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Into the Digital Domain

April 13, 2007

The National Endowment for the Humanities is ready to shed the stodgy image of the classical scholar hunched over ancient parchment with a quill and magnifying glass -- even its chairman, Bruce Cole, admits that he's traded in his manual typewriter for a BlackBerry.

The institution has been taking tentative steps into the digital realm for years, but those efforts began to culminate Thursday in the kickoff to a summit meeting to plan a national network of "digital humanities centers" -- usually, independent or interdisciplinary university entities that apply digital techniques from the sciences, such as computer science, to the traditional humanities. The NEH wants to expand these existing institutions into a coalition of centers that would help it coordinate digital humanities projects and distribute grants.

It's doing that by assembling, for the first time, representatives from both digital humanities centers across the nation and funding organizations, including some of the biggest names in the business -- Google's "chief Internet evangelist," Vint Cerf, gave a plenary address -- such as the Library of Congress; the National Science Foundation; the U.S. Department of Education; the Mellon, Sloan and MacArthur foundations; and the J. Paul Getty Trust.

"It's a new frontier for the humanities," said Cole. What began as earlier digital efforts within existing NEH divisions has led to a desire for more collaboration between existing digital humanities centers as well as the creation of new ones. If there was a sense that these efforts have become more urgent, it was thanks mostly to the American Council of Learned Societies' Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences, whose 2006 report informed much of the discussion at yesterday's session.

The NEH has already started a number of initiatives pushing the institution toward a more digital focus, committing "a great deal of time, energy and resources," according to Cole. Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants, for example, offer seed money to scholars who want to apply digital methods to their humanities research. Most of the applicants, Cole said, are first-timers.

But NEH's digital push isn't necessarily proceeding without friction. Some scholars have contended that certain requirements for grants have favored applicants whose archival work is available online, which might hamper important work that cannot easily be digitized. Cole, however, said that "we are not going to be draconian" about digital requirements.

James Harris, dean of arts and humanities at the University of Maryland at College Park, noted at the beginning of the meeting that "digital humanities centers across the country are at the center of this revolution." Some of the goals of these institutions, he noted, include making digital archives available to the public -- with free access -- as well as engaging "diverse audiences" on new platforms, such as cell phones. The group of digital centers isn't officially designated, but prominent examples are the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities and the Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Representatives of the NEH and several digital humanities centers wouldn't predict the outcome of today's proceedings, but the consensus seemed to be that if successful, the meeting would lead to a greater understanding -- and hopefully more meetings. At those future gatherings, and others, the NEH's vision of a digital humanities coalition would -- with funding -- become more of a reality.

 

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