A Question of Centers: One Approach to Establishing a Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

Vernon Burton, Illinois Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science; NCSA; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Simon J. Appleford, Illinois Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
James Onderdonk, Illinois Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


The paradigm by which humanities and social science scholars conduct their research is rapidly changing. In a remarkably short period of time, digital technology has become essential to our intellectual processes, every bit as important as writing, and if humanists and social scientists do not embrace and study its potential they will not have access to a complete scholarly and pedagogical arsenal. This marvelously protean technology, which holds the potential to revolutionize teaching, outreach, and research across the humanities, arts, and social science disciplines, must be made available in its fullest for discovering, synthesizing, and sharing knowledge. In recognition of both this potential and of the challenges inherent in addressing these growing technological needs, there is a vital need for the development of a national cyberinfrastructure for humanities and social sciences. Indeed, this was the key recommendation of the American Council of Learned Society in its 2006 report Our Cultural Commonwealth, which urged universities, funding agencies, and the federal government to invest in such a cyberinfrastructure “as a matter of strategic priority.”1

The implications of this recommendation are startling, especially as the humanities, arts, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the social sciences are notoriously under-funded, with many departments within these disciplines coming under increasing financial pressures. The resources required to implement even a basic level of support for digital humanities and social science scholarship—demanding extensive hardware and software purchases, as well as the acquisition of significant technical expertise as a basic requirement—is clearly beyond the means of most campus units; indeed, even if it were feasible from a budgetary standpoint, this approach would only result in the unnecessary duplication of resources. An effective cyberinfrastructure can, in truth, only be created through the establishment of a series of national centers at the university level dedicated to defining, implementing, and leading digital humanities, arts, and social science research needs across discipline- and unit-based boundaries, while simultaneously participating in a healthy dialogue that contributes to and exploits cyberinfrastructure. These centers will furthermore act as hubs that can provide stability within the community and allow long-term relationships to be forged between them and scholars at institutions that lack the resources to establish digital humanities centers. This article seeks to outline some of the benefits and challenges inherent in attempting to implement this agenda, as experienced by one recently founded center for digital humanities, arts, and social science research.

The Illinois Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science (I-CHASS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was founded in 2005 to serve the national research and education community, making resources and tools for high-end computing, data collection and analysis, geospatial inquiry, visualization, communication, and collaboration available to scholars. I-CHASS is envisioned as a nexus of scholarship, creativity, collaboration, outreach, and technical expertise—one hub among others in the growth of a vibrant community that spans both national and international collaborations and encompasses the humanities, arts, social sciences, and technology.

Of course, it is one thing to conceptualize such a vision and quite another to see it come to fruition; there are significant challenges associated with establishing a cyberinfrastructure for the humanities, arts, and social science. These can, however, generally be grouped into one of three categories:

  1. Institutional
  2. Expertise
  3. Funding

As already noted, the creation of a viable cyberinfrastructure for the humanities and social sciences requires the investment of significant resources at the university-level if it is to succeed. I-CHASS is extremely fortunate in that its activities are supported by both the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). The University of Illinois already has a multitude of strengths in the humanities and social sciences as well as a significant library, computer science department, and an important graduate school of library and information science. It is therefore logical that the University would seek to capitalize on these strengths, by including in its recently announced campus strategic plan, specific mention of an informatics initiative that incorporates “emerging applications areas in . . . the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts . . . [providing] opportunities for cross-disciplinary interaction both on our campus and around the world.”2 In other words, Illinois’ strategic vision for the twenty-first century already endorses the ideals articulated in Our Cultural Commonwealth and lays the groundwork for much of I-CHASS’s efforts to encourage the adoption of digital scholarship across the campus.

Communicating our vision to the departments and engaging them in it remains, however, a challenge, not least because each department must be approached as a separate entity and each has its own priorities and interests in pursuing digital scholarship. Furthermore, as in other institutions, many researchers in the humanities, arts and social sciences remain uncertain as to exactly how computational techniques can enhance their scholarship and are therefore, understandably, reluctant to commit a significant amount of their time and energy to what appears to be an endeavor replete in risks and uncertain rewards. Without addressing these concerns, the efforts of digital humanities centers to establish a cyberinfrastructure are doomed to failure. Any effort to seed such centers consequently must focus considerable energy on building relationships, on fostering collaborations in specific disciplines, on disseminating as widely as possible the products of these collaborations, and on organizing informational meetings and themed workshops that focus on the application of specific technologies to research interests in humanities, arts, and social science scholarship. All these activities are designed to alleviate many of these fears and to demonstrate the profound power inherent in advanced computational methodologies for these disciplines. It is our experience that such outreach efforts are enthusiastically received and result in exciting new collaborations.

Complementing the University of Illinois’ strengths is the presence and commitment of NCSA in bringing digital innovation to the humanities and social sciences. NCSA offers the arts, humanities, and social sciences access to considerable computing power, storage space for large datasets, advanced visualization capabilities, and tools for data analysis, communication, and collaboration. The potential benefits of this arrangement are demonstrated by the experience of computational linguist Richard Sproat, who is working at the University of Illinois on a project that explores automated methods for second language fluency and which requires the storage and indexing of a large amount of video data. Because his department lacked the capacity to store and index this amount of video data, Sproat was originally planning on using a codex that would compress his video to a manageable size but would consequently prevent the long-term usage of high quality originals. I-CHASS was able to provide access to the necessary storage at NCSA, allowing him to preserve the data in high definition and concentrate on developing ways of improving accessibility. These techniques can be extended to facilitate the preservation of disappearing languages, allowing researchers to record not only actual sounds, but also the facial mannerisms and hand gestures of native speakers, creating unprecedented forms of access to and analysis of these languages and leading to new ways of teaching them to students and a new generation of speakers.

NCSA is also a rich source of experience and expertise, employing top personnel in fields crucial to humanities, arts, and social science computing, such as sophisticated search and retrieval; human-computer interaction; distributed, collaborative computing; and large-scale modeling and simulation. This is not to say that centers such as I-CHASS must rely solely on the resources available at NCSA. Most institutions do not have supercomputing facilities of this kind so close at hand. Nevertheless, digital humanities centers need to be more self-reliant, building their own capacity by gathering a team of technical specialists who will work solely on digital humanities and social science initiatives, even if it is prudent to take advantage of the expertise available across one’s campus.

Although I-CHASS is fortunate to be co-located with a national supercomputing center, not all centers will enjoy such advantage. There are, nevertheless, other ways in which digital humanities centers can marshal the resources available on their own campuses to promote the use of digital tools in humanities, arts, and social science research and teaching. It might be fruitful, for instance, for a center to act as a broker between humanities scholars and computer scientists to match research interests with on-campus computer resources. One strategy is to identify research questions that require a relatively modest commitment from the computer scientists to produce results; the proverbial low-hanging fruit. Such an early success could be used to promote the advantages of digital scholarship in numerous directions—to the humanities, arts, and social science departments; to the computer scientists; and to the institution’s administration. Another approach might be to designate several specific research areas as “digital hallmarks” and channel computational efforts in these areas until some successes have been achieved that can then be leveraged for broader institutional support. Since I-CHASS is committed to collaboration, advancing humanities, arts, and social science cyberenvironments, and enabling scholars and other centers in their research, we will also be pleased to partner with others so that they can also benefit from NCSA’s expertise and resources.

Marshaling resources for building this cyberinfrastructure is, of course, a critical endeavor. Some core funding must, of necessity, be provided through a center’s home institution. One’s home institution might be approached to provide start-up support, with the understanding that the commitment will be reduced as external funding is acquired. Winning substantial awards from grant-giving bodies has, however, been a difficult proposition for many humanities and social science departments, especially when compared with the funding patterns of disciplines in the physical and natural sciences, engineering, and medicine. Indeed, a typical humanities or social science department is unlikely to receive significant income from grant awards, with graduate students paid through state allocations and many scholars fortunate to receive even teaching release in support of their research. This is a model that is clearly unsustainable for work in the digital realm, with its challenge to the paradigm of scholars working largely in isolation from their colleagues. Fortunately, funding agencies and private foundations have shown considerable interest in investing money in digital scholarship; among recent developments are initiatives from the National Endowment for the Humanities3 and the MacArthur Foundation,4 while the Mellon Foundation has long been a key backer of digital humanities and social science research. The potential funding available can be maneuvered for use by individual scholars on their own research projects and by institutions seeking to establish and expand their own centers.

Given the myriad challenges associated with establishing a cyberinfrastructure for the humanities and social science, one must ask if the results are worth the effort. As envisioned by I-CHASS, the potential benefits of this initiative can again be grouped in three basic areas:

  1. Access
  2. Excellence
  3. Engagement

By access we mean offering a truly collaborative environment—a national resource—in which humanities and social scientific scholars and technical staff work together to identify and solve research problems that will benefit from the application of digital technologies. The cyberinfrastructure we propose here will ensure that the sort of centers we are envisaging are able to serve the needs of researchers, providing a place to meet, exchange ideas, and collaborate with research scientists and faculty from other disciplines. The meta-discipline fostered by such cyberinfrastructure will open up many new avenues of mutual learning, communication, and service. Although computing experts push the limits of what humanities scholars do, new humanities applications in turn push the envelope in computing. Digital humanities projects tend to blur many of the old boundaries that have long bedeviled Academe: between “research” and “education,” between disciplines, between “scholarly” work and outreach or service to the “real world.” These boundaries need to be broken down, but it takes the collective efforts of all working locally and nationally toward these mutually productive ends.

By excellence we mean creating a vibrant digital humanities community, offering scholars access to the transformative potential of information technology. Digital humanities centers should serve as a catalyst and “expert broker” for mutually beneficial interactions that foster collaborations on the next generation of research and teaching in the developing world of digital humanities for the purpose of enhancing scholarship in the humanities, arts, and social sciences generally. We see cyberinfrastructure as transformative of social scientific inquiry and an environment in which scholars can explore the integration of a range of technologies—including spatial analysis; information access and extraction across text-, image-, audio-, and video-based data; visualization; social networking; and collaborative tools development—that have equal applicability across the broader humanities and social scientific community.

By engagement we mean applying information technology to research, outreach, and teaching to confront the greatest challenges facing the world today, locally and more globally. Such challenges arise from our failure to understand our own human nature and its rich and diverse cultural contexts, our reluctance to communicate and collaborate across cultural boundaries, and the barriers to our seeing and appreciating the full range of human creativity, inspiration, and aspiration. We see cyberinfrastructure, if effectively mobilized, as the potential next wave in the democratized access to information. Quantitative arts, humanities, and social science have important contributions to make to public policy deliberations and to education via tools that encourage laypersons to interact with social science data and models. Digital humanities centers should partner with those willing to commit resources to create programs for public production and sharing. We anticipate that the cyberinfrastructure we can thus collectively create could make public access even more transparent.

With access to leading-edge computational resources, as well as their advanced visualization and digital tools, humanists and social scientists can readily collaborate with experts in information technologies and methodologies. Through the use of technologies such as the ACCESS GRID, shared databases, online communication tools, and other collaborative technologies, we believe that digital humanities centers are uniquely and strategically positioned to leverage these and other resources to enrich the humanities, arts, and social sciences; to provide new methodologies of study; to facilitate outreach to new audiences; and to develop new ways of understanding and solving the most complex problems facing our world today.

1 American Council of Learned Societies, Our Cultural Commonwealth: The final report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities & Social Sciences, New York: American Council of Learned Societies, 2006, p. 29. Available online from www.acls.org/cyberinfrastructure/cyber.htm, last accessed May 7, 2007.
2 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Campus Strategic Plan, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, March 2007, p. 8. Available online from www.strategicplan.uiuc.edu/documents/Illinois_StrategicPlan.pdf , last accessed May 7, 2007.
3 www.neh.gov/grants/digitalhumanities.html
4 www.digitallearning.macfound.org