The University of Nebraska created the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities to focus, provide support, and deepen the quality of the growing array of digital humanities scholarship on campus. The Center is a natural outgrowth of the work of a number of individuals over nearly a decade whose efforts have now resulted in this formally-adopted and budgeted program. Official certification of the Center this year signifies the University's long-term commitment to sustaining digital scholarship.
Richard Edwards, PhD
Professor of Economics (formerly Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs)
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Presented at the Scholarly Communication Institute III
University of Virginia
July 18, 2005
1. Goals and Activities of the Center
The Center, a partnership of the College of Arts and Sciences and University Libraries, serves as the coordinating mechanism and rallying point for a rapidly growing group of digital humanities scholars and their projects. It is led by Professors Kenneth M. Price of the English Department and Katherine L. Walter of the University Libraries.
From the beginning, the Center's initiators saw digital scholarship as thriving best when pursued collaboratively. They consciously worked to bring together scholars, publishers, librarians, and archivists, and they understood that getting people to talk across what were once dividing lines and are now porous borders was crucial. The Center therefore functions as a place that fosters collaborative initiatives across disciplines and administrative units by bringing interested scholars together, providing them with support, expertise, leadership, and a congenial community of supportive colleagues. It serves as a forum for modeling the highest standards and values of digital scholarship. It collects and disseminates information on funding and other opportunities available to digital scholars. Where appropriate and needed, it supplies technical assistance. And through its programs of scholarly exchange, colloquia, conferences, and other scholarly communications, it works to connect Nebraska's scholars with other digital humanities scholars around the country and the world. In short, the Center serves as a friendly "home" for digital humanities scholarship.
The Center already houses some twenty-six scholarly projects involving faculty, staff, and students in English, History, Modern Languages and Literature, Classics, Anthropology and Geography, the University of Nebraska Press, the Plains Humanities Alliance, and the Center for Great Plains Studies. Five new projects will be added in 2005-06 as a result of competitive seed grants given to research faculty fellows.
Participating scholars have their primary appointments in their disciplinary departments; it is not expected that faculty members will be appointed directly to the Center. Thus the University's commitment to the Center includes not only funds and other support directed to the Center itself but also the assignments of current faculty members to the Center and targeted new hires by departments that are intended specifically to support the Center.
2. Some Examples of Digital Projects at Nebraska
Among the digital humanities projects currently underway on campus are ones such as these:
Walt Whitman Archive: http://www.whitmanarchive.org This is a major teaching and research site that presents printed texts, audio, photographs, reviews, and an extensive annotated bibliography of critical commentary on Whitman since 1975. The site also presents images and transcriptions of Whitman's poetry manuscripts held in over thirty institutions in the U.S. and U.K. and provides an integrated guide to the collections. The Whitman Archive has a longstanding affiliation with the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia. The Whitman Archive is currently funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities an the Institute of Museum and Library Services, building on earlier project funding through the College of William and Mary and the University of Iowa.
Willa Cather Electronic Archive: http://cather.unl.edu The University of Nebraska's Cather collections are arguably the most significant in the world, with original manuscripts, around 600 photographs, and many Cather letters. Unique content from the collections and scholarly editions of Cather texts are being digitized. The Archive is a collaborative project of the Cather Project, the University Libraries, and the University of Nebraska Press. At a recent Cather scholars summit, participants enthusiastically endorsed creating a scholarly apparatus for the Archive to permit them to share primary research materials and curriculum packages about Cather.
Omaha Indian Artifacts and Images: http://omahatribe.unl.edu/ This is a digital research collection of Omaha tribal artifacts and images held at the Nebraska State Historical Society, the University of Nebraska, and about twenty other institutions in the U.S. and Europe. The project represents a major effort to preserve and make accessible the cultural heritage of the Omahas. It is funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition Online: http://lewisandclarkjournals.unl.edu In a partnership with the University of Nebraska Press, University Libraries is creating a conflated edition of the Journals edited by Nebraska professor Gary Moulton. (Moulton's work, begun in 1983, culminated in the Press's publishing the highly acclaimed thirteen-volume edition of the Journals in 2002.) Through this site, all journal entries (by Lewis, Clark, Gass, Ordway, Whitehouse, etc.) for a particular date are presented together with supplemental scholarly articles and multimedia content, including, for example, audio recordings by Nebraska State Poet Bill Kloefkorn and Native American elders. The project is developing a search engine to permit searching across all scholarly texts, as well as an XML markup to enable new publication formats. The project is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
These projects and others in various stages of development, demonstrate the opportunities, importance, and potential impact of digital scholarship in the humanities. They are almost invariably interdisciplinary in nature, involving collaborations among faculty members from more than one discipline, graduate students, the Libraries, special study centers or clusters such as the Text Studies and 19th Century Studies, and/or the Press.
3. How the University Came to Establish the Center
Despite the growing extent and (equally apparent) growing success of digital humanities scholars at Nebraska, it was by no means inevitable that the University would perceive, understand, and act to take full advantage of the opportunities it now faced. Thus the University's major commitment, as reflected in the establishment of the Center and the hiring of several digital scholars, remains to be explained. A few key features, even perhaps lessons, can be identified.
First, neither the initial opportunities nor any subsequent successes would have existed without the University having outstanding digital scholars themselves. This point may seem obvious (because it is), but it is central nonetheless. And here there was a certain amount of serendipity. The late Professor Sue Rosowski, overseeing the print-based Cather Scholarly Editions, was determined to create a Cather Archive as well. Professor Katherine Walter of University Libraries, who has been with the electronic text center since late 1998, was eager to put Nebraska among leading universities making use of the new digital technologies. And Professor Ken Price, who was lured to Nebraska in 2000 primarily to contribute to the already-substantial program in nineteenth-century literature, happened to be committed to developing the Whitman Archive.
These and other scholars were crucial to the success of the larger enterprise not only because they do digital scholarship, but more importantly because the quality of their work demanded (and got) attention, from outside funding agencies, the wider scholarly community, and even university administrators. The ability to "sell" this new initiative within the University was directly dependent upon the perceived quality of the faculty participants.
These initial faculty members contributed several further key ingredients. They had, first, a vision, and with the vision a commitment to see it realized, of a broader initiative in digital humanities scholarship — a vision that has now been realized in the formal establishment of the Center and the allocation of several faculty hires to this area. Second, they provided skillful and consistent leadership in proposing and pressing for the University's commitment. And third, by their very presence they provided the most powerful enticement to other scholars whom Nebraska was attempting to recruit. In all of these ways, the digital humanities initiative at Nebraska would simply not have been possible without the serendipitous coming together of a group of talented faculty.
Second, the University was (and is) seeking to invest in a small set of scholarly and scientific areas in which it has the opportunity to build programs of true and recognized excellence. Nebraska is a mid-sized state research university with significant teaching and service responsibilities; while it seeks to develop high quality in all of its programs, it cannot realistically expect to attain nationally-significant excellence everywhere. Over a number of years, in a process much too long to describe here, the University decided upon a strategy of investing specially-designated funds in a few carefully chosen areas where the expectation to have the best program, or a program among the three or five best in the country, is realistic.
Digital scholarship in the humanities was designated as one of the University's nineteen "Programs of Excellence." This implied in the first instance that certain new monies (about $250,000 per year) would become available. Of equal significance, however, this designation identified digital humanities scholarship for the University community as having been judged to be deserving of special attention and support; so, for example, administrators in charge of information technology, the research office, space allocation, and other valuable campus facilities and services were encouraged to undertake special efforts within their own operations and budgets to support this initiative. The University Libraries in particular reallocated space to make room for the Center.
Perhaps most importantly, the participating deans of Arts and Sciences and University Libraries agreed to designate certain vacant faculty lines, or assign the time of current faculty members, to the work of digital scholarship and in some cases specifically to the Center. Thus, for example, the newly-established Angle Chair in the Humanities was designated for digital scholarship, which assisted in attracting the distinguished scholar Dr. William G. Thomas III from the Virginia Center for Digital History to Nebraska. Two outstanding new assistant professors have also been hired.
Third, the role of the external funding agencies has also been critical. Although funding in the humanities has been minuscule by comparison with that in the sciences, the ability of universities — and certainly Nebraska in particular — to develop innovative and daring programs aspiring to excellence depends equally on support from external agencies.
Producing high-quality digital scholarship is not inexpensive. Considering in particular both the interdisciplinary teams and the technical infrastructure required to produce digital scholarship, its funding requirements are likely to out-run the ordinary or traditional within-university sources of support for humanities research. And while funding for initial start-up costs (such as new computers, etc.) is important, most crucial will be obtaining continuing funding to sustain the initiative. One key element in the mix, then, is external funding. Fortunately, Nebraska scholars have found that, with vision, high-quality scholarship, clear articulation, and persistence, such external support can be forthcoming.
Digital humanities scholarship offers excellent potential for attracting significant support from private donors as well. As has happened at Nebraska, private contributions can play a key complementary role in the overall funding of such scholarship. In several instances, private donations have funded faculty and projects.
4. Future Developments
The program at Nebraska is very young — only about seven or so years if measured from the initial collaborations of the Libraries, University Press, and various scholars, the beginning work on the Cather Archive, and the slightly later arrival of Ken Price. It is much too early to declare success.
One continuing concern is establishing an institutional culture where it is apparent that digital scholarship can and will be rewarded. When the University designated digital scholarship as a Program of Excellence, it sent a powerful but implicit message to the faculty that a scholar can and should be tenured and promoted and receive pay raises based on a file heavily weighted with electronic scholarship. But at Nebraska as elsewhere, ensuring that this occurs in practice is less well established than might be desired, as review committees and others grapple with the problems of peer review processes that are not as prevalent for electronic as for print scholarship (there are of course other ways to judge quality). Until scholars feel confident that digital scholarship will be rewarded in the academy, they will be slow to adopt it.
There are, however, a number of indicators that give good reason for optimism. First, the quality of the faculty engaged — both the original participants and most especially those newly recruited — offers much ground for hope. As was contemplated in the Programs of Excellence strategy, focusing its resources means that the University is more competitive in recruiting outstanding scholars, and this dynamic will certainly benefit digital humanities scholarship at Nebraska. Excellence breeds further excellence, and as the program continues to develop and achieve success, it will naturally attract additional support, attention, and yes, more scholars.
Second, the project has developed sufficiently that it is no longer essentially just an extension of one or two faculty members. That's not to say that the departure of a key professor would not be a serious and painful setback, only that the wound would not be fatal.
And finally, digital humanities scholarship at Nebraska appears to have sufficient institutional fuel (faculty, support, public acclaim, funding) to continue racing ahead.
1. Final formal action establishing the Center will be taken by the Board of Regents in September, 2005.