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U. receives Mellon grant for digital scholarship initiative

Grant to support digital publication of faculty members’ works, new digital scholarly editor

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded the University a $1.3-million grant to support the digital scholarship initiative in President Christina Paxson’s P’19 strategic plan, according to a Jan. 12 press release.

The funds will help Brown return to the “original mission of the University during the Enlightenment, the dissemination of knowledge, but in a digital world,” said Kevin McLaughlin P’12, dean of the faculty and one of the primary contributors to the grant proposal, along with Catherine Nellis, senior director of development in the Office of Foundation Relations and School of Public Health,  and University Librarian Harriette Hemmasi.

The grant will be used to hire a digital scholarly editor and technological staff members who will assist faculty members in the humanities and social sciences with digital publications of their works, McLaughlin said. The grant also includes funds specific to undergraduate research assistant stipends, he added.

A prototype for releasing digital publications will be implemented over a five-year period, during which a faculty advisory committee will annually select several projects to test the new infrastructure, McLaughlin said. Brown was one of the earliest proponents of digital scholarship, he added.

The Mellon Foundation “will monitor the grant through annual reports and help ensure that what is learned at Brown is widely disseminated and informs scholarly publishing and university presses,” wrote Don Waters, senior program officer for scholarly communications at the Mellon Foundation, in an email to The Herald.

The shift toward digital publications is part of the “emerging paradigm for scholars in the humanities,” said Elias Muhanna, assistant professor of comparative literature, who is working on a Digital Islamic Humanities Project. A digital project is appealing because “it doesn’t begin as a more traditional research project and then find its way onto the Internet,” he said.

“Some forms of research in the humanities are now becoming more data-intensive,” McLaughlin said. He added that the digital publication team is analogous to a state-of-the-art piece of equipment shared among faculty members in the hard sciences.

Professors in the humanities and social sciences interviewed all expressed positive sentiments about the opportunities the grant could provide.

“I, and other folks at Brown, are very keen to have access to institutional support that will help us think imaginatively about how to promote and disseminate our work,” Muhanna said. “In the past, people who were interested in digital models had to figure out how to fold that new model into a traditional box.”

Faculty members will be able to explore new ways of publishing and disseminating research, in addition to working with the digital scholarly editor on finding effective ways to use technology in humanistic scholarship, said James Green, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes professor of modern Latin American history and Portuguese and Brazilian studies and director of the Brazil Initiative.

Courtney J. Martin, assistant professor of history of art and architecture, used a software project called Touch Art Gallery in her course last semester HIAA 0010: “A Global History of Art and Architecture” co-taught by Sheila Bonde, professor of archaeology and the ancient world and professor in and chair of the history of art and architecture department. The project was spearheaded by Professor of Computer Science Andy van Dam and serves as a museum guide to large pieces of artwork with advanced zoom functions and hotspot hyperlinks. Martin said she was excited about the resources the digital scholarly editor would bring to the faculty, adding that “we need more bridges between the academy and technology.”

“The Mellon Foundation giving this donation shows that we are a part of looking and thinking critically to come up with new models,” Green said. The fact that Brown is at the forefront of this “cutting–edge experiment” is very exciting, he added.

“There are many different directions this could take,” Green said, adding that the role of digital scholarship is an open question in the humanities.

“There is still some question about the value of purely digital scholarship as far as tenure or promotion proposals are concerned,” Hemmasi said. She added that the shift towards digitizing the humanities and social sciences is not just happening at the University, but across these fields at peer institutions.

Stanford University recently received a similar $1.2-million grant from the Mellon Foundation, according to a Jan. 12 Stanford press release. “The Stanford grant is designed to build the capability of university presses,” Waters wrote.

While the grant Stanford received resembles previous grants from the Mellon Foundation, the grant the University received differs in that it allows individual faculty members to gain funding while bypassing the University press, McLaughlin said. This approach signifies the “new era of online content that can be distributed globally at very little cost to the producer,” he added.

The University Library will aim to stay involved with the grant and “continue to work with individual faculty on putting their scholarly ideas and themes into an appropriate digital context or medium,” Hemmasi said. She added that the library staff could be instrumental in helping humanities and social sciences faculty members use “new methods of interacting with data and evidence.”

Digital scholarship does not preclude traditional scholarship, at least not yet.  Many professors still consider digital media as a companion to more traditional means. Publishing in print is becoming increasingly less viable, Green said, adding that he will “mourn that loss.”


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