Julianne Nyhan on “Books as Data”

Julia Rehfeldt —  November 4, 2014 — Leave a comment

Dr Julianne NyhanNyhanJ is lecturer (assistant Professor) in Digital Information Studies in the Department of Information Studies, University College London. Her research interests include the history of computing in the Humanities and most aspects of digital humanities with special emphasis on meta-markup languages and digital lexicography. She has published widely, most recently Digital Humanities in Practice (Facet 2012), Digital Humanities: a Reader (Ashgate 2013) and Clerics, Kings and Vikings: essays on Medieval Ireland (Four Courts, at press). Among other things, she is a member of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Peer Review College, the communications Editor of Interdisciplinary Science Reviews and a member of various other editorial and advisory boards. She is also PI of the ‘Hidden Histories: Computing and the Humanities c.1949–1980’ project. You can follow her on Twitter and on her Blog.

HPL: How do books become data, and what can we further expect of this development?

Julianne Nyhan: Regarding the first part of the question there are a number of fairly obvious responses that I could make about the technical processes that are used to turn books into data. I guess this is not what you are looking for! My initial thought is that books can become data when we start to think about them, and the uses they can be put to, in new ways. Thinking about them at the aggregate level, as opposed to the single-book level is usually necessary too.

As as far as I can see, this has rarely led to the importance of the physical or individual book being diminished. Actually it has helped us to identify and articulate some of the implicit or rarely-expressed knowledge (and assumptions) that we have books. Ivor Richards may have described the book as “a machine to think with” in 1925 but it seems that it is especially since the advent of the web that it has become more common to examine the book as a form of technology.

Technology (and here I’m using this word in a slightly different way to the previous paragraph) is, of course, important but it seems that there are a number of more fundamental cultural and intellectual issues that must be in place, or overturned, in order for books to be processed, manipulated, studied and transformed (etc) as data.

HPL: From your perspective, what is the most important effect digitization has on academic communication and research?

Nyhan: Instead of saying what the most important effect has been I’d like to mention an area that has not had enough attention, namely the epistemological changes that have come about at the intersection of the human and the digital. I think it is very important for us to understand this area better than we already do so that we can begin to recognise and understand more about the new kinds of knowledge that we create when using such methods. I think that we need to approach this in a more systematic and, in due course, comparative way than we have been doing and to think about this in the context of the History of the Humanities, for example, as well as the context of intellectual history.

HPL: As you are working a lot on and with peer review, how do you think it will develop in the near future?

Nyhan: Of course we will see much more experimentation with non-traditional forms of peer review and hopefully more detailed evaluations of the merits and weaknesses of these non-traditional forms of review. As much as each of us might welcome new approaches to peer review I suppose the fact that a new system has not been widely adopted means that we have not, so far, found a system that is superior to traditional peer review (all other things being equal) .Or maybe I’m putting it too simply. Perhaps we also need to more often take into account other concomitant factors like institutional recognition and workload when assessing new approaches to peer review. Though this study is a little old now the experiment that Nature did with open peer review was very interesting. Their conclusion was “Despite the significant interest in the trial, only a small proportion of authors opted to participate” (http://tinyurl.com/qhfhhcz).

HPL: Which book will you always have as an analogue copy in your bookshelf?

Nyhan: All of them, I hope! Personally my dream scenario is to have analogue and digital copies of all the books I own.

Read on Thursday: Our Introduction Interview with Bodó Balázs.

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