I have been working in the field of Digital Humanities for about 13 years now. Most of my time has been on the technical side: setting up the infrastructure to support DH projects, building the DH projects, maintaining the DH projects. Actually, most of my time has been with that last one: maintaining DH projects.
There is a huge problem in the DH world and it has to do with lack of foresight, poor institutional support, and the ever changing face of technology. To see how this problem emerged and what we can do about it, I created this really cool website, interactive map, database, 3D model, VR environment, and leveraged AI to text mine a million scholarly articles about DH.
That paragraph above is the epitome of what’s wrong with DH projects. A grand idea, a lot of work to create something; and then stop. That’s all the thought that goes into it. To be fair, over the past 13 years I have seen the DH field become more and more aware of the technical challenges involved in bringing forth the great new project for the benefit of the field and general humanity. More attribution is going to the developers who make “the thing.” But that is still not quite enough. It is still just a 2-5 year plan. What about 100 years from now?
This is one reason why books are never going away; because books last a really, really long time. The book, as a vessel for the continuation of information, has a really long shelf life (pun intended). Anything digital does not.
And there-in lies the crux of the problem. For all the good intentions and the great resources created by DH projects, they won’t last. Let’s just get it out there right now. That wonderful new project you just spent years and thousands on, will be out of date, obsolete, and unavailable in 2, 3, or 10 years. Whereas that book you published will be in the hands of learners for the next 100 years.
At least, that’s the current state of DH projects. Why? Mainly because the infrastructure for supporting DH projects in the long term is not in place (or even invented). Past and current DH projects are built on a shaky foundation of ever changing technology. Unless this issue is addressed head on, all DH projects are doomed to oblivion.
In the coming months, I will be exploring more about the problems and possible solutions facing the longevity and usefulness of DH projects. What can we do at the outset to make projects outlast the technology? Can we rely on current technology to exist in 10, 30, 50 years? A difficult question, since modern computers have only been around for about 55 years. What solutions are out there already for making DH projects “archive ready” from the get go?
So, one may ask, is all of this work to maintain a DH project really worth the effort? I guess this all depends on your interpretation of DH projects as scholarship. If it is scholarship, then it should be maintained and kept accessible just as much as the dominant information vessel, the book. We take for granted the infrastructure and resources that are involved with creating a book. The global book publishing industry is valued by one estimate at $143 Billion USD. That’s a lot of infrastructure behind the book.
Libraries are the maintainers and repositories of scholarship that has reached book form, then why not too for DH scholarship? My argument in the end, will be that libraries will need to step in as the infrastructure to support long term maintenance and “storage” of DH projects.