In my previous post about "Building Communities in the Digital Arts and Humanities", the workshop I recently attended, I mentioned that one concrete suggestion had caught my imagination, and that of others, in the final discussion, but I forgot to actually write about it. Rather than heavily editing that post, I'll outline it here.
John Byron, Executive Director of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, proposed a sort of helpdesk for the digital humanities. The situation at present for anyone with a problem can be tricky: non-specialists may have no clue where to turn to find advice on, say, digital preservation, whilst techies might wonder who to ask about, for example, reconciling two metadata schemas; and yet, if you knew who to ask, there's almost certainly someone out there who could answer that query, in a centre of expertise, a grass-roots network, a software house etc. But what if there was one website (or just an e-mail address!) you could go to with your problem, which would direct the query to the right place to get it answered? The model might be one of triage - a crack squad of dedicated elves with a deep knowledge of the sources of expertise decide who to send the question to - or of an expertise marketplace, akin to Experts Exchange and the like, where a problem would be posted to a suitable forum (perhaps by elves again) and the community there would propose answers. The beneficiary might be able to assign points for the help they're given.
The proposal is not at heart about how to build communities, of course, but it would face that problem in two areas - building the community of experts, and that of users. Perhaps it would also build on what we learned from the meeting, too, because the idea would be to build on existing communities, creating a community of communities in fact, although quite how would I guess depend upon each community. It would also, hopefully, adapt itself to the needs of the target (user) community too, providing services that it needs rather than what someone else thinks it needs.
I really liked the idea, which would need some funds to get off the ground and to keep going, but which I think is quite easy to explain and show the benefits of. The problem may be one of gaining resources for a project that benefits people worldwide. But there are examples of this working (OCLC, for one). I hope it goes somewhere.