The University of New Orleans is the recipient of a nearly $500,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant that will help make historical data and stories more accessible online that are important, not only to the history of New Orleans, but also to global audiences.
“With this support, we can make available original documents from the Earl K. Long Library’s Special Collections and share narratives and stories produced by the Midlo Center and the UNO Press,” said Mary Niall Mitchell, director of the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies and UNO history professor. “We are the only major public research university in the city. We are thrilled that the NEH recognizes the importance of supporting the humanities at institutions such as ours—institutions of higher learning which exist, first and foremost, to serve the public.”
The project, “Illuminating the Unseen: Digital Projects to Commemorate Forgotten Voices in America’s Story,” includes activities led by Midlo, the Earl K. Long Library and the UNO Press with an overarching mission of racial justice and gender equality, Mitchell said.
Library faculty member Connie Phelps and UNO Press editor-in-chief Abram Himelstein are co-principal investigators for the grant, along with Mitchell.
The project’s title was chosen to highlight how digital projects can bring forgotten or silenced histories to light in very public ways, Mitchell said.
“This is particularly important in New Orleans, where scholars and community members always contend with a heavy dose of historical yarn spinning aimed at tourists,” Mitchell said. “Too often those stores do not reflect the lived experiences of most of the city’s residents, past and present, including indigenous communities.
“New Orleans is rich with stories that still need telling and the accessibility and reach of digital media helps us to do that.”
While digital humanities is currently a vibrant field among scholars, not every digital humanities project is designed to engage the public, Mitchell said.
“The work UNO is doing centers audiences and communities within and beyond the academy—be they citizen historians, genealogists, scholars, engaged readers, K-12 teachers and students, or even tourists visiting New Orleans,” Mitchell said.
The importance of being able to access historical documents online has been highlighted during the coronavirus pandemic when in-person research was restricted, Mitchell said.
“We saw during the pandemic that people still need to get into archives,” Mitchell said. “The more documents we can make available to researchers digitally—such as the New Orleans School Board records, which were critical to the process of school facility renaming happening over the past year—the more resilient our Special Collections will be when we encounter the kinds of challenges COVID presented.”
Readership on the New Orleans Historical website, a free digital history tour site, increased during the pandemic as people, many of whom were stuck at home, were looking online for information about the city’s history, Mitchell said.
“Journalists, too, rely on New Orleans Historical for deadline stories because of the well-researched and cited content it provides,” Mitchell said. “With NEH support, we now have new project managers to keep UNO’s digital projects up to date.
“Grants like these are essential because they help the University to serve a broad public.”
The $498,182 grant will help fund a three-prong humanities strategy with projects developed by:
University of New Orleans Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies, which promotes understanding of the city’s history and culture, with an emphasis on civil rights. The Midlo Center supports new scholarship on New Orleans and fosters interdisciplinary collaboration and community partnerships that promote public engagement, support the cultural life of the city, and significantly advance the public humanities at UNO.
The University of New Orleans Earl K. Long Library Special Collections coordinates with other departments and the community to acquire, provide for the use of, preserve, and publicize distinctive and unique collections in all formats, and offers expert assistance to constituents in the university and external scholarly communities. Special Collections is home to over 535 unique collections that represent the rich history and culture of New Orleans and Louisiana, including historical documents from the New Orleans public schools and the Louisiana Supreme Court.
University of New Orleans Press, is the only university press in the greater New Orleans region.
NEH Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan grant awards will preserve humanities jobs and support the reopening and rebuilding of humanities programs.