Graduate students create digital revolution in academic publishing (Orlando)When we think of organizations spun-off from university research, images of medical or high-tech companies usually come to mind. The Orlando Project, a history of the lives and careers of British women writers, breaks the mould by linking humanities scholarship with a technology-based business opportunity.
A textbase with more than six million words about some 1,000 writers, Orlando puts the University of Alberta at the forefront of a digital revolution in academic publishing.
"The limitations of conventional reference books drove us to the Web," said University of Alberta professor and project director Patricia Clements who, along with English professors Isobel Grundy and Susan Brown, assembled an interdisciplinary team that blended computer savvy and literary scholarship to develop this valuable academic resource.
Based at the U of A, the project is a partnership with the University of Guelph. It has brought in some $2.8 million in funding to the University of Alberta – much of it allocated to graduate students.
Launched with the "knowledge energy" of scholars and some 60 graduate students, and prepared for commercialization by TEC Edmonton, Orlando is now published online by Cambridge University Press. Universities around the world subscribe to the constantly evolving 'encyclopedia'. Subscription fees help fund ongoing research and updating of the database, attracting more talented graduate students into its fold.
"There would be no Orlando without the many grad students who worked on it," said Clements. "They played every role: researching, coding, and testing. They brought their tech-savvy imagination and know-how to building an innovative, award-winning product for today's marketplace."
Devorah Kobluk earned her undergraduate degree at Carleton University and returned to Edmonton in part because of the Orlando Project. Now working as a research assistant with Orlando while studying for her master's degree, Kobluk is amazed by the scope and value of the database.
"This is a really good fit for me because of what they're trying to do in terms of bringing women writers who aren't really well known to the forefront," said Kobluk. One of those writers is Olympic skier, sailor, and travel writer Ella Maillart, whose renown has faded with the passage of time.
"She was one of those people who did all these amazing things that make you feel inspired. These are the people who should be promoted in the curriculum."
That seems likely, with professors and future professors around the world more easily digging up the histories of such writers. Orlando's international presence, says co-founder Grundy, is growing. She points out that the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh, for instance, recently joined the ranks of subscribers.
Technologically, the Orlando Project electronically connects a vast body of seemingly disparate information, allowing students and researchers to draw connections between writers, better appreciate the times they lived in, and more fully understand the perspectives that writers and society had on different issues throughout history.
The Orlando Project is unique – its creators are unaware of any other project on such a scale or with such impact.
"Given the fact that knowledge about human beings is probably the most complicated knowledge we have, I'd say that the invention of a new way of handling that knowledge will be significant economically," said Grundy.
In fact, the Orlando Project is the face of economic diversification, according to humanities computing professor Stan Ruecker, who contributed to the project's creation as part of his PhD studies.
"What does diversification look like? Like nothing you've ever seen," he said.
Ruecker's computer science work on the Orlando Project led directly to some of the work he is now immersed in, including designing user interfaces to help oilsands supervisors make planning decisions that are the least disruptive to workflow and the most profitable.
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