Digital Humanities and the Archives I: Economics and Sustainability


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.

–Sheila Cavanagh, “How Does Your Archive Grow: Academic Politics & Economics in the Digital Age”

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.


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12 Responses to “Digital Humanities and the Archives I: Economics and Sustainability”

  1. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thanks, Eleanor, for this great post, which maps out a wide range of concerns: archival sustainability, alignment of digital projects with institutional mission, the cost of digital projects and archives, collaborative approaches to scholarship required by such projects, and the relationship between printed and digital texts and archives.

    Perhaps you can say more about the panel at ASECS and which of these issues it will tackle. It would be great to have a pre-conference summary.


  2. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    The follow-up post will address the specific topics that participants plan to address at the ASECS roundtable. I supplied this post as a preface to deal with two significant issues–economic factors and sustainability–that cannot help but intersect with a host of other matters related to the Digital Humanities and the Archives.

    In fact, your summary of this post, Anna, nicely illustrates a few of these inevitable intersections. For example, the sustainability of an archive is often directly affected by its perceived place in fulfilling an institution’s mission and, consequently, the willingness of the institutuion to allocate the necessary resources and funds year after year to support the project. That’s a type of collaboration, with serious economic consequences, that we’ve not previously discussed. On a somewhat related note, attracting users also influences the sustainability of some projects, and in many of these cases the type, quality, and number of users no doubt influences funding decision. Digital archives can also impact how print archives are maintained. It is not uncommon, for instance, for researchers to be denied access to the original document if it has been digitized.

    Based on the abstracts I received for the roundtable, economic and sustainability issues did not seem to be at the forefront of any of the presentations. However, I felt as if these topics deserved some airing in advance of the roundtable because they are almost always an undercurrent in many of discussions about DH tools and projects, especially ones entailing the archives. Look for the follow-up post early next week.


  3. Dave Mazella Says:

    Very timely, Eleanor. I think that DH has had enough successes for practitioners and institutions to start thinking 5 or 10 years down the road, but the support for such projects feels much spottier and more inconsistent. I’m wondering whether the most successful project designers would be willing to share what factors allowed them to develop their projects over a longer period of time? At least to some extent, it’s about envisioning a demand for something that doesn’t exist yet. I wonder if there might be ways to poll scholars, for example, about the tools or archives they use most, or those they would like to see developed?


  4. Anna Battigelli Says:

    It would be helpful to hear from the two types of readers Dave describes: 1) those who have been successful convincing their home institutions of the value of electronic resources and willing to share persuasive arguments ; and 2) those who need electronic resources and are willing to stipulate which ones they find most necessary to their work.

    We can make a post with a poll, but I wonder whether for now discursive accounts might be richer.


  5. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    For polling about digital resource needs, professional bodies–MLA, ASECS, NEH, and the like–might be best suited to undertake that task. (The not-yet-existing nature of projects complicates polling to some degree.) That said, let me echo Dave’s and Anna’s invitations for project designers to share their strategies for developing sustainable projects. Such information would be extremely useful.

    From my perspective, part of the challenge in seeking funding for digital projects, as Dave notes, is “envisioning a demand for something that doesn’t exist yet.” That challenge is most pressing at the initial project stages. During the start-up phase it would be prudent for project developers to craft plans for publicizing the archive/tool and garnering users and reviews. Otherwise, securing additional funds to develop further and maintain the site down the road will become all the harder.

    Overcoming notions of a project being “completed” or “done” is another obstacle that existing projects face. The ESTC, for example, still has to fight notions that its database is completed when seeking funds to correct and improve this resource. Although Sheila Cavanagh does not specify the reason for the yearly uncertainty about funds, I suspect that EWWRP must also combat a sense that its archive is complete. (Interestingly, this sense of completion is probably not as common an obstacle for traditional archives that seek support for adding new titles and artifacts.)

    Faculty at institutions that have established significant Digital Centers such as Center for History and New Media at George Mason University (CHNM) (est. 1994) and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) ( est. 1999) have some of the battle for funds and value recognition fought. For one, the institution has already shown support by assigning space and other resources (commercial entities sometime donate equipment to these centers and they are also recipients of grant support). While faculty may ultimately need to compete with colleagues for funds, these centers enable faculty to receive advanced technological training and benefit from the expertise of others who have launched successful projects.

    Anna’s interest in hearing from those who have convinced “their home institutions of the value of electronic resources” suggests two narratives: 1) those who have convinced their institutions to purchase of electronic resources and 2) those who have successfully convinced their institution to fund and/or encourage a digital project. It seems that many universities often support and encourage digital work undertaken by faculty at a surface level, but too many institutions are unwilling or unable to supply the funds necessary to deliver results. Many are also unsure how to evaluate this work within the academic reward system, with some viewing these projects as service. Digital archives and projects, moreover, often straddle multiple categories such as serious scholarship and pedagogical resource, which can further confuse evaluators steeped in traditional conceptions of academic work. Cavanagh’s article also offers several, similar points on evaluation problems and confusion due to the hybrid nature of this work.


  6. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    In terms of strategies for sustainability, the “Funding Sustainability” report offered suggestions for what many funders are already doing to support sustainability as well as strategies that funders could employ more often.

    During the course of our interviews with programme managers, grantees and other experts, certain techniques and strategies emerged that funders themselves are currently engaging in and find to be most useful. Among these are:

    • ’Building in’ sustainability: Funders see the proposal stage as their point of maximum leverage, and have come up with many ways to ensure that project leaders are thinking about some of the factors that will be vital to the longer-term health of the project they are proposing. Some of these include terms and conditions governing the type and length of support a host institution must contribute, open sharing of data or other content and provision for the costs of content preservation.
    • „„

    • Thinking about projects in developmental stages, to allow funders – and the project leaders themselves – the opportunity to evaluate progress or potential along the way. Funders do this in several ways: some choose to build firm milestones into a grant, with progress towards a specific, well-defined goal as a requirement for receiving the next release of funds. Others use staged grants as part of a broader strategy of first seeding the terrain with a wide field of experimental projects, and then selecting those best positioned for further growth. Both measures, in different ways, allow funders to create incentives that motivate projects to develop plans and practices that strengthen long-term sustainability.
    • „„

    • Taking steps throughout the funding process to encourage or assist grantees to plan for ongoing sources of support. Programme officers and others at funding bodies possess a wealth of knowledge about the fields and institutions that they make awards to, from helping to secure ‘buy-in’ and ongoing financial support from a host institution, to advice on staffing, governance and partnerships, to assistance in implementing earned-revenue models. Grant-makers may want to consider ways that they can add value to the project through non-financial engagement over the course of the project life cycle. (“Funding Sustainability” 5-6)

    The “Funding Sustainability” report also offers important suggestions of what funders could do or do more of to help grantees:

    • Establishing a clear definition of what sustainability means for the specific project. „
    • Working together to identify the steps needed to attain the desired sustainability outcomes, and the resources likely to be needed to accomplish them.
    • Developing closer ties to administrators at a grantee’s host institution.
    • Offering non-financial support to help grantees to plan for long-term sustainability throughout the funding process. (“Funding Sustainability” 6)


  7. Anna Battigelli Says:

    One obvious characteristic of electronic resources that is emerging from this discussion of sustainability is that such resources are expected to remain up-to-date, which requires ongoing work and ongoing funding. A project like the ESTC, as David Vander Meulen argues in a forthcoming essay, is always evolving, and therefore always in need of additional funding.

    By contrast, even an excellent printed text is generally understood to contribute to a tradition of scholarship as a discrete and time-bound step in the ongoing development of our understanding of a topic. A scholarly monograph’s immersion in its time might be seen as important, rather than limiting. One might even argue that printed projects track historical development and that electronic projects might, through their constant updating, elide history.

    Does this shift in conception of a given project’s place force us to reconsider the role of collaboration in print and electronic projects? Both involve collaboration and connection with a scholarly community, though they engage in collaboration differently.

    Perhaps the unique way in which a given electronic project remains up-to-date would be a natural argument for its ongoing funding. Similarly, a printed manuscript’s ability to capture the mentality/concerns/curiosity/discoveries of its time might make it a good candidate for publication.


  8. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Many good points here, Anna. Print archives, of course, also need continuous funding for maintenance if not expansion as well. But as your remarks note in several places, print and electronic projects carry different expectations for funding, collaboration, and the like. In terms of rationale for publishing a piece,

    I like your acknowledgment that print also includes collaboration, albeit in a different way from that of the digital–a fact that becomes quickly clear if viewing an acknowledgment page. Yet often we hear how uncomfortable humanities scholars are with collaboration and how foreign suh a process can be. Yet, it is the different, very open form of collaboration that creates notions of discomfort. Print calls upon the work of editors, pre-publications readers (both trusted colleagues and anonymous scholars as service), designers, and marketers.


  9. Anna Battigelli Says:

    I’m wondering whether the recommendation that grant proposals “establish[] a clear definition of what sustainability means for the specific project” (cited in Eleanor’s comment above) might be tricky to implement. On the one hand, I assume this recommendation aims at preparing for long-term investment. On the other hand, a vision of ongoing need for funds might make a project seem prohibitive. How do grant proposers get around this double-bind?


  10. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    That’s a good question, Anna. To some degree, the recommendation is geared to having grant submitters think very hard and seriously about the future of the project. Often the proposers just assume that their institution will host and help maintain the project as the years go on. A stipulation for the grant to define sustainability helps the propers ironout such details of long-term support with their instutiton in advance. Interestingly, the report does not place the burden of finding and ironing out long-term support just on the proposers but on the funders as well.

    Also, as the report makes clear early on, sustainability can mean a variety of different things to dfferent projects.


  11. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Ithaka S + R, the nonprofit organization that produced the “Funding Sustainability” report published by JISC, also undertook twelve case studies in sustainability in 2009. Last year Ithaka returned to these studies to see how the various projects had fared and published the findings in a report titled Case Studies in Sustainability 2011. Offering a range of projects from a Middle School portal for math and science to the UK’s National Archives and the Electric Enlightenment, the results are both interesting and informative.

    The Electronic Enlightenment (EE) case study exemplifies how difficult it can be for even well-connected projects to sustain themselves. Initially begun as a Voltaire Foundation project to digitize all of Voltaire’s correspondence, EE later evolved as a Mellon-funded initiative to digitize the full range of correspondence in the republic of letters from the well known to the unknown. As the Ithaka report notes, from its start in 2008 EE was envisioned as eventually moving from a “grant-funded” project to one supported by institutional subscriptions. It also established its institutional relationship with the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford (which continues to this day) and a partnership with Oxford University Press to help with the marketing and sale of subscriptions. The following offers a snapshot of the lessons learned:

    Lessons learned over the past two years

    • Strong support from the host institution is vital, particularly when revenue models are in their early days and not yet reaching targets
    • Selling subscriptions is hard work and requires an insider’s understanding of the needs and interests of the target audience and how best to communicate with them
    • Even when content is licensed to a third party, it may be very important to maintain ties both to customers and to end users, both as a means of receiving feedback and for purposes of outreach

    EE and its partners the University of Oklahoma and Stanford’s Mapping the Republic of Letters project (see post several years ago) were awarded one of the eight inaugural Digging into Data Challenge grants in 2009.


  12. Stealing Ideas: Digital archives and questions of public access | #HIST5702x Says:

    […] and continuing to have a strong presence today. The various concerns about them have shifted, as Elinor Shevlin points out in her blog post about the various economic and sustainability issues associated with […]


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