June 22, 2010 — His frustration with the difficulty of digitally accessing historic maps led S. Max Edelson, associate professor of history in the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences, to pursue a new project that has earned him a Digital Innovation Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies.
The $85,000 ACLS fellowship will give Edelson a year off from teaching to develop a database on the "Cartography of American Colonization." Using digitized maps as sources, he wants to show how and where the British Empire attempted to conquer the New World around the time of the American Revolution.
In addition, the society awarded two U.Va. doctoral students, Lydia Wilson in anthropology and Eric J. Rettberg in English, with Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships.
Wilson's dissertation looks at "Fugitive Slaves and Community Creation in 19th-Century Kenya: An Archaeological and Historical Investigation of Watoro Villages" and whether fugitive slaves in Africa developed or blended new socio-cultural norms or maintained their own cultural ways long-term.
Rettberg's dissertation on "Ridiculous Modernism: Nonsense and New Literature, 1900-1950," argues that modernists were not mere victims of the idea that their work was nonsense, but were slyly defining themselves both within and against that idea.
Another awardee, Neil Norman, who just earned his Ph.D. in anthropology at U.Va., received the ACLS New Faculty Fellowship, which gives him a two-year appointment at the College of William and Mary.
"The program addresses the dire situation of newly minted Ph.D.s in the humanities and related social sciences who are now confronting an increasingly 'jobless market,' " according to the website.
The ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowships, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, are intended to support digitally based research projects in all disciplines of the humanities and humanities-related social sciences. "Projects should help advance digital humanistic scholarship by broadening understanding of its nature and exemplifying the robust infrastructure necessary for creating such works," the ACLS website says.
In his current research, Edelson – who came to U.Va. last year from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign – focuses on colonial history and the geography and cartography of North America and the Caribbean.
In the latter half of the 1700s, the British embarked on a survey of North America to map territorial acquisitions that included almost half of the continent. Edelson has found the maps to be important in understanding the empire's quest and how it failed.
Although the maps have been preserved and many digitized, they can't be easily found online, he said.
"There is no central place to find digital maps," said Edelson, who completed the investigative phase of the project at Illinois with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. "Out of frustration, I became interested in the problem."
The project will include creating a portal to access maps. Edelson said he would like to develop a variety of ways to portray and manipulate the maps as an aid to research and teaching.
U.Va. has good support for digital humanities, he said. He has enlisted the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, the library's Scholars' Lab and the Sciences, Humanities and the Arts Network of Technological Initiatives, or SHANTI, to help him bring the project to fruition.
SHANTI, begun last fall, is a group devoted to harnessing the power of digital tools using a suite of off-the-shelf software that offers many capabilities previously possible only through custom programming.
Leading the new initiative at U.Va. are many of the pioneering faculty who led the landmark projects of past years, faculty who understand the technology needs and requests of their colleagues and the impediments and difficulties they encounter, said SHANTI director David Germano, associate professor of Tibetan and Buddhist studies.
Edelson said he is working with Bill Ferster, along with Germano, at SHANTI, Worthy Martin at IATH and Bethany Nowviskie and staff at the Scholars' Lab.
Using software called VisualEyes, Edelson plans to finish one site this summer featuring maps of North America and the West Indies from the generation before the American Revolution. The website, "The New Map of Empire," is also the name of the book he is writing for Harvard University Press.
"I hope to release the book and the website, which features about 500 maps I deal with in the book, together," he said.
Being at U.Va. is an ideal place to teach and research colonial history, Edelson said, and it's not just because of the history the place embodies. Peter Onuf, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor, has built a strong cadre of graduate students, he said.
"I love it," Edelson added.
Founded in 1919, ACLS is a private, nonprofit federation of 70 national scholarly organizations and the preeminent representative of American scholarship in the humanities and related social sciences. Since 1957, more than 9,200 scholars have held ACLS fellowships and grants. In 2010, the ACLS gave awards totaling more than $15 million to some 380 U.S.-based and international scholars.