Preserving Digital Humanities Projects

December 11, 2009 by

Have you seen the Modern Language Association’s new Evaluation Wiki? It’s “an ongoing project initiated by the MLA Committee on Information Technology (CIT) as a way for the academic community to develop, gather, and share materials about the evaluation of work in digital media for purposes of tenure and promotion.” One of the suggested questions for evaluating digital work is “Is there a deposit plan? Will it be accessible over the longer term? Will the library take it?” (Read more) If you are like many digital humanists, you have created innovative projects that exist in a fragile, distributed state, or are dependent on your university computing accounts for their continued existence. Maybe you have never given a thought to their long-term preservation, or the idea is so daunting that you quickly shelve it in favor of more manageable problems.

For the past year and a half, Louie Ulman (OSU Department of English) and I (OSU Libraries) have been working on an NEH grant-funded project to create a lifecycle model for electronic textual editions. Integral to this model is a preservation plan to ensure the long-term survival of such editions, and we have developed a number of tools and processes that can be applied to other types of complex digital projects as well.

Preservation starts with description, and we will show you how to use two of the tools – a content manifest (PDF) and a semantic map (PDF) (examples taken from an electronic text edition of a manuscript journal from the 1800’s) – to describe your project. The resulting descriptions will help you – most likely working in partnership with your library – to create an archival version of your project. We will also offer guidance for librarians working with digital humanists, and provide strategies for working with preservation repositories.

In the meantime, we would like to hear from you. What kinds of projects are you working on? What steps are you taking – or not taking – to ensure their longevity? What kinds of challenges do you face in doing so? (E.g. multiple software platforms, dependence on a benevolent systems administrator, etc.) Does your library play an active role in the support or preservation of digital humanities projects on your campus?

About Melanie Schlosser: Digital Publishing Librarian at the Ohio State University Libraries. I came to library science from the humanities (undergraduate degree in English), and have continued to weave them into my work. I have attended a number of THATCamps, and have organized (or help to organize) a couple.

4 Responses to Preserving Digital Humanities Projects

  1. Erin Bell on December 16, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    This is a really important issue (and one that occasionally gives me anxiety!). It can be surprising to consider all the different platforms, technologies, server specs, software updates, compatibilities, etc. needed to keep all of our web projects in working order and keep all of our digital archival files safe. We use a combination of commercial and university servers for all of this, but I’m under no illusion that this will continue indefinitely. At some point, all of these materials will end up in the hands of the library, the department, or an archive, and will become their responsibility.

    I think this will be a great opportunity to explore these issues and I’m very excited to hear more about the process you’ve developed at OSU. We are about to revisit some of our recent larger projects in order to document the process of production and I think it would be great if we could also incorporate some solid archival description, etc.

  2. Amanda Sikarskie on December 17, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    Yay I’m so glad you’re doing this session! The project I work for, the Quilt Index, has made a commitment to exist and be accessible online in perpetuity. So we’ve had conversations and planning for short and long-term sustainability and preservation for various scenarios. Looking forward to talking to you in Columbus!

  3. Boone Gorges on January 12, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    This is a really important topic. Glad to see you’re taking it head on.

    One complication I’d like to throw into the mix is this. As web use becomes more and more social as the years go by, the value of a given digital artifact becomes more and more difficult to locate in a single space. If I post a DH project on my blog, for instance, certainly I’ll want to preserve what I post there. But much of the value of what I post comes from the comments that are posted on the blog (which are easy enough to archive), as well as the commentary that comes from other blog posts in my network, discussions on Twitter, and so forth. Is there a meaningful way to take a snapshot of the network that gives my blog post meaning? (Moreover, since the longitudinal development of the network around a project is of great importance, is there a way to archive the development of the network as a series of snapshots or as an entire timeline?)

    Really looking forward to discussing the issue with you.

  4. Melanie Schlosser on January 12, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    Excellent points, Boone! The approach we’ve been taking is very individualized and project-based, so for any given project, you would decide what is worth archiving and then develop a strategy for doing so. Obviously it doesn’t scale up very far, but I think it could be very effective for individual projects. I’m looking forward to discussing it!

    On a related note, if you all haven’t seen this Ariadne article by Chris Rusbridge (“Excuse Me… Some Digital Preservation Fallacies?”), it’s worth a read: It’s a few years old, but the points he raises about common assumptions re digital preservation are still spot-on, and are extremely relevant to our discussion. Small projects (and even big ones!) tend to be frightened away from digital preservation because the goal – to preserve everything perfectly, forever – seems so out of reach. We believe there are steps that can be taken to sustain projects that will have a big impact, even without reaching some ‘perfect’ state of preservation.

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