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Date: Sep 30, 2009
Hofstra University Receives $175,000 Grant from the NEH For Innovative Electronic Library Dedicated to the Study of Herman Melville
Two-year Grant is the Largest in Hofstra's History Awarded for Research in the Humanities
John Bryant photo
by Frank Fournier
Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY … Dr. John Bryant, a Hofstra University professor of English since 1986, has received a grant for $175,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) over the next two years. The award is the largest humanities grant in Hofstra’s history and will be used to launch the Melville Electronic Library (MEL), a digital “critical archive” of the works of Herman Melville.
MEL will become the primary online site for Melville research. Users of MEL, including scholars, critics, students, and general readers, will have unprecedented access to a searchable collection of interlinked versions of Melville’s manuscripts, print texts, sources, art works, and other research and secondary materials.
Dr. Bryant says by the conclusion of the two-year grant period, Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, and Battle-Pieces, Melville’s collection of Civil War poems, will be the first works to populate MEL. It will take approximately 15 years to complete the digital archive. Once completed, Dr. Bryant says it will be “an intellectual playground” for Melville scholars and students.
One key feature of MEL, presently under development by Hofstra’s Web development team, is the innovative software program TextLab, which will enable users to compare varying manuscript stages and published versions of Melville’s writings, or what Dr. Bryant calls “fluid texts.” This unique digital research “tool” will also allow scholars and readers to work collaboratively in developing “revision narratives” that explain Melville’s revisions and his evolving creative process.
The creation of TextLab was made possible by a Digital Humanities Start-Up grant from the NEH over a year ago. Eventually, TextLab may be a model for the creation of similar literary forums for other authors. When asked which authors other than Melville would be prime candidates to be featured and studied in this fashion, Dr. Bryant responded, “Any author. There is nothing that has been written that doesn’t exist in multiple versions of one sort or another.”
Judith Tabron, director of faculty computing at Hofstra, has been working closely with Dr. Bryant on the grant. She says, “The NEH grant John Bryant has received is groundbreaking because it will assist in building the first Web 2.0 online archive for an important American author. Dr. Bryant has become known for his groundbreaking ideas on ‘fluid text’ textual scholarship that recognizes the lack of fixity in a text. Hopefully the Melville Electronic Library will begin to realize his vision of fluid-text scholarship within a resource that will become a hub of useful information and interaction for students and teachers of Melville's work.
“Currently there are important Whitman and Dickinson online archives. By using wikis and other modern Web technologies, Dr. Bryant’s goal is to build not just a library but a community, a resource where the constantly changing information will provide new insights into Melville’s work for everyone from dedicated scholars of Melville through to students just being introduced to his work.”
John Bryant is one of the world’s foremost experts on Herman Melville. He is the author of Melville and Repose (Oxford), The Fluid Text (Michigan), Melville Unfolding (Michigan), and the Longman Critical Edition of Moby-Dick, which he co-edited with Haskell Springer. He is also the editor of Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, the official publication of the international Melville Society.
The idea for a Melville digital archive is one that Dr. Bryant first conceived in the late 1990s, while researching a manuscript of Typee that was discovered in 1983. He saw the need to develop a new approach to studying and editing revisions of classic works. It was an idea truly ahead of its time, as Dr. Bryant unsuccessfully applied for an NEH grant back then to further develop his concept. “Now, years later,” Dr. Bryant says, “the NEH is much more receptive to the idea and can see the value in creating an online resource that would expand the consciousness of readers and allow them to think more deeply about what they are reading.”
Further underscoring the significance of the grant, Dr. Bryant says, that of the 20 Scholarly Edition Awards announced by the NEH earlier this year, only five were to fund projects in the field of literature. Both of Dr. Bryant’s grants were part of the NEH’s “We the People” program, which aims to encourage and strengthen the teaching, study, and understanding of American history and culture through libraries, schools, colleges, universities, and cultural institutions.
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