A review of Pelagios, a network promoting semantic geo-annotation, directed by Elton Barker
Elton Barker, Open University
Ivo Zandhuis, International Institute of Social History
The Pelagios Network connects researchers, scientists, and curators to link and explore the history of places. To create and maintain these connections, Pelagios has developed: (i) a method for linking information online through the semantic annotation of places, (ii) tools and specifications for creating and making use of these annotations, and (iii) a community of individuals and organizations working with geographic data in humanities disciplines (history, literature, archaeology, etc.) and cultural heritage. To facilitate sustainability, Pelagios has established an original non-profit association, made up of a network of equal and interdependent partners. Partners coordinate work on the production and use of linked open geodata in the humanities and cultural heritage around six core activities — annotation, collaboration, gazetteers, pedagogy, registry, and visualization. To become a partner, individuals and institutions simply agree a set of joint contributions to one or more of the activities with the network’s partner-led governing committee, formalized through a memorandum of understanding.
Founded in 2011, the Pelagios pilot study, led by The Open University in collaboration with the University of Lancaster and the Austrian Institute of Technology, addressed two critical issues facing digital research — the problems of discovery and of use: proliferating Web standards meant that even if one found important material, they probably wouldn’t be able to (re)use it. Working with global leaders in digital provision of classical content, the first two phases of Pelagios (supported by Jisc, a UK funding agency for digital infrastructure) demonstrated that annotating place references could provide a simple and effective means of linking different resources. With the proof of concept established and with support from three successive grants from the Mellon Foundation, Pelagios has since concentrated on extending its method for semantic annotation of place to other disciplines and groups. Expanding the core team to include the Institute for Classical Studies (London) and the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (Berlin), Pelagios has (i) developed a free open-source Web platform, Recogito, with which subject specialists can annotate materials without need for coding skills; (ii) surveyed the Galleries, Libraries, Museums and Archives (GLAM) community, to better support curators in enriching their digital materials; (iii) held workshops on Recogito for both researchers and curators, according to their needs and particular documents; (iv) redistributed funds to support projects to build common tools or resources; and (v) supported working groups to facilitate discussion around the theory and practice of linked data annotation.
As a result, the number of projects involved in semantic geo-annotation has increased dramatically, from fifteen to over one hundred. Because of our support, resources have been built for Syriac, African, Ottoman, Latin American, and Hebrew studies, while significant developments have been made on multilingual, pedagogical, and cultural heritage resources. The Pelagios Network launched in July 2019 with twenty-seven global partners. Pelagios has also driven Linked Pasts, a public symposium bringing together researchers, data scientists, and cultural heritage groups to address challenges to achieving the desired ultimate goal of a digital ecosystem of interlinked historical resources.
The Pelagios Nework is a compelling example of how to build an academic community to sustain and support digital humanities research. One of challenges to the ongoing develop of scholarship in digital humanities is its decentralization — the phenomenon in which individuals or small pockets of researchers are undertaking their work without effective mechanisms for international collaboration. Leveraging this decentralization, Pelagios has developed a model for scholarly cooperation, largely centered on collaborative tool development and use.
The Pelagios initiative was early in recognizing that linking different resources is an important step in creating findable and reusable digital documents in humanities research. Reviewed in the second issue of Reviews in Digital Humanities, Recogito, the tool that has grown into the main product of the Pelagios Network, ticks both boxes. And the fact that so many projects adopt Recogito proves that Pelagios has found a successful method for bringing colleagues around the world together.
With the introduction of Recogito, the Pelagios Network evolved from a purely geographical project towards a scholarly network that supports the development of linking resources in general. It has successfully used the tool to develop communities of users that collaboratively explore the digital history of place and more. Its contributions to advancements of research in Syriac, African, Ottoman, Latin American, and Hebrew, as well as its impressive list of partner projects, demonstrates that Pelagios has achieved the rare feat of promoting the development of scholarship in specific areas of study and in multiple methodologies at once.
By setting up the Pelagios organization as a network of cooperating institutions, the idea of decentralization is built in and helps promote the development of tools like Recogito. Indeed, the linking practices that Recogito facilitates are, at the same time, a metaphor for the work that Pelagios has undertaken in linking disparate scholars and communities to collectively support the development of geo-annotation and related scholarship. One of the challenges to such work is, of course, funding. As the impressive record of grants supporting Pelagios demonstrates, such initiatives often depend on soft money for support, raising the question of long-term sustainability. Further information about the financial model for Pelagios would be highly instructive for others seeking to build collaborative scholarly networks. This aside, the success and sustainability of Pelagios depends on the collective effort of all users — and its creators have built a robust network of partners to sustain it.
Wilkinson, M., Dumontier, M., Aalbersberg, I. et al. The FAIR Guiding Principles for scientific data management and stewardship. Sci Data3, 160018 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/sdata.2016.18. See https://www.go-fair.org/fair-principles/