The NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) and DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) have announced another round of awards for their Bilateral Digital Humanities Program. The program provides support for projects that contribute to developing and implementing digital infrastructures and services for humanities research. They are awarded to collaborative projects between at least one partner based in the U.S. and one partner based in Germany.
This round’s awardees were largely focused on digitization projects, especially text encoding, which seem to be indicative of the general field of digital humanities, especially those concerned with “ancient” languages and literatures. The goal of such projects is to create innovative (and hopefully better) ways to present texts in digital format. Part of the innovation is the ability to consider diachronic aspects of literature, especially variant traditions of ancient literature and critical work associated with the text in question. Additionally, these projects provide ready access to literature that had been previously limited to few (and generally quite expensive) volumes from a small group of publishers. The well-known and oft-mentioned Perseus Digital Library and the much less well-known Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon Project provide numerous examples of the benefits of such projects. I have used a number of similar projects including these two mentioned here during my young academic career, and I can attest to their great benefits.
There are, however, a few drawbacks that seem to accompany these projects. The most central recurring caveat to these programs that I have experienced is the development of the projects seems to stop when the grant funding runs out. While it is certainly understandable why projects cannot continue to develop without funding, this problem is largely the result of the fact that these projects seem to often stand on their own, meaning they are not part of a larger collection to which they contribute. This autonomy creates an environment where the innovative technology developed by each of the individual projects seems to stagnate with the project itself. The arrested development of these individual projects creates a considerable disparity between autonomous projects—especially those that focus on relatively obscure content—and projects that are either paid applications (e.g. Accordance Bible Software) or are developed in collaboration with large tech companies (e.g. Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Project a collaborative effort between the Israel Museum and Google). I am not criticizing these latter projects. On the contrary, I have used both of these example programs with great relish. Rather, I am lamenting the stagnation of many autonomous projects whose subject matter might be more obscure (relatively speaking, of course), but is vital for a number of scholars’ research.
As the process of text encoding becomes more standardized, it would be interesting to see the development of a digital library that could incorporate these autonomous projects into one central location. This may allow for the continued development of autonomous projects whose dwindling funding limits the participation of its original developers. To be sure, there are obstacles to such grand collaborative work, and, ironically, this sort of project may need to begin as an autonomous project. However, the recent launch of the Digital Public Library of America provides a substantial step toward the further development of a central digital library of various digital materials, and may itself be the very project I would like to see.
I congratulate the program awardees, and very much look forward to experiencing the results of their projects.