Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media Grows into its Next 25 Years

by Anne Reynolds

Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media Grows into its Next 25 Years

For twenty-five years, Mason’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) has been taking a fresh look at the past.

Named for its founding director in 2012, it helped launch the field of digital history in 1994. The center continues to use ever-evolving technology to approach the study of the humanities, making history real to an audience of students, educators, researchers, and the general public, who have enhanced their understanding of the past through signature center projects.

CHNM founding director Roy Rosenzweig

As the center moves into its next 25 years, it continues to push the boundaries of possibility in the digital humanities, using innovation to open the door to new ways of understanding the past, developing online teaching resources, preserving and creating digital collections, finding new methods for analyzing digital humanities content, leading public history projects, creating new open source software tools for humanities students and scholars, and fostering training in digital literacy skills.

“We are acutely aware of the fact that the center has a mission: it’s not just to do good work, it is to democratize access to information,” said RRCHNM interim executive director Mills Kelly. “That’s been our center mission since the beginning, and so that’s the thing that we’re always pushing on.”

rrchnm team 2019RRCHNM Team

Alongside its development of educational websites and open-source software for researchers, however, Kelly identifies specific areas of emphasis for the center’s future growth.

“We continue to be significantly involved in software development for the long term,” he said. “The other thing, though, for the future, we’re going to move more into computational humanities and network analysis, and geospatial humanities.”

This evolution is being driven by the center’s leadership, including Kelly, along with Jessica Otis, RRCHNM’s director of public projects, and Lincoln Mullen, the center’s director of computational history.

An example of this shift is DataScribe, a structured data transcription module created by RRCHNM with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It allows a researcher to collect historical source information and transcribe it directly into a dataset, which then facilitates using the data to create tables of numbers, dates, or categories.

“Our goal was to create a generalized solution – or, at least a piece of the solution – that would let historians transcribe structured data into a format where we could just go straight into the computational analysis,” said Otis, the principal investigator (PI) of the DataScribe project.

With this analysis, source data can then be analyzed and presented in forms that make it broadly understandable. “We’re starting to think, how can we borrow methods from data science, data analysis, and data visualization to learn new things and present them in new ways?” said Mullen, DataScribe’s co-PI.

For instance, he added, “People like interactive maps. If you present history as a map or a visualization, it gives people a different kind of understanding of the past than they had previously. In addition to creating new knowledge, we are also displaying things that we know in a way that is arresting and interesting, that catches people’s attention.”

Putting history within reach has been a major priority for the center, and Kelly hopes to further that objective by promoting the next generation of digital historians.

“We’re going to invest heavily in new professional development opportunities for graduate students,” he said, exploring avenues for student exchanges with other digital humanities centers within the United States and internationally. “I see this as a way to give graduate students an opportunity to not only experience new ways of doing digital humanities, but also, to develop professional networks beyond the Mason campus.”

This is true on Mason’s campus, as well. “We’re definitely trying to find ways to let the interests of the students drive some of the work that we’re doing,” he said. “Some of it’s going to be driven by faculty research interests and by the needs of the field, but to the degree that it’s possible we want the work to be also driven by the interests of our graduate students because they are the ones who are going to go out over the next couple of decades and really build the next version of digital humanities.”

Mullen agreed, and described the center’s graduate research assistants as ambassadors for the work of RRCHNM. “In addition to graduate research assistants being vital to the work that we’re doing and pulling us in new directions,” he said, “they are also taking what they are learning here and going out and really extending the reach of the center through their own work and scholarship.”

“The way I think about it,” said Kelly, “I’m Digital History 1.0, Lincoln and Jessica are Digital History 2.0, our PhD students are Digital History 3.0.”

“And that is our benefit,” added Otis. “That keeps us revitalized; we're not going to ever get stuck in a rut. Because we're always going to be bringing in new people who are excited by new things and investing in new technologies and experimenting, seeing what works.”