2021 Innovation Award: Call for Proposals

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.

Library Company Innovation Award Logo

The Library Company invites submissions for its 2021 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; 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 recent 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 290th Annual Dinner of the Library Company of Philadelphia.


The committee will evaluate how a proposed 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 (a playwright, musician, or visual artist), for new audiences (a local library, public high school, or arts collective), or into new forms (a digital humanities 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 prioritize work that traverses our collection strengths, namely: early 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. Existing projects must have launched in the last six to 18 months (January 2020, or later).

Evaluation will be conducted in two stages. First, a committee of five subject area specialists at the Library Company will vet the content of proposals. Second, an innovation award committee comprising five leaders from higher education, research libraries, and non-profit institutions will evaluate proposals in terms of how effectively they critically and creatively expand the possibilities of humanistic scholarship.

Evaluative Criteria


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 proposals. (However, the prize would be shared.)

To submit a project for consideration, please send a project statement (no more than 1000 words), c.v. or resume, and one letter of reference to dbrock@librarycompany.org by August 1, 2021. Your project statement should include some consideration of your project’s values, design, methodology, and, if available, its 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 290th Annual Dinner in November 2021.

Should you have any questions, please email Dayjah Brock, Events & Marketing Manager. Announcements will be made in September 2021.

2019 Biennial Innovation Award Recipients

Dr. Sari Altschuler and Dr. David Weimer

Touch This Page! Making Sense of the Ways We Read

Developed with a team of librarians, scholars, and engineers, Touch This Page! reproduces tactile facsimiles of pages printed for blind and low-vision readers in order to make the experience of reading these books publicly accessible for the first time in over a century. Touch This Page! enlivens issues of disability history through the widely shared experience of reading while illustrating how and why digital humanities projects must expand beyond visual forms.

Sari Altschuler is associate professor of English, Associate Director of the Humanities Center, and Founding Director of Health, Humanities, and Society at Northeastern University. David Weimer earned his Ph.D. in English from Harvard University and has been the Librarian for Cartographic Collections and Learning at the Harvard Map Collection since 2016.

2019 Innovation Award Honorable Mentions

Dr. Ellery Foutch, Sheldon Relic Chair

A course-based collaborative project that enlists undergraduates in curation, fabrication, and local history.

Dr. Lana Finley (Thea Wirsching), The American Renaissance Tarot

A 78-card Tarot deck and companion book that introduces students to American literary and religious history.

Together, these projects illuminate the kinds of innovative work that the Library Company seeks to support, including collaborating scholars who draw inspiration from our collections, programming, and scholarly community (Altschuler and Weimer); faculty who invite students into the research process (Foutch); and researchers who reimage scholarly works for new audiences (Finley).

The Innovation Award was made possible with the support of our Founding Sponsor, Randall M. Miller, Ph.D. Special thanks are due to our internal content specialists (James N. Green, Cornelia King, Jasmine Smith, Cathy Matson, and Erika Piola) and our innovation award committee (Stacy Hartman, Lauren F. Klein, Alexander M. Mazzaferro, William Noel, and Kalela Williams) who painstakingly reviewed all application materials. Finally, thank you to all of the researchers who submitted projects for consideration. You didn’t make this easy on us, and I, for one, feel honored to have learned about all of the important work being done across our learning community.

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

About the Director of Research and Public Programs