Ferris Presents 2002 Henderson Lecture

Release date: 

November 1, 2002

The following is a transcript of the 2002 Henderson Lecture, presented by William Ferris, associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South and co-editor of the Pulitzer Prize nominee Encyclopedia of the South, on Thursday, Nov. 7, at Wilson Library.

The lecture is an annual presentation established in 1990 to honor the memory of Lucile Kelling Henderson, faculty member (1932-1960) and dean (1954-1960) of what was then known as the School of Library Science.



“Humanities, Technology, and the American South”

Lucile Kelling Henderson Lecture

By William Ferris

It is a special honor to deliver this year’s Lucile Kelling Henderson Lecture. The field of libraries and information science is close to my heart. Like all of you, libraries have shaped my life since childhood, and their worlds are being dramatically transformed today by information technology.

While serving as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities my staff and I worked hard to expand support for libraries throughout our nation. During my tenure at NEH I was delighted to learn that there are more libraries in our nation than McDonald’s, a statistic that suggests how libraries and librarians serve every community—large and small---in America.

It is understandable that we think of computers when we hear the word technology. We now live in a world in which 1.5 billion e-mails are sent each day. American send more e-mails each day than the Post Office delivers letters. And for every dollar spent on books, Americans spend three on software.

So technology is an increasingly important presence in all of our lives. But as my friend Joe Corn, a historian of technology, often reminds me, the field of technology embraces far more history than the twentieth century and its world of computers.

Technology and the humanities have been joined at the waist since the invention of writing. They evolved together through the bound book which made possible a portable written word. The printing press with its movable type was followed by the radio, television and the Internet.

More than all earlier forms of technology combined, the Internet has changed the way we create, store, and disseminate information. It has also transformed our concept of publishing. Today a writer can publish a book on the Internet, and it can then be read by millions.

While serving as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, I was pleased to discover that NEH had supported the creation of over 300 web sites. One of these websites, Oyez, Oyez, Oyez, is based at Northwestern University and showcases the history of the United States Supreme Court. The site includes full documentation on every case considered by the Supreme Court, as well as virtual tours of the Court’s chambers.

NEH’s portal website, EDSITEment, provides access to over 130 websites that are of special interest to k-12 teachers. Using a powerful search engine, a teacher can search all of the websites for information on a subject and then request lesson plans that include educational guidelines specific to their state.

NEH’s My History is America’s History project allows all Americans to enter their genealogy and family stories into a website. They can then connect their family history to American history in what NEH staff call an “electronic front porch.”

Of special interest to Civil War buffs is the NEH-funded website The Valley of the Shadow. This website offers a portrait of two counties in the same valley that lay on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line, one in Pennsylvania, and the other in Virginia, during the Civil War.

NEH also launched on-line encyclopedias that feature each state, region, and major urban area. These encyclopedias are inspired by The Handbook of Texas website which was also funded by NEH. North Carolina is currently developing an on-line encyclopedia as part of this initiative. UNC’s library is working with the UNC Press and the North Carolina Humanities Council to develop this important project.

It is clear that the future of humanities and technology will be defined within the libraries of our nation’s great universities. Through projects like Ibiblio, the University of North Carolina’s library demonstrates that is clearly on the cutting edge of technology development. Similar technology initiatives under way in libraries at sister institutions like the University of Virginia, the University of Maryland, Virginia Commonwealth University, The University of California at Berkeley, and Stanford University.

As a scholar who has worked on the American South, I am especially pleased to see how the UNC Library is increasingly sharing its massive collections on the region with the pubic through technology.

Your website Documenting the American South offers a rich portrait of all things Southern, from literature and slave narratives to North Carolina experience and first-person narratives of the region. My own field of folklore is well documented within the holdings of your Southern Folk life Collection.

This fall I am teaching a seminar for graduate and undergraduate students on southern music, and my students and I have made extensive use of both the Southern Folk life Collection and your amazing new undergraduate library.

Later this fall I will move my papers and folklore collections—what I am told is several tons of books, films, sound recordings, negatives, and other memorabilia—to the University of North Carolina Library. I look forward to working with you to digitize these resources so that they can be available to the public through the UNC Library.

So Information Technology is indeed close to my heart. As a student of southern culture and folklore, I have often used still and motion picture cameras, as well as tape recorders, to document the American South. I have also used music as a window through which to view the region.

I must confess that since childhood I have the deepest respect and admiration for librarians. When asked how we completed so many projects at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, I replied that it was because we had three librarians on our staff, one of whom, Lisa Howorth, did her library science degree at UNC.

So when asked with whom I would like to be stranded on an island, my answer will always be, “a librarian,” because you are the smartest, most interesting people on earth.

I am honored to have been your Henderson Lecturer this year, and I look forward to working closely with you in the coming years to support your impressive efforts.

Thank you.