Newton v. Einstein

Mike Ellis at Electronic Museum posted a terrific entry this weekend entitled Newton vs Einstein, providing some welcome physical grounding for CHNM’s longstanding motto, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Drawing inspiration from a recent BBC Radio 4 program on Newton’s three laws of motion and their displacement by Einstein’s theories of relativity, Mike writes:

Einstein’s brilliance – his “rightness” – matters a huge amount when we’re nearing the speed of light. But down here as we plod about our normal daily lives, we can cope with the innacuracies. Relativity matters not a jot; actions do have an equal and opposite reaction; gravity acts downwards and relativity is merely a philosophy … [The point] is this: just as we accept Newton over Einstein even though we know he is essentially “wrong,” if we (and by this I mean me, museums or anyone with ideas) want to shine, we too need to accept imperfection. In fact, I believe we need to learn to actively embrace it.

A slightly mangled translation of Voltaire‘s “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien,” “the perfect is the enemy of the good” has long summed up CHNM’s philosophy that it is better to do something well than nothing flawlessly. Other oft repeated phrases among CHNM staff include “release early and often” and “get over yourself.” They all boil down to this: Digital history is easily as much about doing as it is about thinking, and doing means getting dirty, making mistakes, and breaking proverbial eggs.

Omelets anyone?

Briefly Noted for March 11, 2008

How to make a Leyden jar out of a two-liter Coke bottle, from MAKE Magazine.

Top Ten Moments in Sitcom History. I think you’d have to put Lucy and Ethel’s stint at the conveyor belt at the top of the table, but a good list nevertheless. (Thanks, Jerm.)

Prolific “junior ranger” Chance Finegan on the history of Mt. Rainier National Park.

Keeping with my management kick, here are 14lessons from 37signals for good digital project management and organizational development.

How to Run Your Startup Digital Humanities Shop

Jason Calacanis got some heat yesterday for his list of 17 tips for running a startup. Some of his suggestions are typically over the top, but I have to admit that the vast majority seem right on to me, not just for startups but for digital humanities shops like CHNM. Buying Macs and second monitors, eliminating phones except for administrators, allowing people to work flexible hours, and even hiring workaholics (i.e. “people who love the work”)—they all hit very close to home. We could do better on some of Calacanis’s recommendations, but many, if not most of them have become standard practice at CHNM.

Federal Funding for the Humanities

nha.jpgYesterday I spoke at the 2008 conference of the National Humanities Alliance on a panel entitled “Federal Support for History.” The purpose of the talk was to give some concrete examples from our work at CHNM of the different funding sources available from the federal government to historians and public history projects. This was supposed to give audience members a better sense of the range of historical programs that the U.S. government supports in preparation for their meetings today on Capitol Hill for the 9th annual “Humanities Advocacy Day.”

Over the years, CHNM has received about half of its funding from federal sources. The largest number of federal grants have come from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which has funded the entire range of work done by CHNM: education projects (History Matters, World History Matters, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity), public projects (Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, the Bracero History Archive), and research projects (our forthcoming study the potential of text-mining tools for historical scholarship). In recent years, the U.S. Department of Education has become a major source of funding for our education projects, funding our five Teaching American History collaborations with local school districts and our forthcoming National History Education Clearinghouse. We are also increasingly working with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) on projects like Zotero, Omeka, and Object of History. Rounding out the list is the Library of Congress, which (through its National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program), funds our Business Plan Archive/Birth of the Dot Com Era collaboration with the University of Maryland, and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which has provided several years of funding for our Papers of the War Department 17840-1800 project.

During the 1990s, CHNM was almost entirely dependent on federal funding. In the past seven or eight years that situation has changed as we have been able to attract an increasing share of our funding from private foundations and other private sources. We are very grateful for the support of these private entities, but at the same time, I think it is important to stress that not all funding is the same. Just as private funds allow you to do certain things federal funds don’t, federal funding sources have some advantages over private sources. From my vantage point as a digital and public historian, there are at least two reasons why federal funding specifically is important to the continued work of historians and humanists.

First, federal funding allows—and increasingly demands—us to give all of our resources away at no cost. While our society is getting increasingly closer to eliminating the first digital divide, where network access was determined by demography, we are nevertheless seeing a second digital divide, where many of the best sources of networked information are available only by paid subscription. Small school districts, home schoolers, small businesses, and ordinary taxpayers without a university or corporate affiliation usually cannot afford access to important information resources like LexisNexis and ProQuest. By freeing us from the burdens of cost recovery that private information providers face and private foundations increasingly impose, federal funding helps us provide pertinent, high quality, open access information resources that reach not only the well heeled and well connected, but ordinary Americans.

Second, sometimes the only way to get an experimental or unproven, but promising project off the ground is with federal funding. Because federal funding is distributed through a process of peer review, a new idea is judged on its merits rather than on the basis of some prior relationship with the funding organization, as is often the case with private foundations. Usually this federal support consists only of modest seed money (e.g. NEH’s Digital Humanities Start-up Grants). But that small seed grant can be enough to show the potential of a given technology or approach, to produce a proof-of-concept that then can be taken to a private foundation for additional funding. Private foundations are much more likely to take on new grantees who have something more to show them than just a good idea and a business card. This model of seed money from the feds yielding longer-term private support has worked well for CHNM in several cases, including for History Matters and Zotero. It is essential if we want new ideas to become funded realities. Just as in Keynesian economics, sometimes the only entity that can serve the “pump priming” function is the federal government.

For these reasons and many others, it is important that sources of federal funding remain available to history and the humanities. Continued federal funding is essential to the future of history in this country whether you are a public historian, a digital historian, a scholar, or an educator, and whether you are a direct recipient of these funds or not. We all owe a debt to the National Humanities Alliance, to the National Coalition for History, and to our colleagues who took time today to participate in Humanities Advocacy Day and petition our government on behalf of history. Thanks, and good luck!