CHAPEL HILL — CHAPEL HILL -- Technology has transformed many facets of higher education over the past few decades. Students earn online degrees. Simulated surgeries are used to train doctors. Powerful computers allow researchers to examine ever-tinier organisms and faraway planets.
But Bobby Allen, longtime professor of history and American studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, is working to leverage new technologies in what might be higher educations final frontier the dusty archives where humanities researchers have long toiled.
Allen is co-founder of the Digital Innovation Lab within the College of Arts and Sciences, a year-old effort to exploit digital technologies in the service of humanities scholars, their students and the public.
His award-winning multimedia project on movie-going in North Carolina pioneered digital methods that he and his colleagues hope will fundamentally change the way humanities are studied and taught at UNC-CH. And this summer, Allen helped land a $1.4 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to implement those plans.
Digital research sounds simple. Academics who used to spend hours in far-flung collections that rarely even allowed photocopies can now access many of these documents, in digital format, online. But the effort is about more than making it easier for professors to access documents. It allows them to ask entirely different questions, and to engage the public in answering them.
This isnt just about humanists using computers, says Allen, who has been at the university for 33 years. Its creating opportunities for us to see connections that wed never be able to make otherwise.
English professor Bill Andrews, then the associate dean for fine arts and humanities, tapped Allen to explore ways to infuse the study of humanities with digital tools. He is very plugged into whats going on around the country, and his projects take a shape that appeal to a broad audience, Andrews says. Hes helped give us a way to disseminate the knowledge we create in the humanities to an ever-wider audience.
Allen was born in Gastonia, where his family worked in the cotton mills for generations. His father died when Allen was only 9, and his mother, who did secretarial work, reared him and his two younger sisters.
Allen was the first member of his family to attend college, and when he got to Davidson College, he recalls buying books for a two-year program of humanities courses, a stack that ranged from Aristotle to modern scholars. I realized that I now owned more books than my parents had owned in their entire lives, he says. And I had no clue what was in those books.
He quickly fell in love with the academic life and chose a career as a college professor to ensure hed never have to leave behind that constant exchange of ideas. A particularly engaging film class inspired him to go on to graduate studies in film.
He earned a Ph.D. in four years on a fellowship at the University of Iowa and taught at Virginia Polytechnic Institute for two years before coming to UNC in 1979. His research interests have been wide-ranging but largely focused on the history of popular entertainment in the United States, including vaudeville theater and what he calls its evil twin, burlesque, as well as soap operas.
His journey into so-called digital humanities began in 2006, when he hatched a plan to research movie-going in North Carolina in the early 20th century. He wanted to put together a wide variety of sources to create a complete picture of the eras segregated movie theaters, and consulted extensively with archivists, Web designers, and others to make that happen.
It was not a specific question I wanted to answer as much as trying to create a new way of seeing a historical phenomenon, he says.
The final product is a website with maps of every theater in the state, searchable by location, year, and racial policies, along with newspaper accounts, videos and photos, including one of a movie screen mounted in the surf at Wrightsville Beach.
The online format allowed such flexibility that Allen decided not to publish a book on the topic as planned, even though he had written 65,000 words. In fact, Allen says, hes unlikely to publish any more books.
Why would I? he says. It takes too long, and its a gravestone. Once its done, you cant change it.
A wide variety of people have used the site, from local residents looking for the theaters they attended as children to scholars studying segregation.
This outreach component is a key part of the innovation lab, which until recently was a virtual one; team members met across Franklin Street at a café. At its new home in Howell Hall last week, Allen displayed a map of downtown Charlotte in 1911 on a massive computer screen.
Created in his Main Street Carolina class, one layer of the map had the current Google street view. A click added a layer of historic insurance maps showing every 1911 building. On top of that appears a series of black and white dots indicating the race of the people who lived there.
A scholar used the maps to trace how the political turmoil during that time contributed to the changing racial makeup of the city. His undergraduate classes researched particular families.
Chronicling life in Hayti
A similar map of Durham is helping the nonprofit Preservation Durham chronicle life in the historic African-American community of Hayti.
Another role of the lab, and its recent grant, is to help scholars use digital tools effectively. A researcher who spent decades working with 200 issues of a newspaper, for instance, might need help figuring out what to do with a million issues from multiple publications.
Its expanded the archive of whats relative to the humanities by orders of magnitude, he says. Its a transformational change from a landscape predicated upon data scarcity and inaccessibility to a situation of data hyperabundance.
The new grant, along with money earmarked by UNC, will fund three new professors, postdoctoral researchers and teachers, and support for current faculty who are pursuing digital projects.
Andrews says Allens motivation to break new ground in digital research was exceptional. He wants to make it easier for others to follow the same path.
Bobby sort of invented this on his own and had to figure out how to do it all, Andrews said. We dont want to say everybodys got to be Bobby Allen. That would be asking too much.
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