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When Digital Projects End

June 26, 2014

The efforts to preserve digital humanities research are as numerous as the definitions of the catchall term, according to a report that urges institutions to develop their own strategies to preserve resources that can’t simply be bound and stored in a library.

The report, “Sustaining the Digital Humanities: Host Institution Support Beyond the Start-Up Phase,” represents an effort by co-authors Nancy L. Maron and Sarah Pickle, a program director and analyst at the consulting firm Ithaka S+R, respectively, to study how institutions support digital resources created on their campuses. The work builds on an earlier report that looked at similar efforts in the United Kingdom.

Instead of looking at journal articles (“for which there are established paths to distribution and preservation”), institutional repositories (“which arguably merit a study all their own”) or student work, the study is limited to digital research resources. The authors further break down that category into projects such as crowdsourced transcription, visualization tools and portals.

“Such projects have the potential to provide valuable tools and information to an international audience of learners,” Maron and Pickle write. “Without careful planning and execution, however, they can also all too easily slip between the cracks and quickly become obsolete.”

Ithaka in 2012 received a $157,204 Digital Humanities Implementation Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the authors spent the first phase of the project conducting interviews at 12 institutions across the country. That preliminary work identified four universities at various stages of developing institutional strategies -- Brown, Columbia and Indiana Universities and the University of Wisconsin -- which they selected for a “deep dive.”

After interviewing more than 125 administrators, faculty members and staffers, Maron and Pickle concluded that the best model to preserve digital research at an institution is, fittingly, the model that suits the institution best.

Some, like Brown and Indiana, have opted for a service model, where an existing unit on campus -- an IT unit or the library, for example -- supports faculty members in their teaching and research efforts. Other institutions, including George Mason University and the University of Maryland at College Park, have founded a dedicated center on campus for digital humanities project support. Others yet are contemplating a network model, which splits the support responsibilities between different offices on campus.

“At the end of the day, the system that will work best for an institution, its faculty and staff is the one most closely tailored to the goals that institution holds dear,” the authors write.

The sustainability implementation toolkit accompanying the report is therefore a three-step process that colleges and universities can follow to identify that system. The process begins with gathering data from faculty surveys and interviews with administrators and staffers. The data is then used to determine where (or if) support services offered on campus overlap.

The discussion about how and when digital projects end has prompted the same kind of existential questions that have long surrounded the digital humanities. The topic was raised in a cluster of essays published in an issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly five years ago, but it resurfaced as recently as in last month’s volume of the Humanist discussion group listserv.

Alex Gil, digital scholarship coordinator at the Columbia University Libraries, said the ongoing debate shows that scholars still disagree on what preservation means.

“What is to preserve?” Gil said in an interview. “Is it to keep it alive or just put it to rest?”

Columbia is considering making the researchers answer that question at an early phase of their projects -- perhaps by making them agree to a memorandum of understanding “that says, ‘Here’s what happens when the money runs out,’ ” Gil said. In other words, if the researchers skirt their duty to include a mechanism to keep the project running or a plan to archive it, they can’t expect the university to swoop in and save their work.

“Everybody who’s serious about [preservation] is doing some version of that,” said Trevor Muñoz, associate director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, which was featured in the report. “I think it’s reasonable to ask people who are building this kind of scholarship to think ahead about ... the arrangements that will be made for their materials and work together with libraries to archive them.”

The research-focused institute, founded in 1999, partners with the libraries at the College Park campus to share preservation responsibilities. But even after 15 years, Muñoz said, preservation is still a “moving target.”

“I’d say it’s because as a community we haven’t yet come to any satisfactory answers,” Muñoz said. “It’s still a genuinely open area for work.”

The next step for research in that area, Gil and Muñoz said, may be to focus on a topic the 93-page report, the accompanying sustainability implementation toolkit and blog post didn't touch on: student work.

“The report does a fine job of teasing out the diversity of support approaches at different universities,” Gil said. “Now that they have brought this level of detail to the conversation, I hope we can begin expanding the concept of support that the study assumes to include the learning of faculty, students and librarians. Nothing in my estimate will support digital scholarship and allow it to endure constant technological change -- on any campus -- more than shared knowledge.”

 

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