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Digital Humanities and Digital Preservation

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This past April 8 was the 2013 “Day of Digital Humanities.”  Started in 2010, this is an annual event of blogging and tweeting about the experience of digital humanities by graduate students, professors, alt-academics, librarians and other participants who identify with the field.  And “the field” of Digital Humanities can be whatever you define it to be.  And you fit in however you see fit.

For me, it’s thinking about sustainability and preservation.

Deena Larsen and an analog visualization of the narrative linkages in her work "Marble Springs"
Deena Larsen and an analog visualization of the narrative linkages in her work “Marble Springs.” Photo by Leslie Johnston.

I have had the privilege of working at three research universities with a strong presence in the digital humanities. I saw groundbreaking collections built, and was witness to both the beginning and the end of the life cycle for many projects.  As I have seen projects reach a transition point – moving between institutions when a key person moves, or ending development upon a retirement or end of a grant – I have seen the sometime panicky look when someone realizes that something has to happen with their digital resource. It may have to be packed up to be moved and installed in another environment, or frozen in its current state, or perhaps shut down entirely.  I learned a lot of lessons that I still live by in my work in digital preservation.

What is it to sustain and/or preserve a digital humanities project?  There are basically two schools of thought on this:

  • Preserve the content and the look and feel exactly as they were implemented.  This is often close to impossible.
  • Preserve the content but forgo the look and feel. This is often extremely unpopular.

When stewardship is transferred from one person or organization to another, choices must be made. Will the project be transferred for pure bit preservation,  tarred up and saved to long-term storage, ready to deliver in the same form is requested? Will the project be put online with no promises of full functionality?  Will the project be migrated to a new application infrastructure, with some but likely not all look and feel and functionality retained?

All have implications for resources.  A project owner has to understand the implications of what it takes to sustain and steward a project over the years (and I know of some projects that have been online for close to 20 years), and a stewardship organization has to understand the implications of hosting and keeping current an increasing number of digital humanities projects that it might collect and preserve.

Sustainability and preservation depend on active management of a project.  Digital humanities projects correctly put the highest focus on the content and scholarship that they present. But these projects should not let their technologies go stale.   The project may have been developed with requirements for proprietary technologies that are no longer supported. Or use a DTD for its markup that has not been in common use for over a decade. Or require plugins that browsers no longer support. Build tasks into a project to review and revise the underlying technology and content formats over time. I have especially seen this happen in the past with the choice of highly customized indexing and search tools. And we shall not speak of SGML.

Sustainability and preservation start at the beginning of the life cycle. Having been the recipient of more than one project that is making a transition from one server to another or from a faculty member to a library that will steward what may be a highly complex application with a large amount of content, I have been faced with the dilemma of sustainability.  Digital humanities projects — well, all projects — should give a lot of thought in their planning phases to the use of open source technologies, standards that are well-used and supported in the community, and have a plan to update their infrastructure as well as the content.  That does not mean that a digital humanities project should forgo innovation or try a new technology. But plan for the future when the server your project is hosting on cannot run that technology any more. That day will happen.

So what does this mean for scholars and researchers in the digital humanities? While one would like to focus on pure scholarship — discovering new sources, intuiting new interpretations, writing and designing innovative ways of presenting the outcomes of the research — sustainable technology has to be a consideration alongside the scholarly endeavor.

Open content format standards must be considered and decisions should be documented. The infrastructure (and code) should be documented, including the process for building and installing the project. The operations of an application and its interface should also be documented.  Not least of all, the the rights and provenance of all content and metadata MUST be documented, or stewardship organizations may be wary of sustaining and making a project available for the long haul without understanding the intellectual property risks.  All of this will ensure a better chance for long-term sustainability and accessibility for any digital humanities project.

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