JISC/NEH Transatlantic Digitization Collaboration Grants

Lots of news coming out of NEH this week. In addition to the formation of the Office of Digital Humannities, NEH and the U.K.’s Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) announced yesterday the recipients of the first round of JISC/NEH Transatlantic Digitization Collaboration grants.

I tend not to get very excited about digitization projects. It’s not that I think they’re unimportant. They are important. But at this stage in the development of digital humanities, I think figuring out how to make good educational, scholarly, and public use of the vast amounts of quality cultural heritage materials that have already been digitized is a much more pressing need and interesting challenge than simply continuing to digitize more. That’s why we at CHNM are working on projects like Zotero, Omeka, Historical Thinking Matters, the National History Education Clearinghouse, and our forthcoming text mining initiative rather than doing any real digitization ourselves.

That said, the projects announced yesterday are pretty exciting. Among the winners are the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which along with the University of Southampton and the International Slavery Museum will develop a digital archive related to the experiences of slaves on sugar plantations. The Folger Shakespeare Library, the University of Oxford, the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, and the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham will create an open access collection of the seventy five quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays. And the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts and the Internet Centre at Imperial College will build an interactive digital archive that ties ancient greek historical texts to philological data about the Greco-Roman world.

Just in terms of content these and the other winning projects are interesting. Even more interesting is that JISC and NEH interpreted the term “digitization” very broadly in this case, taking it to mean not only scanning, but providing tools and investigating strategies to make good use of those scans. The Internet Archive and the Oxford Internet Institute, for example, will explore “indexing and analyzing the textual parts of larger digital collections, more focused browsing (“crawling”) of the Web, and … the ability to search for information across multiple digital databases.” NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and the King’s College Centre for Computing in the Humanities will launch a new “set of tools and procedures to enable seamless textual searches and the dynamic mapping of a variety of humanities collections,” testing them on a large corpus of Greek and Roman papyrological and epigraphic texts.

Most promising of all perhaps are the international ties these projects will forge. I always stress that digital history and digital humanities are essentially and necessarily collaborative disciplines. To realize these disciplines’ full potential, that collaboration must extend beyond the borders of the United States. It is great to see that government funds and scholarly energies on both sides of the Atlantic are being dedicated to that truth.

We at CHNM are very fortunate to call many of the recipients (MITH, IA, Monticello, Perseus) partners and friends, and I can’t wait to see what the smart people at these places do with their new resources and collaborators.

NEH Creates Office of Digital Humanities

At a special event today at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) announced the creation of a new Office of Digital Humanities (ODH). Formerly known as the “Digital Humanities Initiative,” ODH will be charged with coordinating NEH’s efforts in the area of digital scholarship. In just a few brief years, NEH has become one of the two or three most important funders and proponents of digital humanities projects nationwide, and the creation of ODH is a momentous event—a clear recognition of the increasing importance of digital work among scholars and cultural heritage professionals. A hearty congratulations and very warm thanks to Brett Bobley, Jason Rhody, Jen Serventi, and their colleagues at ODH! This is a very good day.

Briefly Noted for March 25, 2008

Wikihistory is a short science fiction story about a group of future time travelers’ journeys to the mid-20th century. Structured as a series of posts to a message board or wiki, Wikihistory is good mix of alternative history and science fiction, which in several ways again makes the point that science fiction is often just history in disguise. (Thanks Rob and Feeds.)

Ken sends Yahoo’s list of the ten most historically inaccurate movies. Granted, all of them—Braveheart, The Patriot, Gladiator, 300—have their problems. But it would be very easy to find ten more egregious offenders than these.

Curacao, Triple Sec, Cointreau, Grand Marnier? Confused about the difference or trying to decide which tipple to use in your Cosmo? A London “cocktail enthusiast” provides relief with a short history of orange liqueurs.

Wikis in the Classroom

Mills Kelly has a nice post about PBwiki‘s new Educators’ Wiki, its tips for student wiki etiquette, and his thoughts about using wikis in the classroom. Along with Wetpaint, Wikidot, and Zoho Wiki, PBwiki is one of several free web services that allow users to very quickly and easily set up custom wikis on any topic. I have always preferred Wetpaint (which my colleague Ken Thompson has used to some success in our own linked History 100: History of Western Civilization/English 201: Reading and Writing about Texts course on science and society), but PBwiki recently announced the imminent release of PBwiki 2.0, which should put it ahead of the pack.

Third Annual Nebraska Digital Workshop

The Center for Digital Research in the Humanities (CDRH) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) will host the 3rd annual Nebraska Digital Workshop from Oct. 10-11, 2008. CDRH is seeking proposals for digital presentations by pre-tenure faculty, post-doctoral fellows, and advanced graduate students working in digital humanities.

The goal of the Workshop is to enable the best early career scholars in the field of digital humanities to present their work in a forum where it can be critically evaluated, improved, and showcased. Under the auspices of the Center, the Workshop will bring nationally recognized senior scholars in digital humanities to UNL to participate and work with the selected scholars. Selected early-career scholars will receive travel reimbursement and an honorarium for presenting their work at the Nebraska Digital Workshop.

Selection criteria include: significance in primary disciplinary field, technical innovation, theoretical and methodological sophistication, and creativity of approach.

Please send an abstract, curriculum vitae, and a representative sample of digital work via a URL or disk on or before April 25, 2008 to: Katherine L. Walter, Co-Director, UNL Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, at kwalter1[at]unl.edu or 319 Love Library, UNL, Lincoln, NE 68588-4100 USA.

Briefly Noted for March 14, 2008

Finally! From our talented Polish colleagues at Historia i Media comes Feeds, a much needed new resource that uses Google Reader to aggregate and filter RSS streams from digital historians around the world. “One Feed to rule them all, One Feed to find them, One Feed to bring them all and in the darkness bind them?”

“NASCAR Women’s History Month”. Outsports Jock Talk says it may not be an oxymoron for long.

Ole-Magnus Saxegard, a student at the University of Technology in Sydney, presents “A History of Evil”, a short animated film examining the changing place of “evil” in the western tradition. Its subject and message are somewhat muddled—Cerberus and Frankenstein are depictions of evil, the guillotine is a tool against/of evil, and early modern witches were both objects and subjects of evil—but “A History of Evil” is hugely compelling and very well crafted. Posted only on January 30, 2008, it has already been viewed 1,101,882 times.

Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology?

Sometimes friends in other disciplines ask me the question, “So, what are the big ideas in history these days?” I then proceed to fumble around for a few minutes trying to put my finger on some new “-ism” or competing “-isms” to describe and define today’s historical discourse. Invariably, I come up short.

Growing up in the second half of the 20th century, we are prone to think about our world and our work in terms of ideologies. Late 20th century historical discourse was dominated by a succession of ideas and theoretical frameworks. This mirrored the broader cultural and political discourse in which our work was set. For most of the last 75 years of the 20th century, Socialism, Fascism, Existentialism, Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Conservatism, and other ideologies vied with one another broadly in our politics and narrowly at our academic conferences.

327577395_991a9ab4e4_m.jpg But it wasn’t always so. Late 19th and early 20th century scholarship was dominated not by big ideas, but by methodological refinement and disciplinary consolidation. Denigrated in the later 20th century as unworthy of serious attention by scholars, the 19th and early 20th century, by contrast, took activities like philology, lexicology, and especially bibliography very seriously. Serious scholarship was concerned as much with organizing knowledge as it was with framing knowledge in an ideological construct. Take my sub-discipline, the history of science, as an example. Whereas the last few decades of research have been dominated by a debate over the relative merits of “constructivism” (the idea, in Jan Golinski’s succinct definition, “that scientific knowledge is a human creation, made with available material and cultural resources, rather than simply the revelation of a natural order that is pre-given and independent of human action”), the history of science was in fact founded in an outpouring of bibliograpy. The life work of the first great American historian of science, George Sarton, was not an idea, but a journal (Isis), a professional society (the History of Science Society), a department (Harvard’s), a primer (his Introduction to the History of Science), and especially a bibliography (the Isis Cumulative Bibliography). Tellingly, the great work of his greatest pupil, Robert K. Merton, was an idea: the younger Merton’s “Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England” defined history of technology as social history for a generation. By the time Merton was writing in the 1930s, the cultural climate had changed and the consolidating and methodological activities of the teacher were giving way to the ideological and theoretical activities of the student.

I believe we are at a similar moment of change right now, that we are entering a new phase of scholarship that will be dominated not by ideas, but once again by organizing activities, both in terms of organizing knowledge and organizing ourselves and our work. My difficulty in answering the question “What’s the big idea in history right now?” stems from the fact that, as a digital historian, I traffic much less in new theories than in new methods. The new technology of the Internet has shifted the work of a rapidly growing number of scholars away from thinking big thoughts to forging new tools, methods, materials, techniques, and modes or work which will enable us to harness the still unwieldy, but obviously game-changing, information technologies now sitting on our desktops and in our pockets. These concerns touch all scholars. Our Zotero research management tool is used by three quarters of a million people, all of them grappling with the problem of information overload. And although much of the discussion remains informal, it’s no accident that Wikipedia is right now one of the hottest topics for debate amongst scholars.

Perhaps most telling is the excitement that now (or really, once again) surrounds the library. If you haven’t been to a library conference lately, I suggest you do so. The buzz amongst librarians these days dwarfs anything I have seen in my entire career amongst historians. The terms “library geek” and “sexy librarian” have gained new currency as everyone begins to recognize the potential of exciting library-centered projects like Google Books.

All of these things—collaborative encylcopedism, tool building, librarianship—fit uneasily into the standards of scholarship forged in the second half of the 20th century. Most committees for promotion and tenure, for example, must value single authorship and the big idea more highly than collaborative work and methodological or disciplinary contribution. Even historians find it hard to internalize the fact that their own norms and values have and will again change over time. But change they must. In the days of George Sarton, a thorough bibliography was an achievement worthy of great respect, and an office closer to the reference desk in the library an occasion for great celebration (Sarton’s small suite in Study 189 of Harvard’s Widener Library was the epicenter of history of science in America for more than a quarter century). As we tumble deeper into the Internet age, I suspect it will be again.

[Image credit: Alex Pang; Quote: Jan Golinski, Making Natural Knowledge (Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 6.]

Digital Humanities Start-up Awards Announced

The National Endowment for the Humanities just announced the winners of its latest round of Digital Humanities Start-up Grants. For readers who aren’t familiar with the program, these modest ($25,000 or $50,000) grants provide seed money or proof-of-concept funding for experimental digital projects in the humanities:

NEH’s Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants will encourage scholars with bright new ideas and provide the funds to get their projects off the ground. Some projects will be practical, others completely blue sky. Some will fail while others will succeed wildly and develop into important projects. But all will incorporate new ways of studying the humanities.

Here’s the full list of 13 awards. Even from the short descriptions it’s easy to see that fantastic ideas continue to percolate in the digital humanities. Congratulations to all!

* * *


University of Alaska, Fairbanks ($50,000)
Project Director: Siri Tuttle
We the People Project Title: Minto Songs
Project Description: The collection, digitization, organization, and archival storage, as well as dissemination among the Minto Athabascan community, of recorded performances of Alaskan Athabascan songs.


University of Arizona ($25,000)
Project Director: Douglas Gann
Project Title: Virtual Vault
Project Description: Electronic access to the world’s largest collection of whole pottery vessels from the American Southwest through digital renderings of Arizona State University’s Pottery Vault and relevant prehistoric archaeological sites as well as interviews with anthropologists, conservators, and Native American potters.


Lake Forest
Lake Forest College ($25,000)
Project Director: Davis Schneiderman
We the People Project Title: Virtual Burnham Initiative Project Description: The development of the Virtual Burnham Initiative (VBI), a multimedia project that would examine the history and legacy of Daniel H. Burnham’s and Edward H. Bennett’s Plan of Chicago (1909).


College Park
University of Maryland, College Park ($11,708)
Project Director: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Project Title: Approaches to Managing and Collecting Born-Digital Literary Materials for Scholarly Use
Project Description: A series of planning meetings and site visits aimed at developing archival tools and best practices for preserving born-digital documents produced by contemporary authors.


University of Massachusetts, Boston ($24,748)
Project Director: Joanne Riley
We the People Project Title: Online Social Networking for the Humanities: the Massachusetts Studies Network Prototype
Project Description: The development and evaluation of a social networking platform for the members of the statewide Massachusetts Studies Project.

Wheaton College ($41,950)
Project Director: Mark LeBlanc
Project Title: Pattern Recognition through Computational Stylistics: Old English and Beyond
Project Description: Development of a prototypical suite of computational tools and statistical analyses to explore the corpus of Old English literature using the genomic approach of tracing information-rich patterns of letters as well as that of literary analysis and interpretation.


Mississippi State University ($50,000)
Project Director: Paul Jacobs
Project Title: Distributed Archives Transaction System
Project Description: Development of open source web tools for accessing online digitized collections in the humanities via a system that communicates with multiple database types while protecting the integrity of the original data sets.


Unaffiliated Independent Scholar ($23,750)
Project Director: Daniel Visel
Project Title: Sophie Search Gateway
Project Description: The development of an interoperable portal within the Web authoring program, “Sophie,” for locating and incorporating multi-media sources from the Internet Archive.

Hofstra University ($23,591)
Project Director: John Bryant
We the People Project Title: Melville, Revision, and Collaborative Editing: Toward a Critical Archive
Project Description: The development of the TextLab scholarly editing tool to allow for analysis of texts that exist in multiple versions or editions, beginning with the Melville Electronic Library.

New York City
New York University ($49,65)
Project Director: Brian Hoffman
Project Title: MediaCommons: Social Networking Tools for Digital Scholarly Communication
Project Description: Development of a set of networking software tools to support a “peer-to-peer” review structure for MediaCommons, a scholarly publishing network in the digital humanities.


Brown University ($49,992)
Project Director: Julia Flanders
Project Title: Encoding Names for Contextual Exploration in Digital Thematic Research Collections
Project Description: The advancement of humanities text encoding and research by refining and expanding the automated representation of personal names and their contexts.


University of Texas, Austin ($49,251)
Project Director: Samuel Baker
Project Title: The eCommentary Machine Project
Project Description: Development of a web-based collaborative commentary and annotation tool.


University of Virginia ($49,827)
Project Director: Scot French
We the People Project Title: Jefferson’s Travels: A Digital Journey Using the HistoryBrowser
Project Description: Development of an interactive web-based tool to integrate primary documents, dynamic maps, and related information in the study of history, with the prototype to be focused on Thomas Jefferson’s trip to England in 1786.