March 4, 2008

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!


  1. Great post, Tom, with a number of excellent points. CHNM and many other digital humanities organizations really do owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the federal government, and I hope that significant funding for our work and the work of other humanities organizations and scholars continues.

  2. While I agree that LexusNexis and Proquest are totally overpriced and leave small school districts out in the cold, as a small business trying to do job providing the resources that the federal government cannot and will not do, I can’t afford to provide FREE access. There are hosting costs, labor costs, storage costs, all must be paid for and unfortunately there are no grants out there, that will cover those costs. Nothing in life is free, and we are sending the wrong message to this generation by continuing to push Internet resources for free. Moderate subscription fees help to keep the project self-sufficient. Why can’t subscriptions be considered as matching funds? Does the government plan on providing free Internet access to everyone? If you can provide me with a source for funding to get my project completed a lot faster, and grant monies to pay the hosting, storage, and labor costs, I would have no problem providing free access. Until then, I have to get funds from somewhere. A prime example of the “free” concept as a losing one are the newspapers.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.