02/22/2017 “Challenges of Polyvalent Infrastructures” @Global Philology Open Conference
Dr. Nathan P. Gibson, co-editor of Syriaca.org’s New Handbook of Syriac Literature, will present a paper titled “Challenges of Polyvalent Infrastructures: The Case of Syriac Studies and Syriaca.org” at the Global Philology Open Conference on February 22, 2017.
Syriaca.org: The Syriac Reference Portal is a project started in 2010 to provide digital infrastructures for the field of Syriac studies. This paper surveys the digital services and methods of Syriaca.org in order to present a case study that is relevant to other digital philology infrastructures in two ways. First, these services and methods provide a model for other projects dealing with classical languages and cultures. Second, the project’s experiences illustrate the fundamental challenges and long-term issues that digital infrastructures face when they are built to serve the needs of a wide variety of users.
At the center of Syriaca.org’s digital services is creating URIs that define core entities related to Syriac studies: persons (including authors), places, classical texts, manuscripts, and scholarly literature. URIs (Uniform Resource Identifiers) are a technology for structuring linked data. By carefully curating URIs for core entities, Syriaca.org provides an infrastructure for shared datasets that use a linked-open data format. The goal of Syriaca.org is to provide a common authority file which enables libraries to catalogue materials, students and researchers to discover resources, Syriac communities to digitally document their cultural heritage, and digital humanists from diverse fields to connect historical datasets across disciplinary and linguistic boundaries. As a case study, this paper describes both Syriaca.org’s current reference publications (e.g., guides to authors, works, and manuscripts), but also its long-term goals and desiderata.
In examining the work of Syriaca.org to date, this paper identifies three methodological challenges the project has faced in designing and implementing a polyvalent infrastructure capable of serving a diverse user base. First, Syriaca.org serves both librarians and historical researchers. While archivists need stable universal identifiers and definitive authority files, researchers want particular and nuanced data that can accurately reflect primary sources and preserve evidential trains. Negotiating the tension between these needs is a one of the major obstacles to collaboration between projects based in libraries and projects developing out of academic research. A second challenge arose from the need for Syriaca.org to demonstrate that its datasets meet the rigorous scholarly standards developed for traditional print publications, even though its digital workflows for producing, reviewing, and publishing these datasets are non-traditional. A third methodological challenge arose in the need to balance deliverables between those of short- and long-term benefit to a field of scholarship. For example, Syriaca.org has often had to choose between between simply providing better access to existing resources, which is both straightforward and productive, and pioneering new research methodologies, which is arduous but has the potential to generate field-transforming paradigm shifts. In explaining the project’s experience with these challenges, this paper offers one model for how similar work in historical digital philology might proceed and invites discussion regarding how projects of this kind can more effectively overcome these barriers.
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