CLARIAH-Pushing boundaries in humanities research

How to compare and analyse hundreds of texts or thousands of images? How to study in detail the history of colonialism over several hundred years? Until recently these were almost impossible to carry out. Now that more and more scholarly sources are becoming available in digital form, and computers help us in doing research, these research questions may find answers that shock the world and change completely our view on history.

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What is CLARIAH?
CLARIAH – an acronym for Common Lab Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities – was awarded 12.6 million Euros under NWO’s Roadmap for Large Scale Research Infrastructures for 2015-2018. CLARIAH is a distributed research infrastructure that will provide digital tools and data for researchers in the humanities.

Research in the Humanities
The main objective of humanities research is to study the culture of humankind. The humanities include language, literature, arts, media, history and philosophy, using text, structured data and audio-visual materials. Research in the humanities is often complicated. Data in the humanities are never static and factual as they can be in other disciplines. They are often incomplete, imprecise, noisy and inconclusive.
Traditionally, research in the humanities results in the production of monographs, focusing on one genre, one artist, one time period or one country, simply because the topic could not be studied in another way within the time available. The researcher had to see all the data with his or her own eyes before manipulating it for use in his or her study. As a result we created experts in a very limited area such as one writer or one painter, one short period of time.

The Digital Age offers new possibilities to study larger quantities of data. Before, a researcher could study one piece of medieval text or the work of one single artist. Digitised and connected data can now be studied using digital tools, allowing us to study larger quantities of data as well as data from different domains, simultaneously.
It allows us to tackle large-scale cultural and societal problems: this is new and revolutionary in the field of humanities and promises new challenges for cooperation.
Researchers are stimulated to start working in multi-disciplinary teams; each researcher adding his or her own specific value and knowledge to the team. This will result in the combined expertise from humanities researchers, ICT experts and private companies.

Many collections are being digitised or become available in born digital form. But the data need to be curated in such a way that they are accessible, usable, interoperable and sustainable for a longer period of time. Therefore, (international) standards are important.
The same is true for tools: they need to be interoperable helping the researcher to search, order, analyse, cluster, visualise and interpret the object of study. The connection between the different data sets offers the possibility to research problems that would have been impossible to study before the digital age.

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CLARIAH helps to realise this. The key in CLARIAH is:
Interoperability: all researchers should be able to find and use the data and tools. In order to reach this goal there are certain conditions:
Easy accessibility: every researcher that starts with digital research has access to large data collections. The facilities CLARIAH is preparing are virtual and distributed: researchers can use them from their laptops, tablets, wherever they are.
Sustainability: we create an infrastructure with the aim to be able to reuse the data over and over again for different purposes and new types of research.

The experiences in linguistics gained in CLARIN will serve as an example for other Humanities’ domains.

Cooperation: the combinations enables research to address bigger research questions using large quantities of data: Big Data. Cooperation between researchers is necessary to be able to explore new horizons. In other words: bigger questions in scholarly research and societal challenges.

Three pillars
CLARIAH is for all disciplines in the Arts and Humanities. All Humanities research institutions in the Netherlands are involved in the CLARIAH program, and many heritage institutions and private companies have committed their support.
In the first phase of the project (2015-2018) we concentrate on three pillars or focus disciplines: language studies, socio- economic history, and media studies. Together they cover the whole spectrum of the humanities: text, structural data and audio-visual data. From these three pillars the infrastructure will be distributed to other areas.
Several CLARIAH Centres will be appointed, that will be committed to curating the data and tools and keeping them for at least five years after the CLARIAH project has finished.

Education and Training
The ‘digital’ researchers will surely quickly find their way in using the data and tools. Other researchers who rely more on traditional research methods may experience more problems. If we want to make CLARIAH really work as a digital infrastructure for all, we need to provide an educational programme, including workshops, crash courses, summer and winter schools, and to cooperate with the Digital Humanities’ departments of each of the universities. For the courses everyone is welcome, not only researchers from the three pillars. During 2015, a CLARIAH Course Task Force will be founded with Digital Humanities professors representing the universities plus experts from the three focus areas. Together they will coordinate the Digital Humanities educational and training program. In this way CLARIAH results can directly be applied for actual research.

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Update on CLARIAH
CLARIAH started 1 January 2015 and celebrated its kick-off on 13 March 2015. The three focus areas have hired their staff to start curating the data and tools. A technical group, including representatives from the CLARIAH Centres, is working on interoperability and cooperation. A start is being made with setting out ideas for the research pilots – relatively small projects to test parts of the infrastructure. The website is being restyled and new articles being written.
The members of the CLARIAH Course Task Force have been invited for a first meeting before the summer. In the fall and winter the first courses will start and a general CLARIAH-day will take place in January 2016, when the first results and progress will be presented. More events will follow to keep everyone informed and involved. Where possible, CLARIAH cooperates with existing activities and events. To keep up to date, see: www.clariah.nl

Will CLARIAH change research in the Humanities?
Although we cannot precisely predict or measure the effects of CLARIAH on the extent and quality of humanities research, it will certainly open up new technical possibilities that can easily be used. CLARIAH’s goal is to erase any obstacles for researchers to use the data and tools to their full extent, and also to engage in interdisciplinary research. It is expected and hoped that researchers will be stimulated to go far beyond their traditionally well-defined topics, ultimately resulting in new perspectives on human culture.