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The Challenge

It cannot be denied that the development of information technology poses a profound challenge to traditional scholarship in the humanities. The rapid development of computer technology and of the World Wide Web has opened up immense new opportunities for scholars working in historical disciplines. These opportunities also challenge the traditional ways in which scholarship has been practiced. Yet the challenges presented by humanistic scholarship to information technology and to the World Wide Web are perhaps even greater. In Part One of our paper, we briefly describe four fundamental limitations of the World Wide Web in its current form as a medium of scholarship in the humanities:

  1. Language technology. Research in natural language processing has resulted in a proliferation of tools for automatic linguistic analysis of particular languages. There is, however, no way to bring the data produced by these tools into a browsing or editing environment in the absence of standard formats and protocols. What is needed is linguistic middleware that enables user agents to interact with heterogeneous sources of linguistic data.
  2. Semantic linking. Scholarly research requires the creation and utilization of meaningful links between source materials. Ordinary HTML links are unidirectional and cannot differentiate between types of semantic relations. Digital library applications must be developed that achieve the ideal of a ``semantic web''1 by exploiting the potentials of relevant standards such as the XML Linking Language (XLink).2

  3. Content creation. Central to the notion of a digital research library is human analysis and annotation of source materials. No matter how sophisticated the algorithms used to generate them, automatically created links cannot take the place of scholarly analysis. The current paradigm of the Web distinguishes the creation and browsing of content as fundamentally separate activities. In a next-generation framework the browsing and creation of content must be more closely integrated.

  4. Distributed resources. The free exchange of ideas is a crucial feature of research, whether humanistic or scientific. Any scholar anywhere who has access to the Web should be able to contribute materials to a distributed set of resources and to work with resources produced by other scholars worldwide. Yet the current client-server architecture of the Web limits the free flow of information. Digital libraries must move toward a more fluid distributed or peer-to-peer network model.3


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Next: Software Platform Up: The Challenge of the Previous: The Challenge of the
Malcolm D. Hyman 2004-03-12