exciting new cutting-edge research.

The Swedish Research Council is now announcing a wonderful call for applications. Over a five-year period, SEK 175 million will go towards digitalisation and making cultural heritage collections available. The purpose of the initiative is to promote data-driven research, and the digitalisation work that will be carried out in the next few years will lead to a significant amount of exciting new cutting-edge research, especially in the humanities and social sciences.

Accordingly, one can imagine that something comparable to the large laboratory settings in the natural sciences or medicine will emerge. Researchers need research data that can be handled in new ways. Infrastructures are being built to create and handle this. The cultural heritage materials which will be possible to research digitally need to be photographed by imaging technicians. Conservators may occasionally need to prepare fragile materials beforehand. Once the images exist, they will be assigned metadata and stored in suitable institutional repositories. The system Alvin is an excellent example here, as it already has over 600,000 open files. Researchers may also require support for exporting to other systems where exciting special processing can be conducted.

I also anticipate a close collaboration between different specialists, and a large university library in which the one in Uppsala is naturally an important player. Terrific collections, a well-equipped digitalisation studio and technical expertise can all be found here. In mid-March, an informational meeting was held for researchers on the Swedish Research Council’s call for applications, and around fifty people attended. One can thus imagine that a great many strong applications from Uppsala will be submitted to the Swedish Research Council in May.

It is the researchers who carry out research. But in a modern university, research is based on efficient infrastructures, collaboration and smart use of expertise. My guess is that with digitalisation, research on older materials will take an unprecedented step forwards. Certain research tasks will still be carried out by individual researchers bent over manuscripts in the Special Collections Reading Room at Carolina (but consistently assisted by digital files and catalogues). In the meantime, many astounding studies will be conducted in research groups based on teamwork where various skills and expertise interact, everything from theoreticians to specialists in digitalisation, material, metadata and methods.

But a precondition is the digitalisation of vast quantities of unique cultural heritage material. The research proposal “Kunskap i Samverkan” (“Knowledge in Interaction”), presented in autumn 2016, emphasised the need for “increased access to large digital data volumes” and points out the archives, collections and libraries of heritage studies departments. Uppsala University Library is among those that are keen to pick up the pace, well aware that the work will not run out anytime soon. Shelves upon shelves of rare or unique materials await these efforts. The transition from manuscripts to print took centuries, and indeed, it is not really over. The digital transition is also a matter of centuries.

Lars Burman, chief librarian at Uppsala University Library