What's Behind Mellon's Big Give to Yale University Press?

I recently finished reading Don DiLilio's magnum opus Underworld, and I must say, it was a deep, rich, and engrossing yarn. But if you've never read DiLilo, I'd suggest you hold off and instead start with his compact masterpiece White Noise.

That novel, which won the 1985 National Book Award, eerily predicts our highly digitized world, where the "white noise" of radio transmissions, sirens, microwaves, ultrasonic appliances, and other computerized murmurings engulf a Midwest town. It's all very ominous. 

Which bring us, naturally, to Yale University Press.

The introductory analogy may come across as heavy-handed, but an underlying truth applies here. As we all know, the proliferation of digital technology has created a seemingly limitless amount of information at our fingertips. It has also created a bunch of white noise. This problem is particularly acute in the university publishing world, as publishers try to compete with for-profit houses to attract ever-distracted readers glued to their iPads, Tablets, insert-digital-white-noise-device-here. It's too much to process.

From an academic standpoint, researchers may attempt to access important archival material, but they must pay an exorbitant amount to do so. The Yale University press hopes to solve this problem thanks to a $840,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The grant will establish a new electronic portal on which curated and customizable art and architectural history content will be available to consumers and institutions. Users will also be able to customize the content, making course packs or creating other digital publications from a variety of texts.

The Art Institute of Chicago, one of Yale’s exclusive museum publishing partners, is joining in the initial launch by adding core backlist titles to the site. The project’s long-term goal is for other museums and art book publishers to bring content to the platform. We'll keep you posted on that front.

The key word here is "customizable." It isn't enough simply to digitize a wealth of information or make it available online. Users need to be able to access and search for material in an intuitive manner. (After all, we're all children of Google search. The bar has been set high.) We anticipate this grant will further accelerate the trend of university presses bringing their content online in a user-friendly manner.

Better yet, the size of the grant should enable Yale to make text and images available at reasonable prices or no cost at all, which certainly comes as good news to your typical art history grad student/barista saddled with $125,000 in student loans. 

The Mellon Foundation has been on a tear across the university world lately, having recently awarded a $1 million grant to the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) to endow and sustain the museum's humanities initiatives and cutting a $2 million check to Carnegie Mellon University to help its humanities department use "technology-enhanced learning to transform and enhance graduate education."