Collaborating and Connecting Through Digital Scholarship

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Dr. Jacob Heil

Dr. Jacob Heil

New and exciting opportunities are coming to The Five Colleges of Ohio in the form of a Mellon grant. Titled “Digital Collections from Projects to Pedagogy and Scholarship,” the $775,000 grant is dedicated towards digitizing projects and library collections. Both faculty and students will be able to take advantage of this grant, creating projects and utilizing those already in the digital collection.

Dr. Jacob Heil, the Digital Scholar for this Mellon grant, will work with faculty to develop projects. “I see myself as a resource for faculty and students at any phase of developing digital projects,” says Heil. In this comprehensive undertaking, Heil will connect the right people with the right project, facilitate ideas, and build up the infrastructure of the digital collections.

The call for proposals will begin later this fall semester.  Heil plans to meet with library directors or liaisons from the Ohio Five schools to discuss projects, preexisting or completely new, that could grow into Mellon grant projects. The process is straightforward, if slightly daunting: members of the faculty, the library, the information technologies departments and the Provost’s Office will form a review committee to approve projects.

“We’re looking for collaboration across the Ohio Five,” says Cathi Cardwell, director of OWU libraries. “Our last grant was about learning to digitize, which provided access to collections in a way we couldn’t otherwise do. Now we can use the technology to view information in new ways, shifting and compounding the focus.” She speaks of the “Next Steps in the Next Generation Library” grant, which started the digital collection off with more than 50 digital projects across a wide academic spectrum.

The new Mellon grant will pick up where the “Next Steps” grant left off; it will make resources available to a wider audience and broaden the range of possibilities for scholars. Cardwell points out that innovative questions will become apparent with this new lens through which researchers can study old and familiar information. Some questions simply wouldn’t occur without this pioneering format and capability; not to mention without varied student and faculty input.

“The goal is to turn the focus more on the pedagogical component,” says Heil. He commends ‘student specialists,’ who delve into a particular area of study with traditional ‘OWU enthusiasm’ or the hope of graduate school. “We want to put those student specialists into contact with faculty to use and shape that depth of knowledge.”

Heil spoke of his recent experience on a similar project with Texas A&M’s Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture. As project manager for the Early Modern OCR (optical character recognition) Project, Heil collaborated with a team working to teach OCR technologies to read the typefaces of over 42 million pages from the earliest printed books, once the project is completed. “We can see how many times the word ‘love’ was used in sixteenth century manuscripts,” offers Heil as an example. Similar to searching a document for a word or name, researchers can start to digitally search old texts in a way that was impossible before. Imagining the time scholars will save with digital technology throws into sharp relief the great innovation that is really embodied in digital collections.

“I’m most excited about the variety of projects,” continues Heil. “There’s a need for cross pollination here.” He wonders about the possibilities of English, history, and computer science students all working together in collaboration. “There’s going to be a growing demand for people who can work on collaborative projects,” says Heil. “Especially for students interested in graduate school.”

When asked what she most looked forward to with the Mellon grant, Cardwell also mentioned collaborative efforts, thinking of faculty and students from other departments all working on humanities-based projects. “Students will get a taste of what’s out there.”

Especially at small liberal arts schools like OWU and the Ohio Five, collaborating on significant research endeavors has always been important. “So many projects happen at large universities with lots of resources,” says Heil. “But significant digital work can also be done in consortial environments.” Cardwell agrees, mentioning that any library’s regular budget just isn’t meant for cutting edge experimentation. “The Mellon grant will extend what we can do and stretch boundaries.”

Collaboration and generating new questions is one of the cornerstones of a liberal arts education; with the new Mellon grant, OWU students and faculty will be able to connect with other Ohio Five scholars, and students from different departments right here on campus. The methodology of research is changing, and it comes with a lot more depth and skill. “We’re still asking questions of old texts, and we have been for a long time,” says Heil. “We’re always trying to create new knowledge. Our goals aren’t different, we just have more options now.”

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