March 26, 2008

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.

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