The Division of Preservation and Access Evaluates the Impact of its Humanities Collections and Reference Resources Program

July 8, 2013
bust in front of picture frames
Photo caption

Courtesy of St. Johnsbury Athenaeum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont

Excellence in research, education, and public programming in the humanities depends heavily upon the ongoing availability of source materials.  For instance, the discoveries and revelations of historians, archaeologists, linguists, musicologists, and others are credible and meaningful only to the extent that they are drawn from the raw materials and foundational building blocks of humanities knowledge.

To address this need, NEH’s program Humanities Collections and Reference Resources (HCRR) provides critical support to the nation’s libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural heritage institutions to help enable long-term public access to significant collections of books, manuscripts, photographs, art and artifacts, sound recordings, moving images, and more.  HCRR, whose antecedents can be traced to the early years of the agency, also supports the production of essential reference tools, such as encyclopedias, historical dictionaries, and atlases.

While HCRR is widely known in many sectors of the academic and cultural heritage communities, the scope and depth of its impact have not been analyzed—until now.  Beginning in 2011, NEH’s Division of Preservation and Access conducted a formal evaluation of the program, focusing on grants made in the years 2000 through 2010.  Staff surveyed 177 past awardees, providing them with a concise set of questions intended to elicit both quantitative and qualitative evidence of project outcomes, including outcomes extending beyond the term of the grant itself.  In addition, consulting humanities specialists conducted follow-up interviews with a representative subset of the respondents.  The resulting study provides a valuable portrait of the full array of contributions to the humanities made possible by HCRR grants.  A report detailing its findings is now available in the PDF below.

Recipients of HCRR awards range from the largest research universities, independent research libraries, and museums to small public libraries, and local government archives and historical societies. With ten distinct areas of activity eligible for support through HCRR, there is enormous range in the nature of the work performed.  Outcomes of HCRR grants during the report period are readily measured:  the reformatting of approximately 80,000 hours of recorded sound and video collections; the processing or digitization of almost 40,000 linear feet of archival documents; the processing or digitization of more than 2.3 million books, manuscripts, photos, maps, drawings, and other non-print materials; the preservation microfilming of nearly 150,000 “brittle books”; and the continuing preparation of major dictionaries, atlases, encyclopedias, and text bases central to knowledge and understanding of the humanities.

Equally important, but less easily measured are the long-term benefits of HCRR projects to various audiences.  The program evaluation revealed that the products of these grants are, indeed, very actively used.  Survey respondents reported that fully 96% of their grant products have been used by scholars; 95% by teachers; 93% by students; and 79% by the public.  The study also tracked tangible outcomes.  For example, one-third of the projects surveyed led to book-length print publications, 40 percent to published articles, and one-quarter to online publications and exhibitions.  According to respondents, this end-user productivity continues many years after the conclusion of the grant project, a sign of the enduring value of the collections and resources made available through HCRR awards.

Of course, numbers tell only part of the story.  Project directors reported instances in which preserving and creating access to collections has revealed hidden treasures, as in the case of the Library Company of Philadelphia whose HCRR grant to catalog a major body of early American imprints uncovered a rare 1776 edition of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, as well as an equally rare work by Phillis Wheatley, the first African American woman to publish a book.  Newly available collections and reference resources have also led to the discovery of new knowledge or the re-interpretation of previously held scholarly views.  For example, the landmark History of Cartography series, sponsored by the University of Wisconsin, covering the widest possible scope of recorded history on a global scale, has prompted new interest in Islamic and Asian mapping traditions, which had previously been little understood by scholars in the West.

The study also revealed that HCRR project outcomes reach beyond the academy and affect a broad spectrum of society, including teachers, students, and the general public.  For example, the Bessemer Historical Society in Pueblo, Colorado, received support to arrange and describe its massive holdings of records from the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, left behind in the city when the company merged with another firm on the West Coast.  An unparalleled cache of documentation on the region’s history, the collection has not only served the needs of scholars but, according to the project director, has also helped the historical society to forge a deeper bond with the community and build a sense of pride in its regional heritage.

Finally, HCRR grants have played an important role in stimulating lasting improvements in the services and capacity of many awardee institutions over the years.  Three-fourths of respondents reported that the grants prompted their institutions to continue preservation and access efforts beyond the grant period, and 62% succeeded in leveraging the NEH award to obtain external funding for similar projects.  Further, almost 40% of those surveyed indicated that their grants ultimately led to the creation of permanent staff positions.

The study provides ample evidence that Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grants do, indeed, play a significant role in preserving our cultural heritage and ensuring that the raw materials and foundational building blocks of humanities knowledge are available and useful to the American people now and for generations to come.