Building digital tools to explain digital tools

Over the last few weeks, the Beyond Citation team has transformed into a web production team of sorts, focused on making key decisions about site platform, site architecture, user interaction, design, and communication.

Beyond Citation—a project to build a website that aggregates accessible, structured information about scholarly databases—has the potential to enhance how scholars approach, use, and interpret resources from some of today’s most widely used digital collections. While it would be straightforward for our team to simply gather and publish information about those resources, our challenge is to build a digital tool that supports meaningful interaction with that information, one that can also scale in the future and cater to a community of contributors.

In the project’s nascent stages, the tactical concerns before us are familiar—we’re taking on the common challenge of building and launching a website or web app. Thrust into the very practical realm of software, decisions, and constraints, discussions of critical theory get put off to discuss the merits of WordPress and Drupal. These powerful tools place the project in a digital ecosystem much wider than academia. The platform we have chosen—WordPress—pushes us deeper still into the wide worlds of relational databases, server-side scripting, and content management—the digital tools that will allow us to explain other digital tools.

As we construct the basic building blocks for the site, we find that the best way to focus our approach is by seeking the advice of experts, reading blogs about WordPress customization, and learning more about MySQL and WordPress taxonomies. The robust open source community behind WordPress has enabled us to confirm that the technical requirements for the Beyond Citation website can be met many times over through combinations of WordPress plugins.

Something to consider while building this tool with WordPress, is that we are seeking to publish data about proprietary tools by using open source technology. Perhaps this isn’t really so unusual—we see this in a similar vein as increasingly popular APIs that allow for easier data aggregation or configuration from multiple sources. And toolsets that are hybrids of proprietary and open source systems are extremely common.

But there’s an important depth to explore when thinking about Beyond Citation as a bridge between proprietary and open source systems. The idea of “exposed” information, built on “hidden” information, represents a direction that the project can try to push technically. For instance, if in a future iteration the team can uncover information about scholarly databases that’s not just hard to find, but not openly available (such as how search algorithms work, or the criteria behind publisher contracts), then I think the value of Beyond Citation increases in a direction most closely aligned with its original ambition. This would also allow the project to explore the similarities and differences in how scholarly databases work in more meaningful ways.

Before we can do that, everyone on the team is doing their part to fill in knowledge gaps, and discovering “how technology works” on multiple levels. Just as we are researching the types of information about scholarly databases that we want the project to highlight, we are also researching the types of data-driven web frameworks that could easily support such information. Like many Digital Humanities projects, Beyond Citation is about knowledge acquisition and aggregation for both developers and researchers. We are challenging ourselves to learn as much as we can about one set of digital tools before we can communicate new information about other sets of digital tools—both of which are moving targets, evolving in their own realms of authorship.

As we work towards a May launch date for an early version of the site, we realize that the authors of digital projects need a constant appetite for more knowledge—technical knowledge and subject-matter knowledge—in order to create and maintain an authoritative tool.

Follow us on Twitter as we get ready for May: @beyondcitation

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