NEH Funds Two Projects in the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media

by Anne Reynolds

NEH Funds Two Projects in the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media

In mid-August, the National Endowment for the Humanities announced $29 million in awards for 215 humanities projects. Two of those awards, totaling more than $450,000, have been granted to Mason’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM).

Brian Platt, chair of the Department of History and Art History, which houses RRCHNM, noted that these awards are part the strong NEH support for George Mason University generally, and for the Department of History and Art History in particular. The Chronicle of Higher Education has recognized Mason as the eighth highest recipient of funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities in the past decade, for 37 projects reflecting a total of $5,801,343, much of which funded projects in the Department of History and Art History, including RRCHNM. 

In August, the center received $324,733 to create a data transcription module, or plug-in, for the Omeka S platform for digital collections. Entitled DataScribe, the module will allow scholars to collect sources, such as government forms or institutional records, and then transcribe the information they contain into a dataset.

Existing software currently allows transcription of data into free-form text but not tables of data. DataScribe will permit researchers to identify the structure of data within their sources, which will turn their sources of data into tables of numbers, dates, or categories.

Jessica Otis, DataScribe’s project director, emphasizes the tool’s potential for facilitating research. “One of the most difficult and time-consuming parts of computational history projects is digitizing historical records and transforming their data into a format amenable for computational analysis. DataScribe will help streamline this process and reduce barriers to creating new databases from historical sources.”

Lincoln Mullen, co-project director, agrees. “Historians and scholars in many other humanities disciplines are increasingly coming to see their sources not just as documents, but as potential datasets. DataScribe will help teach humanities scholars to see data in their sources and to structure that data in ways that will be most useful for them.”

RRCHNM was also awarded $126,947 for the project Digital Methods for Military History. The award will allow RRCHNM to present a two-week institute aimed at scholars in the field of military history, a subfield of the profession that has seen relatively slow adoption of digital methods. The institute will teach participants how to create datasets, visualize data, and create maps, with the goal of building a cohort of military historians who are able to use digital tools and methods to examine issues at the intersection of war and society.

"We hope that military historians will come out of this institute able to see new possibilities for understanding the abundance of historical data about the military that is all around them," said Abigail Mullen, the project director.

The August round of funding was the third and last for NEH for fiscal year 2019. Created in 1965, the NEH is an independent federal agency that is one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States.

“These two awards showcase the breadth of RRCHNM's portfolio of work,” said Platt. “The DataScribe project serves as a reminder that RRCHNM makes software, a distinguishing element of the center’s work. There are several digital humanities centers that produce exciting humanities projects, and RRCHNM does that as well (or better) than anyone.  But RRCHNM also designs digital tools--like Zotero, Scripto, Omeka, Tropy, and now DataScribe--that enable humanities scholars to pursue new kinds of research, pushing the boundaries of possibility in humanities scholarship.

“The Digital Methods for Military Historians workshop highlights RRCHNM's role as a national leader in digital humanities pedagogy. Humanities scholars from around the country have come to RRCHNM to learn how to use digital tools and methods. We have run many similar workshops for historians and art historians as well. Now we are bringing digital humanities to military history--a field in which digital methods have the potential to make a transformative impact. Humanities scholars know that if they want to learn DH, Mason is the place to come."