Digital History Center Looks at the Future of Preserving the Past

Posted: February 4, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Dan Cohen at CHNM
Mason’s highly successful Center for History and New Media has accomplished much in its 14 years. Director Dan Cohen, above, vowed to continue the center’s revolutionary work after the untimely death last year of founder Roy Rosenzweig.

By Tara Laskowski

It is hard to believe the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) has only been around for 14 years. In that short period of time, the center’s work has revolutionized the way historians think about history and the way history is taught. It is now the largest and most-funded digital humanities and history center in the world, having been awarded more than $20 million in grants since its inception.

In 1994, Roy Rosenzweig, Mark and Barbara Fried Chair of History and Art History, founded the center. At that time, the entire operation functioned out of his office in Robinson Hall. When Dan Cohen, the current director of CHNM, came on board at the beginning of 2001, he remembers doing his work at a desk in the cramped hallway just outside Rosenzweig’s office.

But the center couldn’t be contained to such small quarters for very long. Eventually the staff moved to Pohick Module and expanded their programs even more. Today the center is located on half a floor in the Research I building.

Rosenzweig’s Vision

With Rosenzweig at the helm, the center became well known internationally. Rosenzweig was involved in a number of different digital history projects, including web sites on U.S. history, historical thinking, the French Revolution, the history of science and technology, world history and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. His web-based project, “History Matters,” was one of the first projects of its kind and proved that Rosenzweig was thinking ahead as the online world grew.

Last October, Rosenzweig died of lung cancer. As a fitting tribute to Rosenzweig, CHNM used one of their online tools, Omeka, to create an online tribute (thanksroy.org) to Rosenzweig that captures memories, photos, and other thoughts on his life.

“Roy was obviously one of the most distinguished faculty,” says Provost Peter Stearns. “He was truly an imaginative historian, from his first book that I still use to the pioneering work he did with the Center for History and New Media.”

Although his death was a huge loss to the center and to the larger realm of digital history, his legacy continues to live on and push the center toward bigger and better things.

Just before his death, the center was awarded a grant by the U.S. Department of Education that if fully funded over five years will total $7 million. The grant will create an online National History Education Clearinghouse. The online project will help K-12 history teachers become more effective educators and show their students why history is relevant to their daily lives.

Dan Cohen
Dan Cohen

Working with project partners Stanford University, the American Historical Association and the National History Center, the clearinghouse will have both on- and offline components. These web- and nonweb-based resources will be grounded in the latest and most significant scholarship on history and history education, as well as research on best practices in teacher professional development and an awareness of the possibilities and limitations of the digital medium.

Once online, the clearinghouse will provide educators with a host of teaching tools and resources and will be a portal through which teachers can share materials related to history.

The Possibilities of the Digital Realm

One of the things Cohen is most proud of is the comprehensive way CHNM looks at digital media and history.

Currently the center is divided into three different areas. The education division helps teachers use new media to teach history more effectively and provides quality online sources for teaching history. The public projects division provides online exhibits and archives, such as the September 11th Digital Archive, to the general public. Finally, the research division develops tools and methodologies for digital scholarship.

“The center pioneers in all of these areas simultaneously,” says Cohen. “We try to take a 360-degree look at the possibilities of the digital realm.”

Rosenzweig's book
Cohen and Rosenzweig’s groundbreaking book, “Digital History”
Photos by Nicolas Tan

One of the most successful tools they’ve developed is Zotero, a scholarly research tool that runs in the Firefox web browser and improves the way research is stored, shared and organized digitally. Zotero is changing the way that scholars and students do research. This summer, Cohen expects more than one million people will be actively using the tool.

“With Zotero, we really put our finger on the pulse of where academia will be in five years,” he says.

In December 2007, CHNM secured its second five-year National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge Grant. This is a follow-up to the challenge grant they received in 2000.

“Challenge grants are rare, and for us to receive two is even more unique,” says Cohen. “The NEH uses these grants to identify centers of excellence that deserve to build an endowment and that they hope will be around for a long time.”

Through the most current grant, the NEH will match one-third of the total funds raised up to $750,000 for the next five years.

Cohen hopes that by building a solid endowment, the center can develop even more of the ideas they have to improve online research and archiving.

“To have the opportunity to deeply examine these issues — and to have a top-notch staff that thinks about this full-time — is really amazing,” says Cohen. “It was Roy’s plan and his forward-thinking that put us where we are today. We hope to keep propelling that vision forward.”

Write to at