Last Tuesday, Brett Bobley, Chief Information Officer and Director of the newly-minted Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) visited the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to discuss grant programs, tips and suggestions on what makes a great application, how the NEH peer review process works, and the future of digital humanities at NEH. As somebody just entering the professional study of history and learning the ropes about grants and funding, Bobley’s talk was illuminating and addressed some of the issues confronting digital scholarship.
Technology is changing the way we create, store, and present history. Along with this comes issues of sustainability, copyright, and access. The NEH has recognized the role digital scholarship will play in our future and in 2001 founded the Digital History Initiative, which became ODH just last week. Part of their purpose for existing is to assist digital scholars in the production of online projects. After chatting with faculty and other students who attended the talk, we sense that ODH will play a large role in defining what exactly digital scholarship will be. As a leader in assisting humanities scholars utilize the web, NEH wields great power in dictating what exactly digital scholarship will look like. Looking at the types of projects NEH decides to fund or not fund will say a lot about how it and other funding agencies view digital scholarship. From Bobley’s talk, it sounds like NEH is focused on innovation and developing new tools for the digital age.
But what about those of us that simply want to use those tools in the digital realm, not produce them? Are they left out of ODH’s consideration? And if so, where will the funding come from for those who only want to utilize digital tools? Often times, funding agencies often follow NEH’s lead. If historians are left out of the funding opportunities, combined with the budget pressures in academia, there’s a real concern about where additional funding will come from for our projects, which are normally concerned with utilizing new digital tools to achieve analysis that cannot be replicated in print. I think it’s no stretch to say that, for better or worse, NEH’s role could determine the course of digital historical scholarship.
However, that NEH has committed itself to ODH shows that they are taking digital scholarship seriously, as Dan Cohen pointed out a few weeks ago. Indeed, despite reduced budgets, the NEH is there with the funds to help the field develop. I also sense that NEH is very concerned with accessibility, which is an ongoing discussion in digital history. NEH is committed to allowing anybody access the great heritage of this country. As more and more people turn to the web for their first (and sometimes only) stop for information, it’s important that accessibility for all is maintained.
It’s important that historians maintain a role in this conversation.