Friday, January 10, 2020

Where Are They Now?: Curation and Preservation of Early Online Digital Humanities Materials

I am currently doing research, in collaboration with my colleague Jaime Schumacher, on the present status of sixty-five online digital humanities projects funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities' Division of Education Programs Development and Demonstration competition in the period 1993-2005. This was a major source of early funding for projects in this field, providing support to the University of Virginia's Valley of the Shadow Project, the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University, the Women and Social Movements Project at SUNY Binghamton, and many others.

I should note that I did not receive any funding from this program during this period, nor did any of my colleagues at Northern Illinois University.

Having experience in the creation of grant-funded, online digital humanities materials during this period as well as in the investigation of digital preservation issues in libraries and archives, I became aware that many of these online resources were likely at risk of loss. I know that we struggled mightily to devise a way to keep our online projects (Lincoln/Net, Mark Twain's Mississippi, Southeast Asia Digital Library) functioning and available, so it stood to reason that other practitioners and institutions in similar situations would do so as well.

Based on our own experience, I identified major threats to the preservation and online presentation of these projects as

1) the lack of long-term funding inherent in grant-funded work. Unlike discrete research projects commonly funded and performed in colleges, universities and cultural heritage institutions, which typically produce results and publish findings as part of a mutually agreed upon timeline, these projects proposed to make materials available to the public for an indefinite period of time. Who was to pay for their support after the grant period?

2) the demands of online presentation in light of technical infrastucture's limited lifespan in a rapidly changing technical environment. It became clear rather early in this period that computers used to serve websites must be replaced every three or four years in order to provide acceptable levels of online availability. Also, software companies continued to push new versions of software (and eventually stopped supporting old versions), and produced new products very quickly, leading to rapid obsolescence of software arrangements.

3) the widespread assumption among practitioners (including myself) that digital materials were in fact more durable, and hence less subject to loss than analog materials. This turned out to be false, as research has often shown that for reasons including those listed above, digital materials are very likely to be lost in the absence of detailed preservation policies and sustained attention to their curation. Thus the support of digital projects included much more than paying for their ongoing online availability. It also included organizing, maintaining, and securing the archive of digitized or born-digital materials that the project had created. The fact that practitioners responsible for the creation of digital projects often did not realize this considerable risk of loss exposed their materials to additional risk.  

Our research will show how many of these online resources are still available online today; what technical platform (hardware and software) they employ, as well as the institutional arrangements behind this platform (i.e. is the project still presented online by the institution that received the original grant? if so, what part of the institution has assumed responsibility for it? and, is this the unit of the institution which originally received the grant?); and how many and which of these institutions have discussed and/or implemented a binding plan for their continued preservation and online presentation.

In addition, we hope to speak to representatives of the National Endowment for the Humanities to determine what their original expectations for projects' preservation and ongoing availability might have been, and if these expectations evolved or changed over the time period in question.

In the end, we hope to determine which factors have affected online availability of early digital humanities projects. At this point we believe that the dynamics mentioned above will very likely appear in this list of factors, but only the research itself will tell.

I'm sure that other research questions will occur to us as we review the data we have collected. We may or may not be able to integrate them into this discrete study.

We hope to publish the results of the study in approximately eighteen to twenty-four months, perhaps addressing the Library Science and Digital Humanities communities in separate articles that discuss our data and findings from their respective viewpoints.