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John M. Unsworth, dean of U. of I. library school, wins $25,000 Lyman Award

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


John M. Unsworth
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John M. Unsworth, dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has won the National Humanities Center’s 2005 Richard W. Lyman Award.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — John M. Unsworth, dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has won the National Humanities Center’s 2005 Richard W. Lyman Award.

The $25,000 award recognizes people who have advanced humanistic scholarship and teaching through the innovative use of information technology.

Unsworth will receive his award during a presentation ceremony on May 10 at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

He became the fourth recipient of the Lyman Award for his critical early efforts that made it possible for people, drawing on the best current technology and scholarship, to do “rich and original work in the humanities,” the NHC announced April 7.

The NHC, which is the nation’s only private independent institute for advanced study in the humanities, cited Unsworth’s work as the first director of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia.

During his tenure there, the institute developed such groundbreaking digital projects as the William Blake Archive, the Dante Gabriel Rossetti Archive, the Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War archive and the Walt Whitman Archive.

“IATH was for me a kind of laboratory for cultivating interesting experiments in networked scholarly communication, which is my research area,” Unsworth said. “It’s noteworthy, I think, that the Lyman Award is being given to someone whose work is about scholarly communication, rather than being about, say, U.S. history or Victorian literature.”

Peers in the field of digital humanities describe Unsworth as a “visionary” and a leader with “a gift for collaboration.”

Stanley N. Katz, professor in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, and president emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), credited Unsworth with being “the crucial institutional player in the development of digital humanities in the United States.”

Unsworth co-founded Postmodern Culture, the first peer-reviewed electronic journal in the humanities in 1990, three years after earning his doctorate in English at the University of Virginia. In 1993, he became IATH’s first director, and held that post for 10 years. He became dean at Illinois’ top-ranking library school in 2003.

Unsworth continues to pursue projects that explore the collaborative spirit. With others, he recently produced “A Companion to Digital Humanities,” the first comprehensive overview of humanities computing, and “Electronic Textual Editing,” practical advice from editors of electronic editions, guidelines from the Text Encoding Initiative and guidelines for scholarly editing from the Modern Language Association.

He is the chair of the Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences, a project of the ACLS. The commission is guiding the design and construction of the digital infrastructure that the academy will use to represent humanities scholarship.

In addition, Unsworth is a co-principal investigator, with Beth Sandore, associate university librarian for information technology planning and policy at Illinois, of the National Digital Information Infrastructure Preservation Program, a $2.6 million project funded by the Library of Congress that addresses what Unsworth calls “one of the most vexing problems of the next 10 years – collection and preservation of digital information.”

According to Unsworth, the “character of academic work in the humanities” is in the process of shifting from a cooperative to a collaborative model. Computers and computer networks are allowing this to happen.

“Many of us already cooperate, on networked discussion groups and in e-mail, in the research of others: We answer questions, provide citation references, engage in discussion. From here, it’s a small step to collaboration, using those channels as a way to overcome geographical dispersion, difference in time zones and limitations of our own research.”

Today, the humanities are “far ahead of the sciences in terms of grappling with the messiness and complexity and ambiguity that characterize human experience.”

However, the humanities are far behind the sciences “in terms of developing computational methods to do that grappling, in organizing themselves to address agreed-upon grand-challenge problems, and in persuading the general public that the work they do is worth significant public funding.”

What are the chief barriers to collaboration, publishing and scholarship in academia? Several things, Unsworth said: “the academic reward system, the withdrawal of funding from university presses, copyright law and the conservatism of disciplines.”

On the other hand, commercial scientific, technical and medical publishers are forcing cooperation in academia, Unsworth said.

He noted that his “generous Lyman award is slightly less than a university library has to pay for a one-year subscription to the Elsevier journal package ‘Tetrahedron.’ ”

Such, he said, is “the scale of resources that are currently flowing from universities to commercial STM publishers, in order to remain competitive in the sciences.”

“The university has a compelling need to cooperate in subsidizing the dissemination of its own research, not only in order to manage the cost of being competitive in the sciences, but also in order to retain the resources necessary to innovate in the humanities and the social sciences.”