Welcome to The Sustainability Sandbox blog series! The Alexandria Archive Institute and Open Context advocate for data sharing, data literacy, open access, and community collaborations. In this series, we share the story of our journey to identify and develop digital data management, public engagement, and data literacy projects with potential partner institutions.
When it comes to our work at The Alexandria Archive Institute / Open Context (AAI / OC), sustainability crops up in two ways. The first relates to the overall, long-term administration and organization of our initiative. This consideration of sustainability is especially important to us now, as we develop and test strategies that will allow us to continue to do our work beyond the terms of the generous grants that have supported our efforts to produce thoughtful pedagogical resources around data literacy and provide important data curation and publishing services. I’ll begin to discuss some of these strategies in a later post.
The second relates to the design and execution of our digital projects. This understanding of sustainability intersects with a growing concern, especially in archives and libraries, about the management and preservation of digital scholarship. It relates not only to the length of time that a project is intended to be active, but also to the allocation of resources—personnel, funding, technology, etc.—necessary to develop and maintain a project. And to understand exactly why this is a concern for us, it’s helpful to situate our aims at AAI / OC within a broader landscape of digital scholarly work.
Over the past few decades, humanists have begun to embrace technological advances that have revolutionized our methods for data collection, analysis, and publication, and notable studies like the one by de la Cruz et al. have tried to illustrate aspects of these developments. Some of us will even admit to doing digital humanities. You can find countless essays about what the digital humanities is (or are) but that’s not a conversation we need to wade into today. However, I will point you to one of my favorites about archaeology in particular, by Ethan Watrall, if you’re interested.
Even if you don’t identify as a digital humanist, you’ll likely concede that, in archaeology, tools such as drones, geographic information systems (GIS), photogrammetry, and digital databases have been readily adopted for the documentation and interpretation of archaeological sites and materials. Moreover, the development of multimodal, digital publishing platforms—from open-access publications (like Internet Archaeology) to YouTube channels (like that maintained by the Archaeological Research Facility at the University of California, Berkeley)—encourages us to share our research with a diverse range of public audiences, something that many of us have begun to prioritize especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s often assumed that digital = better because it enables you to work more efficiently (which usually means faster) with greater access to resources (data, personnel, etc.), but I’ve consistently pushed back against that simple equation. The rapid adoption of digital technologies by humanists has enabled us to create an unparalleled number of digital objects. The digital projects that curate and communicate these objects require meticulous planning, careful execution, and ongoing management. The support of digital projects at all stages of their development is a serious concern for a variety of stakeholders, including archivists, librarians, principal researchers, students, and technologists. Unfortunately for many projects, the processes that make the work successful—processes like drafting work plans, documenting workflows, and clearly articulating the project’s overall goals; in other words, the kinds of activities that define sustainability—are all too often an afterthought, as has been recently discussed by Ixchel M. Faniel et al. with respect to archaeological research excavations.
So, how do we prioritize these processes? While this is a question that has long guided the work of professional project managers and consultants, big picture planning may seem a bit daunting to those of us who feel better-prepared to dive into the research itself (although, Sharon Leon’s important article, “Project Management for Humanists: Preparing Future Primary Investigators” can definitely help you be more confident about your ability to do this kind of work).
A great place to start is the Socio-Technical Sustainability Roadmap (the STSR). The STSR is one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful resources I’ve found about how to plan, execute, maintain, and conclude a digital project. Designed and tested by an NEH-funded team in The Visual Media Workshop at the University of Pittsburgh, the STSR is a series of open-access learning modules and activities that enable participants to think through and effectively plan a digital project from beginning to end, encouraging working through a number of big picture questions like, How long do you want your project to last? How will the project be funded and how long will that funding last? Who is on the project team and what are their roles? The conversations prompted by the STSR are the same kinds of conversations that guide the development of our resources at the AAI / OC, ensuring that most, if not all, aspects of our workflows are anticipated and carefully sketched from the start of any digital project we design. And in the end, a little planning around the sustainability of our digital projects goes a long way.
We’re looking to build relationships with libraries, museums, educational organizations, and other cultural heritage groups. If you’d like to connect and discuss a potential collaboration, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing from you!