Do your Research!
Preparing a Strong Environmental Scan

November 15, 2018
Dr. Margaret Mead
Photo caption

Dr. Margaret Mead

World-Telegram photo by Edward Lynch, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Digital humanities is an area of practice that spans many disciplinary and interdisciplinary fields. Projects, methods, and software are derived from and sustained by many different types of institutions. Just as we need to frame a new idea for an editor within its disciplinary and methodological ecosystem, applicants for the Digital Humanities Advancement Grants program need to demonstrate a familiarity with the DH landscape when writing a proposal. This might make some of you feel a little out of your comfort zone, so we have prepared some resources to help.

The Environmental Scan for an Advancement grant proposal is a literature review that demonstrates your knowledge of existing projects and the field’s reaction to those efforts. It is then easier to demonstrate that your idea fills a space not occupied by current projects, tools, or programs.  An environmental scan should also not just be a list of complementary or related projects in either a specific discipline or that deploy a particular methodology.  You will want to position your proposed projects within both subject matter and approach.

Reviewers will want to see that you are familiar with developments in DH and adjacent fields and hear how your proposed project contributes to and advances the humanities. It is always important to think broadly and creatively, because relevant projects may be found outside of your immediate specialty, outside of academia, or vice versa, outside of cultural heritage. Peer reviewers will notice a thin environmental scan that misses key projects, leading them to lower a proposal’s grade.

For example, if you are developing software to solve a particular humanities problem, you need to discuss how your proposed solution fits, or doesn’t, within the existing ecosystem. If there are existing software products that can be modified or built upon, please identify them and discuss the pros and cons of taking that approach. You may even want to reach out to the developers of an open source project to learn more about their roadmap. Anything that can help you avoid any pitfalls they’ve encountered will only make your project stronger. Additionally, you may find they are looking for a new partner. Environmental scans are useful in multiple ways and may help identify potential collaborators.

Often we focus our discovery-level research within the library catalog or online journals database. Much digital humanities research, however, lives outside of those traditional venues and can be found in gray literature, such as conference presentation, white papers, and research reports.

To help everyone prepare strong lit reviews, we are offering a few suggestions. We are not endorsing any of the publications or websites listed, nor is this list meant to be exhaustive. These are merely starting points, not definitively pathways, to help you do the research.

Let lessons learned around the field inform and guide you to incorporating successful methods and techniques into your projects. If you are new to digital humanities, you will have an opportunity to meet this vibrant community of scholars who share and collaborate readily as they transform their fields through innovate digital work.