May 2007
Socializing Cyberinfrastructure: Networking the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Vernon Burton, Illinois Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science; NCSA; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Simon J. Appleford, Illinois Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
James Onderdonk, Illinois Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


NCSA is also a rich source of experience and expertise, employing top personnel in fields crucial to humanities, arts, and social science computing, such as sophisticated search and retrieval; human-computer interaction; distributed, collaborative computing; and large-scale modeling and simulation. This is not to say that centers such as I-CHASS must rely solely on the resources available at NCSA. Most institutions do not have supercomputing facilities of this kind so close at hand. Nevertheless, digital humanities centers need to be more self-reliant, building their own capacity by gathering a team of technical specialists who will work solely on digital humanities and social science initiatives, even if it is prudent to take advantage of the expertise available across one’s campus.

Although I-CHASS is fortunate to be co-located with a national supercomputing center, not all centers will enjoy such advantage. There are, nevertheless, other ways in which digital humanities centers can marshal the resources available on their own campuses to promote the use of digital tools in humanities, arts, and social science research and teaching. It might be fruitful, for instance, for a center to act as a broker between humanities scholars and computer scientists to match research interests with on-campus computer resources. One strategy is to identify research questions that require a relatively modest commitment from the computer scientists to produce results; the proverbial low-hanging fruit. Such an early success could be used to promote the advantages of digital scholarship in numerous directions—to the humanities, arts, and social science departments; to the computer scientists; and to the institution’s administration. Another approach might be to designate several specific research areas as “digital hallmarks” and channel computational efforts in these areas until some successes have been achieved that can then be leveraged for broader institutional support. Since I-CHASS is committed to collaboration, advancing humanities, arts, and social science cyberenvironments, and enabling scholars and other centers in their research, we will also be pleased to partner with others so that they can also benefit from NCSA’s expertise and resources.

Marshaling resources for building this cyberinfrastructure is, of course, a critical endeavor. Some core funding must, of necessity, be provided through a center’s home institution. One’s home institution might be approached to provide start-up support, with the understanding that the commitment will be reduced as external funding is acquired. Winning substantial awards from grant-giving bodies has, however, been a difficult proposition for many humanities and social science departments, especially when compared with the funding patterns of disciplines in the physical and natural sciences, engineering, and medicine. Indeed, a typical humanities or social science department is unlikely to receive significant income from grant awards, with graduate students paid through state allocations and many scholars fortunate to receive even teaching release in support of their research. This is a model that is clearly unsustainable for work in the digital realm, with its challenge to the paradigm of scholars working largely in isolation from their colleagues. Fortunately, funding agencies and private foundations have shown considerable interest in investing money in digital scholarship; among recent developments are initiatives from the National Endowment for the Humanities3 and the MacArthur Foundation,4 while the Mellon Foundation has long been a key backer of digital humanities and social science research. The potential funding available can be maneuvered for use by individual scholars on their own research projects and by institutions seeking to establish and expand their own centers.

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Reference this article
Burton, V., Appleford, S. J., Onderdonk, J. "A Question of Centers: One Approach to Establishing a Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 3, Number 2, May 2007. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2007/05/a-question-of-centers/

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