The Library Company of Philadelphia’s First Biennial Innovation Award

The Library Company of Philadelphia

Call for Proposals

Deadline Extended to August 8, 2019!

Since the mid-twentieth century, proponents of progress have presented innovation as a panacea to the malaise of late-capitalism, variously equating it with creativity, entrepreneurship, and technological progress. However, as scholars like Benoît Godin, Alexander Mazzaferro, and John Patrick Leary have demonstrated, innovation was understood in the early modern period to be a risky affair—dangerous not only for the innovator but for the systems in which they worked.

If innovation has meant many things to many people—a charge of heresy (the Reformation) and sedition (the French Revolution), and a tool for social justice (nineteenth-century social reformers) and economic prosperity (federal intervention in the post-war period)—then an awareness of its definitional ambiguity might enable richer historical scholarship.

Situating innovation in a longer historical framework reveals the insufficiency of today’s techno-utopian discourse. Acknowledging the term’s inherent tensions invites a more contextual and germinal interpretation of innovation, grounded in humanistic methods.

The Library Company invites submissions for its inaugural Innovation Award.

For our starting point, we return to the term’s Latin etymology, innovare: to renew or to make new again. Grounded in its religious context (the recovery of the soul), innovation, as we envision it, enables both inward and outward inquiry. Inward inquiry might take the form of a meta-critical project that challenges the disciplinary cultures and practices in which it was produced, whereas outward inquiry might pursue modes of production and dissemination that enlist new audiences, allies, or contributors.

We want to see work whose urgency renews disciplinary engagements with broader social issues, chafes against disciplinary boundaries, or whose content or forms might not be legible as scholarship within the university rewards structures. In short, we want to do our small part to catalyze experimentation and adaptation in the humanities, and we want you to surprise us.

The Innovation Award

The Library Company of Philadelphia Innovation Award will be awarded to a project that critically and creatively expands the possibilities of humanistic scholarship.

The recipient will be selected by a committee of leaders in higher education, grant-awarding organizations, and research libraries and cultural heritage institutions, and the award will include a $2,000 prize, a spotlight interview in our “Talking in the Library” podcast, and recognition at the 288th Annual Dinner of the Library Company of Philadelphia (October 29, 2019).


The committee will evaluate how a project makes scholarly work new again. The scholarly work might take the form of an article, chapter, academic monograph, scholarly edition, or other project, in either print or digital form. “Innovation” will be defined broadly, and may include refashioning scholarly work with new partners (e.g., a playwright, musician, or visual artist), for new audiences (e.g., a local library, public high school, or arts collective), or into new forms e.g., a DH project, public exhibition, or podcast series).


The committee will ask how a project challenges long-held assumptions within and across genres, fields, or disciplines. That is, we want to see interdisciplinary work. Interdisciplinarity may be expressed in the creation, production, or distribution of a project. While we do not require that projects engage the Library Company’s collections, we will preference work that traverses our collection strengths, namely: seventeenth- through nineteenth-century American history, literature, and culture; political economy and visual culture; and African American and women’s history.

Projects must be completed—or near-complete—at the time of submission of one’s proposal. Preference will be given to projects that projects already launched or completed in the last six to 18 months at the time of submission.

Evaluation will be conducted in two stages. First, a committee of five subject area specialists at the Library Company will vet the content of submissions. Second, an innovation award committee comprised of five leaders from higher education, research libraries, and non-profit institutions will evaluate submissions in terms of how effectively they critically and creatively expand the possibilities of humanistic scholarship. In the interest of transparency, our evaluative criteria and the members of both our internal and external committees are listed below.

Please refer to the Evaluation Criteria handout.


We welcome proposals from applicants in all fields and at all career stages, including graduate students, junior and senior faculty, as well as independent scholars. In the case of collaborative projects, we will accept multi-author submissions. (However, the prize would be shared.)

To submit a project for consideration, please send a project narrative (no more than 1000 words), c.v., and one letter of reference to by August 8, 2019. The project statement should include some consideration of the project’s values, design, methodology, audience(s), and impact. We encourage applicants to include attachments, including links, photos, and/or other work samples.  The letter of reference ought to speak to both the candidate’s contributions to their fields and the impact of their project.

The Library Company will announce finalists on September 1 and publicly recognize the recipient of the Innovation Award at the 288th Annual Dinner.

Should you have any questions, please contact Dr. William D. Fenton, Director of Scholarly Innovation, via the aforementioned email address. Announcements will be made in September 2019.

Library Company of Philadelphia Content Specialists

Chair: Michael J. Barsanti, Edwin Wolf 2nd Director

  • James N. Green, Librarian
  • Cornelia King, Curator of Women’s History
  • Jasmine Smith, African American History Subject Specialist and Reference Librarian
  • Cathy Matson, Director of the Program in Early American Economy and Society
  • Erika Piola, Director of the Visual Culture Program

Innovation Award Committee

Chair: William D. Fenton, Director of Scholarly Innovation

  • Stacy Hartman, Director of the PublicsLab, The Graduate Center at the City University of New York
  • Lauren F. Klein, Associate Professor and Director of the Digital Humanities Lab, Georgia Tech
  • Alexander M. Mazzaferro, Postdoctoral Fellow, Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, University of Chicago
  • William Noel, Associate University Librarian & Director, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
  • Kalela Williams, Director of Neighborhood Library Enrichment Programming, Division of Cultural and Civic Engagement, Free Library of Philadelphia

About Founding Sponsor, Randall M. Miller, Ph.D.

About the Director of Scholarly Innovation