From 1995 to 1997, the Text Studies Committee within the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Arts and Sciences met to discuss how the internet was changing education and research. To keep up with the times, they suggested the addition of an electronic-text center in the UNL libraries. Proving to be a success, the E-Text Center was given new status as the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities in 2005.
Today the CDRH continues to help faculty begin creative, scholarly projects by providing special tools, platforms, workshops and guest speakers. These efforts continue to push UNL forward in the area of digital humanities.
Over the last 20 years, UNL has built a reputation as one of the leading institutions in digital humanities. Although not easily defined, digital humanities is an area of study that combines humanities, scholarship and computing.
For UNL, the journey to find their digital humanities program began before the term was even coined.
Katherine Walter, co-director of the CDRH, remembers being involved in the first stages of the Omaha and Ponca Digital Dictionary, an online site where users can explore the Omaha and Ponca languages.
“It started out with a small seed grant and brought in an award of $348,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities,” Walter said.
Walter has watched many other digital humanities projects such as Civil War Washington, Cuban Battlefields and the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains thrive at UNL with the help of the CDRH. In fact, the CDRH has worked on projects with 85 faculty across 13 departments and five colleges at UNL.
One of these projects is the Willa Cather Archive. The Archive is an online catalogue that presents users with digital materials on the life and works of Nebraska author Willa Cather.
“Cather’s life and work doesn’t feel narrow and closed and finite,” said Andrew Jewell, editor of the archive. “It keeps going into new worlds because she was such a curious person. All sorts of things show up in her life.”
In addition to text digitization and encoding, the project requires communication.
“Another thing that we definitely want to do is reach out to the community and use social media and connect with people in a way that is providing some insight into the world of Willa Cather, but also having fun,” Jewell said.
The Willa Cather Archive maintains a Twitter presence (@hastilycather) and hosts a number of Cather-themed events each year. The assistant editor of the Willa Cather Archive, Emily Rau, recalled reading one of Cather’s letters at such an event.
In the letter, Cather talked about a new baby girl being born.
“The lady, now elderly, was there in the audience,” Rau said. “The family is very supportive of the letters being published. They would like to have people do the research.”
From 2009 to 2013, UNL did a cluster hire of digital humanities professors and added seven faculty members. These additions effectively doubled their faculty at that time. The early development of the CDRH and strategic moves such as the cluster hire have kept UNL ahead of the pack in regard to digital humanities, Walter said.
This summer, UNL had a large presence at the Digital Humanities 2016 Conference in Poland.
“I felt so proud to be a Husker,” Jewell said. “So many professors were there and did wonderful presentations.”
The university’s methods for awarding tenure based on digital scholarship, a guide which was developed in the 2006-2007 academic year, is another action that sets it apart, said Matthew Jockers, a UNL professor of English, Associate Dean for Research and Global Engagement and a leading scholar in the field of digital humanities.
Jockers said there’s a diverse range of UNL faculty engaged in the digital humanities, adding that there are five articles written by UNL professors in the latest edition of “A Companion to Digital Humanities.”
For students interested in getting involved with the digital humanities, junior English and history major Sara Duke recommends taking the leap.
For more than a year, Duke has held a research position with the Walt Whitman Archive, contributing to the online database of transcribed Whitman poems and interviews.
“You don’t need to have any sort of computer science background whatsoever. You might just like a particular era of literature or paintings. Anything humanities related,” Duke said.