For University of Nebraska–Lincoln historian Doug Seefeldt, creating the digital research project Envisaging the West required exhaustive field research, writing enough material to fill a book, designing a Web site, and mastering a handful of new technologies. The result is a digital archive of information that is available to readers from around the world.
It’s taking academic scholarship to a higher power.
“Even if I had written a book, I would still have collected as much information as I could, but you – the Web site visitor – wouldn’t have immediate access to it,” Seefeldt said. “If you’re reading a book, you can look at footnotes but that’s about it. This access component of digital humanities research is absolutely invaluable.”
Digital archives and projects take scholarly research and literally place it at the fingertips of anyone with Internet access, often allowing users to manipulate and visually explore vast swaths of text and data. Such projects are on the cutting edge of humanities research, and Seefeldt and his colleagues have, in a few short years, turned UNL into a global center for the field that is being noticed on campus and off.
“We are among the top few institutions in the world, in terms of the scope and scale of our digital humanities research,” said UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman.
After a campus visit last spring, Brett Bobley, director of the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities, compared UNL’s digital humanities faculty to the 1927 Yankees. Presumably, that would make faculty members Kenneth Price and Katherine Walter the academic equivalents of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. The two are co-directors of UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.
Originally established in 1998 as the Electronic Text Center, the program was different from other universities’ initiatives.
“At many schools, E-Text centers were geared toward mass digitization of library collections without regard to a scholarly perspective,” Walter said. “From the beginning, we focused on the scholar and the scholar’s desire to work in a digital medium on their own humanities research.”
Walter has been co-director of the center since 1994. A joint initiative of the University Libraries and the College of Arts and Sciences, the center advances collaborative, interdisciplinary research by creating unique digital content, developing text analysis and visualization tools, and advancing international standards. Since the center’s inception, Walter has been co-investigator on a number of federally funded digital humanities projects.
Price came to UNL from the College of William and Mary, already immersed in work on the Walt Whitman Archive. Around the time he accepted an endowed professorship at UNL he received his first NEH grant. Shortly thereafter he and Walter received additional funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the primary source of federal support for the nation’s libraries and museums. Four years later, the center was designated a UNL Program of Excellence, through an initiative designed to invest in programs that will build national recognition for the university.
Both Price and Walter believe the center has flourished at UNL because the administration “gets it.” The process of cultivating digital research in the humanities – and establishing protocols for faculty in the field, such as how to evaluate digital publications as a part of tenure review – has been the result of cooperation among faculty and administrators, Price said.
“The center’s projects are very interdisciplinary in nature and this attracted notice,” Walter said. “Also, our projects are garnering national and international attention, and this leadership is great for any university.”
Price offered a new UNL-based project on Civil War-era Washington as an example of the unique possibilities of digital humanities research. The project entails collaboration between professors from computer science, history, English and engineering, as well as experts in mapping and public health.
As new software and methods develop, Walter and Price aim to keep the center nimble. Faculty affiliated with the center are exploring dozens of new content areas. For example, anthropologist Mark Awakuni-Swetland has received funding to develop a digital dictionary of the American Indian languages of the Omaha and Ponca tribes. Anthropology professors Peter Bleed and Douglas Scott recently launched a site titled “Cuban Battlefields of the Spanish-Cuban-American War.”
One UNL researcher drawing international attention is English professor Stephen Ramsay. Along with peers at eight other institutions, he is developing the MONK (Metadata Offer New Knowledge) Project, which attempts to extend text analysis and visualization capabilities to all existing Web archives of literature.
“I believe it is completely uncontroversial to say that, over the course of the next century, we’re going to digitize the entire human record,” Ramsay said. “The question that humanist scholars have to ask is, ‘Do we really want to be left out of that process, we who have devoted our entire lives to these materials? Shouldn’t some of us be involved in that process?’ Otherwise the whole revolution is going to happen without us having a voice in it.
“The elements are all in place. The climate here for digital humanities is better than any other place in North America. We’re on track to become the hottest place in the world.”