Rise of the Digital NEH

Humanities endowment is among funders promoting growth of new tools and resources for scholarship.
April 3, 2008

With more and more humanities scholars embracing scholarship that is either conducted or published online, funding agencies and a network of "digital humanities centers" are stepping up to provide money and organizational structure for what has been a grassroots movement.

Some of the most important leadership in the growing interdisciplinary subfield is coming from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the largest single supporter of humanities programs. Last month, the endowment announced that its two-year Digital Humanities Initiative was being formalized into a permanent Office of Digital Humanities as it awarded several new Transatlantic Digitization Collaboration grants (along with the Joint Information Systems Committee, a British higher education IT promotion organization) to boost scholarly exchange between American and European researchers.

"Digital technology is bringing the humanities to a vast new audience and changing the way that humanities scholars perform their work," said Bruce Cole, the endowment's chairman, at the announcement on March 25. "It allows new questions to be raised and is transforming how we search, research, display, teach and analyze humanities resources and materials."

A year ago, Jo Guldi was finishing her dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley on 18th-century British roads when she decided to try a simple keyword search on Google Books. "I've spent the last two years wandering through the Yale, Harvard, and California libraries, the British Library, Britain's National Archives, and the immense reserves of North American Inter Library Loan reading every book on London, pavement, or travel I could get my hands on," she wrote in a blog entry. "Surprise. In a single idle search I just added 20 extra full-text books to my list."

"Time for a professional dialogue about the new kinds of research these texts have opened up. For a very vast vista has erupted before us, and with it, a more serious set of comparative questions as a standard for social history, and new levels of rigor to be expected from the individual researcher. No longer can historians afford to stay in the empty, lonely world of the weary scholar ...," Guldi continued. Her suggestions: "Quantitative and open databases of word-count and thematic analyses. Open databases of pictures, tagged by keywords and available for classroom use....

"Comparing a hundred images is no longer a problem for a year's labor in an out-of-the-way museum reading room. Comparing a hundred personal accounts from working men is no longer a task to eat up a social historian's entire year."

Now Guldi is the recipient of the first postdoctoral fellowship in digital history at the University of Chicago, beginning this fall and one of many digital humanities initiatives supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The term "digital" implies a broad array of applications to humanities research, and it can mean almost anything from scanning ancient parchment so that it is searchable and cross-referenced, to labeling images so that they can be linked by category, to excavating virtual cultural artifacts created not hundreds but only a few years ago ... on the Internet. Some of the technologies can be summarized in a phrase: "Google Maps for archaeologists," for instance, or "Flickr for classical antiquity." Others take processes developed for various industries, such as data mining, and apply them to tasks in the humanities.

"The Google [Books] project is a mass digitization project; it’s certainly not a nonprofit project," said Steven C. Wheatley, vice president of the American Council on Learned Societies. "But for that material to be useful for scholars, to students, to the public, you need tools, search engines, links, bibliographies that can help you interpret that material, and that’s where the scholarly investment should go, into what Google is not doing."

Such projects are sophisticated, focused and customized for specific scholarly tasks. Eventually, these digital humanists hope to settle on standards that can be used to make data portable from one application to another. A database that connects specific documents to geographical locations where they were found, as well as other related facts and information, for example, could be inputted into a custom-built Web interface ... or it could be viewed in a feed reader, like any other blog or Web page. Some data would be lost, and the presentation would be different, but the connections between discrete elements would be preserved.

One winning Transatlantic Digitization project (funded to the tune of $129,828), a collaboration between New York University and the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at King's College London, would help to develop a searching and mapping tool for collections, starting with "large holdings of papyrological and epigraphic texts from North Africa during the Greek and Roman periods." With $119,598 from the NEH, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the University of Oxford and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland at College Park, among others, are creating an online archive of 75 Shakespeare quarto editions.

The endowment is "extremely important because they represent the people of the United States, so if the people of the United States through an official state agency like the NEH decide that digital humanities should have a high priority from a national point of view, then this gives a lot of focus and attention and credibility to this whole undertaking that our institute and an increasing number of similar institutes and centers ... are focusing on, which is how we humanists can take advantage of the revolution in information technology and do the same old things more efficiently," as well as do plenty of things they couldn't before, said Bernard Frischer, director of the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, established in 1992.

Frischer spoke from Dresden, where he was using a robotic device called the FaroArm to create three-dimensional scans of statues so that their actual likenesses could be modeled and accessed digitally.

Individual scholars over the years have pursued such high-concept projects melding sophisticated technological wizardry and age-old relics, bringing to mind Lara Croft and other big-budget Hollywood creations. But the rest of the field has been slower to respond. In 2006, the ACLS's Commission on Cyberinfrastructure in the Humanities and Social Sciences, with support from the Mellon Foundation, released a report, "Our Cultural Commonwealth", urging a more unified, discipline-wide approach to integrating technological advances into the fabric of the field itself.

"It is increasingly evident that new intellectual strategies are emerging in response to the power of digital technologies to support the creation of humanistic knowledge. Innovative forms of writing and image creation proliferate in arts and letters, with many new works accessible and understood only through digital media ...," it states. "This report is therefore primarily concerned not with the technological innovations that now suffuse academia, but rather with institutional innovations that will allow digital scholarship to be cumulative, collaborative, and synergistic."

Wheatley, of ACLS, said that an important part of these initiatives was to ensure that various projects aren't "one-off," but that they are instead "sustainable intellectually, financially, technologically" -- creating an online archive that will remain accessible (and renewable) indefinitely, for example, and that can link up with other databases and interfaces. He added that the NEH is an important part of the overall push for such a "cyberinfrastructure" in the humanities.

"One of the most important things about the NEH initiative is that it exists, and that it’s a clear signal that this is where NEH wants itself to be and its programs. I think that’s very important," he said.

But some question whether the digital initiative should be separate from the overall goal of promoting the humanities. "The definition of scholarly work in the digital realm in the humanities is still in flux ...," said Tom Elliott, associate director for digital programs at New York University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, which received one of the NEH grants announced last week. "You can argue, and I’ve heard people say, that really there shouldn’t be a separate angle for the digital humanities because ... it ought to be part and parcel.... But I think the prominence it's getting at the NEH right now is going to help with the normalizing of digital practice across the humanities writ large. From where I sit I think it’s a good thing."

Critical to the development of a "digital ecosystem," as Adrian Johns, a professor of history at the University of Chicago, put it, is to "help get towards the point where all of these tools become as routine and second nature as word processing is right now. Obviously, you can’t do that in one step." At the same time, scholars can't allow new tools to entirely dictate the questions they ask. The discipline still needs to come to a consensus on how to get "across that integration between technology, criticism and method," he said, not using technology for its own sake but melding it into the work that humanists already do, while at the same time allowing it to suggest new modes of discovery.

That conversation within the discipline will have to occur collaboratively, and one way it might happen is through Project Bamboo, another Mellon-funded initiative whose proposal was approved last month. Seeking to answer the question, "How can we advance arts and humanities research through the development of shared technology services?," the project aims to collect input from within academe on how best to agree on standards and promote open access to data across disciplines.

Still, the rest of the discipline will have to catch up. Guldi said she estimated that about 30 percent of her graduate-school cohort at Berkeley had been "fooling around in any way with digital technology as a way of enhancing their own scholarship," characterizing the general attitude toward those tools as a "conservative reaction." And for purposes of advancement and peer review, some forms of media (say, an online exhibit or a blog) are still not considered legitimate scholarly pursuits in many circles.

"I think for those of us who are going there, you play chances in life ... that’s part of the adventure," she said, pointing out that her own blogging about her research helped land her the Chicago fellowship.

That's a development that would be unheard of even a few years ago. As Wheatley put it: "The day will come, not that far off, when modifying humanities with 'digital' will make no more sense than modifying humanities with 'print.'”


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top