Priorities for the Scholarly Communications Program
2008 Annual Report
Donald J. Waters
Scholarly communications covers a broad range of activities, including the discovery, collection, organization, evaluation, interpretation, and preservation of primary and other sources of information, and the publication and dissemination of scholarly research. Within this wide area, the Scholarly Communications program of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation focuses on three primary objectives: (1) to support libraries and archives in their efforts to preserve and provide access to materials of broad cultural and scholarly significance; (2) to assist scholars in the development of specialized resources that promise to open or advance fields of study in the humanities and humanistic social sciences; and (3) to strengthen the publication of humanistic scholarship and its dissemination to the widest possible audience.
Mellon Foundation staff recognize that even before the current economic crisis, both federal funding agencies and many private foundations began to shift their funding of the humanities from teaching and research in higher education to lectures, exhibitions and other programs aimed at the general public. (Note 1) There are important public policy reasons for ensuring the broad reach of the humanities, and many of the library and scholarly resources and publications that the Mellon Foundation has supported are accessible and useful to a wide range of people from advanced scholars to students and teachers in kindergarten through 12th grade and the general public. However, the touchstone for evaluating Mellon’s Scholarly Communications objectives is that their pursuit succeeds in advancing high quality scholarship in the humanities.
Even though these program objectives have remained constant over time, the particular ways in which the Foundation has advanced them have shifted with changes in the academic landscape, the technical environment, and the economic climate. This document outlines the current priorities of the Scholarly Communications program and provides a roadmap for grant-making in 2009–2010 and beyond that takes account of a variety of ongoing technical, organizational, and other opportunities, as well as the challenges presently facing libraries, universities, scholars, and publishers as they struggle with the widening gap between needs and available resources. Given the current recession, it is extremely difficult to make any predictions now about the future budgets of Foundation programs. However, the current 2009 budget for the Scholarly Communications program is approximately $20 million. To provide a sense of scale and proportion for the analysis that follows, staff expect to allocate Scholarly Communications grant funds roughly as follows: 50 percent, or approximately $10 million in 2009, to priorities in the library and archives category; 25 percent, or $5 million in 2009, to priorities under the scholarly resources objective; and 25 percent, or $5 million in 2009, for scholarly dissemination and publication priorities.
1. Libraries and Archives: Preservation and Access
(a) Cataloging hidden collections
Libraries and archives are key laboratories for humanists. (Note 2) Many interesting and important discoveries have sprung from research on the special collections—the rare and unique books, manuscripts and archival materials—held by these cultural institutions as potential objects of humanistic inquiry. However, a 1998 study by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) determined that up to one-third of the special collections in libraries were unprocessed and uncataloged with no records available online to alert scholars to their existence. (Note 3) These collections were thus invisible and unexplored in the research process. Indeed, because they are so timeconsuming, difficult, and expensive to process and catalog, librarians and archivists have sometimes seen these collections not as treasures for scholars to discover and exploit, but as an “unwelcome white elephant.” (Note 4) In recent years, partly with Foundation support, there has been a concerted, multi-pronged effort to reverse this perception and make the processing of special collections much more manageable, and to make it easier for humanistic scholars to subject them to “laboratory” examination.
Librarians and archivists have begun streamlining the cataloging process to generate “more product, less process.” (Note 5) At the same time, partly with Foundation support, cultural institutions have: generated new methods for surveying special collections, assessing their scholarly value, and setting cataloging priorities; (Note 6) developed and deployed new software tools to make the processing of collections more efficient; (Note 7) and adopted new procedures that divide the labor and allow scholars, including graduate students, to contribute their specialized subject knowledge to the cataloging process. (Note 8) In addition, from 2000 to 2007, the Foundation provided $21.9 million in 65 grants for the cataloging of specific special collections.
Even as substantial progress has been made through these and other efforts, (Note 9) libraries and archives continue to acquire important additional collections of primary source materials. There is still a great, continuing need to support basic cataloging activities that help advance scholarship. Last year, after extensive consultation with librarians, archivists, and other experts, staff concluded that the Foundation could make a more effective ongoing contribution by shifting from an internally administered program of grants to a national, competitive, peer-reviewed granting program for the cataloging of hidden special collections in US cultural institutions. The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) received funds to launch this program. (Note 10) Scholarly Communications program staff now expect, with approval of the Mellon Trustees, to continue the CLIR program at least through 2012 with awards that would provide grant funds of approximately $4 million per annum for the processing and description of archives, manuscripts and rare books.
With 15 institutions, ranging from large research libraries to small historical societies, receiving awards out of a pool of 118 applicants in its first year of operation, the CLIR program has demonstrated the intense national need for cataloging support. (Note 11) An additional consequence of the pooling of the national demand has been an expression of a related need for better systems to aggregate special collection catalogs, once they are created, so that scholars and other users can see the interconnections among related collections. Shared repositories need to be enhanced and developed to store the special collections catalogs in standard data structures with welldefined interfaces for entering and exchanging the cataloging data. In the next two years, program staff expect to offer support for selected initiatives that promise to develop these much needed functions and services.
(b) Performing arts archives
Increased scholarly interest in audio-visual materials and in the historical and critical study of the performing arts makes the archives of performing arts organizations, which are often inaccessible to scholars, fertile ground for humanistic research. In 2008, Scholarly Communications program staff began to consider with colleagues in the Performing Arts program how the Foundation could best help performing arts organizations assess and preserve archival materials (such as scores, programs, photographs, audio and video recordings, costumes, and business records) that are highly valuable both to artists and to scholars in musicology, performance studies, sociology, dance and social history, and related fields.
In 2008, staff commissioned a survey for internal use of the archival holdings of major US orchestras and opera companies. The survey results indicate that a set of large US orchestras have archival holdings of significant scholarly value, but may require assistance in developing ongoing, sustainable programs to preserve and catalog their archives so that they become more accessible to the scholarly community. Staff have invited from these selected orchestras preliminary statements of interest in a possible grant program and are evaluating ways to structure a program that would begin in late 2009 or early 2010.
(c) Collections of digital “papers” and Web archives
After extensive consultation with members of the library community in 2008, staff identified a gaping hole in library and archives policy and practice. Libraries have long collected the papers of political, literary, and other prominent cultural figures and organizations, but these archives now increasingly include born-digital as well as analog audio-visual and paper materials. US libraries and archives presently have little capacity for the systematic acquisition, management, processing and preservation of born-digital archives. In order to ensure that the largely digital records of current and future generations are available for future scholarly study, there is thus an urgent and massive need for the development of appropriate technical and intellectual approaches to the collection of “digital papers,” and the education of archivists, special collections librarians, humanists, social scientists and others in their use.
Over the last decade, there has been considerable development and implementation of repository technologies. (Note 12) Moreover, digital preservation solutions have emerged for some essential elements in the published scholarly record, such as electronic journals. (Note 13) Although the skills, practices, and technologies that have been developed in these areas are certainly applicable and could serve as essential parts of the necessary infrastructure, (Note 14) the challenges of developing collections of “digital papers” remain largely unexplored.
Among the questions that need to be addressed are: How should the archives of a prominent author, which contain paper manuscripts, digital text files, e-mails, online postings on blogs, Flickr, MySpace, and Facebook, and a variety of analog and digital audiovisual material be processed, secured according to the donor’s wishes, and made accessible in ways that facilitate scholarly research? In which cases may it be important to preserve computer hardware as well as digital files? How would these collections and their records be integrated most effectively with more traditional archival materials? (Note 15)
The University of Oxford library is one of the few institutions that has begun to invest systematically in acquiring, processing, securing, preserving, and providing access to digital papers, and building the necessary systems and procedures to support this collection activity. The Foundation provided support for an Oxford initiative in 2008, (Note 16) and staff have begun to invite a series of additional proposals for funding in 2009 and beyond. The goal is to provide scholars with a much more robust capacity in US research libraries and archives to collect and provide access to the digital papers of literary, political, and other influential figures. Support is planned for projects that focus on: digital forensics, which consists in the preservation, identification, extraction and interpretation of computer data; (Note 17) the connection of repository infrastructure to library catalogs and integrated library systems; methods of storing and organizing large corpora of e-mails, and text and image files, and of handling personal materials in semi-public commercial and social spaces on the Web; and provision of secure access to born-digital archives.
The collection of Web content is also an area in which staff intend to focus the program’s grantmaking in 2009 and beyond. Much work has already been accomplished in developing the technical mechanisms for collecting Web content, including especially the development of the Internet Archive, the Web collecting tools it has made available, and its integration with scholarly citation tools such as Zotero. (Note 18) The grantmaking of the Scholarly Communications program focuses instead on assisting libraries in designing procedures and organizational models by which Web collection is not a technical outpost of the library but is fully integrated with the institution’s larger collection development and preservation strategies. Scholarly Communications staff also expect to identify and support initiatives that simplify searching and discovery of preserved Web content so that it is easier for scholars to incorporate relevant materials in their work.
(d) Science in conservation and audio-visual preservation
While libraries are expanding their digital collections, they also continue to be custodians of historic printed and manuscript works, photographs, and audio and visual recordings. All of these materials require specialized conservation knowledge and techniques. Sophisticated scientific research has become especially critical to all conservation fields over the past two to three decades because of its capacity to advance the understanding of the properties, behaviors, and mechanisms of all relevant materials. The Scholarly Communications program has recently funded scientific projects at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the British Library, and a new postdoctoral program in materials science at Johns Hopkins University in association with a variety of libraries and other cultural institutions in the Baltimore-Washington area. (Note 19) Scholarly Communications staff expect to continue to identify and recommend to the Mellon Trustees funding for selected initiatives that both help advance scientific research in materials science and address the specific conservation needs of libraries and archives.
Audio and moving image preservation also continues to be a high priority. Of particular interest to Scholarly Communications staff are pilot initiatives that help establish standard and efficient procedures for audio preservation based on the principles outlined in the NEH-funded Sound Directions report. (Note 20) For analog film and video materials, including footage of television programming, many libraries and cultural institutions are seeking to use digitization as a method of preservation, especially as the technology for playback of film and magnetic tape becomes obsolete. (Note 21) However, digitization standards for film and video are much less mature than for audio, and program staff are interested in identifying selected projects that help establish and advance standards and best practices for the preservation and long-term storage of these kinds of moving images. (Note 22)
(e) Structural and organizational change in research libraries
Leaders in a number of university and independent research libraries are using the occasion of the current severe economic downturn as an opportunity to advance imaginative and innovative plans for making library operations more cost efficient in a time of sharply shrinking budgets, while also maintaining and even enhancing access to scholarly materials and other services that they provide to scholars and students. Many of these plans involve new and extensive collaborations among institutions and potentially farreaching structural and procedural changes that may require an initial investment of capital. Viewing the identification of these opportunities as a high priority, Scholarly Communications staff have set aside a pool of funds for support of the most promising projects. Staff are just beginning to identify possible initiatives, which are likely to include inter-institutional efforts to reshape cataloging, collection building, the licensing of electronic products, storage of print and digital collections, and data curation and management strategies.
Scholarly Communications staff are also alert to other needs and opportunities occasioned by the recession. For example, some projects in their last stage of Mellon funding may need additional support to take them through the current economic downturn. The needs of national and regional service organizations and the independent research libraries (IRLs) may also require attention. Service organizations, such as the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), the Center for Research Libraries (CRL), and Lyrasis (the new organization formed as the result of the merger of the Southeastern Library Network—SOLINET—and the Philadelphia Area Library Network—PALINET), will almost certainly be crucial in identifying opportunities and providing leadership for innovative and collaborative activities within the research library community. (Note 23) Similarly, IRLs fill an important niche in the ecology of scholarly research and may require special support, such as technical training and staff development, to help them cope with downsizing and other consequences of financial stress, as well as to help ensure that they are able to serve the needs of scholars who are increasingly reliant on digital resources.
2. Specialized Scholarly Resources
In addition to its support for libraries and archives, a second set of priorities for the Scholarly Communications program is the development of online scholarly resources, particularly primary sources, and related tools that promise to open or advance fields of study in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. In recent years, program staff have focused on faculty-led projects in a small number of selected fields: classics, Near Eastern studies, medieval studies, musicology, archaeology, art and architectural history, and visual studies. These projects have typically developed online collections of primary sources, often reproduced from libraries and archives, and have involved collaboration with information and technology specialists. In the coming years, staff expect to respond to modest requests to add content to these online resources. However, given the depth and coherence of most of these collections, funding priority in the Scholarly Communications program will shift from building the resources to activities that demonstrate and enhance their scholarly value and that foster aggregation of collections and the development of shared technology platforms in order to enhance sustainability.
The scholarly value of these resources is partly methodological in that they demonstrate new and improved ways of organizing and producing scholarly editions, which are reliable, authoritative presentations of primary source evidence. (Note 24) Through use of windows, searching, hyperlinks and other affordances, digital technology allows clear and elegant presentation of: variorum editions, which are relatively cumbersome to represent in print; multimedia editions of audio and visual as well as textual evidence; “editions as archives,” which include facsimiles of original materials along with edited versions; and “editions of editions,” which aggregate previously published editions of primary source materials to produce new and unique views of the evidence. (Note 25) Moreover, as program staff have learned by supporting examples of each of these edition types, the best and most sophisticated online editing projects also provide value by generating materials that scholars can use as the basis of further analytical and interpretive research. In addition, with detailed textual commentary in the apparatus and interpretive accompanying material, these editions also constitute significant research products in their own right.
To help advance these various developments, program staff are planning to support a series of workshops on edition-making and the uses of online editions both within and across fields of study. These discussions will both provide an opportunity for scholars to share and develop best practices and assist the Foundation in the identification of next steps for supporting the development of scholarly resources. Staff expect three areas to emerge as priorities for further funding. First is the need for tools and facilities to streamline the editionmaking process. (Note 26) Perhaps most important is the continued development of collaborative editing software for representing, transcribing, marking up, and annotating source materials. (Note 27) Of growing importance are ways to integrate usefully various kinds of digital reference works, such as dictionaries, thesauri, gazetteers (for place names), and prosopographies (for personal names). (Note 28)
A second priority expected to emerge from the workshops on edition-making is interoperability: how could the scholarly resources and associated tools that are being developed largely in separate projects be better linked into an interconnected network? Digital projects and tools in a particular academic discipline, or related disciplines, run the risk of being of very limited use if they are not interoperable. For example, if scholars cannot search across different digital collections of medieval manuscript images and transcriptions, or use the same tools for paleographical analysis of different collections, the digital environment runs the risk of hindering humanities research rather than facilitating it. (Note 29)
Finally, program staff expect to address the need for more effective models of financing the development and maintenance of scholarly resource projects. Staff will continue to require sustainability plans as an integral part of funding these projects. However, it is increasingly evident that few scholarly resource projects can sustain themselves on a stand-alone basis beyond a second or third round of Foundation funding. Shrewder planning is therefore necessary. Projects should develop and exploit a variety of sustainability options, including mechanisms that leverage, build on, and change existing structures and organizations rather than simply build new ones. Moreover, as experience with digital resources grows and the requirements of creating and using them become better understood, technology costs should be reduced, in part, by creating and using common software platforms, which would have the added benefit of increased interoperability and ease of use for scholars. (Note 30) Finally, the feasibility of merging similar projects in closely related academic fields must be explored more fully so that scholarly resources achieve a scale of operation and integration that is more efficient to maintain over time than separately managed projects would be. (Note 31)
3. Dissemination of Research and Publication
A third set of priorities for the Scholarly Communications program is to strengthen the means by which humanistic scholarship is published and disseminated to the widest possible audience.The Foundation has supported scholarly publication in a number of ways. (Note 32) Since 2007, the Foundation’s Universities and their Presses initiative, which is administered by Scholarly Communications in collaboration with the Research Universities and Humanistic Scholarship program, has enabled presses and their sponsoring universities to work more effectively together to advance the academic agenda of the university and enhance the capacities of the press to disseminate high quality scholarship. (Note 33) Staff will continue to solicit proposals for this initiative through 2009.
Meanwhile, in the context of a broader discussion about the roles of universities in bringing high quality scholarship to the broadest possible audience, program staff are also seeking other ways to provide assistance. (Note 34) As Joseph Meisel has written, university presses fill a small but important niche in the ecology of scholarly communications and, with help, have shown themselves to be remarkably adaptable to economic pressures. (Note 35) Two areas in which staff have identified particular needs for Foundation support are the development of a shared online marketing mechanism for university presses, and a more effective means for them to distribute and deliver electronic books using shared technology platforms.
Another area of growing importance in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities is the dissemination of original data that scholars have collected in the course of their research. (Note 36) These data are increasingly required to support and validate published results and to allow other scholars to build on them. In other words, research data are not only evidence of research projects but also scholarly resources for other research. However, encouraging scholars to contribute their data to common repositories for broader dissemination has been notoriously difficult and the subject of intense experimentation. (Note 37)
In one important experiment in the humanities, the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) is attempting with Foundation support and in partnership with ARTstor to build an Architectural Resource Archive (ARA). SAH is inviting members to contribute to ARA digital images of a wide range of buildings and architectural features from around the globe. SAH envisions that the images from this collective resource—SAHARA—would be linked to publications, such as the society’s journal and to new publications, such as scholarly editions and monographs focused on various architectural styles and features. However, the problem is how to encourage sufficient contributions from scholars to make SAHARA a useful and viable resource. (Note 38)
Among the incentives being offered, ARTstor is making the uploading technology as easy for contributing scholars to use as possible, and visual resource librarians have been recruited to catalog contributed images. These factors are no doubt important, but a special if not unique incentive that SAH is developing for this project is a peer review process for evaluating data contributions so that scholars are formally allocated credit for their data contributions. Program staff expect to recommend continuing support for the development of SAHARA and similar projects that explore the importance of peer review as an incentive for scholars in the humanities and humanistic social sciences to contribute their research data to common repositories for wider dissemination. (Note 39)
This document is intended to offer a roadmap for grantmaking by the Scholarly Communications program. To extend the metaphor, if the program’s three primary objectives are destinations, then this roadmap has tried to anticipate which paths are likely to be open and which obstacles are likely to be encountered. However, it is important to note that the Foundation cannot support all roads taken.
Program staff must be highly selective in the proposals that they invite and recommend to the Mellon Trustees. They will not be able to fund all projects and initiatives that fall under the rubric of the priorities discussed above, especially in the current economic circumstances, which will generate increased competition for the program’s grant funds. Moreover, staff will not consider funding for activities that fall outside the strict scope of the program’s primary objectives. Thus, for example, the development of tools or resources that serve primarily pedagogical purposes in higher education or projects aimed at outreach to the general public or to the kindergarten through high school education sector will not be considered. Because of budgetary constraints, staff also do not expect in the next two years to consider new proposals for endowment grants, or new initiatives that require the establishment of nonprofit organizations.
Finally, even as this roadmap is fixed in print, and the Foundation commits to continuing to support the core aspects of scholarly communications that fundamentally engage universities, libraries, scholars and publishers, program staff recognize the urgent need to remain flexible and ready to explore new avenues as the length and depth of the current recession becomes known, as institutions identify ways in which they can collaborate more effectively, as new models for financing scholarly publication and the dissemination of resources become apparent, and as new and unexpected challenges and opportunities present themselves.