Research Spotlight on Mills Kelly

Faculty Spotlight: Mills Kelly

Mills Kelly is the Executive Director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) and a professor of History at George Mason University. Kelly is a historian and has been working at Mason for 20 years. In 2001, he came to Mason to work with Roy Rosenzweig, whom he credits with being the most important pioneer in digital history.

The Institute for Digital InnovAtion (IDIA) spoke with Kelly about the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.


Tell us about the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.

The Center for History and New Media was the first digital humanities center in the world. Other people [had] been thinking about digital humanities and poking at it and doing things that we would recognize as digital humanities work, but nobody had established a research center yet, and so, in 1994, Roy Rosenzweig and Mike O’Malley established a Center for History and New Media.

The original project of the Center for History and New Media, which we did with colleagues at the American Social History Project at CUNY, was a kind of a digital textbook in American history, called Who Built America?, and that’s actually still being used by schools all around the country. Over the years, we’ve done a lot of different things but educational projects have always been at the core of our work.

We also spent a long time in software development. We developed some really fabulous software products like Zotero, which is used by a couple million people a day and Omeka, which is a content management system for museums, libraries, archives, and public history sites. We’re currently working on finishing up a piece of software called Tropy, which is designed for researchers who are going into an archive where all they can do is just snap pictures with their phones, and it lets them organize all that data and add metadata to it.

Computational humanities is now a primary focus area for us. Lincoln Mullen, who is one of our faculty members, is on a fellowship this semester at the Library of Congress on a project called “Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud” and he’s working with data scientists and librarians at the Library on their incredibly vast digital collection. Jessica Otis just received a grant from the National Science Foundation to work on the history of the plagues in London in the 17th century, and that’s also a computational project. We have also hired a brand-new person from Georgia Tech, Dr. Amanda Madden, who does a lot of computational work as well. She comes to us from the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, although she’s a historian.

We do a lot of work in public history, including both web-based projects and podcasting. Our podcasts are heavily-researched and sort of story-oriented like This American Life. We have a current show, Consolation Prize, that is in its second season, and on the 100th anniversary of the Appalachian Trail, we’re launching a new show on the history of the Trail and we just got a big grant from the Mellon Foundation to build out our podcasting efforts over the coming four years, so we’ll have a lot more to say about our work in podcasting in the coming years.

We really pioneered work in collecting digital history, so our September 11th digital archive is the largest digital archive of personal stories about September 11th. We have about 72,000 personal stories in that archive, plus another 30,000 other kinds of digital objects like photos, videos, etc. In early 2002, it was the first open digital archive project of its kind. It was also the Library of Congress’s first “born digital” acquisition.

So whether it’s educational projects, collecting projects, software development, or public history and computational history, we see ourselves as a research center that pushes our field forward.

But the most important thing to know about us is that everything we do, we do for free. And the reason for that is that when Roy and Mike founded the Center, the mission statement was really simple and really clear, and that is that we are going to democratize access to historical information, because so much of that information is locked away behind paywalls, or you just have to go to an archive to look at it. We’re the opposite of that; we’re trying to make everything as fully available as possible. We give everything away. So, all of our software that we developed is all open-source, open access, and so that’s just really critical to our mission and at a public university, we should be giving it away.

Which funding agencies have supported your work?

Mostly government agencies, but also private foundations. The National Endowment for the Humanities has been one of our most important supporters over the last almost 30 years. But we’ve had funding from the National Science Foundation, we’ve had funding from the Department of Defense, from the State Department, and the Library of Congress, and from the National Archives, so we get a lot of federal funding. We’ve had sort of smaller grants from state humanities foundations like the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. In terms of private foundations, the Mellon Foundation has been our most important supporter, but we receive funding from many others.

How does your project impact other disciplines?

That’s a really great question. So, our work really crosses boundaries. For instance, we do a lot of work with computer scientists and data scientists. And our department is a Department of History and Art History, so that’s boundary-crossing already. It’s the only Department of History and Art History at a research university in the United States. I don’t know why others don’t combine that way because we’re all historians, but they don’t. We’re connected in that way but also, John Turner, who is the chair of the Department of Religious Studies, is a key member of our team here; he does projects on history of religion, [he works] with us on several different projects. In the humanities, in particular, the software development work that we did, crossed into all disciplines, but even beyond that. I mean people in the sciences use Zotero every day and it’s just kind of a critical research tool, and we’re out there, touching a lot of different disciplines.

What projects would you like to be reached out to for potential collaborations?

We are really interested in collaborating with people who want to make information freely available. We’re especially interested in collaborating with some of the people on campus who are doing computational work, whether they’re in geosciences or other computing disciplines, we are really interested in those kinds of collaborations. We haven’t done much collaborating with industry partners, but we are interested and would love to explore projects.

What keywords describe your research?

Computational, public, history, digital, and humanities, those are the ones that we use the most.

How about students?

We welcome collaboration from students and faculty across the university. We have worked with computer science students, film and video students, we’ve had poets, videographers, we’ve had students in data science. I mean it’s been really interesting too because we are really interested in the maximum number of ideas, and inputs and, we’re very clear that George Mason is a university with a primary mission of educating students. That is the most important thing we do and always will be the most important thing we do, so we focus really hard on trying to get students involved from across the campus.

We see one of our roles as pushing the field forward, not just doing work that interests us, but also trying to really expand the field because we also have a PhD program in the department, and a significant chunk of our PhD students spend two or three years here at the Center training in digital humanities and expanding their skills and then they go off into the world and spread the wealth. And so just to give you an example, one of our most recent graduates, Sarah Collini, was just hired at Clemson University to do all of the digital work around their project that is grappling with their slave-owning past. That’s a huge win for a doctoral student, it’s an incredible opportunity. And so we have this educational mission as well.

How can you be reached? (Contact us – email, website, LinkedIn, any other social media channels that you are comfortable in sharing with the Mason IDIA community)

The best is Mason email and through the RRCHM website.

What do you think about institutes at Mason?

One of the things I really value about Mason is the degree to which people at Mason are interested in and excited about collaborating across disciplinary boundaries which is really kind of at the heart of the idea for IDIA. I’ve worked at a number of universities in my career and this is the place where people are always willing to say, ‘Well yeah, let’s just give that a try and see what happens.’

With the size of the university we have, we are in danger of siloing, so it is important to have institutes like IDIA, the Institute for Sustainable Earth, and the Institute for Biohealth Innovation to keep interdisciplinary nodes connected.