Mellon Loves Playing the Role of Rule-Maker. Here's Why It's a Good Thing.

What do the Wild West and the emerging fields of digital art and architectural history have in common?

Well, let's first start with what they don't have in common. The academic world of digital preservation (thankfully) lacks some of the Wild West's more edgy attributes—things like wanton violence, duels, and smoke-filled speakeasies. Yet what these two worlds do share in common is a relative lack of law and order.

In the world of digital art and architectural history, we call this a lack of clear guidelines and academic standards. It's a brave new world, with digitization transforming art and architectural history, but who's in charge? Who's writing the rules? Who's the proverbial sheriff on the white horse?

The answer to that latter question is the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. That's them striding into town, slowly glancing at bewildered residents, rule book in hand. The foundation just awarded the College Art Association (CAA) a $90,000 grant to partner with the Society for Architectural Historians (SAH). The grant will help in the development of guidelines for the evaluation of digital scholarship in art and architectural history for promotion and tenure.

If Mellon's predisposition to act as rule-maker and quasi-sheriff sounds a bit familiar, it might be because the foundation recently gave $80,000 to Barnard College to bring together curators, archivists, and collection specialists to explore new technologies and create a next-generation vision of art digitization.

So let's look at the problem this new grant aims to solve. For years now, professors of art and architectural history who have developed research and/or publications using digital technologies or have created new digital tools for interpretation and understanding of art-historical and place-based subjects have been clamoring for a universal set of standards and guidelines. The absence of such guidelines makes their jobs much more difficult. It makes it hard to objectively assess digital scholarship and determine awards and grant tenure.

We admit, these aren't renegade bands of vigilante Impressionism scholars roaming the halls of Yale and menacing the economics undergrads, but their frustration is nonetheless real. The lack of clear guidelines hinders the professional development of professors and students alike.

And so the grant will fund (among other things) a ten-person task force, chaired by CAA President DeWitt Godfrey and SAH President Ken Breisch. In addition to the chairs, the task force will comprise eight members with substantial experience in traditional and digital scholarship: two art historians, two architectural historians, a librarian, a museum curator, a scholar from another humanities or social-science field with expertise in digital scholarship, and a graduate student or emerging professional in art or architectural history.

To that end, this development is also important because it is the first time the CAA and SAH will collaborate on professional practice guidelines.

Is this union as groundbreaking as the Hatfields making nice with the McCoys? No, but we'll take it.