NEH Funding Opportunity: Research and Development in Digital Preservation and Access

The following is a guest post from Trevor Owens, a Digital Archivist in the Library of Congress Office of Strategic Initiatives.

We here at NDIIPP are always on the lookout for opportunities to help the digital preservation community improve their work. In this respect, I was excited to see the announcement for the National Endowment for the Humanities Preservation and Access Research and Development grants (due May 16th) especially encourages applications that focus on digital preservation. I reached out to Joshua Sternfeld, a Senior Program Officer with the NEH Division of Preservation and Access, and participant in the National Digital Stewardship Alliance’s innovation working group, to discuss the role of digital preservation and stewardship in this particular program. I hope that our conversation can inspire more stakeholders in the digital stewardship and preservation community to take advantage of this opportunity to propose projects for this grant program.


Trevor: Could you give us a quick overview of the program, with a particular focus on how digital preservation fits into it? Could you provide a few examples of the kinds of things that are a perfect fit for this program?

Josh: Absolutely. First of all, thank you for the opportunity to discuss our program with the NDSA community; we are so excited to see all of the work that NDSA is conducting and we are thrilled to be a participant!

We see research and development as supporting the latest methods and tools to preserve and provide access to cultural heritage materials. What was originally a small program that reached out to a specialized community of preservation practitioners has now expanded to include representatives from the humanities as well as information, computer, and conservation sciences, making this a truly interdisciplinary program with a range of eligible activities. Projects may request funding of up to $350,000 for three years for activities such as the development of technical standards and best practices; computational tools that may assist in repurposing or providing new levels of access to humanities data; or scientific procedures to preserve humanities collections. In recent grant cycles, we have drawn attention to three areas of special interest: Audiovisual Preservation and Access, Preventive Conservation, and Digital Preservation. Projects pertaining to one or more of these areas may request an additional $50,000.

Digital preservation represents perhaps the widest range of potential activities, considering how quickly technologies are turning over and fresh ideas are being introduced and tested. We see the field moving in a number of directions around digital preservation. Some of the most interesting and complex areas of research – though certainly not an exhaustive list – involve: distributed or collaborative networks; preservation of born digital materials such as social media, contemporary art, digital newspapers, databases, and digital humanities projects; the development of digital asset and content management systems, particularly with regards to audiovisual materials; cultural heritage data curation; and the development of metadata standards that can improve exchange and interoperability of humanities collections. Of course these are just a few examples of a rapidly expanding field!

Trevor: Could you tell us a bit about how the program conceives of “research and development”? These terms tend to mean different things in different fields and types of organizations. For the sake of this program, what are the key features of research and development and what kinds of activities might be better served by a different program?

Josh: We view research and development as addressing widespread preservation or access issues within the cultural heritage community. You might say that this is perhaps the most “scientific” of NEH’s programs in that we expect applicants to articulate a problem or need in the field, develop a work plan that usually includes a set of experiments or incremental development phases, evaluate project results, and then disseminate those results as widely as possible. We also require applicants to address plans for the long-term sustainability of their project. This may involve producing a data management plan in cases where scientific experiments are being conducted, or developing a strategy for sustaining tool or standards development through additional project phases or engagement with an open source community.

Projects that aim solely to digitize large collections or produce a reference resource would not be eligible for research and development; we recommend those projects to consider our Humanities Collections and Reference Resources program. Also, we do not support projects producing original interpretive humanities research, which would be better served by one of several programs in our Division of Research Programs or Office of Digital Humanities. The type of research we support in our R&D program is specifically aimed at preservation and/or access-related topics.

Trevor: Are there examples of previous projects that focused on digital preservation research and development that you could point us to? It would be great if you could spell out how some of the key features of the program are exemplified in any of these specific projects.

Josh: Two projects that we funded last year could not be more different in their approach to digital preservation, yet they both satisfy pressing needs in the community. The University of South Carolina is currently developing a one-pass system to capture accurately both image and sound in digital scanning. By essentially cutting the digitization process in half, the new system will enable institutions of all sizes to digitally reformat much more audiovisual material, thereby facilitating the preservation of what we consider to be one of the most fragile formats of the twentieth century. A project from the Educopia Institute in Atlanta is assembling a large collaborative community to research and assess distributed digital preservation frameworks aimed at preserving digitized and born-digital newspapers. Narratives of both of these projects are available to download as a pdf on our website.

Despite their differences, both projects exemplify our research and development program by investigating solutions to digital preservation issues that will have an impact for a variety of institutions large and small. A single-pass system for digitizing film, for example, will not only assist a university with a large film archive, but also a smaller historical society that may have a collection of amateur or educational films. Research into using a distributed network model to preserve born-digital newspapers will benefit an entire network of archives and libraries that may be struggling to preserve local and regional newspapers, not to mention similar efforts that are being conducted for other born-digital format types.

Trevor: I imagine that you see a lot of grant proposals come across your desk. If you had one piece of advice to offer for improving most of those proposals what would it be?

Josh: Applicants run into the most trouble with the first step of composing an R&D application: articulating a preservation or access-related problem or need in the cultural heritage field. As anyone in the NDSA community will tell you, we are not lacking in major digital preservation issues! Applicants, however, often overlook the body of scholarship that has already been produced or fail to communicate needs beyond those of their own institution. A successful project must be able to articulate how the proposed work will enhance broadly scholarship, public programming, or education in the humanities. We require that an applicant include a short bibliography, environmental scan of the relevant preservation and access field, or discussion of other related projects. Demonstrating knowledge of the state of the field strengthens other areas of the application such as consideration of audience. Who in the humanities will benefit most from the project results – scholars, educators, libraries, museums, universities, archives? What evidence can you provide, such as institutional capacity or broad collaboration, which would indicate potential adoption of a method or tool? While an environmental scan or bibliography may go far in answering the question of need and audience, there are several other components of the application to consider, including securing outside letters of support, or composing a project team that is representative of the expertise necessary to implement the work plan.

Trevor: Beyond this particular program, do you have any other ideas for other NEH grant programs that you think researchers and practitioners working on digital preservation and stewardship should be aware of? I am sure our community would appreciate your mentioning some of the different parts of NEH that digital preservation and stewardship stakeholders should be thinking about submitting proposals to.

Josh: We are working diligently to integrate and promote the latest knowledge of digital preservation in most of our grant programs in the Division of Preservation and Access. In our largest program, Humanities Collections and Reference Resources, we find a majority of projects involve at least some digitization of cultural heritage collections. We require applicants to demonstrate knowledge of digitization standards appropriate for the needs of their institution; we never advocate a one-size-fits-all approach, which ensures that the latest knowledge about digital preservation is constantly being revised and updated. We also require that applicants describe their plans for sustainability of any digital content produced as a result of the project. To help in supporting that mandate, we are introducing this year a new opportunity within HCRR to assist in the critical planning and piloting stages of this work. Watch for the guidelines on this to come out within the next few weeks!

In our program Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions, we now support assessments of digital collections and education and training in best practices and standards that help put institutions on track to sustainable digital programs. And with our Education and Training program, we support workshops in digital preservation along with other topics of national significance and broad impact such as preventive conservation, emergency preparedness, and collections care training. Elsewhere in the agency, the Office of Digital Humanities also supports work in digital preservation with both its Start-Up Grants and Implementation programs.

In the coming months, the Division of Preservation and Access intends to highlight on the NEH website innovative digital preservation strategies that are being employed in our funded projects, so we encourage everyone to check back frequently.

Trevor: If someone has additional questions about your R&D program, whom do they contact?

Josh: We recommend that all applicants read the program guidelines carefully before contacting NEH staff. You may find the recently posted, revised R&D guidelines at: http://www.neh.gov/grants/guidelines/PARD.html. At the site, you will also find several successful grant narratives. If, after reviewing the guidelines, you still have questions, you are welcome to email us at preservation@neh.gov or phone us at 202-606-8570. We encourage applicants to send us drafts of proposals electronically up to six weeks before the May 16 submission deadline for additional feedback. Also, to receive our Division of Preservation and Access’s latest news and program updates, be sure to follow us on Twitter: @NEH_PresAccess.

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