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McGann receives first national award for digital humanities
Jerome McGann
Photo by Stephanie Gross
English professor Jerome McGann has long been at the forefront of applying technology in the study of humanities. One of his innovative projects was editing “The Complete Writings and Pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Hypermedia Research Archive.

By Robert Brickhouse

Jerome J. McGann, an authority on 19th-century literature, has been named the first winner of a $25,000 national award that honors leaders in the use of computers to expand traditional notions of humanities scholarship and teaching.

McGann, the John Stewart Bryan University Professor of English, received the first Richard W. Lyman Award, presented by the National Humanities Center, in a ceremony May 6 at the Time & Life Building in New York. The award is named for Richard W. Lyman, former president of Stanford University and the Rockefeller Foundation, and is made possible through support from the foundation.

A noted expert on Romantic and Victorian literature and the history and theory of texts, McGann is also the Thomas Holloway Professor of Victorian Studies at Royal Holloway College, University of London.

The grandson, son and brother of printers, McGann has long been at the forefront of the application of computer technology in the study of the humanities. One of his innovative projects was editing “The Complete Writings and Pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Hypermedia Research Archive,” published by University of Michigan Press. The massive archive allows scholars and students to trace the Victorian author and artist’s work from manuscripts into print, and to view his drawings and paintings, read reviews and scholarship or use search engines for new research.

McGann is on the advisory board for a similar archive for the 18th century poet and artist William Blake. He has also written extensively on computing in the humanities, most recently in “Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web,” published this year.

“The Lyman Award recognizes the exciting results of these efforts,” said James O’Donnell, professor of classical studies and vice provost for information systems and computing at the University of Pennsylvania, who led a committee of seven scholars that selected McGann. “The award honors an individual who has made important scholarly contributions that could not have been made without the innovative and wise use of information technology.”

In recent years, scholars in the classics, English and American literature, history and other humanistic disciplines have increasingly used computers and the Web to create facsimiles of rare manuscripts, to archive and annotate literary and scholarly materials, and to link text, visual images and sound, O’Donnell said. The results are breaking down traditional boundaries for learning, teaching and research by stimulating new ways of exploring materials.

The Rossetti archive is among about 40 digital projects affiliated with U.Va.’s internationally known Institute for Advanced Technology, of which McGann is a co-founder.

Both Rossetti and Blake are ideally suited to “an all-purpose, multimedia, hypermedia environment for editing cultural works,” McGann said. “You can’t really edit Rossetti in textual form because he is, like Blake, a multimedia artist.”

The award also cites McGann’s work in creating “the Ivanhoe Game,” a Web-based software application for enhancing the critical study of traditional humanities materials. He developed the game with his colleague Johanna Drucker, professor of media studies at U.Va., and a team of graduate students and computer scientists.

McGann added that he believes digital expertise is an increasingly marketable skill for the young humanist willing to put in the effort to acquire it. And at a time when even major scholarly books often fail to sell 1,000 copies, he sees digital publishing as an important avenue for a new generation. “I believe that our scholarship will increasingly be transferred to a digital archiving and delivery system,” he said. “And our scholarship will be even better for it.”

Among numerous traditional studies, McGann also has edited “Byron: The Complete Poetical Works” and “The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse” and is author of “Fiery Dust: Byron’s Poetic Achievement” and “Poetics of Sensibility.” He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and, among many other honors, has held two Guggenheim and two National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships.

His accomplishments and ambitions place McGann in an important tradition of humanities scholarship, according to Willard McCarty, senior lecturer at the Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King’s College London, and a member of the award’s selection committee.

“The job of the humanities scholar is to look beyond the claims made for technology and the obvious uses, to question long-term consequences and implications – and, most significant of all, to discover how the new knowledge-making instrument empowers our imaginations.”


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