October 9, 2015 Sarah Nisbet

“I don’t believe locking things up is the answer to expanding knowledge or improving research quality in Australia.”

When Professor Deb Verhoeven, Chair of Media and Communication at Deakin University, began her humanities research career, her colleagues guarded their collections closely.

“In the past, you used to prove your credentials by amassing some kind of collection that you held tight,” Professor Verhoeven said. “Then you carefully eked out that knowledge over time.

“Recently there has been a shift, a very good one, towards sharing the assets. Your credentials are now driven by your ability to interpret collections and circulate these interpretations as widely as possible – not holding them close to your chest.”

Professor Verhoeven wrote her PhD on Australian cinema history. Many of the films she has studied can only be seen at film archives because the copyright holders have not released them in accessible formats.

“I’m an expert on something no one else can really take an interest in because they can’t actually see the films,” she said.

“That’s why I’m a great advocate for getting the assets out there.

“If only those movies were widely available I could start having a conversation with someone. It might even turn into a debate – wouldn’t that be interesting? But that’s not going to happen anytime soon because no one can easily access the materials.

“I don’t believe locking things up like this is the answer to expanding knowledge or improving research quality in Australia. I believe you should have access to as much as is ethically acceptable.”

Professor Verhoeven has been the Project Leader for HuNI, the Humanities Networked Infrastructure, developed as part of the Nectar virtual laboratories program.

HuNI is a major step forward in sharing and combining humanities data assets and allowing researchers to discover unexpected connections.

A partnership among 13 public institutions, HuNI combines information from 30 of Australia’s most significant cultural datasets, with the potential to incorporate more in future.

Previously these datasets existed in silos. Combining them through the search and analysis tools in HuNI provides a much richer research experience.

“HuNI allows researchers to create, save, and publish selections of data, analyse and assert relationships among data, share findings, and export the data for use in external environments,” Professor Verhoeven said.

One researcher who has already benefited from HuNI is Dr Michelle Smith, Research Fellow in the Centre for Memory, Imagination and Invention at Deakin University.

Dr Smith’s current project is examining how female beauty became entwined with consumer culture during the Victorian period, in magazines and fiction read by young women.

“The history of how female beauty became connected with consumer culture could tell us a lot about the formation of today’s expectations about the attractiveness of girls and women,” Dr Smith said.

“As more women undergo cosmetic surgery to meet a particular ideal of beauty, it could be beneficial to understand how this ideal was originally shaped.”

Dr Smith said that before HuNI, it was difficult to know what kinds of materials existed that would relate to her project in the Australian context. In addition, because she works in the field of literary studies, she undertook her research using familiar sources within that discipline.

“HuNI helped me to see the connections in my research topic with other areas, including theatre, design and fashion. For a start it’s given me the ability to find materials across these areas, but it’s also allowing me to draw connections between them,” Dr Smith said.

“Australia’s cultural history has been somewhat buried and existing projects disconnected from each other. HuNI brings together so many important resources and enables me to gain a more comprehensive picture of what kinds of materials exist from the period I’m interested in. It’s opened my research up to considering how historical figures like fashion designers or movie stars impacted upon and interacted with the print culture that is my primary focus.

“I’ve been surprised by HuNI because I am a very traditional humanities researcher who likes to work in library special collections and rare book rooms. I’m not one to rush to new technologies, and I tend to like working in familiar ways. However, even with my traditionalist approach, HuNI was instantly useful and appealing to me.”

As more researchers begin using HuNI and as the data becomes even more interoperable, Professor Verhoeven sees the platform opening up a huge range of research that would not have been possible before.

“Research – in any field – is important,” she said. “It’s about the human endeavour towards improvement and greater knowledge. That’s why we do it. It’s almost built into our DNA.

“The opportunity to build HuNI has been extraordinary for the humanities, arts and social sciences in Australia. It’s unprecedented at a national level to have an encompassing platform development like this. It is world class,” he said. “The vision Nectar had for this sector though HuNI is a profound one and it will carry these research areas incredibly well into the future. This is a complete game changer in the humanities, arts, and social sciences sector, and we just can’t underestimate the impact it’s going to have.”

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