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A Chance to See DH Work from Another Side

2018 April 4
by Sheila

Doodle by Jannelle Legg

My days of grant writing have come to an end for now. I’m pleased to announce that starting in late June, I will begin as a program officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities and will join the amazing, hard-working team in the Office of Digital Humanities. I couldn’t feel more excited for this opportunity to work for an organization truly dedicated to public humanities.

The position will offer me a chance to continue learning and exploring digital humanities methods and projects in a broader context than I do now. I will also work closely with many of you as potential and current grantees to develop work in the multiple ways that digital humanities scholarship develops and is expressed.

This new job, however, means that I must leave RRCHNM,which will not be easy.

Since 2005, I contributed to 26 funded grant proposals yielding $13 million in funding for the Center, and I worked on 20+ digital projects from the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank to Mobile for Museums, Histories of the National Mall, and Omeka, and to the DoingDH professional development series that is increasing digital capacity of faculty and cultural heritage professionals. Over these 13 years, I have worked with many smart and dedicated professional staff, graduate students, faculty at Mason, and with collaborators across cultural heritage organizations, foundations, universities, and open-source communities. My digital public humanities work has been both challenging and meaningful, as most collaborative work is. I remain convinced that all of the work I’ve done is not mine alone and is better because of collaboration.

During this time, I developed many close friendships with my colleagues. We’ve been through a lot together (including losing Roy) over the years: marriages, kids, mortgages, epic vacations, family deaths, illnesses, dissertation defenses, and white elephant exchanges. Some of my best recent memories occur during lunch at the Center’s main dev table with the amazing Public Projects team,+ our honorary teammate, Faolan Cheslack-Postava, and Research Projects Director Sean Takats, analyzing ingredients and packaging of Trader Joe’s snacks, discussing the rules of obscure Olympic sports, or playing trivia. All the while, we worked hard together moving towards shared goals; tackled big projects and problems; planned and discussed projects; respected one another’s expertise; listened to one another’s voices; and worked towards consensus on major decisions.

Some colleagues at other universities have marveled that I was able to craft a career and scholarly identity while working as a contingent faculty member whose salary was paid by grants. Somehow I fit in a lot, in addition to digital projects, including presenting and writing a few things (someday, my long-awaited digital and print publication will be published), and having some fun along the way. This worked for a long while, but I’m ready for a change.

When you’ve been at RRCHNM as long as I have, you see many folks come and go, and change will necessarily come to RRCHNM. By the end of the summer, all four of RRCHNM’s women leaders mentioned in Sharon Leon’s 2016-17 essay will have left the Center, as well as some staff and graduate students who will be moving on. During my time here, I feel lucky to have worked closely with many accomplished RRCHNM alum, including Sharon Leon, Tom Scheinfeldt, Dan Cohen, Lisa Rhody, Trevor Owens, Jeremy Boggs, and many others.

Much of the Center’s work has relied on the ideas and expertise of the Center’s staff at given moments in time. New exciting Center projects will emerge and reflect the ideas and specialties of the existing and incoming faculty. Long-term software projects, such as Omeka and Zotero, will remain strong due to their incredible project teams, and because of efforts taken by project directors past and present who established mechanisms to ensure for their long-term sustainability.

I came to Mason in 2002 as a part-time PhD student to work with Roy, and never imagined staying until 2018 to work for a Center named for him, without him there. I probably stayed longer than I would have were he still alive.

Now is the right time for me to move on to the NEH-ODH where I can support and foster digital humanities work at the national level. I’ll see you soon, when I will be exploring DH from another side and finding out the secret to those legendary ODH muffins.

Find me at MCN2017

2017 November 6
by Sheila

Tomorrow, I head to Pittsburgh for the Museum Computer Network’s 50th annual conference. The program celebrates #mcn50 with the theme of “Looking Back, Thinking Forward, Taking Action.”

If you are going to #MCN2017, do not miss the opening keynotes in conversation featuring Aleia Brown, Adrianne Russell, and Jamil Smith on Wednesday morning to start off the conference.

If you’d like to say hello, find me at one of my panels or around the conference:

  • Radicalizing Objects in History Museums Wednesday, November 08, 2:30 PM – 3:00 PM
    Twenty-five years ago, artist Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society, recontextualized and rattled the history museum field with this radical use of objects. I would like to brainstorm and build, in an unconference session, how history museums can invite and allow for critique of their institutions, and the society that created them, through their objects. Is the type of collaboration that opened the doors to MDHS to an artist possible today? In addition to a physical exhibition, it is possible to imagine this type of curation involving object-driven institutional and social critique through digital means? In this session we could even build a prototype of how something could work on the web. The bigger issues relate to bringing a history museum on board because it invites critique and addressing difficult histories, not only of the communities represented, but of the institutions themselves.
    Here is my working document for this unconference session. Come brainstorm ideas, things to build, ways to reinterpret and re-contextualize objects in history collections, or contribute from afar:
  • Confronting Theories of Museum Greatness, Wednesday, November 8, 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM

    What does it mean for a museum to be great? What does it mean for a museum to be in decline? Who gets to decide which is which, and what is the media’s role in that decision? When one narrative of so-called greatness is given prominence over others, what other narratives are pushed into the background and why?

    This panel will dive into these questions and more, using recent media coverage of museums as a framework for understanding how public perception of these narratives drives internal decision-making. The panel will also examine the role museum workers have in deciding which narratives to lift up, and in crafting more balanced theories of museum greatness and/or decline. In exploring the tension in museums between conservatism and progressivism, the authoritarian and the democratic, and innovation and excellence, the panel will endeavour to understand how (or whether) narratives of museum “greatness” change our work as well as the future course of our sector.


    Koven Smith
    Lanae Spruce
    Nikhil Trivedi
    Claire Blechman
    Kate Livingston
    Sheila Brennan

  • Engaging Curators! Inclusivity and Collaboration Across Institutions, Thursday, November 9, 8:45-9:45am

    Art curators are not necessarily brought into discussions shaping visitor engagement and digital strategies in art organizations today. This was not always the case, as art curators were part of MCN when it was founded in 1967. During its pilot phases, MCN’s coalition to create a network of museum collections involved curators, registrars, administrators, and technologists. This roundtable discussion will address the ways art curators are involved in institutional digital strategies fifty years later.

    The group will discuss the benefits and challenges as art museums implement– or begin to reframe–institutional strategies that integrate digital components across departments. To address the needs for professional development, others will reference the Networked Curator workshop, produced through a partnership between the Association of Art Museum Curators Foundation and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, that is providing digital advancement for art curators. Together with the audience, the roundtable will discuss strategies and projects initiating interdepartmental collaboration and inclusion to ensure that art museum digital initiatives and engagement strategies connect and serve their communities.


    Sheila Brennan
    Judith Pineiro
    Christina Nielsen
    Koven Smith
    Jose Diaz
    Sarah Hall

See you in Pittsburgh!

Publication in Parameters

2017 June 20
by Sheila

Parameters, the online scholarly forum published by the Social Science Research Council, is currently running a series on federal data use for research, and seeking submissions. 

I wrote a short piece that tells the story of RRCHNM’s Papers of the War Department and the reasons for needing to digitally reconstruct the archive of papers that were lost to a fire in 1800.

Data loss and recovery in the age of paper

My Digital Publishing Update: Nothing

2017 June 4
by Sheila

Since 2012, I have been working with University of Michigan Press’s Digital Culture Books imprint to produce what I had imagined as a hybrid digital publication: Stamping American Memory. My accepted proposal for the HASTAC-Michigan digital publication prize called for launching a revised version of my dissertation for WordPress + CommentPress, open peer review only, and, with the help of WP plugins, would offer print-on-demand option for readers wanting to pick and choose sections for generating an ePub or PDF. I insisted that any peer review be based on the online version, because I wrote and framed the project for the medium. I never intended for there to be a traditional book, instead, this was going to be a digital monograph. I believe that one reason for my selection was based on the probability that I would complete what I proposed– scholarly and technically.

Five years and three editors later, my open access digital monograph exists. It has been peer reviewed openly and blindly, (2014 version and 2016 final revisions), and people are reading it (eg, it’s been cited in a Smithsonian Magazine article ). Objective achieved! The publication, however, still lacks the official imprint of Michigan Press and a DOI. The latter is easy, the former, not so much.

Throughout this long process, I have received little guidance from Michigan Press. I also feel as if no one has read or explored what I produced at any stage. As a result, the production staff is now trying to determine how to deal with my relatively straightforward digital monograph, and how it can be produced in accordance with existing workflows and procedures. I remain surprised since Michigan was one of the first presses willing to experiment with and support digital-first writing projects (blog-to-book and open peer review).

Since I started this publication with the Press, I saw the beginning and end of Histories of the National Mall (2012-15), where I co-directed an amazing content and technical team, and we implemented workflows and style guides for researching, writing, revising, and copy editing 500 historical items and 45 online exhibits. Then, I led the writing of a guide that described our process, which we published in WordPress, made available as a PDF, and deposited that PDF in Mason’s digital repository.

As an individual, I contributed to Debates in the Digital Humanities, 2016 Edition that began with the submission of a proposal in January 2015 and ended with an online and print publication by May 2016. Minnesota Press, together with co-editors Matt Gold and Lauren Klein, managed each stage of the publication carefully with 60 different authors, working in two different digital platforms (WordPress + Comment Press for review and their new Manifold platform), and then in Word docs for the final copy editing and approval for the physical volume.

Below are a few key ways that my digital project has been stuck from its early stages.

Platforms and Domains (ongoing): In 2012, Editor #1 told me that I would be responsible for my digital project: for selecting the platform and format; for getting and maintaining a web domain; for any web design or technical work required to do the work of this project; for sustaining the project once completed. Since I run digital projects, and have developed workflows for a variety of projects, none of these steps were a big deal for me. I really wanted to demonstrate that a junior scholar could mount their own digital project, have it peer reviewed in the open, and receive approval from a university press.

I consulted with the few authors of online open access publications at that time (Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Jack Dougherty, Dan Cohen, Tom Scheinfeldt) regarding platforms and workflows. I leaned toward using WordPress and CommentPress developed by the Institute for Future of the Book because of the success of other open peer reviewed texts. I wanted the functionality of CommentPress to facilitate discussion. In Stamping American Memory, I examine particular moments of public dialog between the federal government and its citizens during the early twentieth century through commemorative stamp selection and production. When I learned from a colleague in 2013 that UMP was testing out a new workflow in WordPress to copy edit and publish, I was convinced I had made the right decision.   I also never planned for Stamping American Memory to become a traditional print publication.

In 2015, Editor #3 told me that the digital version might live in the press’s new content management system, and that UMP would be printing a book as well.

My project remains stuck as the digital and the editorial teams decide whether this will be mounted in original UMP platform, used in the Digital Culture Books series you’re probably familiar with, or the new Fulcrum platform, which to-date has only published online collections that serve as addenda for print books.

Peer Review (2014-2015): In September 2014, I notified Editor #2 that my project was ready for peer review and sent a link to my entire project. I asked some questions about the open review process and asked if the Press could help me with that phase. I was told no. I asked about how the blind peer review process would work, and emphasized that it needed to occur within the WordPress site. (Read more about this process from my blog post in January 2015).

In May 2015, Editor #2 emailed me to ask how things were progressing. I informed him that the open peer review process was mostly over (he never looked, didn’t read any of the comments). I mentioned I was waiting for reader reports from the blind peer review. It turned out that he hadn’t actually solicited reviews. His words were, “I didn’t have a manuscript to ask reviewers to work with. A vestige, I suppose, of print workflows, my engagement of reviewers is always triggered by the arrival (even virtually) of the ‘complete manuscript.’ ” He had a complete “manuscript” available through a URL, which he would have discovered had he looked at my digital project.

Editor #2 did solicit three reviewers (2 collaborated on 1 review), and sent along the reports with no commentary or synthesis. He asked me how I wanted to address the reviews –both recommended publishing the project without hesitation, but conflicted in a few assessments. When I responded with my plan for what and how to address the reports, he did not respond or confirm that my plan for moving forward with revisions would be brought before the board.

Final Revisions & Formats (2015-17): By November 2015, Editor #3 contacted me to say she would be taking over my project, bringing it to the board for approval as both a digital and print publication. This was the first I had heard of a print version.

In August and September 2016, I delivered an export of the final online content as XML and the print manuscript files, formatted according to the UMP specifications.

The team is just now addressing my project, and trying to determine how to handle publishing two sets of images (my online version contains nearly 90 images, and the print contains 39), and how to copy edit two versions of a “manuscript.”

It appears that nothing has been mounted in a UMP content management system and my actual manuscript hasn’t been touched.

These are labor and people issues, which I totally understand, but these are issues I assumed the Press had already worked through in the Digital Culture Book series.

What comes next? I really do not know.

It is extremely difficult as someone who is part of a web publishing software project and has published different types of content-driven digital projects to sit on the sidelines for her own publication.

Had I been asked two years ago if my project could have served as a prototype or guinea pig for the digital publishing initiative UMP is leading I would have been glad to help shape the development and design for authors producing narrative-driven digital publications.

For now, I am stuck in the middle, and all I want is for this project to be called done.

Federal Cuts are About You and Me

2017 March 16
by Sheila

Photo of the Roosevelt Arch into Yellowstone National Park, taken in 2014

We all have connections to today’s release of the President’s proposed federal budget. We also know that there will be an intense period of negotiations between the House and Senate, and then with the White House. Nothing proposed is set in stone, so now is an excellent time to contact your Congressionals to voice your displeasure with the existing proposals.

There are many disturbing cuts on the table related to our ability as citizens to expect and demand clean water, safe and well-maintained roads and airways, free public education, programs that support the health and well being of the elderly and the poor, or access to national parks. Smithsonian Magazine highlighted a few major exhibitions (King Tut!) and initiatives you might not realize were funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, one of the agencies on the chopping block. Or, you may want to read Jason Rhody’s post about how the federal budget supports local libraries, arts organizations, and museums in your neighborhood.

logos of projects funded by the NEH

RRCHNM Projects Funded by the NEH

Sometimes it is difficult to see how small cuts out of a very large federal budget affect us individually. While I generally advocate for seeing the bigger picture, others have written eloquently about that. This quick post highlights some of the ways that I am personally impacted by, and connected to, some of these proposed cuts. You may be as well.


  • Did you attend public school? I did, K-12!
    • New budget: Shift $1.4 billion to voucher and “choice” programs that do no exist in many areas of the country. Southbury & Region 15 schools are great. I don’t want them to lose any money for options that do not exist in town.
  • How many were were able to afford college because of federal financial aid programs? I was! I qualified for subsidized student loans and the federal work study program.
    • New budget: “Significantly” reduces federal work-study aid to college students.
  • Do you like visiting national parks and historic sites? I do! They are already chronically underfunded, understaffed, and need of a boost of resources.
    • New budget: Eliminates funding for the 49 National Historic Sites, slashes the Department of Interior budget for National Parks.
  • Do you ever check out books at your public library, use their free services, or do genealogy research? Do ever visit a museum, or have your children recently been on a field trip? Listen to non-commercial radio like NPR? I do!
    • New budget: Eliminates agencies that provide major sources of funding for local libraries, museums, and public events sponsored by arts and cultural organizations in your town. If we do not speak up the following agencies will be zeroed out and eliminated:
      •  National Endowment for the Arts
      • National Endowment for the Humanities
      • Institute of Museum and Library Services
      • Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports public television and radio, including PBS and NPR
  • Do you have friends who may lose their jobs, because of these cuts? Yes, I do. My college roommate works for the Pennsylvania Sea Grant program, protecting fisheries, water safety, and healthy ecology for that area. Sea Grant is on the chopping block. Another college friend works for the Environmental Protection Agency. Multiple friends work at the NEH and IMLS.

    Logos of Projects Funded by IMLS

    RRCHNM Projects Funded by IMLS

  • Will I lose my job because of these cuts? Possibly, not immediately. My job is funded with “sponsored research funds” (not by George Mason University) that come from a matrix of grants and contracts, many of which are from federal sources that come directly to the Center to create and maintain *free* and accessible online resources, offer free professional development opportunities, engage public audiences with digital history projects, and to build & support open-source software (ie, free digital tools), many also involve collaborations with libraries, archives, and museums.
  • How will cuts to the US Coast Guard effect you? My husband is retiring from the USCG this May, but we still have friends whose jobs will be immeasurably harder if proposed cuts to the agency– that already does much more with way less– are approved.
  • {Added March 17, 2017}Do you have, or had in the past, an elderly relative or neighbor who wishes to remain in the home, living independently as long as possible? I have! My grandmother was able to live alone in her home until she was 99 years old, because of programs like Meals on Wheels. It is still unclear how these cuts will come, but with Health and Human Services losing their Community Development Block Grant program to states, (some fund programs like MOW and school lunches), plus an overall cuts to the agency that will substantially cut the Older Americans Act, a major funder of MOWs.

Even with my serious concerns, I remain optimistic that there are enough Representatives and Senators who are listening to their constituents’ calls, and that these cuts, particularly to food and nutrition programs, libraries, arts and cultural organizations, and national parks, will hit close to home. But, they need to hear from each of us.

Save the NEH and Save the IMLS petitions,



Using Omeka to Design Digital Art History Projects

2017 February 22
by Sheila

Using Omeka to Design Digital Art History Projects opening slideLast week at the College Art Association 2017 conference,  I chaired and presented at an Omeka-centered panel,  “Using Omeka to Design Digital Art History Projects.” The panel demonstrated how art historians, visual resource librarians, and material culturalists are designing digital art history projects with Omeka to teach threshold concepts in the field.

The panel comprised two members of the Omeka for Art Historians working group that I convened last year at CAA 2016, as an advisors for theme and plugin development geared to the needs of art historians and visual culturalists.

Katherina Fostano, Curator of Visual Resources, and Barbara E. Mundy, Professor of Art History, from Fordham University discussed their collaboration in teaching with Omeka and Neatline in art history classes, Image Mapping with Neatline for Class Projects. Kimon Keramidas, Associate Director and Clinical Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities, at New York University, presented on “Object-Oriented Pedagogy and Digital Storytelling: The Content Management System as Nonlinear Narrative Platform”

I am so impressed with the innovative pedagogy implemented at Fordham and NYU that Omeka has been able to facilitate.

I discussed the working group’s goals, workflows, and products. All of this work was funded by a small development grant awarded by the Getty Foundation, because it was a direct outcome of ideas that Kimon and I developed following his guest lecture to RRCHNM’s Doing Digital Art History summer institute in 2014.

Below are the slides from my talk: