NINES Project Enhances Tools for Digital Research in the Humanities

December 17, 2008

December 18, 2008 — Buying books, music and airline tickets online has become commonplace in the age of computers.

The same can be said for conducting online academic research in the humanities.

An electronic project at the University of Virginia — unique in the field of 19th-century studies — combines a scholarly organization devoted to British and American 19th-century studies with a software development group that assembles critical and editorial tools for digital scholarship. Put the two together, and they equal NINES, a sophisticated clearinghouse and search engine for digital scholarship.

The Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship — the NINES Project — is a Web site hosted by U.Va. where humanities scholars can find and bring together primary sources, images, literary and cultural documents and literary criticism — all peer-reviewed and all in one online arena.

It has recently been revamped and includes the newest version of Collex, a free, open-source tool for collecting and exhibiting online resources.

The redesigned NINES Project, launched Wednesday, will be on display Dec. 27-30 in the University of Virginia Press' booth at the Modern Language Association's annual conference in San Francisco.

"NINES brings together online digital resources in the field of 19th-century studies, offering users a common set of aggregated materials through a single Web site, or hub," said associate professor of English Andrew Stauffer, hired this fall as the new director.

Founder and former director Jerome McGann, John Stewart Bryan University Professor in the English department, will remain involved with NINES as a member of the executive council and head of the editorial board on Romanticism.

Rounding out the staff are Dana Wheeles, project manager and a doctoral student in art history, and Laura Mandell, associate director, a professor at Miami University of Ohio, plus several other graduate students and an outside Web design firm.

"The University of Virginia has been at the forefront of scholarship in the humanities enabled by digital technologies and is known worldwide for its faculty members' leadership," said J. Milton Adams, U.Va. vice provost for academic programs.

The redesigned NINES Web site is streamlined and easier to use, Stauffer said. It offers several opportunities for social networking, with blogs keeping the community apprised of changes and additions to the software and Web site.

Researchers also are able to browse "tag clouds" to see what topics other scholars are interested in or working on. Collex lets them collect and tag objects, and the software records the number and description of the tags.

The latest version of Collex has an "exhibit builder," a tool that allows scholars to remix their NINES collections into annotated bibliographies, course syllabi and illustrated essays and to share them informally with students and colleagues, or ultimately submit them for peer review and formal inclusion in NINES, Stauffer said.

For example, suppose a student was researching 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson. On the NINES site, the student could find links to several other Web sites, such as the Dickinson Virtual Reference Shelf and The Poetess Archive, and have complete access to relevant, peer-reviewed materials.

NINES is constantly accepting new project submissions. The Web site has aggregated almost 300,000 peer‑reviewed digital objects from 52 federated sites.

The Collex software that powers NINES, designed by Bethany Nowviskie, director of digital research and scholarship at the U.Va. Library, could be applied to other areas of research and provide a working model for other academic disciplines, Stauffer and McGann said. In fact, another Web-based project covering 18th-century studies, called "18thConnect," is in the active organization and development stage.

The NINES Project works with university libraries and commercial outfits that digitize scholarly materials and make them available on the Web, a cooperative arrangement that Stauffer and McGann term "a federation" of online resources. Linked Web sites maintain the hosting of the materials or objects, but the user can access them in their entirety and repurpose them in his or her own critical commentary.

In addition to the exhibit tool, what makes the NINES Web site stand out from other search engines is having all the materials undergo rigorous peer review. Boards of scholars and advisers evaluate texts for content and technical structure and also make sure they are available in a stable online format.

"The commercial outfits will get the job done with or without NINES," McGann said. "But this is our cultural inheritance and the material of our discipline. We want to have input on how these things are done, how they are processed and how they are used."

Although these companies digitize materials on a wide scale, their optical character recognition —  or OCR — software introduces a rate of errors that makes a difference to scholars who work with words.

Wheeles said that 18thConnect has begun working on software to address digitization problems of this kind so that in the future that full text will not only be accessible, but also of the highest quality.

"Coming at it from a scholarly perspective, even if the scanning is 95 percent accurate, that still means an error is introduced every one in 20 characters," Stauffer said. "Since the text is the object of study, the words have to be accurate and precise.

"The issue here is that commercial vendors typically rely on OCR to produce their digital collections, whereas collections and resources built by scholars generally do things more carefully and to a higher standard," Stauffer said. "NINES aims to encourage these latter projects, while also lobbying the scholarly community to demand greater accuracy from the commercial providers."

As one of those scholars applying high standards to digital technology, McGann was one of the first fellows at the University's Institute for the Advancement of Technology in the Humanities, established in 1992, where he designed the Rossetti Archive, which presents online the complete writings and artwork of English poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

In the early part of the 21st century, McGann, in consultation with other scholars of the Romantic period, conceived the idea of a widespread online network for 19th-century studies.

Then came the surprise in 2002: The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation gave McGann its unsolicited Mellon Distinguished Achievement Award of $1.5 million, and later extended its funding with an $800,000 grant for a further two years of work, beginning in 2006.

"That was the real break bringing about the development of NINES," McGann said.

With the Mellon grant coming to an end, U.Va. President John T. Casteen III and top administrators are committed to providing financial backing for the NINES project for five years, allowing it time to identify a permanent funding arrangement, Adams said.

"It is important to the vitality of scholarship to continue to invest in the humanities and to promote new, imaginative work," Adams said. "These investments align closely with the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of the University to support faculty scholarship."

— By Anne Bromley