“Those directly involved with digital archives contend with numerous issues that the general academic community often fails to understand or address, even though they bear significant implications for the future of scholarship.”
While the spread of print prompted the coining of new words such as “manuscript” and “handwriting” to describe the older technology of writing, the pervasiveness of new media today has yielded no newly invented vocabulary to identify print. Instead, the world of new media has created its own lexicon consisting of either newly devised words–website, blog, crowdsourcing, or texting, to name a few–or terms forged by combining adjectives such a “digital” or “electronic” with existing nouns to distinguish the new from the old. Despite these different etymological trajectories, the relationship between the digital and print, much like the interactions between print and manuscript, is often a symbiotic one and one that almost always transforms our understanding of the older media.
Digital tools, for example, are transforming our conceptions of and theorizing about “archives” as well as our actual use of these repositories, be they material or virtual entities. Similarly, digital facsimiles are exercising various effects on our understanding of original documents. Our digital environment is shaping the kinds of archival projects being undertaken, the methodologies used, and/or the types of research questions posed. Interactions between the digital and the archival are creating new paradigms or inspiring shifts in existing models of document preservation, audiences, access, and more. The advent of the digital archive, for instance, has afforded a ready means for humanities scholars to engage the public in their scholarship. Finally, digital tools and platforms are addressing and reconfiguring questions concerning the economics, equity, and accessibility of archival materials.
The archive in the digital age is a complex topic approachable from multiple angles and involving “numerous issues that the general academic community often fails to understand or address, even though they bear significant implications for the future of scholarship” (Cavanagh). Focusing on economics and sustainability, this post is the first of several entries devoted to issues surrounding archival transformations in the digital era. The discussions arising from these posts also serve as preparation for the “Digital Humanities and the Archives” roundtable that will take place on Friday, March 22nd, at the upcoming ASECS 2012 conference in San Antonio, Texas.
Just as the term “digital humanities” gives rise to numerous definitions, the word “sustainability” in the digital environment also carries multiple meanings. As a June 2011 JISC publication, “Funding for Sustainability: How Funders’ Practices Influence the Future of Digital Resources” reports, the word has been used to denote “a wide range of practices of varying rigor” from long-term access to preservation measures and securing audiences and users. No matter how one defines “sustainability,” however, economic factors are tightly intertwined with the creation, maintenance, and sustaining of digital work. Other forms of support (often entailing economic consequences) also play a significant role “as projects must justify their value not just to their funder, but to their host institution, to their users and to others whose support they require” (“Funding for Sustainability” 4).
As a primer to these issues, Daniel Pitti’s “Designing Sustainable Projects and Publications” offers a highly serviceable introduction to creating digital projects that will endure. While his article focuses on technical and logistical issues, ranging from mark-up technologies to selecting the suitable kind of databases, identifying the needs of users and uses, addressing intellectual property concerns, and adhering to industry standards, and more, collaboration at all stages emerges as a key tenet for ensuring the longevity and utility of the digital archive and other forms of digital projects.
In “How Does Your Archive Grow: Academic Politics & Economics in the Digital Age” ( Appositions May 2011) Sheila Cavanagh draws from her own experiences as Director of the Emory Women Writers Resource Project (EWWRP), a database featuring “female-authored and female-centered texts. . .from the 16th to the early 20th centuries,” to detail broader economic and collaborative issues affecting the sustainability of digital archives. That she began this archive as a solo project in 1995 affords a useful historical perspective to her remarks. Not surprisingly, a need for more funding and technical expertise resulted in EWWRP quickly becoming a collaborative project. While the academy has been slow to accept collaboration in the humanities and to devise protocols for evaluating digital scholarship and rewarding its practitioners, Cavanagh rightly notes that funding circumstances in contrast have changed in the intervening years. The ease with which she received institutional support for grant applications in the mid-1990s has now been replaced with a multi-level vetting process to assess how the “project and its needs rank with sufficient prominence on various institutional priority lists.” The end result? “In any given year, it is by no means guaranteed that innovations we envision for our database of early women writers will coincide with institutional desires.”
Moreover, as Cavanagh and others have also observed, not only have funding bodies become less enamored with projects that solely digitize documents in favor of those that offer more cutting-edge technology, but grant bestowers have also favored the funding of start-up projects as opposed to supporting the further development and maintenance of these projects. To be fair, the latter tendency is showing some signs of change as evidenced by grants such as the NEH Digital Implementation Grant “that seeks to identify projects that have successfully completed their start-up phase.”
The kinds of economic and sustainability issues surrounding today’s virtual archives are not the ones that concerned scholars working in the pre-digital age. Instead, for those professors and graduate students, the main economic issues consisted of having the funds and time needed to travel to the archives. While travel expenses remain legitimate needs today, access to commercial subscription databases, funds to support one’s own digital projects, and the feasibility of embarking on such a project for pre-tenured scholars have emerged as pressing economic concerns. Similarly, in the past, academic libraries created and maintained archives for users (admittedly often with some faculty consultation and collaboration). Yet today more and more professors, graduate students, and even some advanced undergraduates not only use archives, but they also build them and must plan for their management, growth, and sustainability as well. In doing so many enter into collaborative partnerships with libraries, while others form part of an academic center devoted to digital work. Some digital archives aim to reach more than an academic audience and instead afford a space for public humanities. And in almost all cases our experiences working with searchable, sometimes multi-media archives cannot help but color our forays into traditional archives. Yet, what Ed Folsom has deemed “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives” and other theoretical reconsiderations of “archives” are subjects for a follow-up post.