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Learned Society 2.0

Learned Society 2.0

 “Learned Society 2.0”


Dianne Harris

President, Society of Architectural Historians

Director, Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


When I was nominated by my peers in 2006 to become an executive officer for the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH), I entered into a six-year commitment that would culminate in serving a two-year term as president. At the time of my nomination, I agreed to assist in the myriad operations of a medium-sized learned society that was founded in 1940, had approximately 2,300 individual members, and another 900 institutions that joined primarily to subscribe to our journal,theJournal of the Society of Architectural Historians (JSAH).  With headquarters in a historic Chicago house, and a full-time staff of five people, I imagined myself helping to direct the intellectual course of the field to which I was then, and remain now, passionately devoted: the study of the history of the built environment. I imagined myself advising and helping to direct and oversee what were then the major initiatives of the society: production of the leading scholarly journal in our field and a book series, the management of our study tour program, and oversight for our annual meeting. Although the SAH had been running a listserv for its members for many years, it was still in 2006 pretty much what we might call a “Learned Society 1.0,” which is to say that the society was not engaging with its members or the public through any kind of interactive social networking tools or interactive web technologies, and we still imagined our publications as we had for decades. The only major adjustment our journal had seen up to that point was its availability in pdf format through JSTOR, but only issues that were more than three years old could be accessed as pdf files through JSTOR.

What I didn’t quite imagine in 2006 was that I would become immersed, along with many of my colleagues, in the development of a set of online academic resources designed to enhance and revolutionize the ways scholars in my field conduct research, teach, and produce scholarship. At that time, I had only recently become aware of the field of digital humanities. By 2011, I—along with some of my colleagues--had become a full-fledged digital humanist. How did this happen, and what has it meant for my scholarly society? More broadly, what has been, and what will be, the impact of the digital revolution in the humanities for scholarly and learned societies whose missions support the humanities and arts-related disciplines? What I hope to highlight here is that digital capacities have been in alignment with and have allowed the SAH to fulfill and to further its mission. Indeed, the SAH has become a leading scholarly society in digital humanities innovation. But it is also important to note that there are sometimes significant gaps that exists between the experiential backgrounds, skill sets, and resources of scholarly societies and their members who engage in these projects, and in the ability to attain productive outcomes when engaging in digital humanities projects of varying types. My point is that these gaps can be overcome, but it is important to acknowledge the challenges they can present if one begins such projects unaware.

Before I begin recounting the SAH’s involvement in digital humanities project development, I should note that learned societies face specific challenges that are unlike those posed to individual scholars located in universities who serve as principal investigators on funded research projects. Learned societies typically do not employ librarians, archivists, or computer programmers; they tend not to be able to house and maintain multiple computer servers that can host a significant digital project; as non-profits, they tend to run on lean budgets. If they have paid staff, it is generally a small staff. If they have endowment funds, they tend to be earmarked for fellowship support and traditional forms of publication support. Their journals tend to be run by academic editors whose work is largely subsidized by their home institution rather than by the learned society. In the humanities, they tend not to have large numbers of members who have knowledge of or keep current with developments in digital technologies. So learned societies that engage in these projects face very specific sets of conditions, just as they may also be well-positioned to lead the way in digital innovation. For SAH, all these conditions applied seven years ago, but as I will explain, much has changed as we have become a learned society 2.0.

The entrée for the SAH into the digital world came in 1994 when one of our members from Bryn Mawr College, Jeffrey Cohen, initiated a digital image exchange program that he launched on the society’s website. Since all architectural historians heavily rely on images for teaching and research, Cohen’s idea was to create a shared, if informal repository, for digital images that could be used by anyone who accessed the site. The SAH Image Exchange (as it came to be known) existed essentially as a bucket into which anyone could contribute an image with limited metadata that could then be retrieved and downloaded from the site. It existed without any outside financial support, and was produced without the assistance of librarians or programmers. In hindsight, Cohen’s idea was truly visionary.  The creation of the Image Exchange was also a mammoth task because he digitized and uploaded hundreds of images and their metadata individually, all by himself . As an early adopter of digital image technology, he saw the potentials it held for scholars in a range of fields, including our own, when many others did not yet share that same vision.

Cohen’s SAH Image Exchange eventually captured the attention of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. As Don Waters, the Digital Humanities Program Officer for the Mellon Foundation commented in a meeting in May, Cohen’s SAH Image Exchange served as the basis for the initial development of what has become one of the Foundation’s most successful (and now independently operating) incubated projects: ARTstor, a rich digital image library available by subscription to institutions.[1] ARTstor quickly became a substantial and useful archive for those who teach and study painting, drawing, and sculpture. But by 2005, it was far less useful for architectural, urban, and landscape historians, despite its origins in architectural history. At the same time, the Image Exchange  lived on the SAH website, a relatively small collection of small image files that were not easily searchable, and not easily controlled for image quality or metadata.   In its original form, theSAH Image Exchange simply wasn’t sustainable because it  was built before issues of scalability, searchability, and interoperability could be developed.

Between 2006 and 2008, the SAH received four Mellon Foundation grants to develop two projects. The first two grants were for development of a multi-media online platform for the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, a project led by Hilary Ballon (then Columbia University) and Mariët Westermann (then NYU) and led to fruition by Hilary Ballon (now NYU at Abu Dhabi) and David Brownlee (University of Pennsylvania). First published by the University of California Press, the JSAH Online launched in March of 2010, supporting the publication of high-resolution zoom-able color images, video clips, audio files, QTVR panoramas, and the integration of  3D models with Google Earth maps. As the very first of its kind, it was adopted (within one year’s time!)  by JSTOR and is now widely available in their Current Scholarship Program as a platform that can be adopted for use by other scholarly journals that rely on comparative images and multi-media content to convey an argument.

The third and fourth Mellon grants had an even more ambitious charge: to develop a 21st century SAH Image Exchange--a robust digital image archive that would allow members of the Society to upload and share their images but in a controlled environment and with detailed metadata.  The goal was to produce a new collaborative model that partnered scholars with visual resource and architecture librarians, initially from three universities (Brown, MIT, and UVA). Working with ARTstor as our technology host and partner,  SAH crossed a new threshold, entering a world of which we knew relatively little, to create what has become known as SAHARA: the Society of Architectural Historians Architecture Resources Archive.  The core of the SAH development team now includes Pauline Saliga and Dietrich Neumann (Co-PIs), Dianne Harris (Editor-in-Chief), Anne Whiteside (Project Director), Allison Benedetti (Project Manager), Jeffrey Cohen, Sandy Isenstadt, Jolene de Verges ,and Jackie Spafford (Editorial Executive Committee Members).

The creation of SAHARA took place over several years—indeed that work continues-- and resulted from the collaborative efforts of a team of SAH members, university librarians, and the ARTstor staff. Together, we created a specialized tool (called IMATA) that would allow SAH members to upload and catalog their own images. The resultant metadata is especially rich, allowing searches tailored specifically to the needs of scholars in our fields. It also includes a field that permits the entry of a scholarly essay that can be written to address a specific aspect or aspects of an image. Once the images are uploaded, they appear in the Members Collection of SAHARA, but they are also sorted behind the scenes into editor’s “buckets” that were designed as part of an editorial tool (called SPOT). SAHARA area editors—pairs of scholars and librarians with subject area expertise—then review the metadata, the image quality, and any accompanying commentary (the essays). If they pass this peer-review process, the images are elevated and published to the SAHARA Editor’s Choice collection. That content is also shared with the ARTstor Digital Library. 

In creating this tool, the SAH forged a new model of collaboration between scholars and librarians; it created a new form of peer-reviewed, digital scholarly publication; and it created a useful resource for its members. The new model encouraged SAH members and librarians at multiple institutions to participate, furthering the collaborative aspects of collection building. It also created the beta version for ARTstor’s emerging platform known as Shared Shelf, which uses a revised version of the SAHARA ingest tool (IMATA) to allow ARTstor Shared Shelf subscribers to upload and share their images across a campus and potentially across institutional boundaries.

What began as projects for a medium-sized scholarly society then, ended up becoming the beta versions for a new multi-media publishing platform that can now serve scholars across academe, and a new form of image archive that can also potentially serve faculty and students in universities around the world. And SAH is now in the process of developing a third digital resource that is funded by  NEH and is being created in collaboration with the University of Virginia Press, one that builds on our successful print series, the Buildings of the United States and that will launch next year as SAH Archipedia. We’ve also created a network of online communities for our members known as “SAH Communities” using the social networking tool “Groupsites,” and we have used Microsoft QR tags at our annual meetings to allow members using their web-enabled cell phones to take self-guided architectural tours of the cities in which we meet.

All of this has been very exciting, and there is evidence that our digital projects have invigorated our members. The projects have dramatically increased the society’s ability to reach out to the general public and to make more visible the intellectual work of the society and its members. But the projects also require the allocation of various kinds of resources that include large amounts of time that must be given by our very small paid staff and by ranks of devoted SAH members and librarians who volunteer their time as editors, as contributors, and as key actors in the creative team. They require the acquisition of new language skills (a few of us at the SAH now possess increasing, if still limited, fluency in the language of computer programming), the ability to communicate with people who work in the technology/digital world, particular kinds of business skills, creative/design skills, and the ability to work across new disciplinary terrains. But mostly, they require time and money, two things that are often in limited supply within scholarly societies. It takes time and money to create these new digital tools, but it also takes time and money to sustain them. Ideally, they are or will rapidly become self-sustaining, but making them so presents still more challenges to the learned societies who choose this digital path. If we examine each of these in some detail, it becomes clear that engagement in the digital world comes at a price for learned societies, one they will have to weigh before seriously considering engagement with digital tool-building. But it also brings significant benefits to learned society members and positions those societies differently than in the past.



Language Skills


As anyone who studies language is aware, it can be difficult to imagine the possible if you don’t know what tools are available to you, what those tools can do, or even what they are called. To develop SAHARA, both scholars and librarians had to learn a new vocabulary. Phrases such as “front end” and “back end,” “skin,” “filters,” “faceted searches,” “federated searches,” “API,” “content management systems,” (and their various names which often sound either like a new hybrid species of dog, an exotic vacation destination, or an item of clothing: Drupal, Islandora, Omeka, Fedora)  “asset management,” “Dublin Core,” “open source code,” (which often sounds a lot more open than it actually is) and an array of programming language names have become commonplace for us now (some of these were already commonplace for librarians), but it took a while for us to learn this knew vocabulary. So unfamiliar was this language in the first year of our collaboration with ARTstor that terms sometimes went unheard, unprocessed. Consequently, we sometimes thought we understood the project when we did not, and the programmers sometimes  thought they understood us when they did not. The result was, of course, some fairly deep levels of mutual frustration. Gaining some fluency in that language took everyone’s time, patience, and work. It involved the good-faith efforts of programmers who had to learn to thoughtfully define their terms when we asked for clarification. And it meant we made some useful mistakes along the way (useful because we learned from them). Gaining a deeper understanding of the processes involved in programming also involved an investment of time and effort. At the end of year three of SAHARA’s development, I can say with some confidence that we have fewer miscommunications with our programmers than we had in year one, and that we have an exponentially greater ability to imagine the possible and to be full collaborators in discussions on design and future iterations now than we once did. We can confidently engage in discussions about desired outcomes because we know what’s out there on the web, we know what is possible, we know roughly how much time it should take to build some kinds of software and roughly what it should cost.  But all this entailed a considerable amount of self-education on the part of the SAHARA team, work that happened on both sides of the table (technology partner and SAH team).


Business Skills


Our Mellon grants included funding to hire a business consulting firm, and we worked with Ithaka for the first 2 years of both projects. They helped us understand some of the financial implications for the Society (though some could not be foreseen), possible revenue streams, and sustainability costs. As a non-profit society, the SAH’s past concern had focused largely on recouping the costs of production for our journal and book series. Our digital future, however, demanded a new way of thinking about the business models we developed for our products. Everyone agreed that our primary concern was to maintain the very high levels of scholarly excellence attached to our products. The imprimateur of the Society, we understood, rests on our reputation for producing the best scholarship in the field. But the digital world we entered permitted a potentially vast audience who could help us capture the long term financial support necessary to sustaining projects like SAHARA, and who can also help us capture high-quality content in new ways. Without that audience, the lifespan of the projects remains uncertain. With that audience, the projects not only survive but we also create opportunities to make a far greater impact with our scholarship and to generate new kinds of products for new audiences such as K-12 teachers and students, and interested members of the general public as well as an increasingly broad international audience.

Our business consultants assisted with some of these concerns, but we have increasingly discovered the need to think like entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurial thinking does not typically take place in learned society board meetings.  What this demands then, are new formats for conversations, much more dialog (a lot more conference calls), an ability to move relatively quickly on fresh ideas, and the ability to act when important opportunities arise.




All this takes time.  Lots of time. During the past academic year, our journal’s publication relied on the volunteer time of approximately 40 peer reviewers, an editor-in-chief, and an editor-designate. SAHARA required the volunteer time of approximately 30 scholars and librarians and the literally countless hours dedicated by our core team of 8 executive committee members, as well as the large number of SAHARA content contributors. SAH Archipedia now involves another team of one director, two editors, a dozen authors and peer reviewers, and countless photographers. What do all these people do? They generate and contribute content, they act as peer reviewers, they act as area editors and specialists, they provide feedback on functionalities, and they provide ideas and visions for future developments. (And all this doesn’t even touch on the technical and programming  work done by our publishing partners at UC Press, JSTOR, ARTstor, and UVA Press. ) Editorial work, in fact, is likely to become a growth industry for learned societies engaged in these projects because they require so much oversight and control in order to maintain quality of the content. Our learned society is especially fortunate to have so many members who are willing to give significant amounts of their time to support our endeavors. But we have to face the future realistically. Scholars everywhere are now being asked by their institutions to do more with less. The future is likely to hold challenges for the human resources side of delivering and maintaining digital humanities projects that are created by learned societies, which will need to develop creative solutions to the need to fulfill emerging roles related to those projects.




Becoming a leader in digital humanities innovation is certainly a new role for the Society of Architectural Historians, one that has brought it acclaim and that has invigorated its members while simultaneously presenting the Society with new challenges. It is not a role the Society imagined for itself a decade ago, but the SAH Board of Directors recently included continuing leadership in this realm as a mandate of its 2010 strategic plan. In the very rapidly paced world of digital innovation, it is not possible to say with certainty or precision what this will mean for the SAH or for any other learned societies in the coming years. The question, it seems, is no longer whether learned societies should embrace these endeavors, but what will become of them if they decide not to do so. To remain relevant to their members, most learned societies will, I predict, necessarily embrace some aspects of engagement with the digital humanities.  How they will integrate these new projects into their budgets, into their missions, and into the lives of their directors and members will remain the fundamental questions. The greater certainty is the continued evolution and emergence of Learned Society 2.0 throughout the academic world.





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