Tim Sherratt’s keynote address to the Digisam conference on Open Heritage Data in the Nordic Region (entitled “A map and some pins”) is helping me cope with some of my own frustratingly messy data:
One of the things I love about being a historian is that the more we focus in on the past the more complicated it gets. People don’t always do what we expect them to, and that’s both infuriating and wonderful.
Likewise, while we often have to clean up or “normalise” cultural heritage data in order to do things with it, we should value its intrinsic messiness as a reminder that it is shot through with history. Invested with the complexities of human experience it resists our attempts at reduction, and that too is both infuriating and wonderful.
The glories of messiness challenge the extractive metaphors that often characterise our use of digital data. We’re not merely digging or mining or drilling for oil, because each journey into the data offers new possibilities – our horizons are opened, because our categories refuse to be closed. These are journeys of enrichment, interpretation and creation, not extraction.