This week I was very fortunate to attend the Linked Ancient World Data Institute (LAWDI) conference held at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) at NYU, in New York City and sponsored by the NEH Office of Digital Humanities. This is intended to be the first of a few posts in which I discuss the conference topics and some practical outcomes I hope to participate in. (I say this publicly so I have to actually write them!)
LAWDI was a wonderful conference. The very active twitter feed (#lawdi) was followed by 400 people, and towards the end I began to worry that they would start to think we were all a bit touched in the head, given the levels of enthusiasm that approached a lovefest.
Much credit goes to our ISAW host and general fount of visionary optimism, Sebastian Heath, as well as his co-hosts Tom Elliott of ISAW and John Muccigrosso of Drew University (where a second LAWDI will be held in 2013.) They fostered an atmosphere of collaboration and support that was truly welcoming to attendees at all levels; this is a rare enough feat at any conference, but especially so at one dealing with fairly high-level technological and semantic discussions. My fellow conference attendees were also a fascinating, bright, energetic and truly nice group of people. I feel as if I’ve made a bunch of new friends. Thank you all.
So, LAWDI is about Linked Open Data. I am sure I have a lot of general readers who may be wondering what the heck that is. Here’s my attempt at a basic recap in terms that should be fairly accessible (I just actually tried to explain this to my neighbors, who are neither IT nor ancient studies people). The internet is all about linking; one of the best ways to draw attention to resources is by linking to them. Links that are stable and short(ish), like http://www.jstor.org/stable/3632121 or http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/235892089 are a lot easier to deal with than 100+ character linksoup with characters like % and ? or websites where you can only link to a landing page but individual documents must be searched for every time you go there. So, people who manage information online should work on making their links resemble those above, for ease of use by everyone.
Second, where possible, links should go to authoritative sources. Pick a place to link to that will be around for a while – forever if possible! There are actually now international authorities for some things – VIAF is a big one for personal names, for example – so if I want to refer to 19th century Classicist Basil Gildersleeve I can link to http://viaf.org/viaf/2490055 and be pretty sure that that’s understandable to both people and computers internationally and will be around for a good long time. (I’ll make a list of “good places to link to for classical bibliographies” in a subsequent post.)
Beyond that, however, there are some background technologies – not necessarily visible to the human viewer of a web page – to allow computers to figure out links between things. The Wikipedia article linked above gives you a lot of acronyms and links to explain them, but for the non-coder, the gist is as follows. One uses a special markup language to tell any computer that looks that “Basil Gildersleeve” is a human person, and that the URL http://viaf.org/viaf/2490055 is a description of him. The computer can then find other references to the human person Basil Gildersleeve described at http://viaf.org/viaf/2490055 elsewhere, see that they are the same person, and automagically make a link. This is the ultimate goal. Examples of projects in ancient studies that are using this technology to, for example, search across disparate data sets include Pelagios and CLAROS.
Coming next: 1) a recap of my presentation at LAWDI and 2) thoughts about best practices for Linked Open Data related to bibliographies and bibliographic citations specifically, at 2 levels: the low-tech and the higher-tech.