Publication Date

April 1, 1997

There has recently been a rash of worrying stories about public libraries hurtling headlong into the digital age, casting books, collections, and card catalogs into oblivion in their injudicious and intemperate rush forward.1 Despite these stories, I am a firm believer in the power of networking our cultural resources through computer technology that is intelligently integrated, moderated, and coordinated to have a profound and positive impact on teaching and learning in this nation and around the world.

A vision of the "knowledge future" that computing technology can bring us is one in which any individual can use a networked computer to ask a question about history and culture, to examine specific cultural or historical material, or to browse through collections of related resources. The inquirer would not need to use technical language or restrictive key terms; he or she could just ask a question. Archive material, records, manuscripts, texts, images, videos, and other cultural objects distributed in many collections around the globe would be searched and the material would be digitally delivered, allowing the inquirer to investigate and explore a subject or a problem as desired. As Berkeley Librarian Peter Lyman has said, this could spell the end of ideological textbooks in schools, as teachers, relieved of the act of "explaining" can guide students more actively in engaging with primary sources. Learning will be more a matter of research.

Such a vision will be reified not simply by our ability to digitize objects and transmit increasingly powerful packets of digital data across computer networks ever more efficiently. Making the vision real will depend also on more complicated issues: on our ability to conceptually and philosophically map the territory ahead and the changes it will bring to the ways that we research and learn; on our political ability to work with those in other disciplines, sectors, and countries; and on our technical, organizational, and social ability to achieve and then adhere to consistent standards in the way that the material is described, catalogued, and indexed. It will depend on our achieving acceptable national and international agreements on educational and other uses of copyright material. It will depend on teachers and others realizing imaginative ways of presenting and using digital material when it arrives: different interfaces for different audiences, teaching software, templates, and guides. This is not just a question of technology; this enterprise will depend on all kinds of people working together.

The National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage (NINCH) is a new organization designed to foster this process. It is a broad membership coalition established to assure the fullest possible participation of the cultural sector in the new digitally networked environment. The American Historical Association joiner NINCH as a charter member in 1995, recognizing the urgent need for such a broad-based organization to meet the challenges of the new technology for scholarly communications. We want to welcome all members of the AHA also as members of NINCH and offer our assistance and guidance to all in the profession as we move together into this new digital territory.

One of the seeds for the creation of NINCH was a 1992 Irvine conference, "Technology, Scholarship, and the Humanities," organized by the American Council of Learned Societies and other groups to collectively consider the scholarly implications of the digital revolution.2 A year later, when the Clinton administration’s 1993 Action Agenda for creating a national information infrastructure failed to acknowledge any role in the envisioned information infrastructure for the arts and humanities, a leadership group was assembled in Washington, D.C., to organize the community’s broad response, and NINCH is one result of that effort.3

The National Initiative was thus formed at the nexus of scholarship and politics. Linking the activities and concerns of the scholarly community with those of the larger cultural community can only strengthen both as we work to educate our own field and to influence national policy. Museums, libraries, scholarly societies, research and educational institutions, and contemporary arts organizations are joining NINCH to help build an environment in which people and institutions can be encouraged and supported in networking their cultural resources in smart and integrated ways.

The State of the Field: Vision and Needs

Much good and constructive work is being done in many fields in what we might call the first phase of the massive project of making cultural heritage materials widely accessible in electronic forms. Among the many resources being built are: hyperlinked scholarly and historical editions like the Model Editions Partnership projects and the Brown University Women Writers' Project; virtual research archives on a single figure or topic such as Jerome McGann's Dante Gabriel Rosetti site or the collaborative Vergil project at Pennsylvania guides and gateways to Web-based resources such as Georgetown's "Labyrinth" guide to medieval studies electronic datasets such as the Research Library Group's "Studies in Scarlet" project on marriage and sexuality in the United States and the United Kingdom, 1815–1914, or the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database; experimental teaching tools like Steven Marx' Multimedia Blake Project; or collaborative multidisciplinary research tools such as John Dobbins' Virginia-based Pompeii Forum Project. But even the broadest of these, those that sort through, collect, and direct Web navigators to collections of materials, are single projects. They still have walls and boundaries, idiosyncrasies, and resources that freeze or disappear without trace. And the World Wide Web, despite its multimedia capability and the power of hyperlinking, is still a rudimentary tool for scholarly research; many electronic projects still cannot be networked.

Libraries and archives are doing a good job in beginning the necessary work of preparing the ground for coordination and integration of activities, projects, and standards. For example, the National Digital Library Federation is providing an infrastructure within which libraries can cooperate. The National Digital Library Program at the Library of Congress is deliberately tackling the hardest issues it can find in digitizing material for its American Memory Project so that the challenges can be clearly defined for the rest of us. The American Heritage Virtual Archive Project is an experimental prototype to make available in a single searchable database hundreds of finding aids to primary source materials in American history and culture from collections at four major research libraries.

All of these are good beginnings. The charge and imperative for NINCH is to encourage and catalyze further coordination and integration of effort. We must extend and share the activities and lessons learned by universities, libraries, museums, and others in the context of a complex political landscape, which the current copyright debates brilliantly illuminate.

The Start-Up Strategy

NINCH is now in the midst of a start-up strategic plan that-reflects three paramount concerns:

  • That the cultural community have a clear sense of direction about its role in the new digital environment so that constituencies can develop a coordinated, systematic approach to networking cultural resources.
  • That government and industry understand the place and potential of the arts and humanities in the development of a global information infrastructure.
  • That this very broad and diverse community have a common, dependable communications infrastructure it can use to share and learn about developments in digital networking as well as to coordinate its positions and expertise on issues, research, and developments in the field.

NINCH's immediate solutions to these concerns are, respectively:

Community Building: We will include as many members of the cultural community as possible in the task of building a platform where we articulate and voice a clear direction in the digital arena.

Advocacy: NINCR will make the case to government, to other major institutions, and to our own constituency about the critical importance of ensuring that the arts and humanities community be a partner in the construction of the national information infrastructure. As a start, it has created a working group to plan a 1997 Congressional effort and to develop our long-term advocacy strategies.

Communications and Education: NINCH is constructing its own communications infrastructure on which it will gather and distribute news and information about networking developments, provide guidance and leadership in prioritizing the issues we face and communicate a broad working agenda to our member organizations.

Our listservs and Web site at for announcements, newsletters, and resources are operating; we invite your participation. We have established working groups in advocacy, copyright, and fair use policy; a cultural diversity project and two cross-sectoral research projects are also under way.

I believe that digital forms will not replace earlier forms and containers of knowledge-just as radio and cinema have not killed the book. Pilgrimages will continue to be made to the Bayeux Tapestry and the Declaration of Independence, even though we may reproduce, annotate, combine, and relate them on screen with other works. Photographs, CDs, and original digital works beg other questions, but a William Blake watercolor will still keep its radiance. If they won't replace the power of original works, the bits and bytes on the computer screen will enable us an even greater access to the congress of ideas and thoughts from the past and present that will generate the culture of the future. May that be as rich as we can make it, safe from the narrowing influences of the converging giant edutainment complexes that have the effect of narrowing our sense of our selves and of our cultural richness, rather than of deepening and broadening them.

Innovation is a social and cultural phenomenon, not a technological one. With much technical work to be done, the cultural community needs a strong and broad enough vision of itself and its needs in this area to be able to articulate and command what it wants, rather than riding sidecar to the main show. As a coalition, NINCH has immense potential to catalyze enough synergetic partnerships to carry us forward in the right direction. We trust the scholarly community will continue to be a full partner in this endeavor.


1. Nicholson Baker, The New Yorker, October 14, 1996; Ingrid Eisenstadter, “A Tangled Information Web,” Newsweek, February 17, 1997; Sallie Tisdale, “Silence, Please,” Harper's Magazine, March 1997.

2.Technology, Scholarship, and the Humanities: The Implications of Electronic Information. September 30-October 1, 1992. Summary of Proceedings (Getty Trust, 1993) .

3. Information Infrastructure Task Force, The National Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Action, September 15, 1993.

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