Past Programs

ACLS Commission on Cyberinfrastructure


With support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, ACLS appointed a national Commission on Cyberinfrastructure in the Humanities and Social Sciences. John Unsworth, dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, chaired the commission. The commission carried out research, hearings, and consultations to gather information and develop perspective during the calendar year 2004. A draft report was issued in 2005 for public comment, the intended audience being the scholarly community and the societies that represent it, university provosts, federal funding agencies (including but not limited to the NSF), and private foundations.

The final report, Our Cultural Commonwealth: The report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences, was released in the fall of 2006.

What is Cyberinfrastructure?

"Cyberinfrastructure" is more than just hardware and software, more than bigger computer boxes and wider pipes and wires connecting them. The term was coined by NSF to describe the new research environments in which capabilities of the highest level of computing tools are available to researchers in an interoperable network. These environments will be built, and ACLS feels it is important for the humanities and social sciences to participate in their design and construction. Ed Ayers has commented that much of the work of developing the Valley of the Shadow was analogous to building a printing press when none existed. Effective cyberinfrastructure for the humanities and social sciences will allow scholars to focus their intellectual and scholarly energies on the issues that engage them, and to be effective users of new media and new technologies, rather than having to invent them.

"Cyberinfrastructure" becomes less mysterious once we reflect that scholarship already has an infrastructure. The foundation of that infrastructure consists of the libraries, archives, and museums that preserve information; the bibliographies, finding aids, citation systems, and concordances that make that information retrievable; the journals and university presses that distribute the information; and the editors, librarians, archivists, and curators who link the operation of this structure to the scholars who use it. All of these structures have both extensions and analogues in the digital realm. The infrastructure of scholarship was built over centuries with the active participation of scholars. Cyberinfrastructure will be built more quickly, and so it is especially important to have broad scholarly participation in its construction: after it is built, it will be much harder to shift, alter, or improve its foundations.