A Survey of Digital Humanities Centers in the United States

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by Diane M. Zorich
November 2008

Copyright 2008 by the Council on Library and Information Resources. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transcribed in any form without permission of the publishers. Requests for reproduction or other uses or questions pertaining to permissions should be submitted in writing to the Director of Communications at the Council on Library and Information Resources.

Cover image: © 2008 Cathy Gendron c/o theispot.com

About the Author



Executive Summary

1. Introduction: Survey Background and Goals

2. Selection of Survey Participants
2.1 Defining a Digital Humanities Center
2.2 Identifying and Selecting Survey Participants

3. Survey Methodology
3.1 Methodology
3.2 Survey Areas
3.3 A Note about Confidentiality

4. Survey Findings
4.1 General Background
4.1.1 Physical and Virtual Locations
4.1.2 Research Domains
4.1.3 Founding Dates
4.1.4 Founding History
4.1.5 Mission Statements
4.1.6 Constituencies
4.2 Governance
4.2.1 Reporting Structure/Place on Organizational Chart
4.2.2 Ancillary Groups Involved in Governance
4.3 Administration
4.3.1 Staffing
4.3.2 Reporting Structures
4.3.3 Shared Appointments
4.4 Operations
4.4.1 Activities
4.4.2 Teaching and Other Pedagogical Activities
4.4.3 Decision Making
4.4.4 Measuring Success
4.4.5 How DHC Resources Are Used
4.4.6 Monitoring Usage
4.4.7 Preservation Plans
4.4.8 Intellectual Property
4.5 Sustainability
4.5.1 Planning Efforts
4.5.2 Funding Sources
4.5.3 Business Models
4.5.4 Sustainability Challenges
4.6 Partnerships
4.6.1 Types of Partners and Partnerships
4.6.2 Unsuccessful Partnerships
4.6.3 Elements of a Successful Partnership

5. Trends and Issues
5.1 Moving toward Maturity
5.2 Sustainability
5.3 Tools
5.4 Preservation
5.5 Intellectual Property

6. DHCs in a Broader Context
6.1 Current Models
6.2 Benefits and Limitations of Center- and Resource-Focused Models
6.3 Current Models and the Changing Nature of Humanities Scholarship
6.4 Collaborative Aspects Critical to the Success of Regional or National Centers
6.5 Some Science Models for Consideration

Appendix A: Sources for Survey Candidates

Appendix B: Surveyed Organizations

Appendix C: Survey Instrument

Appendix D: Academic Departments Affiliated with DHCs in This Survey

Appendix E: Bibliography

Appendix F: Tools for Humanists

About the Author

Diane M. Zorich is a cultural heritage consultant specializing in planning and managing the delivery of cultural information. Her clients include the J. Paul Getty Trust, the American Association of Museums, the Smithsonian Institution, RLG Programs/OCLC, and many other cultural organizations and institutions.

Before establishing her consultancy, Ms. Zorich was data manager at the Association of Systematics Collections in Washington, D.C., and documentation manager at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. She served as past president and Board member of the Museum Computer Network, and was chair of that organization’s Intellectual Property Special Interest Group. She also served as project manager for A Museum Guide to Copyright and Trademark (American Association of Museums 1999) and Cataloging Cultural Objects: A Guide to Describing Cultural Works and Their Images (American Library Association 2007).

Ms. Zorich is the author of Introduction to Managing Digital Assets: Options for Cultural and Educational Organizations (The J. Paul Getty Trust 1999), Developing Intellectual Property Policies: A “How-To” Guide for Museums (Canadian Heritage Information Network 2003), and A Survey of Digital Cultural Heritage Initiatives and Their Sustainability Concerns (Council on Library and Information Resources 2003). She also co-authored Beyond the Silos of the LAMs: Collaboration Among Libraries, Archives and Museums (OCLC Programs and Research 2008) and her latest publication on information policies in museums appears in Museum Informatics (Routledge 2008).

Ms. Zorich has graduate degrees in anthropology and museum studies, and is based in Princeton, New Jersey.


The author thanks the leaders of the digital humanities centers who generously made time in their schedules to speak about their centers. I hope the findings presented in this report dispel any initial reactions they may have had to “yet another survey.”

I also thank Lilly Nguyen and Katie Shilton of the Department of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, for agreeing to undertake the tool-accessibility study that accompanies this report, and for doing so in such an enthusiastic and methodical manner. My sincerest thanks to Dr. Amy Friedlander and Dr. Charles Henry of the Council on Library and Information Resources for the opportunity to undertake this project and for the guidance and insights they offered throughout the process.

During the period in which this survey was conducted, the directors of two of the digital humanities centers who participated in this study passed away. The legacy of Roy Rosenzweig (Center for History and New Media at George Mason University) and Ross Scaife (Collaboratory for Research in Computing for the Humanities at the University of Kentucky) continues through their centers.


An unspoken question runs through Diane Zorich’s detailed survey and analysis of digital humanities centers in the United States: Why do we need these centers, and what needs do they meet that traditional academic departments do not? The answer lies in her definition of a center, which she forged from a careful study of the ways in which centers themselves describe their missions, functions, and activities. Digital humanities centers, she writes, are entities “where new media and technologies are used for humanities-based research, teaching, and intellectual engagement and experimentation. The goals of the center are to further humanities scholarship, create new forms of knowledge, and explore technology’s impact on humanities-based disciplines” (p. 4). In an environment where scholars identify with their disciplines rather than with their departments, and where significant professional affiliations or communities of interest may transcend the boundaries of scholars’ colleges and universities, centers offer interdisciplinary “third places”-a term sociologist Ray Oldenburg has used to identify a social space, distinct from home and workplace. Third places foster important ties and are critical to community life. Familiar examples are barbershops, beauty salons, and coffee shops where, in the age of wireless, we see tables of students hunched over laptops, textbooks, and notepads. The academic library plays a role similar to that of a third place, providing resources, seminar rooms, and collaborative work spaces. It probably should not surprise us that both centers and libraries are frequently cited as elements in the emerging cyberinfrastructure to support advanced research in the sciences, technology, and humanities.

Zorich developed her definition by looking at the functions advertised by existing centers, that is, functions that centers claimed, rather than functions that might be ascribed to them. These functions range from building shared collections and tools to providing shared services, such as preservation, training, and lectures, to supporting faculty and students, among others. While any one of these functions might be available elsewhere, the center is distinguished by a critical mass of some subset of these functions, together with the ability to attract scholars with similar, interdisciplinary interests but different formal education and training and a shared commitment to using technology to further these interests. The technology is simultaneously a driver and an opportunity, and the centers, whether virtual or physical, effectively become safe places, hospitable to innovation and experimentation, as well as anchors from which to base the intellectual analog of civil society in which third places are vital parts.

Many of today’s digital humanities centers are highly successful. They have incubated important research, fostered a generation of humanities scholars who are comfortable with the technology, devised creative modes of governance, assembled diverse portfolios of funding strategies, and built significant digital collections and suites of tools (the latter is the subject of Appendix F to this report by Lilly Nguyen and Katherine Shilton, graduate students at the University of California, Los Angeles). But the centers are also vulnerable. Funding can be precarious; talent is hired away, and since most of these centers are focused on their home institutions, they are at risk of becoming silos. Such institutional parochialism can inhibit the building of shared resources, like repositories, or of services, like long-term preservation, that represent a shared infrastructure where the impact of the shared resource is enhanced precisely because multiple parties contribute to and use it.

At the same time, building such infrastructure has advantages. It reduces costs to any one participant, minimizes unnecessary redundancy, and enables scholars to expand their thinking and research to take advantage of scale at precisely the moment when large-scale collections are becoming more likely as a result of mass-digitization projects or the proliferation of new media forms, particularly video, visualizations, scenarios, and simulations, which are data and computationally intensive. Increasingly, scholars seek ways to merge data from highly heterogeneous sources-text, audio, visual, multilingual, statistical, and so on-and to experiment with the material using new frameworks such as geographic information systems and social networks.

Shared infrastructure is not without perils, notably the free rider and moral hazard problems. The former occurs when one member of a network takes disproportionate advantage of the shared resource in excess of its contribution to it, and the latter when a member of a network takes risks that jeopardize the collective health and stability of the system. Individual institutions are understandably reluctant to become exposed to either scenario or to relinquish their identities, which may be bound up in collections, human talent, and facilities that have contributed to their success. Overcoming these barriers requires compromise, negotiation, and, ultimately, trust. Infrastructure systems are simultaneously technological, social, and organizational systems, and like all cooperative social systems, they rest on trust. That trust may be interpersonal, like the mutual trust between coauthors, or institutionalized, as made evident in shared practice, codes of conduct, and formal agreements. Such norms change as expectations evolve, which means that building infrastructure requires ongoing negotiation to ensure that the fundamental trust mechanisms that enable the infrastructure itself remain secure.

How we do that is a challenge, fraught with ambiguity as well as opportunity. To borrow a metaphor from William Shakespeare, whose hero in Hamlet was contemplating indecision and action, the future, like death, is an undiscovered country, “from whose bourn, No traveller returns.” Experience can be a guide, however, and this report, grounded in experience and tempered by rigorous analysis, provides us footing as we move forward to build infrastructure to support a new generation of scholarship.

Amy Friedlander
Director of Programs