With the completion of thirty-one interviews, a significant phase of the Sudamih Project requirements gathering workpackage draws to a close. It’s been both a busy and an interesting few weeks, dashing about Oxford to talk to researchers from across the spectrum of humanities disciplines about how they use and organize data.
Balancing the competing demands of research, teaching, and dreary-but-essential admin, academics are immensely busy people, and we were very grateful so many of them found time in their packed schedules to meet with us. Once we had found a free slot in their diary, however, most of our interviewees needed little prompting to talk about their work, and we heard about a huge range of fascinating projects – more than once it required a fair amount of self-discipline to move on to our questions about database requirements and training rather than just letting them keep talking about their research topic.
The interviews brought me to a new appreciation of the huge variety of types of research within the humanities. This isn’t limited to diversity in subject matter (though there certainly is that), but also includes a wide range of very different research methods. My own research experience has been largely limited to the ‘read something, think about it, write something’ model, but I quickly came to realize that those of us who work this way are a minority. We talked to linguists who record and analyse speech, English literature scholars transcribing manuscripts, classicists working with inscriptions, an Orientalist working on an undeciphered writing system, musicologists… and that list barely scratches the surface. I was frequently amazed by how much people crammed into their time: one researcher reeled off a list of five major research projects which sounded sufficient to fill the working week several times over, and then casually added ‘And I also write books and articles.’
A useful side effect of asking researchers about their data management practices was being prompted to re-evaluate my own ways of working. As the interviews progressed, I found I was being more proactive: rather than, for example, keeping all my files in one folder and only reorganizing them when this became unwieldy, I thought ahead and created a finer-grained system. Discussing versioning and backing up prompted me to be more conscientious about this myself – something which became acutely relevant when my home computer recently suffered a hard drive failure.
For most of the interviews, we adopted a belt-and-braces approach, recording them using a digital device, and also taking written notes. One interviewee commented that she was surprised to see us making notes by hand, when it would surely be more efficient to type straight into a laptop. I was in turn surprised: not by the suggestion itself, but by the fact that it hadn’t occurred to me earlier that there was indeed something slightly incongruous in an OUCS representative using a method of data collection which was distinctly old school. (This happened mostly for practical reasons: I don’t have a suitably portable laptop, and the duration of the project wasn’t sufficient to justify the expense of acquiring one.)
With the interviews over and written up, we’re now in the process of drawing our findings together into a report. I may be biased, but I think it makes pretty interesting reading so far: watch this space for further details.