Do your Research!
Preparing a Strong Environmental Scan
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.
- Search databases of funded digital projects from federal agencies, such as the NEH or IMLS, or from private foundations, like the Andrew W. Mellon, Samuel H. Kress or Knight Foundations.
- Read white papers written by ODH grantees about their funded work.
- Dig into digital humanities and digital culture publications, such as DH Quarterly, International Journal for Digital Art History, or Cultural Analytics.
- Browse literature in your subject field and complementary areas for articles that include digital methodologies, or for digital project reviews and awards for digital projects. The American Quarterly, for example, recently published a special issue on digital humanities.
- Look in content aggregators (even if some are dated), like the DiRT Directory and TAPor 3.0 of digital research tools, DHNow, DH+Lib, or in the Humanities Commons.
- Make an appointment with a librarian. Many colleges and universities have digital scholarship librarians. Many cultural heritage organizations have someone on their staff who has technical expertise to consult. You will want to speak with them about the required Data Management Plan, so why not also ask them if they know of any complementary projects or related scholarship that might improve your environmental scan?
- Find digital methods and software tutorials in a LibGuide or The Programming Historian.
- At your next professional conference, seek out digital-themed sessions, workshops, unconferences, lightning rounds, or poster sessions to identify individuals building and designing digital projects in your area of study.
- Follow hashtags (#transformDH) and scan conference programs filled with digital programming, such as Digital Library Federation Forum, the recent African American history and culture (UMD) digital humanities conference, the international Alliance of Digital Humanities Organization DH conference, HASTAC, the Global Digital Humanities Symposium, and Museum Computer Network.
- Schedule an appointment with a program officer! We are here to help, but we are not here to do the environmental scan for you. Come to us after you’ve done some initial research, and we can offer some guidance.
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.