First Monday

From Digital Repositories to Information Habitats: H-Net, the Quilt Index, Cyber Infrastructure, and Digital Humanities by Mark Kornbluh

The growth of collaborative digital humanities projects has resulted in significant sets of diverse and important cultural materials stored digitally and freely available online. This paper presents two major collaborative digital humanities projects: H–Net: Humanities and Social Science OnLine and the Quilt Index. Through effective collaboration among humanities experts and information technologists, such culturally rich digital libraries can mature into information habitats where diverse scholars, teachers, researchers, students, and interested Web users can work with digital objects online.


H–Net: Humanities and Social Sciences OnLine
The Quilt Index
Cyber–Infrastructure and Digital Humanities



“Collaboration” and the potential of new digital tools to enable new forms of collaboration are at the center of much of the current excitement about the Internet. “Web 2.0” is often used as shorthand to describe the use of Web technologies to facilitate information sharing and collaboration. What is sometimes lost in the repeated excitement over new programs and designs, however, is the fact that “collaboration” predates these new developments. I want to briefly explore two very different digital humanities projects, H–Net and the Quilt Index, projects that began long before Web 2.0, and hopefully provide a broader context to understand collaboration in digital humanities. At the end, I want to try to place these developments in the larger context of the transformation occurring in university research in general and humanities scholarship in particular.



H–Net: Humanities and Social Sciences OnLine

In February 2008, H–Net: Humanities and Social Sciences OnLine celebrated its fifteenth anniversary. H–Net began at the moment when e–mail was first being made available to humanists and social scientists. (My first e–mail account was Universities had no idea that e–mail would be popular and no naming scheme existed to enable tens of thousands of e–mail addresses.) H–Net began well before Web 2.0. Indeed, it began before Web 1.0. H–Net started on BITNET, before the Internet coalesced into one international network. In December of 1992, a historian at the University of Illinois, Chicago, Richard Jensen, sent out an e–mail inviting colleagues to take advantage of this new communication medium. In February 1993, Jensen and two of his graduate students, James Mott and Wendy Plotkin, launched the first H–Net discussion lists — H–Urban, H–Women, and H–HOLOCAUST.

The goal then, as it is today, was to use the power of digital communication — e–mail — to bring together scholars and teachers to do what they normally do. In a sense, H–Net was an electronic version of an academic conference, a way for people to come together and to talk about their research and their teaching, to announce what was going on in the field, and to review and critique things that are going on in the field. It was and remains completely driven by knowledge communities.

Today, H–Net is the world’s largest online scholarly organization. It is accessible, through both e–mail and the Web ( An umbrella organization comprised of over 180 separate scholarly networks, H–Net is thoroughly international. While English language predominates, H–Net has editors from around the world, and a major node in Germany. International collaboration has been a central value of H–Net from the outset. Indeed, the desire to use the power of communication to link people internationally has always been part of a larger vision. H–Net’s creators sought to utilize new forms of digital communication to break down traditional barriers and bring people together across distance, across disciplines, and across different status levels. A democratic vision of the Internet is thus at the core of H–Net [1]. When people communicate online, they do not have the use of letterhead stationery. It is the power of ideas rather than the power of certification that dominates.


Figure 1


Within the academy, especially within the humanities and social sciences, new Web 2.0 technologies and tools, from wikis to social networks to virtual spaces, are not inventing collaboration from scratch. These tools are part of an evolution that is building upon a base that is over a decade–and–a–half years old in which humanists have been using digital technology to collaborate. The point here, as we all know, is that online collaborative communities are not a Web 2.0 invention. Knowledge networks in many forms predate the digital revolution. But as noted above and by H–Net’s continued growth (over 180,000 members and new networks are continually being developed) digital tools are changing not only how we work but the ways in which we can work.

For knowledge communities, like those that underlay H–Net’s networks, Web 2.0 tools represent real opportunity. As H–Net moves forward to utilize these tools, it will add richness and depth to the on–going communication process. There also is a considerable opportunity which is ongoing in many of the various H–Net networks to link these communities of scholars and teachers much more closely to what they study, to the objects they study and teach, and to the archives, museums and libraries that collect, preserve, and disseminate these cultural heritage resources.



The Quilt Index

Most of the pioneering digital humanities work over the past decade–and–a–half has focused on digital objects. I want to shift focus and look closely at one large project, the Quilt Index, as another doorway to help understand the history and potential of digital collaborations.

Quilts are incredibly rich cultural artifacts. While they have long been studied by art historians, cultural historians, and anthropologists over the past 25 years, interest in quilts has expanded enormously with growing scholarly attention to women’s history. As a result, there have been concerted efforts both nationally and locally to document and increase access to quilts. The American Quilt Study Group was founded in 1980 and now has over 1,200 members around the world. State–based quilt documentation projects have collected information about more than 165,000 quilts. In 1993, the Alliance for American Quilts was formed as a non–profit umbrella organization to increase access to quilts.

The challenge was that quilts were collected by a wide variety of organizations — museums, archives, libraries, historical societies — and individuals. Quilts are both fragile and bulky and thus hard to display. Documentation about quilts and quilt collections was dispersed and often inaccessible. The situation was aggravated by the fact that quilts were not the central focus of any of the institutions that held them.

In 1997, the Alliance for American Quilts organized a meeting at the American Folk Life Center of the Library of Congress to consider how to address this challenge. The solution was to develop a single cross–institutional digital repository that could contain images and all of the information that the quilt community wanted to capture about quilts. With a well–designed digital repository, it was not necessary to privilege one set of questions or approaches to quilts. The information stored could be presented in a wide variety of ways and queried for many different purposes. Equally important, it could be used to serve the purpose of the collecting institutions as well as research scholars and a broader public interested in quilts.

By necessity and by design, the Quilt Index has been a multiple phased project. First, the National Endowment for the Humanities made a planning grant to Michigan State University to undertake the initial steps to move quilts into the digital arena. Working with a community of scholars and curators brought together by the Alliance for American Quilts, we developed a standardized vocabulary to describe all aspects of quilts and quiltmaking, as well as standardized database fields to capture this information (see Broad community involvement and back–and–forth discussions made it possible to reach the needed consensus.

One of the keys to community agreement was to make the process additive. Rather than standardizing by limiting metadata, we chose to add more fields, and to designate a relatively small number of fields as required. This approach made it possible for widely diverse institutions to work with the Quilt Index. While this means that the amount of information in the Quilt Index for individual quilts can vary greatly, it allows for future growth and cross–institutional collaboration on documentation. For example, with one integrated database, biographical information added by one institution about a quilter can be used to enrich the catalog for all institutions that collect quilts by that quilter. Moreover, this strategy maximizes the repository’s flexibility for diverse use in the future.

With a second round of funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, MSU’s MATRIX: The Center for the Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences On-line created a searchable database and Web interface of the Quilt Index in partnership with the Alliance for American Quilts and four collecting institutions [2]. This phase provided the ‘proof of concept’ that we could build and integrate a database across diverse institutions. Subsequently, both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services funded a staged national expansion. We built a second generation of a digital repository, with the needed checks to ensure long–term preservation of the data in the Quilt Index. Crosswalks tools also were built to help diverse museums to format their data to join the Index and ingest their quilt materials from their own catalogue records. By the time Phase Three is completed, the Quilt Index will include 25 partners and over 60,000 quilts. With funding and guidance from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, we wrote national leadership documents to enable future expansion of the Quilt Index on a sustainable basis.


Figure 2


Building on this solid base, the Institute of Museum and Library Services has funded a major next phase to enhance the usefulness of the Quilt Index [3]. The Phase Four work will open the Index to participation by any interested institution or individual. Many important quilts, like photographs and other art objects, are held by individual collectors. These are really important to researchers and the broader community that is interested in quilts. To manage the process of including private collections and growing the Index, we have created an editorial board for the Quilt Index. We believe that it is useful to think of the Quilt Index as a “publication” and utilize the scholarly apparatus of an editorial board to perform all the selection and adjudication functions that editorial boards perform for journals [4]. With the curatorial and editorial functions worked out, MATRIX’s programmers have added the necessary code to facilitate inexpensive expansion of the Quilt Index and the easy ingestion of content by an unlimited number of contributing institutions and individuals.

During Phase Four, we also are adding a huge range of associated materials to the Quilt Index — journals about quilts, pictures of quilters and quiltmaking, published quilt patterns, oral histories of quilters, and more. MATRIX’s digital repository software will facilitate linking these materials to individual quilts and quilters. The end result will facilitate contextualization of quilts and far greater usefulness of the Quilt Index.

The Quilt Index began as a quintessential digital library project. In the latest stage, building on the already designed and tested digital library, are we adding Web 2.0 features. A new tool, for example, will facilitate the creation of online exhibitions. A curator or a scholar will be able to build an online exhibit utilizing any content in the Index. With flexible modular programming, the curator will be able not only to choose which quilts and related content to include from dozens of collections, but also to use simple drop–down menus to design the look of the exhibit. This will enable the type of cross–institutional exhibition that would cost a great deal of time and especially money in the physical world. A similar lesson–plan builder will facilitate the use of material from the Index in classrooms.

Our intent is to utilize the Quilt Index as a broad publication environment where new content can build directly on existing collections. Reviews of quilts and quilt exhibits are envisioned. The publication of new scholarship within the Quilt Index can provide a model of the potential linkage between primary materials and scholarship in the digital age.

To facilitate both scholarship and teaching, we also are incorporating new tools to transform the Quilt Index into a research environment. We want users to be able to compare quilts side by side, to zoom in on images, and to overlay images on top of each other.

Personalization is therefore essential. Users need to be able to personalize their own environments within the Quilt Index. They need to be able to save images that are useful to them and to annotate this work. Social networking tools go hand–in–hand with personalization. The widely divergent communities that utilize the Quilt Index want the ability to communicate about quilts. With the new tools that we are building, quilters, for example, will be able to share patterns and communicate with each other about similarities and differences in making different patterns. Likewise, an art history professor could use the Index to have her graduate class compare quilts side by side. Needless to say, user–added data will enrich the Quilt Index and facilitate greater usefulness of the Index over time.

In the process, I believe the Quilt Index will grow into an “information habitat.” Built on top of a trusted digital repository, the Index will have a wide array of research tools and a rich publication platform to facilitate generating new content. Personalization and social networking tools will facilitate use of these features. The information habitat will link individuals and communities to the cultural heritage institutions that collect, preserve, and provide access to quilts and quilt–related materials.

From my point of view as a digital humanist, I see the development of the Quilt Index, therefore, as a unique test bed. It is organized around one type of object — quilts — and, in contrast to most digital humanities projects, it is fundamentally trans–institutional. The Quilt Index is attempting to bring together a rich array of diverse information and resources about this one kind of object in an integrated digital environment and empower people to use actively that information and create additional resources in the process. This is certainly not the only way to organize resources in the digital age, but, in a very real sense, the Quilt Index is itself a research project in digital humanities.



Cyber–Infrastructure and Digital Humanities

Before I conclude, I want to challenge you to think about both H–Net and the Quilt Index as part of a larger story. The digital age has reached a stage when it is possible to think about quantum leaps forward in research and knowledge discovery. This is particularly true in science and engineering as is evident in a powerful study, Revolutionizing Science and Engineering through Cyber–Infrastructure, published five years ago by the National Science Foundation.

Cyber–infrastructure is a clumsy word, and in many ways, an ill–chosen one. In Europe, the preferred term is e–science or e–research, “e” meaning “enabled” to refer to research enabled by the digital age. In medical fields, the preferred term is informatics. But whatever word is used, the point is that “a new age has dawned in scientific and engineering research, pushed by continuing progress in computing, information, and communication technology, and pulled by the expanding complexity, scope, and scale of today’s challenges.” [5]

Researchers want to ask questions they could not ask before, they want to work with materials in ways they could not have done before. In many fields of science and engineering, the capacity of digital technology already has crossed the threshold so as to be transformative of entire fields of research. The National Science Foundation is thus making major investments to develop new types of scientific and engineering knowledge environments. There are no areas in the humanities where the transformation is as far along as it is in astronomy or neuroscience, but the potential is just as fundamental.

Thus, with funding from the Mellon Foundation, the American Council Learned Society appointed a national commission to look at these issues within the humanities and social sciences. The ACLS Report, Our Cultural Commonwealth, emphasized that “‘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” (

One of our goals for the Quilt Index is to develop just such an environment. The Index already is a very valuable tool being used by scholars, by teachers, and by the public who are interested in the quilts, and it will become far more valuable as it grows in size and diversity of objects. For MATRIX, however, the Index is also a research project to see whether we could build the type of information habitat that can support a new type of humanities inquiry. My ultimate goal for the Quilt Index is to be able to ask basic humanities questions in a way that no one has been able to ask before.

Think of it this way. We have this important cultural artifacts, quilts, that have been made in the United States for over 200 years, and we know who made them, whether they were made by men or women, they were made by African–Americans, Native Americans, Laotian immigrants, etc. Can we use this Quilt Index to ask questions, for example, about integration? We know that African–Americans moved north in the middle of the twentieth century. As they moved north and to urban areas, did their quilts become more similar to the quilts made by white Americans? We now have a huge database to examine this question. We need to develop the tools, measures of similarity and dissimilarity, to be able to query that database.

Similarly, cultural historians talk about moments of national shock: Pearl Harbor, 9/11, etc. The Quilt Index has a vast array of cultural works that were produced after those moments. Can we see national trauma in those cultural products? Do harsh colors, black and red become more prominent? Can we see anger, confusion, frustration in the quilts made in the wake of these events? Do patriotic images become more prevalent?

I want to give one more example. Over the course of the twentieth century, culture historians often write about the increasing dominance of mass consumer culture over folk culture. With funding from IMLS, the Quilt Index is going to add images of the quilt patterns that were published in newspapers. So we can see when quilt patterns were published in newspapers and sent around the country. Do quilts increasingly coalesce around those patterns? Do the patterns published in mass newspapers overwhelm folk culture?

In the natural sciences, large new datasets, powerful computers, and a rich array of computational tools are rapidly transforming knowledge generation. For the same to occur in the humanities, we need to understand the principle that “more is better.” Part of what the computer revolution is doing is that it is letting us bring huge volumes of material under control. Cultural artifacts have always been held by separate institutions and separated by distance. Large–scale interoperable digital repositories, like the Quilt Index, open dramatically new possibilities to look at the totality of cultural content in ways never before possible.

It is essential, however, to understand that librarians, archivists, curators, and scholars are as essential to the development of digital humanities as computer scientists and programmers. Digital humanities content requires curation. If we do not get the metadata right, all we have is junk. And if we do not figure out how to preserve digital objects, than scholarship will be fleeting.

Finally, we want to create new publication environments as well as research environments, information habitats where people can work with their own materials and collaborate, and ultimately with tools that enable new ways of understanding humanity. End of article


About the author

Mark Lawrence Kornbluh is Chairperson and Professor of History and Director of MATRIX, The Center for Humane Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences Online at Michigan State University. One of the largest humanities technology centers in an American university, MATRIX’s research focuses on multimedia digital repositories, educational uses of online content, and the use of the Internet for development. Kornbluh was one of the founders of H–Net: Humanities and Social Sciences OnLine and served as its executive director from 1997–2004. He is the lead principle investigator on the Quilt Index.
E–mail: kornbluh [at] msu [dot] edu



1. See H–Net’s mission statement, at

2. From the outset, the Quilt Index has been directed by Mark Kornbluh, Director of MATRIX and Marsha MacDowell, Head and Curator of Folk Arts at the Michigan State Museum. Shelly Zegart, co–founder and former Director of The Alliance for American Quilts, served as co–PI on the first two NEH grants. Justine Richardson is project manager for the Index. The four partners in Phase Two were the Illinois State Museum, Michigan State University Museum, Tennessee State Library, and the University of Louisville Archives and Records Center. For the grant proposal see

3. For the full grant proposal see

4. H–Net pioneered the use of editorial boards for its networks over a decade ago and this has served the organization well.

5. “Revolutionizing Science and Engineering Through Cyberinfrastructure: Report of the National Science Foundation Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel on Cyberinfrastructure,” Executive Summary, p. 1, available at


Editorial history

Paper received 21 July 2008.

Copyright © 2008, First Monday.

Copyright © 2008, Mark Kornbluh.

rom Digital Repositories to Information Habitats: H–Net, the Quilt Index, Cyber Infrastructure, and Digital Humanities
by Mark Kornbluh
First Monday, Volume 13 Number 8 - 4 August 2008