In January, CLIR issued the first request for proposals for Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives: Enabling New Scholarship through Increasing Access to Unique Materials. This milestone marks the fruition of a long development process that involved reading and consulting the work of experts in a variety of relevant fields: members of the cultural heritage professions, funders, leaders of national digital library initiatives, intellectual property experts, and readers of Re:Thinking. What followed were months of drafting and revising of our application questions and guidelines. We endeavored to make these as coherent as possible, building them on the foundation of five key values statements that articulated themes that arose repeatedly during our research and in our conversations with stakeholder groups.
The program’s five values—scholarship, comprehensiveness, collaboration, sustainability, and openness—provided the framework for last week’s applicant webinar presentation. So far, these concepts seem to be useful in conveying the envisioned context for the projects we expect our review panel will want to fund. But now that our guidelines are in place, our major responsibility has become handling the steady flow of applicants’ questions. During our open application period, we not only have to make our program’s overall purpose clear but must make equally clear the relatively narrow range of activities our program can actually fund. These weeks of answering questions are incredibly productive in equipping us for this challenge. Our applicants teach us a great deal about how our guidelines support their goals, and how they do not.
As its title implies, the program supports digitization of rare and unique materials with the potential to support the creation and dissemination of new knowledge. This emphasis on knowledge creation, inherited from our previous initiative, Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives, is core to the missions of both CLIR and the program’s funder, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and so serves as the primary criterion for assessment of proposals. Because of the prominence of scholarship among our values, it is important that staff continually stress to applicants that the purpose of program funds is for the work of digitizing nominated materials of high significance for research and teaching, and not the research or teaching themselves, or developing the technologies or other infrastructure that makes such research and teaching possible. As a group, our applicants are creative and accomplished professionals with a wealth of scholarly and technical expertise. Their talents befit them for many exciting types of work related to building and using digital collections, and we are gratified to have opportunities to support part of that work. But it will be only a part.
One of our most popular frequently asked questions during the Cataloging Hidden Collections era was: “So what exactly do you mean by hidden?” With the expansion in our scope to incorporate digitization, this question will remain a major theme of the ongoing conversation between CLIR, our applicants, and our review panelists. The choice to retain the word “hidden” in the title of our new program was quite deliberate, made after a considerable amount of debate. Behind part of the decision was our desire to keep ties with our program’s history and brand. We also made the choice in order to help applicants submit more competitive proposals. The work of knowledge creation, by definition, implies collecting and presenting facts, ideas, or relationships that were not previously understood: bringing what was once “hidden” into the light. It is this notion of “hiddenness” that is central to our new program’s purpose.
In our transition to digitization, the meaning of “hidden” has shifted away from a more or less practical concept to something more philosophical and context dependent. To be eligible for our cataloging program, applicants had to nominate collections for which there was no pre-existing description suitable to facilitate discovery. For our new program, nominated collections must be “hidden” in the sense that the work of digitization (not just description) is critical to knowledge creation.
What circumstances require an investment in digitization in order to support the production of new knowledge? Three spring to mind. First, digitization can make it possible for geographically dispersed collaborators to work on content they would be unable to examine together in real time and space. The more than 17,000 digitized food menus now available through the New York Public Library’s “What’s on the menu?” project serve as one example of how empowering an army of volunteer transcribers to work on a digital collection can make it possible for food studies scholars to ask many questions about the availability of particular ingredients, recipe trends, ethnic influences on regional cuisines, or the waxing and waning popularity of particular dishes through time. Second, digitization makes it possible to bring geographically dispersed collections of related content together in one place, enabling scholars to search across much larger quantities of materials than ever before. The Biodiversity Heritage Library and the Medical Heritage Library are just two of many possible examples of ways collaborative approaches to digitization of related collections exponentially expand the potential for research in a given domain. Third, digitization can make it possible to examine collections in new ways through some form of computational analysis, such as through magnification of the details of digitized images, through advanced forms of image analysis such as edge detection, through forced alignment of digitized speech recordings with their transcripts, through structural analysis of digitized music, through optical music recognition of digitized scores, through geographic mapping, through text mining or content analysis of digitized texts, or through some combination of these methods. Digitization expands the research potential of special collections and archives exponentially, and this potential increases daily.
As we move forward in our efforts to help our applicants, we hope to collect more useful examples of ways digitization supports the creation of new knowledge. We would welcome your suggestions in the comments here, or any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.