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Digital Humanities White Paper at the University of North Dakota

Crystal Alberts (Department of English, UND) and I have submitted a white paper to the President of the University in response to his call for trans- and inter disciplinary working groups at the University of North Dakota.  The plan is apparently to target groups with outstanding potential and to facilitate funding either from campus sources or from elsewhere.  Consequently, our White Paper stressed the potential of our group and its need for funding.  As I noted previously in this blog, the president seems to have assumed that a “center” dedicated to the digital humanities already exists on campus; it does not.  I am not sure whether this will help or hinder our chances!

Here’s the white paper:

White Paper for a Digital Humanities Group at the University of North Dakota

Digital technology has come to play an increasingly important role in the humanities (i.e., history and literature), the arts, and archaeology.  Scholars are more and more dependent on digital resources ranging from online publications to text queries, archives of digitized historical sources, collections of photographs, and databases.  Students and faculty have found in the new media a way to travel beyond the classroom, to analyze and explore diverse types of historical evidence and data, and to build learning communities together.  The impact of the digital humanities extends beyond the walls of the university and holds forth the potential not only to bring our research and teaching to a broader audience, but also to forge new local and global communities committed to the intellectual and academic mission of the university.  Institutions committed to interpreting, producing, and teaching the emerging, digital media in the humanities will shape the future of the information or knowledge economy. 

While some work in the digital humanities has already occurred on this campus, a more substantial online presence would allow us to open our doors to the wider public and invite them to engage in research and learning in the field, library, and classroom.  Institutions like the University of Virginia and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have long-standing programs in the digital humanities and archaeology; less august institutions like the University at Buffalo, the University of Nevada-Reno, the University of Vermont, and the University of Kentucky have already followed their lead in creating institutional entities to cultivate the development of digital humanities on their campuses.  Centers, Institutes, and Working Groups focus the intellectual resources and develop the cyber-infrastructure necessary to promote research and teaching projects in the digital humanities, arts, and archaeology.  Most federal funding bodies for the humanities now require such established, institutional commitment to cyber-infrastructure and core digital resources before they will fund research projects.  The Office of Digital Humanities (ODH) at the NEH clearly states that preference will be given to projects that include freely available digital components that are maintained by an institution.  In the private sector, our expanding information economy demands graduates with degrees in the humanities who have levels of digital literacy that go beyond simple web-browsing to engage the theoretical and conceptual foundations of digital knowledge management.  The University of North Dakota is poised to expand the teaching and research work of digital humanists (in their many guises), which, in turn, will increase the intellectual possibilities for our students, as well as the intellectual, infrastructural, and financial resources available to individual researchers.

Fortunately, the core for such a center exists among our current faculty in the departments of history, English, philosophy, archaeology, art, music, and aerospace, as well as the staff of the Chester Fritz Library (CFL), because they are currently engaged in digital research and scholarship.  For example, based on his archaeological fieldwork in the Eastern Mediterranean, Dr. William Caraher of the Department of History produces digital data ranging from GIS maps to databases, photographs, and new media productions, including two documentaries. Dr. Crystal Alberts of the Department of English worked with students to digitize the UND Board of Regents Minutes from 1883 to 1893; this full-text collection is currently available through the CFL.  She serves as the technical editor for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)-funded Elizabeth Barrett Browning Project.  Dr. Jack Weinstein of the Department of Philosophy and Religion has also asked her to assist him with the digital archive for the proposed Institute for Philosophy in Public Life, a group formed in partnership with the North Dakota Humanities Council and Prairie Public Radio.  In addition, the CFL already has a number of open-access digital collections available, such as UND Image Collection, W. P. Davis Columns, and the MacDonald Cartoons. The English department has also offered a 400-level course in digital humanities or the past two semesters, each had an enrollment beyond capacity.

To remain competitive with our peer institutions and produce students capable of succeeding in a dynamic and challenging economy, it is necessary to develop the infrastructure to support sustained synergistic, transdisciplinary, research and teaching in the digital humanities. A center or working group in the digital humanities will promote the sharing of knowledge among practitioners of digital humanities on campus, collaborative research, and unique instructional opportunities.  Such intellectual adjacency will both promote and develop faculty and student expertise in new media and emerging technologies. The students’ interest in new media has been demonstrated not only by their enrollment in digital humanities courses, but also by their continued involvement with digital projects on campus.  In addition to integrating intellectual resources, this group will allow for physical adjacency in the centralizing of technology. Finally, the creating of a center or working group will focus important attention on the various collections, datasets, audio-visual materials, and new media productions developed at UND. Bringing these resources together in a single, transdisciplinary portal created by our organization will produce data central to assessing the impact, reach, and success of the group and their projects. Moreover, administrative recognition and commitment to a group dedicated to digital research and scholarship improves the chances that federal grants will be awarded to UND faculty.

At present, we have faculty members who have both the technological skills and interest in forming a group dedicated to the digital humanities, arts, and archaeology on campus.  Our group will have three goals.  First, we will promote and support teaching and research in the digital humanities, arts, and archaeology by creating a transdisciplinary working group.  Second, we will use this working group to create a center on campus recognized by the State Board of Higher Education.  Finally, we will seek to make this center self-sustaining through individual and group grants in the digital humanities.  In support of these goals, we have already been working with the help of and in collaboration with the library to ensure that our projects comply with the established standards and best practices across our disciplinary fields (literature, history, art, archaeology, philosophy).  The library also currently has a subscription to CONTENTdm, digital collection management software (limited to 10,000 objects), which is primarily designed for storage and retrieval of images. In addition, thanks to the fundraising efforts and initiative of Dr. C
araher, we have access to five terabytes (TB) of server space for data storage and online delivery.  Because our projects our research oriented, the server space is connected to the high performance computing cluster and will be supported by ITSS through EPSCoR funding.  The formation of this group is also a high priority in the Arts & Sciences campaign.

Despite these initiatives, we need additional resources to make this group and its work function to maximum potential.  Specifically, we would like physical space allocated on campus that is wired for our technological requirements.  Wilbur Stolt has suggested that the library may have such a space for us in the library.  We believe that this space, with minimal remodeling and expense, would be logistically and symbolically ideal.  It is centrally located, and, perhaps more importantly, would allow faculty immediate access to the institution’s information repository.  We would also like $1000 a year for at least the next three years dedicated to increasing the library’s scholarly resources related to digital scholarship and research.  Because this group is meant to facilitate discussion and the exchange of information, we would like to establish a lecture series that would provide a forum for both on campus and off-campus scholars to present their digital research scholarship.  Because this field is ever changing, we would like to offer workshops to train interested faculty in digital technology, again, tapping the knowledge of on campus faculty, as well as bringing off-campus experts in various related fields to UND.  Finally, while we already have dozens of files stored in Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) compliant XML, the standard for full-text digitization, UND does not currently have the technological capability to make them fully searchable online.  As such, we would like to purchase the middleware that would enable these files to be fully functional. This middleware will move our collections beyond static web pages and make them comparable to ones available at the University of Virginia, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.  Neither the University of Minnesota nor North Dakota State University currently have the capacity for sophisticated text anaylses and queries provided by this software.  This software will serve as an instant catalyst for the text digitization projects taking place on campus and garner national recognition.

The digital humanities, as all humanistic inquiry, is inherently transdiciplinary.  Developing the synergy on campus to tap into existing faculty, staff, student, and technological resources will maximize the university’s commitment to engaging the emerging information and knowledge economy.  This keeps us competitive with the activities of our peer institutions and represents an area of expertise that does not yet exist in the state or the region. It will also make our research freely available to the entire state of North Dakota, the region, and the world.  These criteria alone ensure that the UND would be an attractive center for external funding.  In an environment of increased competition for resources, funding a digital humanities working group provides an opportunity to capitalize on resources already available on campus and to perpetuate the very kind of synergistic adjacency that the College and University has already made great sacrifices to achieve.

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