The academic book of the future: the changing face of humanities research

This is the first of several LED blog posts inspired by Academic Book Week. In this post, we discuss some of the issues the LED project team has encountered in doing research with a digital humanities approach. We think there are significant knock-on effects for academic publishing and how we choose to publish our outputs – a theme which will be picked up in subsequent posts.

As anyone who has been following the progress of LED will know, the project sets out to discover a mass of testimony of the experience of listening to music, and to record it in an open access database. It will produce a range of other outputs, but the database is really the core of the project – our most valuable and significant output is thus already an online publication (though it’s debatable how easily it would lend itself to submission to research assessment under the current REF system).

In particular, what we want is evidence of the experiences of ‘ordinary people’ – and we’re keen to find accounts that are not the obvious published ones. Of course we don’t ignore published sources – we have gathered an enormous amount of important and fascinating evidence from them. But our Holy Grail is the unpublished family letters and diaries that no-one outside the family has yet read – the private expressions of personal and intimate experiences of listening.

So from the outset, we wanted to open the database up to contributions from the public – to gather database content by crowdsourcing. This didn’t simply mean that we wanted people to send us their family documents (although this is possible, and some contributors have chosen to do it this way) – rather, we wanted it to be possible for them to create their own user accounts and enter their material into the database for themselves. This opening up of academic research is central to the LED project; not only can the public browse our open access database and draw upon it for their own purposes, but they can also directly contribute to and have an influence on the research being done by academics working on the project.

We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to add to the database a number of accounts from private family papers, and they’ve provided some real delights – this one is from the memoirs of Albert Edward Jones, who served in the First World War with the 18th King’s Liverpool Battalion:

Sitting on my pack after finishing breakfast, I noticed movement in the chateau. The shutters being flung open, and at one of the windows appeared a lady... the Colonel told us that the French madam, would be pleased if we would sing "God Save the King" for her. "Old Ted" was very nervous. He always was in the presence of ladies; he seemed to always find courage when he looked at his boys, as he called us. "haw-drum -major, will-hum-er-your band play "God Save the King"? "Sorry sir, as this is a bugle band it is not possible to do so" replied our battalion musician. Disappointment showed on our C.O's face and he turned to the troops saying, "The Battalion will hae-er-sing "The King". Someone with great courage started it, happily in the right key, and with everyone strict to attention, and the Colonel and his officer's "at the salute" the thousand voices took up the patriotic air, with gusto, and in unison. Even Bill Foster sang. The last note died away on the clear winter air. To me it was inspiring. Our French hostess standing there mute and smiling, pleased at our courtesy, and obviously delighted. Our vocal abilities as a battalion were below par, but with such a well-known tune we got by alright. the next command brought horror and consternation to us. "The Battalion will haw-er-now sing "The Marseillaise".

And here is John Evans-Pughe, a young man doing his National Service in Greece in 1947 and encountering a bewildering variety of music – he was a keen amateur musician and a careful listener:

There is every sort of orchestra here varying from Symphony orchestras, sort of Park bands, Modern dance bands American style, Dance bands Greek style, to odd little bands which play a very Arabic sort of music. The less primitive Greek music is very fascinating to listen to. Since most of their words end in a vowel their songs are specially characterised by the sustaining of the last note of each line which is usually a rather raucus (bother, I can’t spell it) (rawcus?) vowelsound which they hang onto till the last possible moment.

Of course, not all volunteer contributors necessarily have a stock of family papers they can mine, so it’s also eminently possible for them to enter data from published sources – diaries, letters, memoirs and so on – whether those that they come across in the course of their own reading, or that we suggest to them. We are constantly on the lookout for new sources of listening experiences. Through events, talks, conferences and social media we’re always asking people outside the project team to get involved – we have an ongoing call for contributions and volunteers.

But whether volunteers are entering quotations from their own documents or from published sources, there is a limit to the extent to which we can dictate the consistency of the inputting process. There are lots of reasons for this. Our community of inputters have different levels of expertise for one thing, and for another some sources tell us a lot more than others – some might give us plenty of biographical detail about the listener, as well as a description of how listening to a particular piece played by a particular performer on a specific date made the listener feel; with others, the listener might be anonymous, and the text might tell us little more than what was heard.

So each listening experience is unique, not only in the precise detail of the evidence being supplied, but also in terms of the peripheral information that is just as important: for instance, the type of source the experience appears in (such as a letter or diary entry, published book or unpublished manuscript); when the experience occurred (at a specific time on a single day or over several days, weeks or even years); what the piece of music was, who performed it, where it was performed, and if this differed from where and how it was heard. The evidence might describe the experience of an individual or of a crowd. The listener might not even be mentioned by name but given a description such as ‘A shopkeeper’ or ‘A group of soldiers’. Contributors will not necessarily have all of this information to hand. But it was important to ensure that the interface was both intuitive and versatile enough to accommodate as much information as they might be able or willing to offer.

There is really no practical way we could have achieved this without having at the core of the project an online, interactive repository that would enable crowdsourced contributions with all the variable, fuzzy data that these can entail. But when it came to thinking about how we should publish our ‘research outputs’ – in other words, the book or books that are the expected culmination of a humanities research project – the open, interactive nature of the research gave us pause for thought. Why would we do research in this way, and then publish in a traditional and – dare we say – ‘closed’ and exclusive format? We leave this question for you to ponder – suffice it to say that, for us, this is why the Academic Book of the Future project is such a timely and exciting prospect.

Helen Barlow and Simon Brown are Research Associates on the LED project, based at the Open University and the Royal College of Music respectively.