institute for enabling geospatial scholarship

Last year, the UVA Scholars’ Lab hosted a local, semester-long faculty and grad student seminar on geospatial technologies in the humanities.  We used, as a jumping-off point, Martyn Jessop’s assessment of factors contributing to a surprising “inhibition” of the use of digitized maps and GIS among humanists. That GIS, an important tool for scholarly engagement with space and place across the disciplines, has been slow to penetrate the digital humanities — a population generally receptive to new practices and technologies — begs a discussion of issues at once historical and methodological, institutional and pragmatic. The seventh annual Scholarly Communication Institute, to be held at UVA Library in a couple of weeks, will take this issue up in a concentrated way, as we focus on spatial technologies and tools: the institutional, methodological, and interpretive aspects of GIS in the context of scholarly communication.

The “inhibition” question demands serious engagement by scholars, programmers, librarians, and advocates for shared data and transparent, flexible, open services. To be effective, this engagement must come at many levels simultaneously: we must work to build core infrastructure to support GIS and leverage the strengths of (primarily government and academic) data providers; we must carefully analyze past successes as well as failures in the digital humanities in order to move forward with more robustly-imagined scholarly projects; and we must interrogate both a toolset that has evolved to suit scientific inquiry (that is, positivist models of physical behavior and dense, detailed, precisely-defined data sets, generally synchronic) and our own inherited systems for interpreting the human record within a spatial field. Above all – because place and space, whether specifically geo-referenced or wholly conceptual, are common denominators in humanistic disciplines – we must make a concerted effort at supporting and understanding what it is that we do, when we “do GIS.”

Today, I’m proud to announce that the Scholars’ Lab has been funded by the NEH to host three tracks of an Institute for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities, on the theme of “Enabling Geospatial Scholarship.”

We’re especially proud of the fantastic group of faculty and advisory board members who have signed on to the Institute. These people come from libraries, digital humanities centers, a variety of academic departments, and the world of entrepreneurial GIS. Our faculty include: Julie Sweetkind-Singer, Diana Sinton, Anne Knowles, Sean Gillies, Schulyer Erle, Shekhar Krishnan, Andrew Turner, Madelyn Wessel, Josh Greenberg, Martyn Jessop, Todd Presner, David Germano, Benjamin Ray, Bethany Nowviskie, Joseph Gilbert, Christopher Gist, Kelly Johnston, Bess Sadler, Adam Soroka, Wayne Graham. The advisory board for the Institute for Enabling Geospatial Scholarship includes: Dan Cohen, Tom Elliott, Worthy Martin, James Boxall, Scot French, Neil Fraistat, John Krygier, Jennifer Green, Martha Sites, Abby Smith.

A first four-day event will be geared toward library, museum, and digital humanities center professionals, competitively selected from public service and collections stewardship areas as well as information science and cyberinfrastructure support fields, and will aim to shape policy and build the technical capacity of the institutions they represent to support boundary-pushing geospatial scholarship. Their ongoing work in implementing a standards-based, open source infrastructure for discovery, delivery, and manipulation of geospatial data would be supported through an online clearinghouse and open-access community to be maintained long-term by the Scholars’ Lab.

In the second year, the NEH Institute will fund 20 humanities scholars and advanced graduate students, many of whom may be affiliated with participating Round One institutions, to train on and critique the open source and standards-based GIS tools and geospatial approaches to humanities scholarship being developed and documented by UVA Library and its collaborators and peers. As a contribution to the success of the program, the Scholars’ Lab will also independently fund up to 5 short-term scholar- or developer-in-residencies in the two years following the first Institute (a total of $40,000 in funding). These mini-residencies — in which Institute attendees or faculty return to collaborate with the Scholars’ Lab on specific projects — will promote ongoing scholarly engagement, software development, and information sharing around the theme of Enabling Geospatial Scholarship.

The curriculum and outcome of both Institutes and our series of mini-residencies will be made available as part of a planned information clearinghouse, supported by a graduate “online community manager,” who will work closely with the dedicated, full-time GIS staff of the Scholar’s Lab over the course of the next two years. The goal of this clearinghouse is not only to offer technical bootstrapping for libraries and museums new to sophisticated GIS support via Web services frameworks, but also to provide differing scholarly perspectives on GIS for the humanities, from within the coherent narrative of a multi-institutional effort (which we hope this Institute will foster) to build modern infrastructure, support innovative digital projects, and open up dialogue about the causes and conditions of the digital humanities community’s uncharacteristic inhibition toward GIS.

Stay tuned as we nail down the schedule for the Institute and open up the application process for funded attendees!