UNC to launch Digital Innovation Lab

Robert Allen with the type of historical material featured in the “Main Street, Carolina” and “Going to the Show” digital archives. (photo by Dan Sears)

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will launch a new virtual lab that will encourage collaborative, interdisciplinary and innovative digital humanities projects.

Brett Bobley, director of the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities, will give a free public talk Oct. 10 to celebrate the kickoff of the Digital Innovation Lab, which will be affiliated with the American studies department in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences. Bobley will speak at 2 p.m. in the University Room of Hyde Hall, home of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, located off East Franklin Street.

The Digital Innovation Lab will encourage the production of digital “public goods”: projects and tools that are of social and cultural value; can be made publicly available; are scalable and reusable; and/or serve multiple audiences. One immediate focus will be the use of large-scale data sources – maps, newspapers, city directories, public records – by scholars and the public in understanding the history of communities. The lab, accessed at http://digitalinnovation.unc.edu, was created with a startup grant from the college.

“Digital technologies have the potential to transform how our faculty in the humanities ask questions about the world, engage with local communities, create learning environments for our students and collaborate with partners within and beyond the University,” said William L. Andrews, Ph.D., senior associate dean for the fine arts and humanities in the College.

The lab will build on the nationally funded digital humanities work of its UNC co-directors and co-founders — Robert Allen, Ph.D, and Richard Marciano, Ph.D. Allen is the James Logan Godfrey Distinguished Professor of American studies, history and communication studies. Marciano is a professor in the School of Information and Library Science and affiliated professor in American studies and director of Sustainable Archives and Leveraging Technologies (SALT).

This year the lab will expand two ongoing projects:

  • Main Street, Carolina is a digital local history program that partners with cultural heritage organizations around North Carolina to explore the histories of the man-made environment and community life. The program, a partnership with the University Library, has produced digital projects with the Levine Museum of the New South, Preservation Durham, New Hanover County Public Library and the City of Durham. Four new projects are in development. Main Street, Carolina received the first Felix Harvey Award for the Advancement of Institutional Priorities at UNC.
  • T-RACES (Testbed for the Redlining Archives of California’s Exclusionary Spaces) makes publicly available for the first time Depression-era government real estate maps for eight California cities, which formed the basis for the “redlining” of selected neighborhoods based on the greatest mortgage-loan risk. The digitized maps and searchable documentation reveal the extent to which racial and ethnic factors influenced mortgage policies. In turn, these policies shaped the history of neighborhoods. The innovative system for analyzing this previously inaccessible historical data is being adapted for other cities, including five in North Carolina.

With another grant from the college, the lab will begin work this year on a project called “Connecting People, Past and Place,” a tool kit for extracting, organizing and representing data from widely available sources documenting everyday life in early 20th-century America.

The lab’s work reaches into the classroom as well, involving graduate and undergraduate students. Through Allen’s graduate course on digital history, students from across the University work in project teams with cultural heritage organizations to develop and implement Main Street, Carolina projects. This year, they will team with undergraduate students in his “Main Street, Carolina” course to document Durham’s Hayti neighborhood and trace Lebanese immigration to North Carolina in the early 1900s.

The Digital Innovation Lab supports the Innovate@Carolina Roadmap, UNC’s plan to help Carolina become a world leader in launching university-born ideas for the good of society.