Pliny

John Bradley (the designer of the long standing text tool TACT 1985-1992) received the Andrew W Mellon Foundation ‘Award for Technology Collaboration’ for his work on Pliny recently. Pliny is a tool for humanities researchers, and interesting in several respects in regard to the ongoing discussion on digital tools for the humanities.

I read Bradley’s article “Pliny: A model for digital support of scholarship” (Journal for Digital Information, 2008) yesterday and I have also used Pliny (although not for a long time and not consistently). I really appreciate the reflection articulated in Bradley’s work and the interest in research processes and “users” that have gone into projecting and implementing the tool. Bradley also discusses digital tools more generally and tool making.

In Bradley 2005 I suggested that tool builders in the digital humanities would have better success persuading their non-digital colleagues that computers could have a significant positive benefit on their research if the tools they built fit better into how humanities scholarship is generally done, rather than if they developed new tools that were premised upon a radically different way to do things.

I think this is a good point. Although he refers to the often dramatic IT rhetoric often associated with tools, I also think it would be useful to make a distinction between discourse (or premise) and actual implementation. I would argue that many humanities computing tools are not (in terms of actual implementation) about radically different ways to do things as much as digital transformation of some parts of the research process. Often what gets digitalized is what parts of the process are easy to make digital and where there are clear advantages to be made based on computer processing power etc. (cf. concordance tools). It is fairly rare to see tools that are very strong in terms of the interpretative parts of a research process. Bradley also makes the point about the need for tools that go beyond storage and retrieval.

Another interesting point has to do with where data resides and web versus locally installed client software.

First, that although the WWW has been an important driving force for much thinking about scholarship in the humanities, it can only be a part of the entire story. The web has focused the attention of the digital humanities scholar on the nature of resources to support humanities scholarship, and has resulted in work that has shown how resources for the humanities can be made potentially significantly more useful. However, with the WWW comes the browser, and with that the limitation of the browser user as “client” in the “client/server” model of the WWW. The limitations that browser technology imposes on the resource user (generally in the interest of security) are strong and they often restrict the user’s use of these digital resources to viewing and printing.  […] Pliny is not a thick client on top of the WWW.  It is more of an attempt to blend remote and local materials, and blend the operation of reading and interpreting them on the local machine, under the control of the scholar whose materials are being managed.  In placing itself primarily on the user’s personal machine, it places itself close to where the actual research work is done. In this, at least, Pliny is meant to reflect actual conventional scholarly practice.

I have just been working on the tools section of my second article on the digital humanities, and of course, one very strong development generally is towards web-based tools. At large and to some extent in the humanities computing community. There are several things at play here. I think it is important to make a distinction between general web functionality (and need to work collaboratively, drawing on other resources etc.) and distributed access to data. I gave up old-style bookmarking five or six years ago because I have never limited myself to using on computer. Hence the distributed nature of tools such as del.ico.us, Zotero (the new version) and Biblioscape really works well for me. Some of these tools are web based, others are not. The important thing is that they allow distributed access to data. Pliny does not do that (at least not currently as far as can make out), and I would argue that the idea of the “user’s personal machine” may not be totally congruent with many humanities researcher’s practice in that they use multiple computers and other devices (in multiple locations). Using my office computer with Pliny would not stop me from wanting to add resources or continue the interpretative process when I work on my laptop in a café in the evening or from my computer at home. Ideally (but maybe not realistic at an early stage), I may also want to add a resource or (more likely) check something in my Pliny database from my iphone. One solution to this would be to have Pliny data on a network drive, but I do not think the program supports this, and the “local sentiment” might seem to clash with such a solution:

First, Pliny is about the storing and working over personal information. In the same way that it does not seem entirely comfortable to create ones Word documents and only store and work with them on a remote server (although, it is true a few of us are apparently trying out Google tools for this purpose), it does not seem appropriate to use a browser as the vehicle for creating and entering personal materials and storing them on someone else’s web server. (“Playing together: modular tools and Pliny”)

The question of whether tools should or should not support collaborative work practices, shared data and collective interpretation is another matter, but I have no problem respecting Pliny’s focus on the individual researcher as a choice.

I have worked some with Pliny, but not enough to be able to do a real evaluation. My impressions are favorable and the tool has a good “feeling” to it. It carries with it a certain degree of inspiration even though it may not look exciting at first glance. I like the way the system has been designed – both in terms of basic grounding and in terms of actual implementation. As Bradley points out, it is “thought-piece” and not a finished product. Even so it seems to work well operationally. There is fair bit of flexibility in the design of the system, and being able to easily bring different types of resources together is useful. I also quite like the spatial model used to for instance allow for a note on “digital tools for the humanities” with an accompanying space, to which I could drag and drop (well supported in Pliny) different kinds of contents as well as placing different kinds of content spatially to create meaning. The individual resources (e.g. a pdf or a web site) have their own identity in the system and can be used in multiple places, and they can also have their own notes, annotations etc. The system also supports content that may not have a digital representation (i.e. a book, an idea etc). Part of the power comes from the openness and not making too many assumptions about what resources may be valid or how a detailed interpretative process works (instead allowing space for that interpretation to be carried out). The modular approach (with plugins) adds to the flexibility as well. There is much more to be discussed (handling of dynamic content – snapshotability?, browser integration etc.), but I need to do some more exploring first.