The American Council of Learned Societies is pleased to announce its Commission on Fostering and Sustaining Diverse Digital Scholarship, made possible by the Mellon Foundation as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Under the leadership of commission chair Marisa Parham, this group of scholars, librarians, archivists, publishers, and University leaders will analyze the current challenges in providing equitable access to the creation and sustainability of digital resources and projects related to social and racial justice. Via a series of roundtables, working papers, and a final report, the Commission will make strategic sector-wide recommendations for strengthening the opportunity structure for resolving such challenges. These efforts will bolster both the quantity and integrity of those digital resources and digital humanities projects that diversify and increase inclusivity of humanistic scholarship.

About the Commission:

An Ecosystem Approach to Digital Humanities

Over the past 25 years, digital scholarly projects, as well as the tools that require them, have proliferated within the academy.  Cameras, database software, tools for text analysis or geospatial mapping are no longer limited to the most well-funded teams of scholars. Today, these tools that support digital collection building and digital humanities scholarship are more accessible. In these and other ways, digital humanities have moved in democratic directions. But in many others, they have not. Despite the enthusiasm for the creation of such projects, support for their long-term care varies greatly within and across departments and institutions. 

Since the historical legacies of settler colonialism, racial capitalism, and heteronormativity continue to privilege and validate certain collections over others, this thinner and uneven support for infrastructure doubly impacts scholars working on racial or social justice topics or materials. Within under-studied fields, there are fewer digital projects and resources at greater risk of loss. While increasingly diverse sources and perspectives are coming to the fore, they are spread across an ever-widening range of institutions and communities that cannot sustain the fruits of their labor.  There are, moreover, projects that are not designed within academic institutions and may not ‘fit’ into the existing typology of archives. Nevertheless, they are increasingly central to the work of humanists and humanistic social scientists. 

…how and where does this [digital] work flourish? Who or what falls out of our various equations? How will we make our projects last? How do we continue to cultivate or preserve our objects? And what is especially at stake in this for work seeded in historically marginalized or emergent communities? Marisa Parham, Commission Chair

Such a reality begs the question of stewardship. Many of the visionary scholar-project designers who can instigate these efforts have less experience with questions of long-term sustainability. When designing a digital project, folks rarely consider who will ‘own’ the responsibility for maintaining it (even if it happened to originate with one faculty member, one community member, or one university).  What happens to such a project (and the countless others like it) once the grant funding or ad hoc arrangement that initially supported it concludes? Further questions still, how does the absence of financial and technological sustainability systems impede the work of field-building? How does this negatively impact supporting the careers of emerging scholars? If projects are not created, they obviously cannot reach wider audiences and shape the discourse in humanistic disciplines.

Employing an ecosystem approach that considers both systems and institutional change, the Commission will engage the expertise of various stakeholder communities – e.g. digital project leaders, university leadership, scholarly publishers, public-facing scholars, financial consultants – in order to move beyond improvised and patchwork solutions to these pressing questions. The problem at hand is not a straightforward matter of library practices or software choices; it is more akin to a public health issue where the solutions for supporting the work of marginalized communities involve entities from different sectors and different modes of thinking.  To that end, this effort needs to be supported (1) at the institutional level where most digital projects originate and are initially designed and supported, (2) within a trans-institutional infrastructure, wherein inter-institutional and field-wide bases of support are enlisted, and (3) emerging and often under-institutionalized or institutionally marginalized communities and voices, where voices and perspectives that challenge institutional norms might design and value projects that do not fit within current institutional algorithms.  The Commission will thus recommend the necessary areas of research and action.

Members of the Commission
Edward Ayers

University Professor of the Humanities and Executive Director of New American History, University of Richmond

Lisa Brooks

Henry S. Poler ‘59 Presidential Teaching Professor of English and American Studies, Amherst College

Kimberly Christen

Professor and Director, Digital Technology and Culture Program & Director, Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation, Washington State University

Dan Cohen

Vice Provost/Dean of the Library and Professor of History, Northeastern University

Maria Eugenia Cotera

Associate Professor of Mexican American and Latino Studies, The University of Texas at Austin

Meredith Evans

74th President of the Society of American Archivists

Maryemma Graham

Founding Director of Project on the History of Black Writing and BBIP Lead & Distinguished Professor of English, University of Kansas


Joshua Greenberg

Program Director, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Charles J. (Chuck) Henry

President, Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR)

May Hong HaDuong

Director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, University of California – Los Angeles

Bergis Jules

Archivist, Shift Collective & Project Director, Documenting the Now

Marisa Parham (Chair)

Visiting Professor of English & Director of the African American Digital Humanities Initiatives (AADHUM), University of Maryland – College Park

Kenton Rambsy

Associate Professor of African American Literature and Digital Humanities, Howard University

K.J. Rawson

Associate Professor of English and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies & Coordinator of Digital Integration Teaching Initiative, Northeastern University

Roopika Risam

Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies and of Comparative Literature, Dartmouth College

Claire Stewart

Dean of Libraries and University Librarian, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Gabriela Baeza Ventura

Professor of Hispanic Literature and Spanish, University of Houston; Executive Editor, Arte Público Press and co-founder, US Latino Digital Humanities

Ben Vinson III

President, Howard University

Charles Watkinson

Associate University Librarian for Publishing, University of Michigan Library & Director, University of Michigan Press

Stacie Williams

Archives and Libraries

Jewon Woo

Associate Professor of English, Lorain County Community College

The Work of the Commission

The Commission will be supported by a team of experienced librarians and scholars to frame questions for its roundtables. This research team consists of Carol Mandel (Distinguished CLIR fellow and Dean Emerita of the libraries, NYU), Zoe LeBlanc (Assistant Professor, School of Information Studies at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), and Katrina Fenlon (Assistant Professor at College of Information Studies at University of Maryland, College Park). Nancy Maron (Founder and principal of BlueSky to BluePrint) has also played a key role as part of the team supporting the launch of the Commission. The research staff brings a broad range of applied experience to the project. Keyanah Nurse (ACLS Program Officer of Higher Education Initiatives) and James Shulman (Vice President of ACLS) are coordinating the work of the research team and the Commission.

With 6-8 participants, the roundtable discussions will begin by identifying the most pressing challenges and the conditions of each constituency including: digital project leaders, librarians, scholarly publishers, public-facing scholars, University leaders, funders, and those with financing expertise. Following these roundtables, the Commission will initiate a community review that includes external feedback on the papers and proposals.  Such a review will integrate the insights that emerge from the roundtables and the working papers. The background working papers and roundtables’ input will therefore be shared and publicized. 

The final synthetic report will both be inclusive of successful and failed approaches that are based at individual institutions. But it will also look far beyond the individual institution to see the lessons learned in building financially sustainable enterprises, be they for profit or not-for-profit as long as they have had substantive involvement with the educational world and understand its particular quirks.  The report will also look outside of the traditional vertical institutional approach to address both the precarity and the potential of community-built projects and others that have not been created with the benefit of subsidy from a college or university.

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