Digital Monolingualism, Archives at Risk, and Global Views on Open Access

Report on the Roundtable “The Future of the Archive(s): Digital Infrastructures Across Regions”  

(17.11.2023 at the University of Regensburg (Department for Interdisciplinary and Multiscalar Area Studies) & Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies (IOS) and online, NFDI4Memory in cooperation with CrossArea e.V.)

By Kathleen Schlütter and Eva Ommert (Research Centre Global Dynamics, Leipzig University)


What will future knowledge infrastructures look like? Photo: Lexica, CC BY-NC 4.0

Within the DFG-funded Nationale Forschungsdateninfrastruktur (NFDI), 26 consortia are currently working on establishing a research data infrastructure for various research fields in Germany. For the historically oriented disciplines, this is organized in the NFDI4Memory consortium, which brings together research, memory, and information infrastructure institutions. Being part of 4Memory, the Research Centre Global Dynamics at Leipzig University engages in adding the experience of area histories to the discussion on data infrastructures. This is why we have taken this year’s CrossArea conference in Regensburg as an opportunity to organize a roundtable on “The Future of the Archive(s): Digital Infrastructures Across Regions” on 17 November 2023.

We invited scholars with expertise on different world regions and from various German research institutions and information infrastructures: Peter Altekrüger (Ibero-American Institute (IAI), Berlin), Cassandra Mark-Thiesen (University of Bayreuth), Arnošt Štanzel (Bavarian State Library (BSB), Munich), Cosima Wagner (University Library, FU Berlin) and Timothy Nunan (University of Regensburg) who moderated the roundtable. The goal was to discuss how they evaluated current developments in archival and library infrastructure and digitization projects. In the discussion, we applied a rather wide definition of research data and digital archives, i.e. including both digitized and born-digital material as well as data collected by individual researchers or material found in the archives.

As an introduction, let us start with Peter Altekrüger’s observation of current developments, out of his many years as a librarian and deputy director of the Ibero-American Institute: “The good old world of paper publications is not anymore.” While in the past, he said, users had to almost plead with librarians to access material, now librarians have to rather beg the user to come to the library. Digitization brought many new players to the field, with the result that libraries are no longer the authority. In addition, approaches to knowledge and technological change accelerated tremendously: Former library staff had to manage the shift from typewriters to computers, while current staff must adapt to different library systems, different classification systems, and the management of the lifecycle of hardware on which data is stored.

From this starting point, five broad themes emerged in the discussion that shed light on the variety of topics that area-related infrastructure and scholarship must engage with when it comes to collecting, analysing, and preserving data.

Impression from the hybrid roundtable: Peter Altekrüger, Timothy Nunan and Arnošt Štanzel on-site in Regensburg (left to right), joined online by Cassandra Mark-Thiesen (left) and Cosima Wagner (right). Collage: DIMAS/ReCentGlobe

1.      “Preserve and share”: What is in the archives and libraries and who can access it?

The concept of “preserve and share” raises critical questions about the contents of archives and libraries as well as the accessibility of their materials. The landscape of digitization has evolved into a diverse arena in which a wide variety of actors are involved. What was once a unidirectional process has transformed, with libraries actively contributing and “giving back,” as emphasized by Altekrüger and Cassandra Mark-Thiesen, researcher of African history. This shift poses both a challenge and an opportunity for archives, as they confront established notions of authority while creating new possibilities for collaboration and enhancing the visibility of scholars from different regions. Digital history, as pointed out by Mark-Thiesen, therefore presents an opportunity “to develop a counter-narrative of what many people have thought about sources in Africa” and provides a new impetus for North-South connections, cooperation, and “teaching between continents.” However, this also demands a reflection on what to share and why (see also point 4 below on open access).

A notable aspect of this evolving landscape is the accessibility of digitized books when the original versions are no longer available or not available in a specific country or region. Altekrüger provided an example of the IAI, whose download figures from Latin America rival the number of physical books the library lends. This also underlines the significance of digitization in ensuring access to unique materials that may otherwise be lost (see also point 3).

Collaboration between institutions hereby is a key theme, with partners from different regions expressing a desire to cooperate and identify the potential for global partnerships. The Cuban National Library, for example, has a wealth of archival material that it would like to make more widely available, but it lacks a usable public interface, said Altekrüger. Cooperation with the IAI and its digital infrastructure could be an interim solution until the librarians in Cuba establish their own technological platform. The IAI can act here as cooperation partner, despite challenges related to political complexities (“a minefield” as Altekrüger put it).

Despite the new technological possibilities of digitization, the discussion also highlighted that digital archives are as selective as analogue ones. Štanzel pointed out that, for example, Russian archives contained a lot of digitized material on the Second World War, while Ukrainian archives have a focus on digitizing collections on Ukrainian statehood. As East Asia librarian Cosima Wagner added, Japan, for example, has a very open stance toward data sharing and a central infrastructure for this purpose that is locally adapted, but some materials are closed or access to them is limited due to copyright or geoblocking. Due to the origins of archives as sites of state power with imperial legacies, they are often missing material, so there is a need to “look more to what is not there” as Wagner emphasized in reference to Amalia S. Levi’s talk “Filling the Gaps: Digital Humanities as Restorative Justice”.

Visibility has emerged as a crucial factor in this landscape, with Altekrüger underlining the importance of communication and transfer. For example, the IAI sets references to their data in Wikipedia articles to make them more accessible to the broader public.

2.      Disrupting digital monolingualism

Digital monolingualism is a critical issue. The question of language is particularly challenging in the context of area studies, as noted by Wagner. The inadequate accommodation of multilingual data, metadata, and sources, including those written in non-Latin scripts, highlights a deficiency of knowledge infrastructures in serving area studies’ interests and needs. With regard to the “hype” on artificial intelligence (AI) and its influence on academic research, teaching and publishing, Wagner pointed to recent research on a “resourcedness gap” for language models in non-English contexts which are predominantly trained in English or languages that use Latin characters resulting – again – in a language bias.[1] Timothy Nunan, historian of transregional cultures of knowledge, added that while widely spoken non-Latin script languages such as Persian or Arabic possess substantial corpora and resources, smaller languages face even higher hurdles in the digital landscape. This bias extends to library catalogues and databases in general, which often lack fields for or a proper indexing of non-Latin scripts as well as for fields necessary to represent a different publication culture.

As a symptom of asymmetries in global academia, “disrupting digital monolingualism” is also part of the process of decolonizing knowledge infrastructures, such as the Decolonizing the Library Movement at Cambridge University. There is a need for multilingually and geo-culturally enhanced knowledge infrastructure and more cooperation among different actors. One interesting “reaction” to monolingualism is the endeavour of the National Institute of Korean History in South Korea to translate all historical sources into English and to make them globally available, as Wagner observed.

3.      Building and maintaining digital infrastructures

The discourse on the infrastructure for digitized archives and their maintenance raises multifaceted considerations, exhibiting regional disparities and challenges. In Eastern Europe, for example, the financial possibilities for creating and maintaining digital archives also depend on whether a country is a member of the European Union, Štanzel argued. He illustrated this point by noting instances where institutions in regions such as Central and Southeastern Europe possess a sophisticated infrastructure but lack the necessary funds for maintenance. Altekrüger commented that, by contrast, his institute faces shortages of expert staff for digital initiatives (e.g. for scanning or metadata creation, both of which are time intensive) rather than of financial resources. Public-private partnerships in digitization efforts, according to Štanzel, are not very common, since there need to be economic incentives on the part of private partners, and the digitization of area-specific materials for an academically interested public rarely aligns with economic interests.

Additionally, there appears to be a lack of formal cooperation among libraries in periodically saving each other’s digital collections as a backup, posing risks regarding natural disasters or the potential disappearance of data, along with the structures that house them. Štanzel pointed out that books published only digitally in Ukraine have been permanently lost due to server burnouts caused by the war. The fragility of digital archives underscores the need for robust preservation strategies, particularly in regions facing geopolitical challenges. However, there are also examples of fruitful cooperation in the digitization of archival material. Initiatives addressing archives at risk due to conflict or other threats, such as the BSB-supported Save Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online,[2] the Endangered Archives Programme by the British Library, the Swiss-based Safe Havens for Archives at Risk Initiative, and the digitization of cultural patrimony during the war in Afghanistan are examples of global efforts to safeguard cultural heritage. While war poses a fundamental threat to digital archives, it can paradoxically also serve as a catalyst for digitization.

4.      Comprehending open access in a global perspective

The realm of open access (OA) is under scrutiny, with critical aspects and potential impending crises that demand scholarly attention. One critical consideration, as emphasized by Mark-Thiesen, revolves around copyright issues intertwined with ethical questions of ownership. This is exemplified in Mark-Thiesen’s project on digitizing Liberian video material, where the decision to not publish the content in OA was driven by the wishes of the partner institution, the Liberian Broadcasting System (LBS), fearing the loss of authority over content and that authorship might not be respected. This highlights the importance of recognizing the preferences of regional partners and the need for transparent discussions on such topics in OA initiatives. The project opted to share only the metadata at the end.[3]

A second concern emerges from the economic challenges faced by research institutes, for example in Latin America, which were early adopters of the OA movement. Altekrüger noted that these institutions, despite being pioneers, are now constrained by the financial burden associated with maintaining OA. Traditional revenue streams, such as selling book series or journals, are no longer as viable, leading some institutes to revert to paper-only versions of their publications. This shift reflects the financial challenges that undermine the sustainability of OA models in certain contexts.

Third, Štanzel noted the absence of a substantial OA movement in parts of Eastern Europe and outside of the European Union. However, there are instances of OA platforms and even “shadow libraries,” for example in Russia, where data can be downloaded without stringent regulations.

Finally, with regard to data collected or created by individual researchers, Mark-Thiesen remarked that the effort necessary to prepare data and share it with others is not yet rewarded as a proper research output. Therefore, the motivation to do so is rather low.

This underscores the heterogeneous landscape of OA adoption and the existence of alternative models that may not align with OA’s traditional principles. In light of these issues and as the OA landscape evolves, this topic needs ongoing scholarly attention and adaptive strategies to navigate potential crises.

5.      Developing German digital research infrastructures for area studies

The configuration of German knowledge infrastructure for area studies is undergoing scrutiny, revealing significant challenges within the academic landscape. Concerning the National Research Data Infrastructure (NFDI), Wagner indicated that despite a substantial initiative to establish an area studies data community at the beginning of the NFDI initiative, no NFDI consortium dedicated specifically to area studies was created. However, Štanzel highlighted the visibility of area studies within the now established NFDI consortia, emphasizing that the inclusion of area studies in these infrastructures contributes to the structural development and recognition of the field within the broader knowledge framework. It is therefore a sign of hope that the intersection of area studies and global history as well as multilingualism form important components of the NFDI4Memory consortium. Wagner also highlighted the significance of this, with NFDI4Memory being the first instance where these themes were actively debated, and area specialists explicitly invited to collaborate. Not least because of the participation of the experienced Bavarian State Library in the consortium, this indicates a shift towards the recognition and inclusion of area studies perspectives within the broader framework of national research data infrastructures.

As Štanzel remarked, German research infrastructures of course neither should (due to ethical questions of ownership and asymmetries in power) nor could (due to limited resources) store, for example, “all East European data.” However, it should be asked: what infrastructure is necessary? Who are the actors involved in collaboration in and from the regions? What role do NFDI consortia play, especially NFDI4Memory? What role do the several area-related “Fachinformationsdienste für die Wissenschaft” (Specialised Information Services for Research, FID) play, which collect and provide books, journals, and other media relevant for specific research communities, and which increasingly also provide research data services? What can and should be the scope of action, and what is feasible?

The roundtable held in Regensburg identified important issues – challenges as much as opportunities – regarding digital infrastructure in area studies. It offered a starting point for a discussion that will be part of the NFDI4Memory working programme in the years to come, hopefully stretching into German and international academic, archival, and library institutions.


Footnotes

[1] Nicholas, G. and Bhatia, A. (2023) Lost in Translation: Large Language Models in Non-English Content Analysis. Center for Democracy & Technology. https://cdt.org/insights/lost-in-translation-large-language-models-in-non-english-content-analysis/.

[2] See also https://www.sueddeutsche.de/muenchen/muenchen-bayerische-staatsbibliothek-digitales-kulturgut-websites-ukraine-1.5584863.

[3] For further information on the project see https://www.historicalculturesofafrica.org/research.


About the Authors

Eva Ommert is responsible for research data management in the Collaborative Research Centre 1199 “Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition” and coordinates activities in the Digital Lab at the Research Centre Global Dynamics (ReCentGlobe) at Leipzig University. She holds a M.A. in African studies. She is measure lead for “Area Histories” within the task area “Data Literacy” of NFDI4Memory.

Kathleen Schlütter investigates how area studies in Germany have changed in the last 20 years, in the BMBF-funded mapping project “The production of world-knowledge transformed”. She received her PhD in Global Studies from Leipzig University and is currently preparing the publication of her first book Exzellenz und Égalité: Die französische Hochschul- und Forschungspolitik zwischen globalem Anspruch und nationaler Umsetzung (2002-2021). She is measure lead for “Area Histories” within the task area “Data Literacy” of NFDI4Memory.


Citation: Kathleen Schlütter; Eva Ommert, Digital Monolingualism, Archives at Risk, and Global Views on Open Access, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 06.03.2024, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/50712



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 6. März). Digital Monolingualism, Archives at Risk, and Global Views on Open Access. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. April 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/vym1

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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