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.
In my last post in this series, I wrote about how our understanding of sustainability at The Alexandria Archive Institute / Open Context (AAI / OC) relates to the design and execution of our digital projects, placing our aims within a broader landscape of digital scholarly work. In this post, I’d like to turn my attention to how sustainability relates to the overall, long-term administration and organization of our initiative. This is an area that I’ve been eager to explore in my capacity as the AAI/OC’s Director of Strategic Partnerships, but it’s also a topic that I’ve become increasingly interested in more generally over the last few years.
As someone who has a deep, personal and professional investment in the digital humanities (DH), I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a difficult landscape to understand. While a fair bit of analysis has been published about the sustainability and reach of individual, digital projects (for instance, recent reports by Alexandra Sasha Zborovsky and Sara Mohr focus on projects funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities), I was surprised to find that much less has been shared about how institutions can develop long-term, sustainable capacities in digital methods that aren’t related to specific projects.
How do you start a DH center or program on your campus? What’s the relationship between library staff and DH faculty across departments? Between permanent center staff and the rotating army of contingent colleagues and students that work on digital projects? Where do institutions find the initial, often external, funds to develop a community of praxis? What steps should they take to ensure long-term, internal financial support?
There’s definitely no single answer to these questions, in part because there are a number of models out there. In 2014, Nancy L. Maron and Dr. Sarah Pickle published a survey of this landscape, identifying several different approaches to supporting DH work in higher ed as well as the strategies that were thought to have contributed to the success of each approach. Much like the Socio-Technical Sustainability Roadmap for digital projects that I discussed in my previous post, the Sustainability Implementation Toolkit that accompanies their survey prepares organizations to undertake the development of such a center or program at their own institutions, arming them with evaluative rubrics that will help them determine which model best fits their individual circumstances.
But, the biggest question for me remains to be answered: how successful have these DH startups been at establishing deep roots at their institutions? In other words, how many of these initiatives have actually become sustainable in the long-term?
I haven’t yet found a report that documents the life histories of DH centers and programs, but I think this kind of analysis would be incredibly valuable. My impression (really, my own experience, and my fear) is that, as Maron and Pickle highlight, because “the available funding from private funders and government agencies alike is almost exclusively for new projects…, not [for] managing an existing project over time,” organizations will all too often build centers or programs that can’t or won’t be supported internally at the same capacity once soft funding runs dry. This could have serious consequences: for the digital projects created by these centers and programs, in terms of their maintenance, accessibility, and preservation; for the staff members, whose precarious positions mean that they might always be scrambling to find their next source of income; and for the institutions themselves, who may not be as successful with subsequent funding proposals if they’re unable to demonstrate their commitment to supporting their previously grant-funded initiatives.
Conversations around this topic can be difficult. Brainstorming doesn’t always lead to tangible results, and a single victory may often be accompanied by countless failures. At the AAI / OC, we’ve been engaging in these conversations with members of our Board of Directors and our Sustainability Advisory Board. Over the coming months, we’ll begin to share our sustainability plan more broadly and when we do, we’ll be eager to get your feedback on the directions we’ll be heading.
Special thanks to Dr. Sarah Bond, Dr. Sheila Brennan, Dr. Jeanine Finn, Dr. Sarah Pickle, and colleagues on the Digital Humanities Slack network for helping me dig into the research that went into this post.
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!