A Comparison of Grant Processes

As I mentioned in class, I began working for the Alabama Humanities Foundation as their grants director about three and a half months ago. As such, I spend almost the entirety of my 40+ hours a week at work dealing with grants and grantees. I manage our application process and grant software, work with potential applicants by answering questions and helping craft applications, process submitted applications, and handle all necessary paperwork (which is often a lot). AHF regrants funds provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), giving approximately $200,000 annually to support organizations across the state with public humanities projects.

Since AHF grants are funded by federal dollars, we must follow federal regulations and procedures throughout our grant process. This complicates our process and often overwhelms the organizations we work with, who may or may not apply for grants regularly. In our readings, Kenning Arlitsch (2013) did a wonderful job explaining the typical federal grant process, and I thought it might be interesting to explore how AHF’s grant process compares to his description.

HOW IT BEGINS

Arlitsch writes that “a grant proposal typically begins with a need” (2013). This is certainly true for AHF grants as well, and we hope for most grant applications, though I won’t assume. While we do not fund research, AHF does fund community organizations implementing humanities projects, including public discussions, lecture series, teacher workshops, interpretive displays, exhibitions, etc. in the fields of history, literature, philosophy, anthropology, and more. AHF typically funds up to $7,500 for most projects and up to $10,000 for documentary films.

ORGANIZING A TEAM

Since our grants are relatively small, most of our applications are completed by one person. We do, however, require applicants to name all the personnel that will be involved in the projects and supply their resumes. Grantees must also have at least one “humanities scholar” involved in the project (mostly to offer advice and guidance) and a separate fiscal agent, not the project director, to handle all financials.

RESEARCH ADMINISTRATION (SPONSORED PROGRAMS)

Research administration at universities is an interesting topic for AHF. AHF gives grants to many universities across the state, and every school’s grants department is different. Some I work with closely, while others deal only with the project director. In the worst-case scenario, we have several universities that we receive no applications from because the department refuses to deal with the “hassle” of $7,500 grants when they have bigger fish to fry.

THE PARTS OF A GRANT PROPOSAL

Narrative: Fairly spot on for our applications, minus the research and publication aspects.

Management Plan: We don’t necessarily call it this, but we do ask for the roles of project personnel and a general time frame of how the project will proceed.

Budget Justification: We do not require this, but we do expect all budget items to be self-explanatory based on the narrative. If our grants committee isn’t sure what a budget item is for, it will be cut.

Evaluation: We don’t ask for this separately, but it is noted that project evaluations are required and will be included in the final report.

Dissemination: We don’t fund research, so we don’t ask for this.

Sustainability Plan: We do not ask for this in the grant application, but it often comes up in discussions with the grantee. AHF does not want to fund the same projects every year and has rules to prevent doing so.

Advisory Boards: We also don’t require these, though the humanities scholar often fits in this role.

Letters of Support: We do not require letters of support, but they can be included in grant applications. They’re often helpful, especially if the organization is relatively new or the project personnel is not well known in the humanities community.

BUDGETS

The budget is easily the most important part of the grant proposal, and the most difficult to complete. AHF has detailed budget guidelines, and any misstep can result in a decrease of funding. During the review process, I would estimate that 80% or more of the time spent on any application is spent reviewing the budget. AHF requires a 1:1 match (either cash or in-kind) on most of our grants, and a 2:1 cash-only match on documentary films. We do not fund indirect costs, but we do allow up to 15% of the total project cost to be calculated into the grantee’s cost share.

GRANT REVIEWERS AND REVIEWER COMMENTS

This is perhaps the best part of my job and the most beneficial to applicants. AHF values the benefits of helpful feedback and allows me to offer lots of it. We require all applicants to submit a preliminary narrative and budget early in the process, allowing me to offer feedback, and I offer to review the entire application before submission. By working with the applicants so closely, most of our applications reach the grants committee with few issues. More feedback is offered in the instances that grants are denied or not funded fully.

REPORTING

We do not require regular reporting, only a final report at the completion of the project. However, we may check in at any time and often perform site visits as well. To “encourage” adequate reporting, we only release a portion of the awarded funds up front. The remainder is disbursed when we get the final report.

 

In conclusion, working with grants can seem overwhelming, and it’s certainly a lot of work. But the process is easier when you take it step by step and take advantage of all resources, including helpful grants directors!

 

References

Arlitsch, Kenning. (2013). Committing to Research: Librarians and Grantsmanship. Journal of Library Administration, 53:5-6, 369-379. DOI:10.1080/01930826.2013.876828

Alabama Humanities Foundation. (2018). Grants. Retrieved from http://www.alabamahumanities.org/grants/

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Frustrations of Designing a Digital Library

Anybody that has incorporated usability into their digital library or other projects knows just how frustrating it can be. Often, we know exactly how we want our projects to look and work, and those pesky users (and our colleagues) always end up having their own opinions—for better or worse. Those opinions ultimately lead to a stronger and more user-friendly product, but it would be a mistake to assume that any well-designed digital library discovered on the internet manifested itself without significant challenges and frustrations to the project managers responsible for it. To that end, I present to you all a digital library that I had the pleasure of helping a former colleague create in celebration of Alabama’s bicentennial, with frustrations left intact.

After reaffirming through teacher surveys that Alabama’s elementary educators lack both the training and the time to find primary sources to use in their classroom lessons, the Alabama Bicentennial Commission embarked on an ambitious project to compile curated sets of resources. The commission, through the work of Caroline Gibbons, surveyed teachers to identify gaps in the curriculum and began collecting primary sources from multiple institutions in four to five sets of fifty resources a year while matching each item to the relevant 2010 Alabama Course of Study, Social Studies content standards (Gibbons, 2018, p. 25-26). Resources in the sets include photographs, documents, and artifacts on topics such as World War I, Native American life and removal, and the Space Race.

Through a tremendous amount of work from Caroline, which included a small-scale traveling digitization program, the commission finally had its first few sets of resources—in a spreadsheet. While the spreadsheet contained all the necessary metadata, including content standards and links to items in their digital repositories, teachers found the format unappealing, difficult to understand, and overwhelming. While staff dreamed of creating an attractive and accessible online database of resources, the project remained at a standstill while the commission went through the lengthy and complicated process of redesigning their website from scratch as they transitioned from one design firm to another.

Primary Source Spreadsheet
Original primary source spreadsheet

Finally, after finishing the main redesign of the website, Caroline and I (the staff “webmaster” and liaison to the design firm) began working to integrate the spreadsheet onto the website. Unfortunately, we quickly realized that the content management system lacked the required features needed to create a visually pleasing and accessible digital library. We began working with the design firm to implement the features, but the project languished with communication issues and delays. We found that the design firm had difficulty understanding exactly what we were trying to do, that those misunderstandings were compounded by the fact that we were not allowed to work directly with programmers, and that their response rates and implementation times further complicated the issues. In the end, the delays cost us six months’ time.

In addition to the delays, a new grant award changed the design of the project midstream. Instead of allowing users to download the primary sources directly from the website, the new grant required the commission to drive traffic to the repositories’ websites instead (p. 26). After dealing with the problems as they arose, Caroline and I managed to get the first set of primary sources on the website in December of 2017. However, that’s when the real usability tests began. We continued to tweak the library as problems and ideas came about—including reordering and renaming the content sets multiple times—and I’m sure the commission continues to do so now that Caroline and I are gone.

Primary Source Page
Item-level view of primary source packets

Despite the frustrations and delays, and understanding that usability tests and corrections are ongoing, I am proud of the digital library we managed to put together.

Gibbons, Caroline. (2018). Hungry for History: Bringing Social Studies Back to Alabama. History News (Winter, 2018), 22-26. Retrieved from http://download.aaslh.org/history+news/2018/Winter+2018+FINAL.pdf

Teaching with Alabama Documents. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.alabama200.org/educators/primary-sources/

 

Crowdsourcing Transcriptions in Digital Libraries

Scanning images is only half the battle. With all the discussion of quantity over quality, I thought it might be useful to delve into the task of transforming digitized images into useful sources of information for the typical researcher. In the case of images with accompanying text, this often requires the costly and time-consuming task of transcription. The question, then, is how do institutions with limited resources and staffing accommodate both digitizing and transcribing images? Many institutions have come to the same conclusion and achieved surprising results through volunteer crowdsourcing.

The first question that most institutions ask themselves when considering crowdsourcing projects is “will the public want to do this?” As the Getty Research Institute wrote in a popular blog post on crowdsourcing in the digital humanities, “While there are plenty of examples of successful crowdsourcing projects…we simply weren’t sure people would want to do this kind of work on our collections.” Yet, the results overwhelmingly show that when a project is thoughtfully crafted, the public is willing to help.

One recent example of this is a project at the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH) that I was lucky to be involved with during an internship. In celebration of the centennial of World War I, ADAH scanned 111,000 index cards that contained service records of Alabamian soldiers and civilian employees of military bases within the state. A potential treasure-trove for historians and genealogist, the cards contain a wealth of personal information, including name, race, age, date and place of birth, home address, date and location of induction, units served in, rank, engagements, wounds, dates and locations of service, and the date of discharge of individuals. Despite the information, however, ADAH recorded only minimal metadata during the scanning process.

Instead, ADAH chose to engage the public with a crowdsourcing project meant to bring local volunteers face-to-face with their state’s World War I history. ADAH began the project on April 7, 2018, with an orientation session for twelve volunteers. The session worked out any potential issues and led to a streamlined system that included a volunteer user’s guide with detailed instructions and field descriptions for the standard text boxes used to capture the transcriptions. The result was almost instant—within twelve days, 11,000 cards were transcribed. The full collection was finished in only three and a half months, half the time ADAH optimistically estimated the project would last. In all, 82 active volunteers donated 3,521 hours of work. The transcriptions are now being migrated to ADAH’s digital collections.

There are several crowdsourcing platforms available for digital library projects, and some institutions opt to create their own. Perhaps the most popular platform is Zooniverse, which was developed at the University of Oxford in 2007. Zooniverse has the benefit of a built-in volunteer community and allows users to work collaboratively, with multiple users transcribing the same document. ADAH, however, chose to work with the open-source platform FromThePage by Brumfield Labs and entered an agreement with the company to fund the development of structured data fields and enhanced compatibility with CONTENTdm.

Furthermore, ADAH chose to forgo collaborative transcriptions by closing the (typically open-access) platform to only registered volunteers, who requested a login from the project manager, and instructing volunteers to work individually on records. This allowed ADAH to maintain control over the project while comfortably ramping up the number and activity of volunteers as the institution became comfortable with the progress and direction of the project.

The project was ADAH’s first foray into “academic crowdsourcing,” which Victoria Van Hyning at Zooniverse describes as members of the public working with specialists to conduct research. ADAH is now planning on future projects, which may include World War II and Korean War service records, licensure records and legislative directories.

References:

Alabama Department of Archives and History (2018). Case Study: Crowdsourcing the Alabama WWI Service Records. Retrieved from https://www.statearchivists.org/files/3515/3487/7545/ExchangeDay_CaseStudy_AlabamaCrowdsourcing.pdf

Deines, N., Gill, M., Lincoln, M., & Clifford, M. (2018, February 7). Six Lessons Learned from Our First Crowdsourcing Project in the Digital Humanities [web log comment]. Retrieved from http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/six-lessons-learned-from-our-first-crowdsourcing-project-in-the-digital-humanities/

Van Hyning, Victoria & Blickhan, Samantha & Trouille, Laura & Lintott, Chris. (2017). Transforming Libraries and Archives through Crowdsourcing. D-Lib Magazine, 23. Retrieved from http://www.dlib.org/dlib/may17/vanhyning/05vanhyning.html