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


Given the myriad challenges associated with establishing a cyberinfrastructure for the humanities and social science, one must ask if the results are worth the effort. As envisioned by I-CHASS, the potential benefits of this initiative can again be grouped in three basic areas:

  1. Access
  2. Excellence
  3. Engagement

By access we mean offering a truly collaborative environment—a national resource—in which humanities and social scientific scholars and technical staff work together to identify and solve research problems that will benefit from the application of digital technologies. The cyberinfrastructure we propose here will ensure that the sort of centers we are envisaging are able to serve the needs of researchers, providing a place to meet, exchange ideas, and collaborate with research scientists and faculty from other disciplines. The meta-discipline fostered by such cyberinfrastructure will open up many new avenues of mutual learning, communication, and service. Although computing experts push the limits of what humanities scholars do, new humanities applications in turn push the envelope in computing. Digital humanities projects tend to blur many of the old boundaries that have long bedeviled Academe: between “research” and “education,” between disciplines, between “scholarly” work and outreach or service to the “real world.” These boundaries need to be broken down, but it takes the collective efforts of all working locally and nationally toward these mutually productive ends.

By excellence we mean creating a vibrant digital humanities community, offering scholars access to the transformative potential of information technology. Digital humanities centers should serve as a catalyst and “expert broker” for mutually beneficial interactions that foster collaborations on the next generation of research and teaching in the developing world of digital humanities for the purpose of enhancing scholarship in the humanities, arts, and social sciences generally. We see cyberinfrastructure as transformative of social scientific inquiry and an environment in which scholars can explore the integration of a range of technologies—including spatial analysis; information access and extraction across text-, image-, audio-, and video-based data; visualization; social networking; and collaborative tools development—that have equal applicability across the broader humanities and social scientific community.

By engagement we mean applying information technology to research, outreach, and teaching to confront the greatest challenges facing the world today, locally and more globally. Such challenges arise from our failure to understand our own human nature and its rich and diverse cultural contexts, our reluctance to communicate and collaborate across cultural boundaries, and the barriers to our seeing and appreciating the full range of human creativity, inspiration, and aspiration. We see cyberinfrastructure, if effectively mobilized, as the potential next wave in the democratized access to information. Quantitative arts, humanities, and social science have important contributions to make to public policy deliberations and to education via tools that encourage laypersons to interact with social science data and models. Digital humanities centers should partner with those willing to commit resources to create programs for public production and sharing. We anticipate that the cyberinfrastructure we can thus collectively create could make public access even more transparent.

With access to leading-edge computational resources, as well as their advanced visualization and digital tools, humanists and social scientists can readily collaborate with experts in information technologies and methodologies. Through the use of technologies such as the ACCESS GRID, shared databases, online communication tools, and other collaborative technologies, we believe that digital humanities centers are uniquely and strategically positioned to leverage these and other resources to enrich the humanities, arts, and social sciences; to provide new methodologies of study; to facilitate outreach to new audiences; and to develop new ways of understanding and solving the most complex problems facing our world today.

1 American Council of Learned Societies, Our Cultural Commonwealth: The final report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities & Social Sciences, New York: American Council of Learned Societies, 2006, p. 29. Available online from www.acls.org/cyberinfrastructure/cyber.htm, last accessed May 7, 2007.
2 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Campus Strategic Plan, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, March 2007, p. 8. Available online from www.strategicplan.uiuc.edu/documents/Illinois_StrategicPlan.pdf , last accessed May 7, 2007.
3 www.neh.gov/grants/digitalhumanities.html
4 www.digitallearning.macfound.org

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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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