McMaster opens centre to bring research into 21st century

The Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship was created to get researchers from different disciplines to work together, administration says.

Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship was created to researchers work together, administration says

Administrative director Dave Askey, standing outside the Louis and Ruth Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship. The centre is set to be unveiled Friday. (Adam Carter/CBC)

To hear Dale Askey tell it, the university research process is pretty outdated.

"Researchers walk in, sit down, stare at their computer and walk out. They probably wouldn't even talk to anybody all day," Askey said.

"That's very 20th century. Or even 19th century."

But at the new Lewis and Ruth Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship at McMaster University, to be officially unveiled on Friday, they're aiming to change that.

"We're creating a space where people from different disciplines can work collaboratively," Askey, the centre's administrative director, said.

Between space complications and political issues on university campuses, students and researchers can easily become isolated and grafted to their specific departments. Because of that, ideas don't get bounced around between people as much as they should, Askey says.

So this centre is being touted as a way for people to work together and fill a hole in cross-disciplinary research.

"When you have a lot of projects that are literally butting up against each other, the idea is to bleed between them," Askey said.

So what will they do there?

Take Christopher Handy, a PhD student in the religious studies department at McMaster. He studies Sanskrit Buddhist Legal texts — a field Askey calls "fiercely analogue."

Handy has digital versions of the original birch bark and ink texts, but he can't really do anything with them. In fact, he usually ends up printing them and taping them back together in scroll form — which seems kind of counter intuitive.

"So I look at that and think, what you really ought to be doing is stitching them together digitally into scroll form," Askey said. "And while you're at it, why not build a coordinate mapped system and make annotations and notes on it?"

"If you do it that way you and I could be looking at it — but so could somebody in Belgium, or Japan." 

That way, conversations form, and ideas percolate much quicker.

Anything that can be done to make these texts more accessible, Handy is game for.

"It's all about making them more available to people," Handy said. "I don't even think most people even know that these texts exist."

"I'm just trying to use whatever resources are available."

Handy's work is just one of a few different projects the centre is looking at. There's also research by Matthew Woolhouse, an assistant professor in music cognition and music theory at the University.

He's been given access to Nokia's database of records for music downloads in order to analyze the data in new ways.

"This is a classic example of digital scholarship," Askey said. "He can take this data that was really intended for marketing for Nokia, and apply a critical body of what he knows about the psychology of music."

Finding a wider audience

Askey also hopes to use the centre to engage people who wouldn't otherwise be interested in scholarly research.

"Typically, your products of research are designed for researchers," he said.

As a result, the general public might not exactly find them riveting. They're for specialists, and usually aren't too accessible to the public unless the media or a blog picks it up.

"But here, we can engage a much larger audience," Askey said.

An article on history might seem pretty dry to the casual observer. But at the centre, they plan to produce products that are visual and aesthetic.

 "A visualization that shows the intersection between disease and migration and population rates begins to become much more appealing to people," Askey said.

He likens the idea to watching a documentary, bringing things together to tell a story instead of a strict info-dump.

"This moves us in a direction of making things much more accessible to a broader audience."

A donation borne of a candy fortune

The Lewis & Ruth Sherman Foundation backed the construction of the centre. The Shermans were the co-owners of the Allan Candy Co. of Fuzzy Peach and Sour Patch Kids fame.

"This is a terrific initiative from a family that loved giving back to the community," said Paddy Torsney, a lifetime friend of the Shermans and a board member with the Lewis & Ruth Sherman Foundation.

"They were the kind of people who were always interested in the latest technologies."

Above all, Askey is hoping this centre will make things more accessible for everyone and encourage people to work together.

"It's all about breaking down those disciplinary walls," he said.

"Right now, historians eye literary scholars with a little bit of trepidation and vice versa."

The Lewis & Ruth Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship is located on the first floor of the Mills Memorial Library at McMaster University.