Who Built CHNM?

Contributed By Matthew Kirschenbaum


Roy Rosenzweig was my colleague across town at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason. We saw each other at meetings and conferences four or five times a year; I had gotten to know him more personally when my partner worked at the Center for a while. He was warm and generous, obviously the kind of colleague and mentor we all want to have.

Roy had an impressive career filled with distinguished accomplishments. In 2003 he was the second of only five recipients of the prestigious Lyman Award, for outstanding achievement in the field of digital humanities. Others can (and already have) spoken to what Roy did as a teacher, a historian, and as a friend. I want to talk about something he built, because even though I never spent much time at CHNM I do have some experience with running a center.

Running a successful center is hard enough, but building one from the ground up is Herculean. And sometimes, it must seem, Sisyphean. Roy told me about CHNM’s history once, how it began in his office in the history department. And then moved to more palatial digs in a leaky trailer on the George Mason campus. Last year, however, the Center for History and New Media was given pride of place in the University’s new Research I building, a state of the art space that finally offered CHNM the facility it so richly deserved. The amount of invisible labor that goes in to something like that is vast, and not the kind of work that is rewarded (or usually even noticed) in the academy. There’s purchasing. For everything, from paper clips to computers to furniture. There’s hiring and personnel. There’s countless meetings with administrators and other stake-holders. There’s budget work. There’s payroll. There are fortuitous but mission-critical conversations with people in hallways. There’s strategic planning. And that’s before we even get to the Center’s research mission, but in order to pursue that mission there first must be funding. That’s where grant writing comes in. Roy wrote lots of grants and was remarkably successful; but grant writing is not glamorous work. Long, detailed narratives are the backbone of any proposal, and these must strike a pitch-perfect balance between precision and rigor and intellectual energy. Budgets have to be meticulous, laid out in advance literally to the last dollar. There’s all sorts of other documentation that must be prepared, collated, and formatted, all just so.

I’m dwelling on these details because I imagine this was a large part of Roy’s days and nights: invisible, often painstaking but essential work whose rewards are apparent only years later, if at all. But here’s the thing: today CHNM has a staff of over forty populating that state of the art research space. Roy has had lots of help along the way, and the Center’s future leadership could not be in better hands, but if I had to say what Roy did in a sentence it would be this: he created a place where forty people now come to do things that are so exciting that I bet every single one of them has nights they can’t sleep because what they really want is to be back at the Center. This is the pay-off of all the budgets and forms, all the paperwork, all of the long, tedious hours of administrivia: you get to do things so exciting you can’t sleep. Roy created a space where those forty people, and many more in the years to come, will meet, talk, and build things together. Amazing and wonderful and important things.

Thanks Roy, I’m only one of many who will miss you greatly.