Collaborative Research and Documentation of European Film History: The COLLATE Collaboratory

Article excerpt

Abstract: Whereas various collaboratories have been established since the early 1990s in the domain of natural sciences, we find so far only few comparable efforts in the arts and humanities aside from experimental systems with very limited functionality. The COLLATE system is one of the first working collaboratories in the humanities. Based on extended user requirement studies it was developed and evaluated in real life for an application dealing with the heritage of historic European film making. The implemented system employs innovative technologies for digital information management in order to allow content-based access to the digitized document collections. It also provides a comfortable

Web-based work environment for supporting distributed user groups in their collaborative, document-centered knowledge working. In this article we describe our collaboration concept and the resulting system design decisions, illustrating by some concrete examples how the current real-life users interact with the COLLATE system and their distributed collaboration team.

Key words: Web collaboratory, science collaboratories, humanities collaboratories

1 Collaboratories for the Humanities

When scientists publish articles in journals like NATURE they describe specific results of their work gained from numerous experiments and detailed scientific research. They have recognized rules that can be used for describing nature, for example, various aspects of our physical and biological world. By contrast, scientific work within the humanities means 'Arbeit am Begriff' (formation of concepts and terms) and--more generally --the analysis and interpretation of concepts and ideas. For simplicity, we ignore here the so-called applied sciences. It is generally acknowledged in academic contexts, promoted by the Philosophy of Science, that work and research in the humanities is organized in the form of a discourse that is open-ended in nature--it will never be finished. There is no final interpretation of Franz Kafka's stories; there is no final definition of 'alienation', and we find a continuously changing society which makes it impossible to fix these terms and concepts.

Within the humanities, therefore, the process of the scientific discourse itself becomes a central concern of scholarly studies and technical analyses. Since the ongoing discourse incorporates rich knowledge and information--which is, however, often "tacit" and thus not interpersonally or publicly available--we have to improve both the representation of the emerging knowledge and the organization of the discourse processes.

William A. Wulf and others coined in the late 1980s the notion of a 'collaboratory' by merging the terms collaboration and laboratory. They defined it as a "center without walls" which provides domain experts with the means for interacting with colleagues, sharing instruments, data and computational resources, and accessing information stored in digital libraries and archives (cf. Kouzes et al. 1996; Wulf 1993). The laboratory metaphor, however, unfortunately restricts the envisioned scope of relevant work processes and the instruments and resources that are needed to perform them. Indeed, we have observed that most of the existing collaboratories are concerned with natural sciences issues and applications (1) (see Bowker & Star 2001). Using the technological possibilities of the Internet, complemented by support tools for traditional workflows, such kinds of collaboratories only update traditional work organization structures. Their impact on social and economical backgrounds is too vague to be able to define a new structure of work. But more important than the lack of social localization is the--implicit, but generally underlying--assumption that work within the natural sciences can serve as a prototype model for the work in collaboratories in general.

Taking into account the differences between natural sciences and the humanities (described by Wilhelm Dilthey as the fundamental distinction between 'understanding' and 'explanation) it is evident to conceptualize collaboratories for the humanities in a quite different way as done by the computer scientist Wulf. …