The IRIS Center was founded by English Language and Literature Professors Jessica DeSpain and Kristine Hildebrandt in the spring of 2010. Both DeSpain and Hildebrandt started at SIUE in the 2008 fall semester and came from graduate and professional backgrounds at universities that had centers, working groups, and other resources that supported their digital research. Noticing the lack of similar support available at SIUE at the time, DeSpain and Hildebrandt identified a digital scholarship gap in which only students and faculty at Research I universities had the technical and institutional infrastructure necessary to launch digital scholarship projects. DeSpain and Hildebrandt, along with a group of College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) faculty, proposed a Digital Humanities and Social Sciences Roundtable to look into the feasibility of creating a digital humanities center at SIUE. Held in the 2009-10 school year, this roundtable was one of several supported by the CAS Interdisciplinary Roundtable Initiative.

The roundtable consisted of 18 faculty from the departments of Anthropology, English Languages and Literature, Foreign Languages and Literature, Historical Studies, Philosophy, Physics, Computer Science, Educational Leadership, and Lovejoy Library, as well as two staff members – one from the Graduate School and the other from Information Technology Services (ITS). Roundtable participants investigated various models of digital humanities centers at other universities. In addition, in the spring of 2010 the roundtable organized an SIUE speaker series of three digital research center directors: Joe Loewenstein from Washington University, John Unsworth from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Kenneth Price from the University of Nebraska.

Roundtable participants formed the IRIS Center in the spring of 2010, using the acronym Interdisciplinary Research and Informatics Scholarship. This made SIUE one of the first master’s comprehensive institutions to create a digital humanities center. DeSpain and Hildebrandt became the center’s co-directors, with the long term goal of hiring center staff members. IRIS Center faculty also began the process to create an interdisciplinary minor in digital humanities and social sciences. The College of Arts and Sciences provided the Center’s first physical space in fall 2010 in the bottom floor of Peck Hall.

Jessica DeSpain (left) and Kristine Hildebrandt (right) in the original IRIS Center.
Jessica DeSpain (left) and Kristine Hildebrandt (right) in the original IRIS Center.

In its infancy, the IRIS Center received a number of internal grants to support long-term growth. In 2011, it received an Excellence in Undergraduate Education (EUE) grant to support the creation of the digital humanities and social sciences minor. In 2012, it received a Seed Transitional and Exploratory Projects (STEP) grant. This grant supported an IRIS Center graduate assistant, Christy Koester, who worked with DeSpain and Hildebrandt to develop a sustainable plan for the IRIS Center based on models at other institutions. As the Center grew, it acquired equipment to perform a number of tasks, including book scanning, document digitization, audio and video recording and editing, Optical Character Recognition (OCR), cassette and VHS digitization, and text encoding.

Throughout the years, the IRIS Center has facilitated more than 25 student and faculty digital projects, several of which have received federal funding or were financed by community contracts. Projects funded by The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) include Conversation Toward a Brighter Future and Frederick Douglass and Literary Crossroadswhile projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) include Digital East St. LouisManang Languages, and Nepal Earthquakes. Community contract-funded projects include Madison Historical and Forgotten IllinoisStudent projects include Borderlands: The Goshen Settlement of William B. WhitesideCatherine’s World, and Rosetta Stones of the Valley of Mexico.

In the spring 2016 semester, The interdisciplinary minor in Digital Humanities and Social Sciences was approved. This multi-disciplinary program applies digital tools to questions in fields such as history, literature, philosophy, geography, linguistics, archaeology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

In 2015, the IRIS Center hired its first staff member: Kayla Hays, an IRIS Center alum who previously worked on The Wide Wide World Digital Edition and received a master’s in library and information science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As the IRIS Center Technician, Hays was able to provide more individualized support to projects and day-to-day operations.

Hays was succeeded by Katherine Knowles in spring 2017. Knowles received a BA in English and Music from Hanover College and an MA in Shakespeare Studies from the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon. Throughout her undergraduate and graduate education, Knowles gained extensive experience working with special collections at both institutions’ libraries. In fall 2017, Knowles was joined by Ben Ostermeier, an IRIS Center alum and the first student to receive the minor in Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at SIUE. Knowles and Ostermeier were given the official titles of IRIS Center Project Manager and IRIS Center Technician, respectively. Knowles was responsible for grant writing and assisting project planning and management, whereas Ostermeier was responsible for the technical needs of projects and the center.

The hiring of permanent staff members generated tremendous growth of the IRIS Center, increasing both the number of grant-awarded projects and students using Center resources. For example, 15 students used the IRIS Center in fall 2016; that number rose to 103 in fall 2018.

In fall 2019, Knowles was succeeded by Zachary Riebeling, who was appointed as an Assistant Research Professor. Riebeling earned a BA and MA in history from SIUE and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At UIUC, Riebeling worked on Dr. Harry Liebersohn’s digital project “The Globalization of the Phonograph Industry, 1905-1914: A Statistical and Visual History”.

Photograph of the IRIS Center lab space.
The new IRIS Center space was established in fall 2018.

In the summer of 2018, the IRIS Center moved to the second floor of Peck Hall, expanding to a room twice as large as the previous space. The increased room size has expanded the possibilities of collaboration, allowing for a larger number of users at one time. Classes can now be held in the space as well.

In the spring of 2019, the IRIS Center organized a conference, Digital Humanities and the Undergraduate Experience, held April 26 and 27, 2019. The event included 23 presentations from participants who submitted abstracts for review and three invited keynote speakers, who represented innovation in the intersection of digital humanities topics and methods with undergraduate education. The keynote speakers were Harriet Green (Washington University in St Louis), Kristen Mapes (Michigan State University), and Jocelyn Wilson (Georgia Tech). In total, 47 faculty, staff, students, and other community members attended the conference. This includes faculty and student presenters from other institutions, including Claremont Graduate University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Westminster College, as well as two faculty attendees from Lewis and Clark Community College.

In spring 2021, Riebeling was succeeded by Margaret Smith as Research Assistant Professor. Smith received her B.A. in History and Religion from Hastings College and completed her M.A. and Ph.D. in Medieval History at Saint Louis University. Prior to joining SIUE, she worked in digitization at the Barack Obama Presidential Library. She contributes to the Center’s projects in a number of capacities, including digital humanities teaching and training, project development, grant-writing, and community engagement.

Moving forward, the IRIS Center is working to increasingly support the retention and success of underserved students through the design of innovative curricular models. With the support of an NEH Humanities Connections Grant, the IRIS Center is now running the Community-Oriented Digital Engagement Scholars (CODES) program, an alternative to the honors program in which student cohorts work with faculty members and community partners to address large-scale social problems using methods central to the digital humanities. By combining the digital humanities with service learning practices, IRIS is increasing the University’s commitment to community engagement.