This blog post was written by Neil Stewart, Head of IHR Library & Digital

I was lucky enough to travel last month to the Joint Conference on Digital Libraries, held in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA. I flew into Albuquerque—a bustling desert junction situated on Route 66—and took the train up to beautiful Santa Fe, “The City Different”. A noted art city, Santa Fe is home to both the New Mexico Museum of Art and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, two world-class galleries. It is also a strikingly beautiful place, nestling in the lea of the Sangre de Cristo hills and with classic adobe architecture redolent of the “old west”. Notably for someone living in low-altitude London, it is situated at a height above sea level of over 2,000m, making any kind of exercise an interesting experience.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Grey Hills, 1941, photo © the author

The conference itself was very interesting, ranging across a wide variety of subjects. I briefly summarise below some of my key findings from two of the keynotes and from the Digital Humanities session.

The keynote presentation on Wednesday 28 June was given by Jessica Polka, and was entitled “How preprints are changing biomedical publishing”. Her talk summarised recent developments in open access in biomedicine, and in particular preprints, or research reports that can be made available prior to formal publication in academic journals. As more and more preprints are made available (Polka estimates some 600,000 are now online in the field of biomedicine alone) an eco-system of support services has developed, leveraging the network effects of these papers. These services do things like linking together versions using DOIs, allowing for mediated comments to be added and for labelling to take place which adds contextual information to guard against their misuse. The presentation was an excellent one and—as an erstwhile open access person—reassured me that the Open Scholarship sector keeps exploring the possibilities inherent in networked research information.

Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo © the author

The Digital Humanities and Teaching session took place on Wednesday 28 June. It covered a wide range of topics, including one on reading list systems, an issue currently high on the agenda at the IHR as the library helps prepare for the forthcoming MA in History, Place and Community. The stand-out paper for me was Caitlin Burge’s “A King’s Counsel: A Network(ed) Approach; Digitizing the Privy Council Registers of Henry VIII, 1540-1547”. She is seeking to use the transformative power of digitisation to discover new things about the Tudor court, notably how often court members were present at court sessions, and how individuals’ presences coincided (or did not) with those of others. Having been introduced to this classic example of digitisation and digital humanities, offering the possibility of new forms of historical analysis and knowledge, I am looking forward to hearing more about the project as it progresses.

The closing keynote, “Data Cartels and the Future of Digital Information Access”, was given by Sarah Lamdan. She summarised the findings of her recent book Data Cartels: The Companies that Control and Monopolize our Information. She argues that large “data brokerage” companies are now in the business of buying, processing, and then selling on our personal data to a variety of third parties, including government and other “big tech” firms. Surprisingly enough such data brokerage firms now include some of the larger academic publishers—or, more accurately, these academic publishers should now be considered to be, first and foremost, data brokers. These firms include Springer Nature (conference co-sponsors!) and Elsevier’s parent company RELX, who helpfully brand themselves on their website as providing “Information-based analytics and decision tools”, among others. Why should (former) academic publishers be so well placed to provide these services? Lamdan argues that it’s because of the massive stores of data they have accrued over the years, not just in the form of academic papers and books, but also about authors themselves and their publication records, affiliations, and even personal data. These trends are worrying because data brokerage can have very serious real-life effects on data subjects, for example on one’s credit score or government records. This session was a real eye-opener for me, and a worrying one at that, crystallising and making explicit a range of things I sort-of-knew but hadn’t given sustained thought.

Neil is Head of the Library at the IHR. He is responsible for the operational management and strategic development of its collections and services. He is also responsible for the IHR’s digital offerings. Neil holds a BSc in Politics and Philosophy from the University of Bristol, an MA in International Relations from the University of Manchester and an MA in Library and Information Studies from University College London. He has worked at a variety of libraries in higher education, most recently at the library of the London School of Economics and Political Science.