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Presenting NEH's Revised Research and Development Grant Program

February 25, 2015 | By Joshua Sternfeld

The National Endowment for the Humanities is proud to announce changes to the Division of Preservation and Access’ Research and Development grant program which address major challenges in preserving and providing access to humanities collections and resources.  Recognizing that singular projects such as a case study or one-time experiment can have far-reaching implications, while longer-term projects demand ongoing planning, we have created for the first time two tiers of funding.

Both funding tiers support the development of standards, practices, methodologies, and workflows dedicated to the stewardship of humanities collections.  Tier I, which is for projects up to $75,000, supports planning, basic research, and iterative tool development.  Tier II, which is for projects up to $350,000, supports advanced implementation and applied research.

Also, starting in 2016, NEH will host an annual Research and Development Project Directors’ Meeting. The event will present NEH-funded projects and engage the public in a range of issues related to cultural heritage stewardship.

The Research and Development program invites non-profit institutions to submit proposals for both funding tiers by June 25, 2015.

Introducing Tier I

The new Tier I grants will provide up to $75,000 for two years of planning activities, basic research, or iterative tool development.

Development of standards and practices in preservation and access requires an ever-evolving scaffolding of knowledge, data, case studies, and tools in order to sustain continued growth and investment from the community.  Oftentimes a single basic research experiment conducted by a university can help unlock an entire area of investigation, or an open source protocol developed by a museum or library for one project can be adapted for a broader initiative elsewhere.

Tier I funding may be used to seed projects for long-term development, and in the process build stronger collaborative relations between practitioners in the humanities, preservation, and sciences.  Grants may support initial planning for larger implementation projects, providing the time and space necessary to conduct rapid prototyping, research, and experimentation that may yield important results.

Tier I funding can also support standalone case studies that may generate important data for the field.  These projects could employ a combination of surveys, interviews, ethnographic field work, and other quantitative or qualitative methods to illuminate theoretical and practical concerns.

Much of the work of preserving and increasing access to our cultural heritage depends on developing or modifying tools or software platforms.  Tier I awards may support this work. The addition of a new function for an open source tool, for example, or the upgrade of a platform that incorporates the most current backend systems, can prove critical in the management of humanities collections.

Tier II: Advanced Implementation

Tier II grants offer larger awards of to $350,000 for projects lasting three years.

As in the past, these grants  support the development of standards, practices, methodologies, or workflows for preserving and creating access to humanities collections, as well as the exploration of more effective applied research or scientific methods of preserving or providing access to humanities collections.

Applicants should provide a detailed plan for dissemination of project results.  Over the years, we have learned that the projects that succeed in furthering the work of cultural heritage preservation and access can galvanize the field to adopt new findings, or participate in the revision of methodologies or practices that over time becomes widely accepted.

Project Directors’ Meeting

Beginning in spring 2016, NEH will host an annual one-day event where project directors will showcase their work.  Following presentations, NEH staff, along with invited outside guest speakers, will moderate a roundtable discussion or workshop open to attendees and the public that addresses one persistent issue in the cultural heritage field.

Why Update Research and Development?

Since the 1980s, NEH support for research and development has advanced how practitioners stabilize, preserve, represent, and access humanities collections.  NEH’s legacy of support for Research and Development has mobilized the production of important tools such as the original Preservation Environmental Monitor used in libraries, archives, and museums to collect essential data, and IRENE, used by the Library of Congress and institutions nationwide to extract information from otherwise unplayable sound recordings.  NEH has also supported pioneering work in the development of standards and practices for the digital reformatting of sound recordings, Unicode scripts for historic and minority languages, descriptive protocols related to the archival standard called Encoded Archival Context, and the Text Encoding Initiative, to name just a few noteworthy initiatives.

Just as NEH has supported pioneering work that has assisted institutions large and small steward countless humanities collections, we want to continue supporting the field as it undergoes rapid technological and intellectual changes.  Emergent digital formats–such as massive research data sets, time-based media, software, social media, and born digital news, to name just a few examples–have amplified the complexities of working with and preserving humanities primary content.  Furthermore, practitioners are reexamining approaches to preserving “traditional” collection types such as paper-based archives and special collections, library holdings, material culture, and audiovisual materials based on new understanding of sustainable and preventive care.

As a result, scholars and educators across the humanities are beginning to acknowledge that long-held methods of scholarship, pedagogy, and presentation that have survived for decades will likely undergo radical change as they integrate different source material in their routine activities, while also responding to new strategies in collections-based stewardship.  For example, basic principles heralded by the archival and library communities, such as the appraisal and selection of humanities content for preservation and access, when applied to emergent collection types will require innovative approaches that will employ new technologies, systems, and practices.  In short, while the principles of preserving humanities collections will endure, the methodologies for implementing them effectively will require ongoing research and development support.

Shaping Cultural Heritage Research and Development

The newly updated Research and Development program, with its combination of planning and implementation grants, is intended to motivate the cultural heritage community to form new partnerships; forge collaboration across cultural heritage, preservation, and the sciences; and to think broadly about how new standards, practices, methodologies, and workflows will help shape the work of the humanities now and well into the future.

To help inspire ideas for Research and Development projects, we have compiled a working list of humanities collection types, research topics, and fields for your consideration.  Bear in mind, the list is by no means comprehensive or exhaustive; we always invite creative submissions in areas not listed below. Ultimately the applicants determine the trends in research and development.

Collection and Format Types

  • archaeological and ethnographic artifacts
  • architectural and cartographic records
  • archives
  • art and visual culture
  • books, manuscripts, and special collections
  • digital media
  • geospatial information
  • language materials
  • material culture
  • moving image and sound recordings
  • news media
  • prints and photographs
  • research databases
  • software
  • time-based media and born-digital art
  • web, social media, and e-mail

Research Fields and Topics

  • accessibility for the disabled
  • appraisal and selection
  • cataloging and description
  • digital forensics
  • digital preservation
  • disaster preparedness and emergency response
  • humanities research data management and curation
  • indigenous cultural heritage practices
  • knowledge organization
  • linked open data
  • material analysis
  • metrics for evaluating use of humanities materials
  • preventive conservation
  • textual encoding
  • visualization

The application deadline for Research and Development is June 25, 2015.  For complete information on all of the changes and how to apply, visit our guidelines here.  Questions about the program may be submitted to preservation@neh.gov and you may follow us @NEH_PresAccess.