The Humanities in the Digital Age
First Monday

The Humanities in the Digital Age by Bruce Cole

Bruce Cole, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, delivered welcoming remarks to participants at the 2008 WebWise Conference on Libraries and Museums in the Digital World in Miami Beach, Florida on 6 March 2008. In his remarks, he discussed the effect that digital technology is having on humanities scholarship and access, and described the Endowment’s efforts in the realm of the “digital humanities.”



Good morning, everyone. Thank you, Anne, for that kind introduction. I’m grateful to the IMLS and The Wolfsonian, and the Florida International University, for cosponsoring this Conference. I am glad to be with my good friend Anne Radice of IMLS, and I am honored to represent the National Endowment for the Humanities at this Conference.

I am especially happy to be here in Miami Beach, away from the election–year atmosphere “inside the Beltway.” After breathing the ocean air this morning on my walk and seeing the palm trees dance, I’m convinced that the National Endowment for the Humanities should move its headquarters here. I’ll have to run that idea by Congress when we have the NEH’s budget hearing next week. I think they’ll say yes.

The National Endowment for the Humanities is proud to support the WebWise Conference. In the past two years, the Endowment has made a concerted effort to take a leadership position in exploring the new frontier of the digital humanities. Before I arrived at the NEH, I was a bit of a Luddite — I still insisted on using an electric typewriter. One summer I went to Europe, and when I returned home there was a brand new computer sitting in my study, and my wife said, “Learn it!” So I did.

But it was not until I got to the Endowment and really understood the power of digitization and the Net that the scales fell from my eyes. The Endowment believes that the Internet and other information age tools, such as digital archiving, will help us understand the world more broadly, deeply, and creatively. For humanists just as much as for scientists, new discoveries and innovations now depend on the ability to mine and analyze and understand data, simulate complex environments, and combine information from a variety of sources.

These developments are very significant for us at the National Endowment for the Humanities. As a federal agency, our mission is to bring the wisdom of the humanities to every American — because the humanities must be more than just a luxury for an elite few. The Endowment is eager to use digital technology to make humanities resources and programming more accessible to everyone.

In 2002, after the scales fell from my eyes, we created an agency–wide initiative under the direction of our Chief Information Officer, Brett Bobley, who is in the audience today. I asked Brett to come up to my office and I said, “Brett, let’s talk about the digital world and let’s see what the Endowment can do.” The Endowment already had a long history of sponsoring important digital projects, but I wanted us to take a greater leadership role and I said “Brett, make it happen,” and he did.

In 2006, we created an agency–wide initiative under Brett’s direction to focus our digital efforts and ensure their effectiveness. We call it our “Digital Humanities Initiative,” or DHI. The Endowment has committed a great deal of energy and resources to DHI — and the Initiative has moved forward rapidly. It has very strong support, I’m happy to say, from the Administration and from Congress.

In the brief time since its creation, DHI has built solid partnerships with other funders, such as IMLS, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy. If you asked me when I became NEH Chairman almost seven years ago whether I could envision meeting someday with the Office of Science at the Department of Energy to talk about supercomputing, I would have said you were absolutely crazy. But we do have a partnership with them now — we are exploring how humanists can benefit from supercomputers, and we are giving humanities scholars access to the Department of Energy’s supercomputers.

Through DHI, the Endowment has also instituted several new grant categories, attracted many new grant applicants to the NEH, and funded a wide range of innovative projects. I’m pleased to note that we have several DHI grantees in attendance at this Conference.

The National Endowment for the Humanities and IMLS are currently partners on two of our key digital humanities grant programs, Digital Humanities Start–up Grants and Advancing Knowledge. These would not have been possible without the help of the IMLS. Both of these programs encourage collaboration among librarians, museum officials, archivists, and scholars. And both the NEH and IMLS benefit, because we are able to reach new constituents and inspire important projects.

Let me talk for a moment about the Digital Humanities Start–up Grants. We chose the name “Start–up Grant” deliberately to evoke the technology start–up — companies like Apple or Google that took a brilliant idea and, with a small amount of seed money, grew those ideas into new ways of doing business. Our Digital Humanities Start–up Grants encourage scholars with bright new ideas, and provide the “seed money” to help promising digital humanities projects get off the ground.

The interesting thing about the Digital Humanities Start–up Grants is that about 70 percent of the applications have come from institutions or individuals who had never before applied for an NEH grant — which tells us that this initiative is reaching a whole new audience in the humanities.

Scientists study datasets: vast quantities of information about DNA or carbon molecules or the position of meteors in the sky. In the humanities, the datasets that we study are cultural heritage materials: paintings, sculptures, books, or ancient maps.

It is libraries and museums who are the keepers of these humanities “datasets.” Without them, there would be no scholarship. So it is critical that the humanities community continue its close relationship with libraries and museums. And the National Endowment for the Humanities is committed to doing just that, as we explore together the new possibilities of the digital age.

Many of these exciting possibilities concern the still evolving realm of “Web 2.0.” This new world of blogs, wikis, avatars, and social bookmarking and networking sites, presents many opportunities — and challenges — to museums, libraries, and the humanities disciplines.

How do we synthesize all this material? How do we access it? How do we research it? How do we dig down? How do we expand out? What are the new possibilities both for humanities research and access in this new world?

Exploring these possibilities is the purpose of this year’s WebWise Conference. I’m excited to see many of the fascinating presentations and project demonstrations on today’s agenda, as well as a number of our grant recipients sprinkled through the audience, and I hope you are as well.

Thank you once again for attending and for letting me share my thoughts with you this morning. End of article


About the author

Bruce Cole is the eighth chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. As NEH chairman, Cole has launched We the People, an initiative to encourage the teaching, study, and understanding of American history and culture. Under Cole’s leadership, the Endowment is also spearheading the application of digital technology to the humanities through its Digital Humanities Initiative, begun in 2006 and recently made into a permanent Office of Digital Humanities. Cole came to the Endowment in December 2001 from Indiana University in Bloomington, where he was Distinguished Professor of Art History and Professor of Comparative Literature. Appointed by President George W. Bush, Cole was chosen for a second term in 2005, a reappointment unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate. Cole has written fourteen books, many of them about the Renaissance. His most recent book is The Informed Eye: Understanding Masterpieces of Western Art. Cole was born in Ohio and attended Case Western Reserve University. He earned his master’s degree from Oberlin College and his doctorate from Bryn Mawr College. He is a corresponding member of the Accademia Senese degli Intronati, the oldest learned society in Europe, and a founder and former co–president of the Association for Art History. He and his wife Doreen live in the District of Columbia and have two grown children.

Direct comments to Lee Bockhorn, Assistant Director of Communications, National Endowment for the Humanities, lbockhorn [at] neh [dot] gov


Editorial history

Paper received 10 July 2008.

Copyright © 2008, First Monday.

Copyright © 2008, Bruce Cole.

The Humanities in the Digital Age
by Bruce Cole
First Monday, Volume 13 Number 8 - 4 August 2008

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