Association of College & Research Libraries

Blue grass and NEH grants: An ACRL/PLA workshop in Kentucky

The peaceful Shaker village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, provided the setting for a recent NEH/ PLA/ACRL workshop, “Programming in the Hu- manities.” In the cool but sunny weather, half an hour away from Lexington, a total of 23 partici- pants worked from breakfast until well into the night to learn how to request funding from the Na- tional Endowment for the Humanities. The work- shop, itself funded by a grant from NEH, was de- signed to aid public librarians, academic librarians, and humanists working in cooperation in the process of writing a proposal for a grant from NEH.

Groups came in teams of three (public, aca- demic, and humanist) from as near as Louisville and Columbia, Kentucky, and as far away as New- port News, Virginia. Each group was to come equipped with some ideas for a project already in the planning stages; however, once arrived, the teams were paired and required to design an “exer- cise” program. The four resulting project pro- posals, though incomplete, proved to be of great in- terest to all participants and showed promise of success if they were to be submitted.

In order to set the participants on the correct hu- manistic path, Dr. Huel Perkins of Louisiana State University spoke on “What are the Humanities?” The humanities are not performance, they are not exhibition, he said, but “the humanities are interpretation. They are about things.” The description of what is included in the humanities is found in the background literature of the National Endowment for the Humanities:

This former Shaker washing house now serves as lodging for visitors.

“By law, the term humanities includes, but is not limited to, the study of history; philosophy; languages; linguistics; literature; archaeology; jurisprudence; the history, theory, and criticism of the arts; ethics; comparative religion; and those aspects of the social sciences that employ historical or philosophical approaches.”

Perhaps the best description was given by Perkins as he explained: “Imagine a big picture, a painting, with a small inscription underneath. That’s art. Imagine a small picture, with a large inscription underneath. That’s the humanities.” He ended his speech with praise for the creative endeavors of mankind, and with hope for continuing inquiry into such works.

The following day, with a clearer definition of the humanities and a better idea of how their pursuits did or did not fit into the discipline of the humanities, the participants listened to Tom Phelps explain, “Who is NEH?” Phelps, a program officer in the division of General Programs for NEH, described what types of programs the Endowment will support, and what types it will not. It would not want to provide funds for the mere performance of a musical, for example, but it might find a series of musicals, followed by a series of interpretative discussions, more fitting to the humanities. (This is, in fact, what one group planned to do.)

Julie Virgo, of The Carroll Group in Chicago, also spoke on what the NEH looks for in the proposals submitted. Herself a member of several review panels for such proposals, she spoke on the criteria for review: What is the value of the central idea behind the project? Will it advance public understanding of humanistic thought? Will it stimulate the use of the available humanities resources? Have the objectives been clearly defined, the audience designated, the management planned, and the budget carefully considered? Phelps’ and Virgo’s explanations aided the participants in channeling the wide variety of individual ideas into realizable projects.

Then the fun began when the groups, after having shared their objectives with the entire group, were paired in the hopes that two teams’ respective proposals might be compatible enough to create a third “exercise” proposal. The variety of ideas proved to make the ensuing discussions lively, if not heated at times.

The next day when the exercise projects, written in the style and format of an actual NEH proposal, were presented, the fruits of the evening’s discussions became evident. Four programs were presented, and the results were quite successful: one group planned to present a program on the Scandinavian culture of a particular neighborhood, with emphasis on the history and folklore; another planned a project of a series of American musicals linked with relevant discussions on their respective contexts; a third wanted to explore the issues surrounding modern medicine and the value of life by a series of readings, films and lectures; and the fourth group, “Newport Bend,” composed of teams from Newport News, Virginia, and South Bend, Indiana, planned an ambitious eleven-week program of museum exhibits, readings, lectures, and discussions of its various ethnic communities.

Although the central themes of the programs differed, the form and practice of using the libraries as the focal point for research, lectures, and public gatherings for discussion were the same for each program. These project proposals, resulting from only one day of hard work, were very good beginnings, Phelps suggested, that he hoped would be submitted eventually to the NEH for funding.

No group left with a completed program proposal, but most left with a keener sense of the specifics of what they wanted to do, and what the NEH would support in general. Most striking, however, as the setting had promised from the very beginning, was the deepening of one’s understanding of the humanities.

The history of one community’s attempt at creating a more spiritual world surrounded us. There are now only a few Shakers left—none in Shakertown—yet their hopes for a better world continue in what they did create. The workshop answered many questions about the humanities— what they were, what they had to offer—and about how, given the cooperation of librarians with their knowledge of resources and academics with their grasp of subject disciplines, a good program could enrich a community, even one as small as the group in Shakertown.

For information on upcoming NEH workshops, contact Sandra Donnelly, ACRL, 50 E. Huron St., Chicago, IL 60611; (312) 944-6780.—Donna Camloh, C&RL News.

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