Conway study assembling digital collection of Great Lakes history

Paul Conway

Associate Professor of Information Paul Conway received a $75,000 grant from the Humanities Without Walls consortium to fund a project that will assemble a digital collection on the environmental history of the Great Lakes basin from the perspective of the land and its people.  

The Humanities Without Walls consortium, which is based at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 

Conway’s project received its support through Humanities Without Walls’ Global Midwest initiative, a cooperative effort that is intended to stimulate collaborative research that rethinks and reveals the Midwest as a key site—both now and in the past—in shaping global economies and cultures.

Much of the research and associated literature on the Great Lakes region focuses on the area’s ecology and water resources, with some additional interest paid to topics like industrial development, the fishing industry, navigation, and trade. Humanistic studies on the people who have moved in and out of the Great Lakes basin, built communities, and established interconnected identities is not as well developed and may be hindered by the scattered nature of digital resources needed for collaborative research. 

Conway will be working with humanities professors Robert Michael Morrissey (History) and Robert Markley (English) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as students from the University of Illinois and UMSI. The researchers will gather digital metadata describing and pointing to content on the Great Lakes region from digital libraries the Universities of Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota, and the Consortium of Academic Research Libraries in Illinois (CARLI). 

The study will use a platform of digital aggregation tools—a “mini-node” that will function as a repository to assemble content from diverse locations—made available by Texas A&M’s Advanced Research Consortium (ARC). This project will be the first application of this technology to aggregate digitized materials on a focused theme.

The project aims to understand, evaluate, and report on the experiences of the collaborating faculty and their students in discovering, retrieving, and utilizing the digital documents from the collection. Researchers will explore the quality and quantity of available content to determine if the assembled documents are sufficient to generate research questions, provide evidence to address inquiries, and support teaching. 

The project will also explore whether it makes sense to combine diverse collections into a single aggregate of Great Lakes history. By bringing together distributed digital collections on a specific theme, this research has the potential to show the variability of cultural heritage that exists within the digitized collections across different institutions.

The results of the study could also help to advance the concept of using thematic collections in humanities education and provide guidelines for using collected digital content to support research and teaching purposes across a large number of topics.

Humanities Without Walls is led by the University of Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities and is comprised of the 13 institutions that belong to the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC)—Indiana University, Michigan State University, Northwestern University, Ohio State University, Penn State University, Purdue University; and the Universities of Chicago, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin-Madison—plus the University of Notre Dame and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Posted January 29, 2015