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Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud: How We’re Working with Researchers

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The following is a post by Alice Goldfarb, an LC Labs team Innovation Specialist working on the Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud (CCHC) initiative at the Library.

As we recently announced, we are working with three digital humanities researchers as part of the Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud (CCHC) initiative, where we are exploring how the Library could make its digital collections available as data via cloud infrastructure. Our complex working relationship with these researchers is central to the initiative, and we appreciate all the ways we are getting to learn along with them.

Each researcher is working on a project, which is an iteration of their earlier work. Doing this research at the Library gives them access to a scale of data that allows their work be more fulsome. Doing this research as part of CCHC makes technical and subject matter expertise from the Library available to these researchers, and allows us to learn all about this sort of work with the Library’s digital resources. One of our goals for the initiative is to understand the pathways, opportunities, and challenges for computational research using the Library’s growing digital collections at scale.

Rosener, Ann, photographer. Washington, D.C. OWI Office of War Information research workers. United States Washington D.C. District of Columbia Washington D.C, 1943. May. Photograph.
Rosener, Ann, photographer. Washington, D.C. OWI Office of War Information research workers. United States Washington D.C. District of Columbia Washington D.C, 1943. May. Photograph.

Driving toward project goals

Since their arrival earlier this year, the researchers have been working to understand and assemble data from the Library’s collections. The CCHC project team is assisting and documenting these projects, working with our Library colleagues to find the researchers the answers they need. Some questions are about how to query the API, and some are about how subject designations have changed over time. Over the course of this initiative, we’ll collaborate with and gather understanding from our generous colleagues within the Library, and therefore the researchers, understand the data technically and culturally, as well as where to find these digital materials in the first place. We are also considering how to make these findings available, and identifying important information for humanities and computational researchers such as replicability, generalizability, and extensibility.

Gathering evidence to design future paths

The three researchers are working on in-depth digital humanities research projects. Along with the support we are providing to them, we are also observing as they explore the possibilities within the Library, the places where further documentation would help make the collections more accessible, and the questions that need an expert on staff to answer. Throughout the CCHC initiative, we’re documenting what is necessary for these researchers, as part of understanding what is currently viable and what would be needed in order to make similar digital scholarship possible for more people in the future. This work also includes gathering an internal view of related policies and processes that would enable us to support this kind work, in order to make Library of Congress collections as data available to as many people as possible for computational research, exploratory design, or other uses.

Where the researchers are right now

We introduced the researchers, their projects, and their methodological and subject focuses in a press release earlier this summer. As we move forward with this phase of the project, we’ve asked the researchers about their approaches to digital humanities research with the Library’s collections. Dr. Lincoln Mullen has spoken about how important it is for him to consider his work as a historian first, albeit one who uses innovative digital methods. For Dr. Lauren Tilton, using computer vision is central to her work, and research and method are inextricably linked. Andromeda Yelton is working on tools and approaches to encourage browsing and discovery, with the idea that these tools could be applied to various datasets. Additionally, each researcher has described a focus on users and discovery needs, using and improving upon existing methods, sharing broadly to interdisciplinary fields, and using their work to plant seeds of possibility.

Why we are excited about supporting this type of work

The Library’s Digital Strategy calls for us to throw open the treasure chest, connect, and invest in our future. The CCHC initiative is a way to work toward all three. We are finding and improving ways to get people to the treasure chest and explore the millions of digitized items available. We are investigating ways to have people access the collections in new and different ways, allowing them to connect to the Library. Supporting this type of digital investigation is helping us invest in our future, providing access to data for future scholarship, art projects, and other investigation.

With the Library’s buildings slowly opening to the public after more than a year, we are more aware than ever about the importance of connecting people and the Library digitally. At the same time, our work with CCHC is not designed to be an online version of what in-person work might entail. Rather, the affordances of digital access and computational analysis allow for new types of scholarship and seeding discovery that would not be possible otherwise, and this initiative is helping us figure out how to allow for more such access.

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