National Endowment for the Humanities to Help Bring the Past to Today's Computer Users

WASHINGTON, (July 15, 1999)

Multi-federal agency collaboration will also make computer libraries more secure and usable

Internet users will be able to hear music from Civil War songs, view medieval manuscripts and visit ancient Egypt as part of the next phase of a technology project partially funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), along with the National Science Foundation and four other federal agencies, will support creation of the wide-ranging databases in what is known as the Digital Libraries Initiative-Phase Two (DLI-2), NEH Chairman William R. Ferris said today.

“This initiative will use the latest technology in new ways so that we can preserve and make available the wide range of knowledge which is so crucial to understanding our cultural and historical development,” NEH Chairman Ferris said. “The National Endowment for the Humanities is very proud to be a part of this interagency collaboration to bring books, music and voices from the past to today’s computer users.”

The $10 million humanities component will devise new ways to computerize a wide variety of materials at six university research libraries, and develop new approaches to ensure the preservation of digital documents. The six libraries are at Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, Tufts University, the University of California-Davis and the University of Kentucky.

When the projects are complete, computer users will be able to:

  • listen to the notes and view sheet music of American popular songs from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries;
  • search a vast database of oral histories and recorded voices to locate such phrases as John F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you” or Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this wall;”
  • view the recovered missing pieces of the Beowulf saga that have hitherto been unreadable;
  • visit the tomb of the Erotes and Assos from ancient Egypt or walk around the spectacular statue of King Mycerinus and his wife from 2500 B.C.; and
  • explore the rich and intricate folklore of Sephardic Jews from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

The sixth project will develop ways to ensure the security, reliability and preservation of digital documents as well as address the effective use of digitized resources in the future.

“We are especially concerned that history is literally disappearing before our eyes – many historical documents, including founding fathers’ papers, newspapers, photographs and other documents are disintegrating,” NEH Chairman Ferris said. “Many of these documents were transferred to digital formats in the belief that would preserve them forever. But now, we’re learning that digital formats are very fragile. Currently, there are no agreed-upon processes for preserving digital collections. The Cornell project will address this critical concern by developing a digital preservation strategy that can be applied nationwide.”

The new project is the sequel to the first phase of the Digital Libraries Initiative, which was launched by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1993. DLI-2 is co-sponsored by NSF, NEH, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA), National Library of Medicine, Library of Congress and Federal Bureau of Investigation. The first phase of the initiative supported research in areas of computer science focusing on ways to organize and retrieve large amounts of scientific data.

In this second phase, projects will address problems over the entire life cycle of digital information: its creation, accessibility and preservation. This focus extends the scope of the initiative beyond the first phase’s emphasis on organization and retrieval, by focusing on how to sustain digital collections over time. Another round of projects will be announced early next year.

More information about the multi-agency effort may be found at the DLI-2 Web site: .


National Endowment for the Humanities/National Science Foundation Grants awarded under Digital Libraries Initiative – Phase 2 (July 1999)


Davis, University of California-Davis $497,000
PROJECT TITLE: Folk Literature of the Sephardic (Spanish) Jews
DESCRIPTION: Development of technical means for searching an audio archive of one of the world’s largest and most important collections of Judeo-Spanish oral tradition, including lyric poetry, proverbs, folktales, riddles, and 1,500 narrative ballads. Over a period of 42 years the project directors gathered this material, much of which has been handed down orally since the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, by seeking out and tape-recording informants from Bosnia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Israel, Spain, and the United States. The collection is an invaluable resource for the study of Sephardic, Hispanic, and European balladry.


Lexington, University of Kentucky $500,000
PROJECT TITLE: The Digital Athenaeum: New Techniques for Restoring, Searching, and Editing Humanities Collections
DESCRIPTION: Development of a new digital library from aging and damaged portions of the British Library’s Cottonian Collection, which includes manuscripts dating back 1200 years. The project will develop state-of-the-art technical approaches and tools for recovering manuscript markings and information that would otherwise be invisible, and novel techniques for digitally restoring, enhancing, and searching manuscripts that have been damaged by fire, water, and aging. The partnership with the British Library provides privileged access to high-quality collections, manuscript and curator expertise, and digitization facilities.


Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University $530,000
PROJECT TITLE: Digital Workflow Management: The Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music
DESCRIPTION: Enhanced usability of the Eisenhower Library’s Levy Collection of Sheet Music, which contains 29,000 pieces of American popular sheet music spanning the years 1780 to 1960. This collection provides a social commentary on American life and a distinctive record of the time. The project will create fully searchable audio and lyric files, and software will be developed that will play the notes of the digitized sheet music over the Internet. The project will result in a tested process and tools that can be applied to other large-scale digitization projects.


Medford, Tufts University $2,758,000
PROJECT TITLE: A Digital Library for the Humanities
DESCRIPTION: Creation of a broad digital library for the humanities, which will contain literary, historical, and archaeological materials on topics ranging from ancient Egypt through 19th-century London. The project, intended for use by high school and college students as well as humanities scholars, will enable users to visualize data in new ways, including the use of multimedia presentation techniques for reconstructing archaeological sites and mapping. Tufts’ Perseus project has already created such a digital library for the Greco-Roman world; the new project will significantly expand the concept to cover the history of civilization.


East Lansing, Michigan State University $3,600,000
PROJECT TITLE: Founding a National Gallery of the Spoken Word
DESCRIPTION: Creation of a fully searchable, online database of historically significant voice recordings that span the 20th century, including Thomas Edison’s first cylinder recordings, the voices of Babe Ruth and Florence Nightingale, and Studs Terkel’s interviews. The project will address unsolved technical problems regarding the digital preservation of sound and delivery via the World Wide Web. It will also develop an acoustical engineering procedure for indexing digitized recorded sound, enabling a user who knows only a short phrase from a speech, for example, to locate the full text in a large recorded-sound database. The project will test the feasibility of creating online repositories of recorded voice materials.


Ithaca, Cornell University $2,267,000
PROJECT TITLE: Project Prism: Information Integrity in Digital Libraries
DESCRIPTION: Design of a model system for ensuring the information integrity of digitized collections, including 1) reliability (ensuring that information is available where and when people want it), 2) security (protecting the privacy rights of information users and the intellectual-property rights of content creators), and 3) preservation (ensuring the longevity of intellectual content for use by future generations). The project will develop a working prototype for addressing these critical areas, using a diverse testbed of real-world collections. One aspect of the preservation research will be the design of a built-in monitoring system to search digital collections, identify materials that are vulnerable to deterioration, and initiate alerts or corrective actions. For more information, see

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