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Insights Interview: Josh Sternfeld on Funding Digital Stewardship Research and Development

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The 2015 iteration of the National Agenda for Digital Stewardship identifies high-level recommendations, directed at funders, researchers, and organizational leaders that will advance the community’s capacity for digital preservation. As part of our Insights Interview series we’re pleased to talk with Josh Sternfeld, a Senior Program Officer in the Division of Preservation and Access at the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The NEH has consistently funded research that addresses the most pertinent issues related to digital stewardship. Its recently revised Research and Development grant program seeks to address major challenges in preserving and providing access to humanities collections and resources, and Josh will help us understand new application guidelines and their perspective on digital stewardship. The deadline for submitting an application is June 25, 2015.

Josh has posted several times on the Signal and we interviewed him about his background and NEH’s digital stewardship interests back in March 2012.

Butch: This year NEH has decided to break its funding for Research and Development into two tiers: Tier I for short-term and Tier II for longer-term projects. Talk about why NEH wanted to split the funding up this way.

Funding by user howardlake on Flickr.
Funding by user howardlake on Flickr.

Josh: First of all, thank you for this opportunity to discuss the exciting changes to our grant program! Last year, my colleagues and I in the Division of Preservation and Access undertook an intensive year-long review of our Research and Development program. We reached out to the field, including participants in the 2014 NDSA Digital Preservation Conference, to listen to practitioners’ needs. We discovered that the landscape of research has changed dramatically in very short order. For starters, new content formats (especially in the digital space) are emerging and changing the way we understand the humanities. Yes, tools and platforms are critical for the work of humanities scholars, educators, curators, archivists, librarians and students, but just as important is the need to establish standards, practices, methodologies and workflows to promote resource sharing, evaluation, and collaboration.

By introducing the Tier I grant, we believe we can seed projects at all stages of development, from early conceptualization to advanced implementation. In addition, we want to support discrete research and development projects. Sometimes, a small team of humanities practitioners and scientists can assemble rapidly to collect critical data for the field. Altogether, the combination of short- and longer-term projects is intended to capture the fluid dynamic that we see arising from within cultural heritage research and development.

Butch: Give us a little more detail on each of the funding Tiers and examples of the kinds of projects you’d like to see under each.

Josh: We see Tier I as a promising entry point for a wide variety of project types, from the planning of large, multi-year collaborative projects to standalone projects such as basic research experiments, case studies, or tool development. Tier I projects, therefore, may be used to accomplish an expansive range of tasks. For example, a team creating an open source digital asset management system wants to include additional functionalities that takes the platform out of its “beta” phase. A group of information scientists, working with humanities scholars, wants to investigate the efficacy of a new linked open data model. Or a group of computer scientists wants to test a new approach to search and discovery within a large humanities data corpus.

At the Tier II level, NEH continues to support projects at an advanced implementation stage. Projects at this level must investigate the development of standards, practices, methodologies or workflows that could be shared and adopted by a wider community of practitioners.

For both tiers, we encourage collaboration across the humanities and sciences, whether information, computer, or natural. We believe pairing people from disparate backgrounds poses the best opportunity to accomplish positive outcomes for cultural heritage. We have included possible research topics and areas in our guidelines (pdf) that may provide some guidance, although please bear in mind the list is not intended to be comprehensive.

Butch: Do you foresee that projects originally funded under Tier I will return for Tier II funding down the road?

Josh: Yes, but it is not a prerequisite to apply. After reviewing many successful R&D projects over the years, we learned that the keys to a successful project begin with considerable planning, preparation, preliminary research and in some instances, prototyping, all of which would be eligible for Tier I support. Even if a project team does not continue into a formal implementation stage, a Tier I project can still provide a tremendous benefit to the field.

Butch: The digital stewardship community has often been challenged in securing stewards and funding support for tools and services that have grown to become part of the community infrastructure, such as web archiving tools. How does NEH see itself in terms of helping to develop and sustain a long-term digital stewardship infrastructure?

Josh: We envision the digital stewardship community, along with the wider cultural heritage R&D community, as building on an expanding scaffolding of data, tools, platforms, standards and practices. Each element has its role in advancing knowledge, forming professional connections and advancing the cause of providing better long-term preservation and access to humanities collections. One of the most gratifying parts of our job is to see how a standard under development and supported by R&D funding is eventually used in projects supported through our other grant programs. We think R&D can have the greatest impact by supporting the development of the elements that serve as the practical and theoretical glue binding the work of the humanities. For this reason, the grants do not support direct infrastructural development, per se, but rather applied research that leads to fundamental changes in our approach to stewardship.

Butch: Starting in 2016, the NEH will host an annual Research and Development Project Directors’ Meeting. Tell us about this meeting and how it will help publicize digital stewardship projects and research.

Josh: Compared to the sciences, the cultural heritage community perhaps has fewer opportunities to reflect upon major preservation and access-related challenges in the field in a public forum. Whether we are considering open access of humanities content, the crisis in audiovisual preservation and access, or a host of other topics, these challenges are clearly complex and demand creative thinking. Starting next spring, NEH will host an open forum that will not only provide recently awarded Project Directors the opportunity to showcase their innovative work, but will also encourage participants to think beyond their own projects and offer expert perspective on a single pre-selected issue. I don’t have much more to share at this stage, but I encourage everyone to stay tuned as information becomes available!

Butch: The revised NEH funding approach seems designed to help build connections across the digital stewardship community. How concerned is NEH and organizations like it about the “silo-ing” of digital stewardship research?

Josh: Maintaining active and productive research connections is essential for the success of digital cultural heritage research and development. It is the reason why, starting this year, we are requiring Tier II applicants to supply a separate dissemination proposal describing how research findings on standards, practices, methodologies and workflows will reach a representative audience. Research in digital stewardship has matured in recent years. Project teams can no longer rely on uploading a set of code and expecting a community to form magically around its sustainability. Thankfully, there are so many resourceful ways in which researchers can reach their constituency from holding in-person and virtual workshops, to code sprints, to developing online tutorials, to name just a few possibilities.

Butch: The 2015 National Agenda published last fall included a number of solid recommendations for research and development in the area of digital stewardship. In addition to applying for funds from NEH, what can NDSA member organizations concentrate on that will benefit the community as a whole?

Josh: NDSA has done a wonderful job crystallizing the R&D needs of specific areas and drawing attention to new ones. My recommendation, therefore, comes from social, rather than technical, considerations. I think first and foremost NDSA members should not be afraid to self-identify with the cultural heritage research and development community. All too often during our internal review we found that humanities practitioners were content working with the “status quo” as far as tools, platforms, standards, practices and methodologies are concerned. As a consequence, a lot of time and energy is spent adapting commercial or open source tools that were produced with entirely different audiences in mind. As soon as those in cultural heritage realize that their needs are unique from those of other disciplines, they can begin to form the necessary partnerships, collaborations, programming, and project focus.

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