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   from the issue of September 22, 2005

Whitman Archive earns $500,000 challenge grant


Leaving the College of William and Mary in 2000, Ken Price joined UNL to help create an online archive of Walt Whitman's voluminous writings.

Ken Price, co-directory of the Walt Whitman Archive, talks with Barbara Couture, senior vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, prior to...
 Ken Price, co-directory of the Walt Whitman Archive, talks with Barbara Couture, senior vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, prior to the "We the People" grant announcement, Sept. 15 at the Van Brunt Visitors Center. Photo by Troy Fedderson/University Communications.

Five years later, after guiding the UNL-based archive through the second half of a 10-year history, Price could hardly believe the fortunes of the project as he and university officials announced the award of a $500,000 "We the People Challenge Grant" from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"This is a dream come true," Price said during the Sept. 15 announcement. "The way things have unfolded here at Nebraska for me and the project are better than any outcome that could be written.

"Really, I never imagined anything this good."

The grant requires a three-to-one match from the university. In the next four and a half years, the university must raise $1.5 million from external sources to fully realize the $500,000. If successful, the entire $2 million would form an endowed fund within the University of Nebraska Foundation. The annual interest from the fund would provide the bulk of the archive's annual operating budget.

Currently, the archive relies on a patchwork of grants and other monies for funding.

"Through this support, we will be able to retain some key people who are now on soft money," said Price said. "And, it will help with our ongoing expansion of the Archive."

The Whitman Archive is an electronic research and teaching tool that makes Whitman's work accessible to scholars, students, and general readers. Whitman's volume of work includes 70,000 manuscripts housed in about 80 locations, although the bulk is known to be in just five libraries. But the logistics of finding these various documents, let alone assessing and comparing their relevance and content, are daunting. The archive allows scholars 'one-stop shopping' to search the entire body of Whitman's writings and scholarship on those works.

During the announcement, Price brandished a four-inch thick volume printed by the New York University Press. The volume was one of a set of 25 reference books printed to archive a portion of Whitman's work.

While the books contain important information, Price said they, unlike the archive, are limited in use because of expense and their inability to be expanded.

The beauty of the archive, Price said, is that it is not a slice of scholarship frozen in time. As new materials are found they can be added to the archive, enriching the scholarship. "This material can be integrated seamlessly into our work," Price said.

The electronic archive also contains material beyond the limits of print editions, including sound, movies, images of manuscripts with hand-written notations, artwork and explanations.

The Whitman Archive is unique, Price said, because of the great fit between Whitman's work and the electronic medium. "Whitman was an endless and obsessive reviser who never believed that a poem was finished," Price said. "The static quality of print can't do justice to the fluidity of his writing."

For example, Whitman extensively rewrote his masterwork "Leaves of Grass," Price said. There are six published versions and multiple manuscripts and notebook versions with annotations and changes.

"That could throw one into despair," Price said. "But because of the special strengths of computers you can handle massive amounts of information quite speedily."

Others working on the project with Price are: Brett Barney, research assistant professor, UNL Libraries; Susan Belasco, professor of English, UNL; Matt Cohen, assistant professor of English, Duke University; Ed Folsom, co-director of the Whitman Archive, University of Iowa; Ted Genoways, general faculty and editor, University of Virginia; Andy Jewell, assistant professor of digital projects, UNL Libraries; and Katherine L. Walter, chair of the UNL Libraries' Digital Initiatives and Special Collections and co-director of UNL's Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.



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