IV 7 Virtual Research Environments for the Digital Republic of Letters

Meliha Handzic, C.M.J.M. van den Heuvel

Research output: Chapter in book/volumeChapterScientific

Abstract

Digital technology is transforming scholarship in the humanities. Increased engagement with technology is giving scholars unprecedented opportunities for significant intensification and diversification of their research activities. At the same
time, translating traditional humanistic objectives, materials, methods, and activities
into the digital domain poses fresh challenges for humanistic study and practice.
Seizing these opportunities and overcoming these challenges fully will require the
transformation of the environment within which much humanistic research and
study is undertaken, especially in order to facilitate engagement with unprecedented
quantities of complex data and metadata. More particularly still, a Virtual Research
Environment (VRE) is needed to support that subset of the humanities
community engaged in innovative and collaborative study of the republic of letters.
The main aim of the COST Action Reassembling the Republic of Letters (RRL) has
been to devise means for bringing together as many early modern learned letters
and related documentation as possible in a digital format as the precondition for
analyzing wider networks of intellectual exchange, eventually expanding to embrace
the republic of letters as a whole. New tools are needed for every stage of
this process, from assembling, exchanging, and reconciling catalogue metadata to
the transcription and annotation of letters to create new, ‘born digital’ collections
(see chs. III.1–5).At this point, however, we confront a paradox, which necessitates further reflection
regarding the nature and function of a VRE. The outcome of these plans
will be to inundate the field with digital data; in order to handle this deluge of data,
methods and tools such as text mining and topic modelling will be needed; and yet
(as established in ch. III.4) these tools and methods can only yield meaningful
results if even larger quantities of data are available for mining, modelling, and
analysis. When confronted by data sets large enough for reliable text mining and
topic modelling, scholars will urgently need new strategies and environments in
order to explore and analyse these unprecedented bodies of data and metadata
effectively. It is therefore necessary to consider at the outset the manner in which
big data on the republic of letters must be organized and accessed if future scholars
are going to be able to process this information individually and collectively,
cognitively and tacitly, to make it explicit by documenting, publishing, and sharing
it.
In one sense, this problem is not new. As Ann Blair has made clear in her seminal
book, Too Much to Know, scholars since Antiquity have developed strategies for
producing and managing information in a collaborative way. Similar strategies are
under development today, in the early digital age. For the production of knowledge,
for instance, crowdsourcing is becoming a common method: to advance our
knowledge of the republic of letters, whole communities of scholars are cataloguing,
transcribing, disclosing, annotating, and sometimes even coding collections of
letters. For the analysis of the resulting data, similar collaborative methods will be
needed. To this end, this chapter conceptualizes a future VRE for analysing digitally
reassembled data on the republic of letters. The general objective is to sketch the
outline of an environment in which scholars can navigate, explore, search, analyse,
visualize, interpret, and validate the unstructured and structured big data of the
digital republic of letters. Although many of the current methods and tools might
be obsolete by the time a comprehensive data set has been assembled, the fundamental principles of knowledge organization and management will still be needed
to handle large quantities of letters and contextual texts for scholarly purposes.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationReassembling the Republic of Letters in the Digital Age. Standards, Systems, Scholarship
EditorsHoward Hotson, Thomas Wallnig
Pages434-445
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2019

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