What Next-Gen Digital Humanities Looks Like

Digital Learning in Higher Ed

What Next-Gen Digital Humanities Looks Like

By Jennifer Howard     Feb 13, 2018

What Next-Gen Digital Humanities Looks Like

In the humanities, where pots of money tend to be smaller than in the sciences, a little can go a long way. It’s often not just the size of the grant but who’s giving it that matters.

For 10 years now, the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities has been investing in digital humanities scholarship, sometimes with grants as small as a few thousand dollars. Last week, the ODH marked its first decade with cake and presentations at its annual Project Directors’ meeting at the NEH’s headquarters in Washington. Some 50 current ODH grantees gave lightning-round presentations about their work, and scholars who have received ODH support over the past decade reflected on the development of digital humanities as a field and as a practice.

Including two years’ worth of grants made by its earlier incarnation, the Digital Humanities Initiative, ODH has handed out 492 grants totalling more than $45 million. That sounds like a lot of money. John Unsworth, dean of libraries and professor of English at the University of Virginia, who led the panel, put the total in perspective. “That’s about six months of travel to Mar-a-Lago,” Unsworth said. “I would say ODH is a better investment.” (The president’s budget, introduced this week, would zero out funding for NEH.)

Unsworth recalled going up for tenure in the mid-1990s with only a digital portfolio—a huge gamble then but less so now, if still not entirely risk-free. “Today I see little evidence that doing work in the digital humanities is bad for your career,” Unsworth said. “There’s great new energy in the humanities.”

ODH’s staff, led by Brett Bobley, NEH’s chief information officer, gets part of the credit for that. Bobley and his team were hailed throughout the day for their good cheer, creative thinking and steadfast support of digital scholarship at every level: advancement grants that support projects at early and later stages of development, and grants for advanced institutes that focus on highly specialized humanities topics—”many flowers of digital scholarship,” said Amanda French, director of the Resilient Networks project at George Washington University, part of a movement to share digital scholarly tools and expertise more broadly.

One theme that recurred throughout the afternoon was the long history of humanities computing, which stretches back decades, well before ODH was created. “There’s so much that was prescient about the NEH’s early support of humanities computing,” said Julia Flanders. She’s the editor of Digital Humanities Quarterly and a professor of the practice of English at Northeastern University, where she also leads the library’s Digital Scholarship Group. “The NEH has been like the sun in this landscape, providing energy and nutrition.”

Next-gen digital humanities work was on display during the lightning-round presentations, with dozens of archaeologists, ethnographers, architectural historians, textual scholars and specialists from other fields sharing highlights of their projects in 3-minute overviews.

The Global Medieval Sourcebook at Stanford University is bringing an expansive, OER mentality to the medieval canon, making reliable texts available for classroom use. Timothy Powell, an ethnographer at the University of Pennsylvania, introduced a project to link digital humanities work and Native American communities. “What does digital humanities look like from a Native American perspective?” Powell asked. “You can’t put the Sky World on Story Map.” Dianne Fallon, chair of the English department at York County Community College in Maine, introduced “Go Local,” a public-history project to equip small museums and other local institutions to highlight the riches of their collections.

In the day’s keynote address, Kate Zwaard, Chief of National Digital Initiatives at the Library of Congress, talked about scale and wonder in the digital era. The library holds about 124 million items, including 125,000 telephone books, she said. It adds some 11,000 books every week, and fielded a million reference requests in 2017. It has the largest collections of recorded sound and maps in the world. Working in tandem with the NEH, the Library of Congress also created and maintains the Chronicling America database of historic American newspapers. (The NEH supports state-level digitization of newspaper collections that are then added to Chronicling America.)

That’s a lot of stuff to manage. “It can feel overwhelming—the pressure of it,” Zwaard said.

But she emphasized that the scale can also make experimentation possible. The recently created LC Labs taps into the Library’s digital collections and uses them as engines for experimentation and play. There’s LC for Robots, which shows users how to do bulk downloads of bibliographic data from the collections, and serves up APIs for those who want to play around with essential digitized holdings such as Chronicling America and the American Archive of Public Broadcasting.

The Labs group has also been experimenting with crowd-sourced community-engagement projects that invite the public to dive into l the Library collections and make them more visible and useful to other patrons. The recently launched “Beyond Words,” for instance, asks users to help tag and transcribe elements from illustrated World War I-era newspapers that have been digitized. (ODH funded a transcription tool called Scribe that the Labs uses.)

ODH’s influence has “far exceeded the amount of money it was able to give to people,” Neil Fraistat, professor of English and former director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland-College Park, said over cake at the meeting. “One of its most important and foundational effects was to give an imprimatur to people who were doing work in the field,” Fraistat said. “That enabled the work to go on.”

The record for smallest ODH grant was claimed by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, a professor of English at the University of Maryland at College Park and director of the Graduate Certificate in Digital Studies program there. In 2008, ODH awarded him just under $12,000 to study approaches to managing and collecting born-digital materials. The project focused on how to handle what Kirschenbaum called “the digital detritus of contemporary authorship”—hard drives and word-processing files, for instance—and included the Salman Rushdie archive at Emory University as one of its case studies.

Kirschenbaum and his co-investigators produced a white paper that has been influential in the development of best practices for managing born-digital collections. As Kirschenbaum told the audience at the ODH meeting, the grant helped spur the development of BitCurator, a suite of tools for digital collecting, and helped galvanize his own scholarship, including a book on the history of word processing. “We laid the groundwork for projects that became tools and community hubs,” Kirschenbaum said.

Jason Rhody, a former ODH program officer, tweeted that Kirschenbaum’s modest grant “led to a report that has been downloaded thousands of times, cited hundreds, & led to future projects like @BitCurator, and informed his future work. Not a bad investment.”

.@mkirschenbaum still holds record for smallest @NEH_ODH grant, which led to a report that has been downloaded thousands of times, cited hundreds, & led to future projects like @BitCurator, and informed his future work. Not a bad investment. #ODHatTen
— jasonrhody (@jasonrhody) February 9, 2018

All of this taps into the collaborative spirit and willingness to try new things that have characterized much of digital-humanities work from the beginning. The bells and whistles are fun, but they have a purpose—“reducing the friction in innovation,” as Zwaard said.

“Sometimes we look for magic,” Zwaard said. “But there is no magic. There’s just a long, hard slog of seeing what works.”

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