Virtual Research Environments with Gravity

Wikipedia gives the story of the running joke among Germans – that Bielefeld does not in fact exist. I began to wonder it if was more than just a joke after arriving on Monday by plane at the nearby international airport (Hannover), from which I then required two hours of train travel and an icy cold one-hour stop-over at Hannover main station before being able to shake off my doubts.

It does exist, and very pretty parts of it are too. The 9th International Bielefeld Conference is taking place in an impressively large convention centre near the city centre. The conference kicked off yesterday, with a good first half-day programme. One theme which came through interestingly in two of the presentations was that of virtual research environments. Juan Garcés from the British Library spoke about the Codex Sinaiticus, whose website states:

Codex Sinaiticus is one of the most important books in the world. Handwritten well over 1600 years ago, the manuscript contains the Christian Bible in Greek, including the oldest complete copy of the New Testament. Its heavily corrected text is of outstanding importance for the history of the Bible and the manuscript – the oldest substantial book to survive Antiquity – is of supreme importance for the history of the book … The Codex Sinaiticus Project is an international collaboration to reunite the entire manuscript in digital form and make it accessible to a global audience for the first time. Drawing on the expertise of leading scholars, conservators and curators, the Project gives everyone the opportunity to connect directly with this famous manuscript.

The Project involves a large international collaboration, with the four principal partners being the British Library, Leipzig University Library, St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai and The National Library of Russia in St Petersburg.

It wants to create a scholarly user community around the Codex Sinaiticus. One of its tasks will be to develop an expertonomy (term coined by Garcés). He presented the Project as an example of the development of a special collection over time, portrayed in a community dimension as well as simply a resource dimension. Such items or collections have conventionally begun their digital life by being described and preserved by librarians and consulted in their original formats by a few expert readers. Via digitisation they can be transformed into a thriving communal resource co-developed by librarians and a large number of expert readers in the form of a virtual research environment. Juan Garcés built up this portrait eloquently and convincingly, in an animated slide which I tried to capture on my iPhone.

Will this community thrive? Ronald Milne of the British Library told me he was amazed at how web-active the papyrologist community is. Incidentally, Juan Garcés presented this work excitingly within the context of a recent decision by the British Library to mass-digitise its entire collection of pre-1600 manuscripts.

From papyrologists to bioethicists. The afternoon keynote was given by Wendy Pradt Lougee, University Librarian at the University of Minnesota (which, she announced, has just received the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) 2009 Excellence in Academic Libraries Award). She discussed Minnesota’s Mellon-funded 2006 Multi-Dimensional Framework study , which I mentioned in an earlier post, and which we are using as a reference point in our RIM work. One of its blossomings has been the development of the myLibrary service within the myU portal. Customisation for service delivery has been developed by means of affinity strings which characterise granular groupings of faculty and students – described by Lorcan in a recent post – providing a high degree of customisation potential (there are 9,500 of them!).

Another important outcome is the Mellon-funded EthicShare virtual research environment for the global ethics community, with an initial emphasis on bioethics. Given a strong focus, virtual research environments, or communities, can be widely adopted. Any such undertaking must be given some time to see how much gravitational pull it exerts. Communities built around particular resources like the Codex Sinaiticus may have an immediate advantage in the gravitational attraction of the resource, and a toolset to accompany it. For EthicShare, Wendy intends that community building and community management will be a new role for subject librarians. With Minnesota’s librarians having access to a wealth of researcher behavioural data, and authoritative affinity strings, they ought to stand a good chance with their own bioethicists at least.

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