Submitted by Nancy Melley
Do you have questions about applying for grants? Attend the Brown Bag session, Making Your Own Luck in the Grant Seeking Process, where program officers from CLIR and NHPRC will be ready to discuss your project ideas and answer your questions.
Alignment of goals: the first and most essential step in grant seeking
Most professionals working at cultural heritage institutions could name a collection that almost no one knows about that, if better known, could help change scholars’ understanding of an important topic. They could probably also name a collection that gets good use, but could be better used if made more accessible through description, digitization, transcription, annotation, or some combination of these. These professionals are all well aware that making their collections more accessible is critical to fulfilling their institutional missions; however, few of them have the resources to undertake major projects of these kinds while still meeting the demands of day-to-day activities. To get the work done in a timely and efficient manner, they must secure extra help and support for their institution. This support typically comes in the form of a grant.
Assessing available funding opportunities can be confusing, and applying for grants can be daunting, especially in cases where chances for success are low. Despite these challenges, it is possible to succeed at grant seeking– particularly with careful planning.
A critical first step in this planning process—one that seems so obvious that it is easy to forget—is identifying as clearly and precisely as possible what a potential applicant wishes to do, and why her institution is the right place to do that work. With a specific goal in mind, a search for a funding opportunity becomes more straightforward. Devising a project plan with the sole aim of fitting the parameters of a particular funder’s guidelines is a recipe for frustration and failure; a fundable proposal must align an institution’s top priorities with a grant program’s goals in ways that will be readily apparent to applicants, reviewers, and funders alike.
To illustrate strategies for reaching this alignment, we will examine the goals of two grant programs that fund digitization: Digital Dissemination of Archival Collections by The National Historical Publications and Records Commission’s (NHPRC), and Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).
NHPRC: Digital Dissemination of Archival Collections
For those who have achieved minimal backlogs, Digital Dissemination of Archival Collections also requires that a nominated collection already have enough descriptive metadata to support online discovery. Applicants must devise project plans that create digital surrogates quickly and efficiently, without needing to generate any additional description beyond that required for managing the digital files created during the project. In many circumstances descriptions at the folder level are sufficient, since this level of access closely mirrors the research room experience – which is where the Commission started from when designing this grant program. While existing finding aids may be in any format, the program guidelines advise that an application may be more competitive if this information is already in a digital format. Applicants who are in a position to convert existing descriptions to digital form and make them available online before an application deadline or during the review period can strengthen the reviewers’ opinion of their commitment to the project.
NHPRC requires its applicants to Digital Dissemination of Archival Collections to make a case for the national-level significance of a nominated collection to the history of the United States. This discussion cannot be about the significance of the creator of the collection or the time period or the location of its creation; it must be about the significance of the information contained within the records. This is one of the most challenging parts of the application for many institutions. Just saying the records were George Washington’s isn’t enough; applicants must explain how those records document late colonial surveying methodology, military strategy of the revolutionary period, or domestic life in the eighteenth century. They must provide examples of how researchers have used the records. Consulting with researchers who have used the records or with subject area specialists can be crucial to crafting a persuasive argument for national historical significance. A quality national significance argument will go a long way to making an application competitive.
By the time the application is due, an applicant will have to make clear choices about how to digitize the collection: vendor or in-house, TIFF or PDF, publication or access resolution. The application must explain why each choice makes the best sense for the collection, and the institution.
The deadline for NHPRC’s Digital Dissemination of Archival Collections is October 8, and requires that all applicant institutions have minimal backlogs. NHPRC also has a program called Access to Historical Records with a June 17 deadline, which serves applicants who don’t meet this requirement.
CLIR: Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives
The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) has recently announced a new program, Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives, which has a deadline of April 30. Similar to the NHPRC opportunity, the goal of CLIR’s program is to support the creation of digital surrogates of rare and unique collections of national significance for scholarship. In some ways, the initial requirements are less restrictive: applicants are not required to have minimized backlogs for all their collections, and there is currently no minimal or maximal level of pre-existing description required for collections nominated for digitization. Collections can be relevant to any topic; they can be in any format. By contrast, the range of costs actually fundable through the program is rather narrow: only costs directly related to digitization and description are allowable. No indirect costs may be funded through the program, and costs such as travel, supplies, and equipment are only permitted in limited circumstances. Applicants whose projects require funding a broader range of activities may find their work is better suited to another funding opportunity such as the Humanities Collections and Reference Resources program operated by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), or another related initiative for funding work with special collections and archives.
Because it is more open to all kinds of collections, applicants to Digitizing Hidden Collections must convince reviewers that digitizing their collections is of the very highest priority to scholars, and that their collections are “hidden” in the sense that digitization of their collections will be essential for those collections to have a transformative impact on research and/or teaching in a broad range of disciplines. A standing panel of reviewers assesses all proposals for the program and will select the most persuasive among them for a final round of competition, during which all applicants must submit three letters of support from scholars attesting to the value of their projects. In addition to scholarly significance, the program coheres around four other values articulated on the program website: comprehensiveness, collaboration, sustainability, and openness. The application questions are designed to help applicants demonstrate how their approaches to digitization exemplify these values.
The initial deadline for CLIR’s Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives is April 30, 2015, 5:00 pm EST.
Success in grant seeking is first and foremost a matter of the alignment of the goals of a project with the goals of a funder. Good ideas well presented are also important, of course, but without demonstrating this alignment of goals, grant seeking can become an exercise in frustration and confusion. This alignment should be consistently top of mind as professionals forge funding strategies to support their collections. National funders genuinely want to invest in collections and work of major national significance, and their program officers genuinely want to see applicants succeed in building strong proposals. Guidelines are written and applications and review processes are designed to assist applicants in demonstrating the alignment of their project with a program’s mission. While understanding this will not take the difficulty and occasional disappointment out of grant seeking for applicants, it can reduce some of the confusion.