Newberry Receives NEH Grant to Fund Digitization of Ayer North and Middle American Linguistics Collection

Rodolphe Petter's English-Cheyenne Dictionary

Rodolphe Petter's English-Cheyenne Dictionary (1915) is included in the Ayer North and Middle American Linguistics Collection. VAULT Ayer 421 .C25 P49 1915

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded the Newberry a grant of $336,288 to digitize more than 2,000 rare books and manuscripts documenting languages spoken or formerly spoken by the Indigenous peoples of North and Central America.

The Edward E. Ayer North and Middle American Linguistics Collection features books, periodicals, Bibles, and dictionaries representing an estimated 300 languages. The digitization of these items, to be completed by July 2026, will improve access for scholars and contemporary Native communities, particularly those focused on language revitalization efforts.

“This exciting grant award has been years and even decades in the making,” said Astrida Orle Tantillo, President and Librarian of the Newberry Library. “It will improve access to important historical language documentation in collaboration with tribal communities and our McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies. The Newberry is grateful for this generous support.”

The broader Ayer Collection features approximately 130,000 volumes and is one of the largest collections of books and manuscripts on American Indian and Indigenous Studies in the world.

A sampling of items from the Linguistics Collection includes:

  • Religious texts, such as translated Bibles, catechisms, prayer books, and sermons, which document missionary efforts to convert Indigenous populations to Christianity;
  • Several hundred Indigenous-language hymns and hymnals that document the intersection of religion and music;
  • Instructional materials, like dictionaries and glossaries, which give insight into what was discussed during early encounters between Natives and non-Natives; and
  • Documents written by Indigenous people for Indigenous people, such as periodicals, which record historical events from Indigenous perspectives.

The communities whose languages are represented in the collection live across what is now the United States, Canada, Mexico, Greenland, and more than ten Central American and Caribbean countries, making a high-quality digital collection a major improvement for sustained accessibility for a geographically diverse user base. Many languages represented in the collection are endangered, with a limited number of speakers, making digitization all the more urgent. The NEH grant and digitization will make these materials broadly available online for the first time, with the Newberry’s digital portal providing easy access and facilitating collaborative research that would otherwise require significant coordination and travel costs.

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