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Digital Humanities and Open Access: An Interview with Brett Bobley of the National Endowment for the Humanities

Published Oct 24, 2014, 8:43am

Interviewer: Scott Richard St. Louis
(Interviewer’s Note: Mr. Bobley’s responses, lightly edited by the interviewer, constitute his own opinion; he is not speaking on behalf of his employer.)

1. Tell us about yourself. How did your talents, passions, educational experience, and professional interests lead you to a career at the intersection of the humanities and public service? 

Thanks for asking!

I think public service is important. Everybody complains at one time or another about how the government could do a better job at this or that. I decided to go into public service because I wanted to see if I could make a real difference, at least in some small but significant way.

"When we first started the Office of Digital Humanities (ODH) at the NEH, I could probably count on two hands all the university centers or labs that focused on that kind of work … Now, I read about new centers forming all the time."

My BA is in the humanities (philosophy) and my MS is in computer science. I spent the early part of my career working for a big tech firm and, later, for the US Coast Guard. In 1997, I moved over to the National Endowment for the Humanities, giving me an opportunity to focus on two things I really enjoy: the humanities and technology. 

In my work at the NEH, my biggest focus is to try to openly engage with our customers – the American people in a general sense, but in a narrower sense, with the scholars, scientists, librarians, publishers, museum officials, and others who work in the humanities. I try to show them that we’re not faceless bureaucrats but real people who are quite keen to support their amazing work.

2. How would you define “digital humanities” in a sentence or two?

Oh, man, I won’t even try to define it!  OK, that’s not fair, but I think I’ll note that there is no single definition of digital humanities that everyone can agree on. Of course, I’d say the same thing about “humanities”; it isn’t a term I’d want to narrowly define. I’ve often said that digital humanities (or DH for short) is just an umbrella term – a term of convenience –that refers to a whole bunch of activities happening where the humanities interacts with technology. It might be philosophers studying technology ethics, archaeologists learning how to use aerial photography to scan dig sites, computational linguists developing data analysis techniques to study old newspapers, media scholars studying video games, or any number of other activities.

3. Could you provide us with some information about the status of the digital humanities as a frontier for humanistic scholarship? What are the convictions, values, and methods of its practitioners? Where do the opinions and findings of digital humanists converge in these areas? Where do controversies and/or a lack of clarity exist?

When we first started the Office of Digital Humanities (ODH) at the NEH, I could probably count on two hands all the university centers or labs that focused on that kind of work. When we spoke to practitioners in the field, the message we received over and over was that it was really difficult to get funding for digital humanities projects. Now, I read about new centers forming all the time. I think that by launching ODH (and watching other funders around the world also support DH), we’ve been able to give the field a boost. Funding is still quite tight, of course, and digital humanities is a fairly small part of the NEH’s overall funding portfolio. But I do think that scholars and others working in the digital humanities have more opportunities not only for funding, but for publishing venues and general acceptance of their work. 

"the concept of making humanities materials more accessible has long been part of the NEH’s mission, even before the term ‘Open Access’ came about."

There are definitely no shared convictions, values, or methods across the digital humanities as it is such an incredibly diverse group. When you come to one of our ODH project directors’ meetings, you quickly see this; we might have a very senior person in archaeology speaking, followed by a technologist from a non-profit, followed by a graduate student in history. Just so much diversity in what they do and how they do it, which is a good thing.

4. Digital humanities scholarship attracts researchers from a diverse array of traditional academic fields. Even so, are there any skills that all digital humanists need to develop in order to be taken seriously?

Certainly, to be successful in any field, you need to be knowledgeable in certain areas and develop certain methods and skills. This is definitely the case in digital humanities, but, of course, those skills and knowledge areas are quite different depending on your work. Just like a film professor, for example, would want to become knowledgeable about the technology used to make movies, an historian who uses, say, topic modeling software to study old documents would want to become familiar with the statistical models that the software is using. Or if you are building a database of images for art historians to study, you would need to learn about database design and metadata and the other technical topics critical to making a good database.

Perhaps one skill that most (but not all) scholars may find helpful is the ability to work collaboratively. The vast majority of the DH grants we make are to teams of people from different disciplines working together.

5. Where, when, and how did you first learn about Open Access?

That’s a really interesting question! I’m not sure I can put a finger on when I first heard the term – I’d guess in the early 2000’s or so. Maybe around the time of the Berlin Declaration? But here at the NEH we’ve long thought about “access.” In fact, we have an entire division called Preservation & Access. So the concept of making humanities materials more accessible has long been part of the NEH’s mission, even before the term “Open Access” came about. 

6. Tell us about the Office of Digital Humanities at the NEH. How and when did it get started? How do the mission and function of your office relate to Open Access?

We are the newest and smallest office at the NEH, having started around 2006. We try to promote scholarship that studies technology from a humanistic perspective or uses computational techniques for humanities research, education, and public programming.

NEH Logo
You can find out more about the work of NEH by clicking on the logo.

I see part of our job as engaging with the community on important issues surrounding technology and scholarly communications. The ability to distribute scholarship via the Internet is one of the drivers toward making scholarship more widely available, so we’ve been trying to stay on top of the many conversations in this area. For example, we worked with SPARC to co-sponsor the Berlin 9 conference on Open Access – specifically a panel that focused on that topic for the humanities. We’ve also been active in open data, funding projects like Open Context, the Perseus Digital Library, and the Digital Humanities Data Curation Institute. And many, many others. 

7. How does the extent and scope of Open Access currently differ across disciplines? Must the nature of Open Access advocacy and implementation be different for the humanities than for the natural and/or social sciences? If so, why is this the case? What has to be different, if anything?

Sometimes when you hear people talk about open access in the humanities, they’ll say “open access is completely different in the humanities than in the sciences.” But I think this argument is painting with too broad a stroke. If you talk to scientists, you learn there are very different scholarly communications practices even within the sciences; high energy physicists don’t necessarily publish in the same way as zoologists or computer scientists.  There may be more similarities between some scientific and some humanities disciplines than you might think.

“Sometimes when you hear people talk about open access in the humanities, they’ll say ‘open access is completely different in the humanities than in the sciences.’ But I think this argument is painting with too broad a stroke.”

That said, probably the biggest obvious difference is that in many scientific disciplines, shorter papers are the norm, whereas in many humanities disciplines, the monograph (a big book!) is more common. Of course, many scientists write books and many humanities professors write articles, but overall, it is fair to say that books are more commonly written on a regular basis by humanities folks and are quite important for their career advancement.

8. In your opinion, what does the future of Open Access in the humanities look like?

Well, I wouldn’t capitalize “open access” in this context. I think we are moving to a future of increased access in many different ways. For example, we’re seeing more Internet-based humanities resources, databases, scholarly editions, and digital libraries that make incredible resources available for free. I think we’ll also see an increase in free e-books, articles, blog posts, and other materials as we move forward.

Some of these changes may be due to mandates (like public access policies by funders). Others may simply be due to changing attitudes about what humanities scholarship looks like. For example, traditionally, junior scholars are expected to publish a hardcover book to get tenure. But these books generally don’t sell very well and scholarly presses are in quite a bind trying to produce them. But, of course, great scholarship can come in many different formats. At the end of the day, it really should be about quality, impact and reach. I suspect we’ll start to see more and more humanities departments becoming comfortable with professors publishing in electronic, public-access venues. We may also see new business models for presses, perhaps involving subvention from libraries, universities, and funders.

9. What do scholars, taxpayers, and society as a whole stand to gain if scholarly communication systems in the humanities are made more open? What, if anything, do we stand to lose?

Humanities scholars study people and our histories and culture. What could be more important than that? Scholars produce amazing stuff and we should do what we can to help them reach a broad audience for their work. I frequently hear from independent scholars and scholars at less-resourced institutions. They tell me they can’t get ready access to the scholarship they need for their research. And interested members of the public are often unaware of scholarly books, articles, and other media. Most scholars I talk to are very enthusiastic about making their own work more widely available, but they’re not always sure how. So I think we should continue to strive for ways to make research outputs broadly accessible.

10. Are there any potential liabilities or challenges associated with the advent of Open Access in the humanities? If so, how might these be confronted, and what group(s) in our society can help us to overcome them?

“Humanities scholars study people and our histories and culture. What could be more important than that?”


Sure, there are many challenges! We’re seeing declining books sales coupled with declining library budgets, yet most humanities scholars are required to publish monographs to get tenure. That’s a big challenge (or several of them) right there. But most of the actors involved want to see scholarship flourish and we need to work together to come up with new scholarly communications practices that are best for the field and best for the public.

11. Are there any books, articles, or webpages that aspiring digital humanists and/or Open Access advocates should read?

Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy provides a terrific overview of many of these issues.

Brett Bobley is Director of the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Scott Richard St. Louis is a member of the North American Coordinating Committee of the Right to Research Coalition and an intern for SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition.

This article reflects the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Right to Research Coalition or SPARC.

Tags: brett bobley, , , National Endowment for the Humanities, NEH, Open Access

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