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Just Promise to Put It All Online

As reported in Inside Higher Ed’s article Harming the Historical Record [1], the NEH Guidelines for Scholarly Editions Grants [2] have been updated. The crucial passage is as follows:

In keeping with the goals of the NEH Digital Humanities Initiative, the Scholarly Editions Program requires that applicants employ digital technology in the preparation, management, and online publication of all critical and documentary editions. Projects that include TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) conformant transcription and offer free online access are encouraged and will be given preference. (emphasis mine)

Offering free online access is encouraged (not required) and the description of the Digital Humanities Initiative [3] does sound inspiring. It includes this sentence:

[The] NEH is interested in fostering the growth of digital humanities and lending support to a wide variety of projects, including those that deploy digital technologies and methods to enhance our understanding of a topic or issue; those that study the impact of digital technology on the humanities–exploring the ways in which it changes how we read, write, think, and learn; and those that digitize important materials thereby increasing the public’s ability to search and access humanities information.

I love a lot of the sites that they list as having been sponsored by the NEH (such as Valley of the Shadow [4] and Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities [5]), and I am always one for “increasing the public’s ability to search and access humanities information”, but it is so frustrating that the glamour of digital access to records would cross over into requirements for funding Scholarly Editions. The core goal of these grants are described as “[to] support the preparation by a team of at least two editors and staff of texts and documents that are currently inaccessible or available in inadequate editions.”

I feel strongly that this sort of expectation for digitization is rarely set with an full understanding of all the other elements that need consideration, ongoing support and financial backing.

First of all – what does it mean to be ‘put online’. While I understand that they likely desire online access to some version of the scholarly edition created with the grant funding – the requirement is still very vague. One could easily wonder if we are talking about images of the records? Transcriptions of the text of the records? What sort of supporting data must be provided? It isn’t as if you can just upload 10,000 scans of records and create a single page with links to them and call it a day. Of course no-one would think that interface was useful, but it could certainly could be considered as being online. Will the grants provide some provision for supporting the online sites in subsequent years? Websites need hardware, bandwidth and support from IT personnel. Unfortunately there is no accepted, open-source, freely hosted solution for serving up digital records. Some institutions have been experimenting with using Flickr as a Digital Collection Host [6] – but that entire topic (and all the issues inherent therein) is fodder for another post in the future.

Next let us consider copyright and privacy issues. Many archival collections are kept, supported and maintained by an archival institution that does NOT in fact retain the copyright to the records. To demand that a project promise to publish all records for free online would unfairly punish collections that do not have the right to publish all the records online even if they have secured the rights to publish records in books. On the privacy side – archivists must often restrict access to certain records or selected series of a collection due to the private information about individuals included in those records or series. This presents yet another challenge to blanket digitization requirements.

The Inside Higher Ed article went on to mention that by requiring free publication of records online, the NEH is removing creative ways for institutions to find additional funding to support their important work. “Virginia is a major player in archival series, publishing — among others — the Papers of George Washington [7] and the Papers of James Madison [8] . Much material from those projects is placed online, free, Kaiserlian said. But Virginia is also selling site licenses to libraries to enable them to have access to everything, while supporting the work that goes into the project.” As the sources for funding for humanities projects such as these are shrinking every day it is unfortunate that a grant might force institutions to consider the income they would loose if they apply for a grant with such strings attached.

Browsing through the rest of the NEH Digital Humanities Initiative website I did find a lot to be enthusiastic and hopeful about – such as the Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants [9] :

NEH’s Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants will encourage scholars with bright new ideas and provide the funds to get their projects off the ground. Some projects will be practical, others completely blue sky. Some will fail while others will succeed wildly and develop into important projects. But all will incorporate new ways of studying the humanities.

I love it. I want to see what they fund. I want to participate. I want that grant to still exist when I am done with my graduate degree and have more focus to my ideas.

Browsing the sidebar of the main Digital Humanities Initiative page [3] you can see how they are presenting all their grants in the context of being digital in some way. If I want to “create digital humanities tools for analyzing and manipulating humanities data” I should apply for either a Reference Materials Grant [10] or a Research and Development Grant [11]. If I want to “develop a Web site or other digital project for a general public audience” I should apply for a Special Projects Grant [12]. And if I want to “create a digital or online version of a scholarly edition” I should apply for a Scholarly Editions Grant [2]. In some ways it just feels as if they added a ‘digital’ element to all their grants without any other major restructuring, not that I am an expert on the history of NEH grants.

I wonder – if I had arrived at the NEH Digital Humanities Initiative page without prior knowledge of how these grants have been used in the past on existing projects, would I have ended up with a post with similar questions, but less frustration? Less stress over what appears to be perceived (if the quotes in the article at the start of this post are to believed) as a major change to the structure of a grant that many doing fine and important work have come to depend upon? That said – I still think that the issues of vague online access expectations, the challenges related to privacy and copyright and the lack of ongoing funding to support websites and their patrons are real and worth consideration.

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