Thursday 22 May 2014

Future Footnotes, Reverse References and Bottomless Maps

Pelagios and the Graph of Historical Data 
are continually evolving in a number of directions that can sometimes make it hard to answer the simple question: ‘What are the benefits?’ Regular readers will know that these are many and various (and by no means all accounted for) but in this blogpost we’d like to outline two important ones that we've been thinking about for a while. We call these ‘Future Footnotes’ and ‘Reverse References’ (more on Bottomless Maps at the...well...bottom). 

Footnotes and references are pretty much the defining feature of textual academic discourse. It isn’t enough to have a bright idea or discover something remarkable – we have to relate our ideas and discovery to a wider body of research in order to locate them in the scholarly debate. But both suffer from severe limitations: footnotes can only point backwards and references can only point outwards.

Footnotes allow us to provide additional information that provides context or authority for an idea in a text (or even an image in the form of captions). Sometimes they are descriptive, but more often than not they are cross-references to previously written material – as an author we obviously can’t know about future material at the time of writing.  Because the graph of historic data is continually growing, Pelagios links act as a Future Footnotes. Annotation allows us (and anyone else in fact) to create hooks that connect our texts to both old and new material as it becomes available, without having to manually update those links ourselves. So, for example, when we annotate a reference to Londinium, for example, we don’t just say ‘here are the other references to Londinium that I am aware of at the time I wrote this’, but ‘here are other references to Londinium that the community is aware of, at the time you are reading it’.

References, on the other hand, allow us to provide evidence that backs up a point that we are making. They unilaterally point outwards because we only have the opportunity to refer to other work. In contrast, by annotating content we are simultaneously contributing our information to a wider cloud and so we create a Reverse Reference – i.e. it becomes directly available to other people through their own annotations. And to flip the logic of Future Footnotes, we don’t merely make it available to works that will be annotated in the future, but we make it available to works that have already been annotated as well. Thus we immediately make our work more accessible to precisely the people who might find it interesting.

So the benefits of Pelagios, and the Graph of Historical Data in general, are that they both future-proof and mutualise the cross-referencing that underpins academia in a way that has never been possible before. The analogies to footnotes and references aren’t quite perfect because they don’t account for the authorial stance – i.e. the desire for an author to selectively identify content, but they do indicate how radical this development in one of the most fundamental practices of academia can be. 

There is one additional benefit that we also think is essential: because the graph is open and distributed, it’s possible to create services that allow for seamless interlinking between online resources. In other words, you don’t have to go to a centralised portal or search service to discover relevant material. You simply discover it naturally, through hyperlinked references and footnotes in online books or articles (or webpages, or pictures, or maps, or songs or videos...and so forth). 

Of course curated portals and search services are valuable too, which leads us to our Bottomless Maps. There has been much discussion of the Deep Map in recent years – interactive digital maps that contain content that extends beyond the visual surface. Bottomless Maps, like the Pelagios heatmap for example, link an ever-growing (and thus to all intents and purposes infinite) quantity of content to the places they depict. While the scope of the Pelagios project is restricted to historic geographic concepts, the model which we have been collaboratively developing is applicable to any other kind of reference (people, periods, classifications, canonical text citations, and so forth). An ecology of other projects is now springing up to support this, so the combined (and evolving) graph of humanities data will ultimately become much more significant than Pelagios itself. We look forward to a future in which such cross-referencing is just as commonplace as footnotes and references are today.

*We here expand the notion of the Graph of Ancient World Data to include any content of a historical, classical or archaeological nature.