MLA 2021 Session on “Towards Sustainability for Digital Archives and Projects”

Modern Language Association convention 2021
SHARP session on “Towards sustainability for digital archives and projects”

Sunday 10 January, 5.15pm to 6.30pm

Dr Chelsea Gunn, University of Pittsburgh, USA
Dr Alison Langmead, University of Pittsburgh, USA
Dr Aisling Quigley, Macalester College, USA


Over the last decade, the digital humanities community has become increasingly concerned with the ongoing sustainability of digital projects. This anxiety stems in part from the realization that not all digital humanities projects have identical expectations of longevity. Several prominent works in the literature, such as Bethany Nowviskie and Dot Porter’s “Graceful Degradation Survey Findings: How Do We Manage Digital Humanities Projects through Times of Transition and Decline?” (2010) and Geoffrey Rockwell et al.’s “Burying Dead Projects: Depositing the Globalization Compendium” (2014), have been central to this intellectual exchange about the benefits of creating sustainability plans for projects that do not necessarily assume a default permanence, but that instead proactively consider each project’s most suitable longevity strategy.

With this realization has come a concomitant expectation: each digital humanities project must create its own customized sustainability plan, designed with its particular requirements in mind. And yet, few digital humanists have access to direct training on the process of creating and implementing professional-grade digital preservation and sustainability practices for their own work. To support the process of designing and implementing digital sustainability plans for this work, a team of scholars housed in the Visual Media Workshop at the University of Pittsburgh has created the Socio-Technical Sustainability Roadmap (STSR; The STSR is a structured, process-oriented workshop, inspired by design thinking and collaborative learning approaches. This workshop, which may be implemented in a variety of institutional contexts, guides project stakeholders through the practice of creating effective, iterative, ongoing digital sustainability strategies that address the needs of both social and technological infrastructures. It is founded on the fundamental assumption that, for sustainability practices to be successful, project leaders must keep the changing, socially-contingent nature of both their project and their working environment(s) consistently in mind as they initiate, maintain, and support their own work. For this panel, we contextualize and describe the STSR, and provide reflections based on our experiences facilitating Sustaining DH: An NEH Institute for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities.

Works Cited:

Nowviskie, Bethany, and Dot Porter. “Graceful Degradation Survey Findings: How Do We Manage Humanities Projects Through Times of Transition and Decline?” Digital Humanities 2010, London.

Geoffrey Rockwell et al. “Burying Dead Projects: Depositing the Globalization Compendium.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 8.2 (2014).

David Underdown, The National Archives, UK

DiAGRAM: Digital Archiving Graphical Risk Assessment Model – A statistical approach to digital archive risk management and sustainability

Digital heritage is rich, complex and fragile. This material – born-digital records (in a variety of formats), web archives, digitised archival materials – is under threat from rapidly evolving technology. To a far greater extent than analogue archives, sustaining digital archives require ongoing investment in the technology of the archive’s systems and the technical skills of its staff.

The National Archives UK has taken a collaborative approach to managing digital preservation risk, bringing established statistical risk management methods into the digital heritage sphere. A combination of our staff, statisticians from the University of Warwick, and experts from five other UK archives, has allowed us to combine statistical data with expert knowledge to develop a decision support tool mapping and quantifying the risks and uncertainty in digital preservation. The project was supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.


  • Improves users’ understanding of the complex digital archiving risk landscape and of the interplay between digital archiving risk factors.
  • Empowers archivists to compare and prioritise very different types of threats to the digital archive: from software obsolescence to natural disaster.
  • Aids in quantifying the impact of risk events and risk management strategies on archival outcomes for use in decision making, communication with stakeholders and developing business cases for targeted action.
  • Measures the likelihood of permanent availability of digital materials as a function of renderability and intellectual control.

DiAGRAM’s foundation is a Bayesian Network – a statistical model estimating the probability of outcomes by considering conditional events (eg storage life depends on media type). Bayesian Networks are used as a foundation for decision support tools in a variety of contexts including aviation , credit scoring, and food security, and are widely used in risk assessment.

DiAGRAM was used to model The National Archives’ own digital holdings, with the outputs being used as supporting evidence in the UK government’s recent spending review, helping to secure a 12% budget increase for The National Archives for fiscal year 2021-22.

Dr Melodee Beals, Loughborough University, UK

“Breaking Silos: Ensuring the Sustainability of Digitised Newspaper Collections through Academic/Archival Collaboration”

Digitised newspaper collections are vital in preserving not only national heritage but also global news exchanges, and as well as the growing number of historical newspapers being digitised and made available online, born-digital newspapers are being added to collections in vast numbers. As such, newspaper collections offer a unique insight into the problems and opportunities of both digitised and born-digital archives.

This short paper will draw on research from the ‘Oceanic Exchanges: Tracing Global Information Networks in Historical Newspaper Repositories, 1840-1914’ project, during which academics from six countries worked closely with digitised newspaper collections including the British Library, the national libraries of Australia, Finland, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands and New Zealand, and the aggregator Europeana, to investigate international news exchanges in the nineteenth century. As part of this work, we conducted interviews with librarians and investigated the metadata structures of the collections. Our findings reveal critical issues around sustainability, particularly the risk of losing a record of the institutional decision-making because it is not documented, and is passed by word of mouth between individual archivists. We will analyse the impact of institutional and national siloes on sustainability, and argue for the central importance of increased transparency and integration in ensuring that digital archives, and the projects that use them, remain sustainable. For this, academic/archival collaboration is central. We will introduce the Atlas of Digitised Newspapers and Metadata, a new Open Access guide to digitised newspaper collections around the world that draws on our interviews with archivists and combines information about their histories with Xpaths from the metadata, information about the historical evolution of the newspaper itself and a literature review demonstrating how researchers understand these sources. Our Atlas, which is now open to contributions, offers one model for collecting this underused and undervalued information about digitised newspaper archives and ensuring sustainability.

Dr Janelle Jenstad, University of Victoria, Canada

The Endings Project: Principles for Releasing Archivable Digital Humanities Projects.”

In 2020, the Endings Project – a collaboration between Librarians, Developers, and DH project leaders – comes to an end. Painfully aware of the fragility, temporality, and ephemerality of DH projects, our team has spent five years devising techniques to preserve and archive projects without sacrificing the dynamic features that make them readable, searchable, and interactive. The “Endings Principles for Digital Longevity” address the five components of digital projects: Data, Products, Processing, Documentation, and Release Management (1). This paper gives a brief overview of these principles, and then discusses the release model as an extension of traditional print publishing through the lens of one editorial project: The Map of Early Modern London (MoEML). In 2018, MoEML was “finished,” i.e., “endings-compliant and fully archivable.” Yet the team continues work on an anthology of early modern pageants and on its editions of John Stow’s Survey of London. How is it possible to be “finished” and “ongoing” simultaneously? Textual history teaches us that texts can be both published and fluid (2). MoEML has adopted a release management model based on editions of print works (3), in particular on our versioned edition of the 1598, 1603, 1618, and 1633 texts of the Survey. The 1633 edition claims to be “now completely finished” (4). Despite this claim, the business of surveying London in words was not finished. This model of incremental fluidity has inspired us to think about digital releases as editions. This paper – which builds on our 2017 SHARP panel – sets out a plan for multiple graceful digital “endings.”

Works Cited:

(1) The Endings Project: Building Sustainable Digital Humanities Projects.

(2) John Bryant, The Fluid Text: A Theory of Revision and Editing for Book and Screen (U of Michigan Press, 2002).

(3) “Principles: Release Management.”

(4) John Stow, Anthony Munday, Humphrey Dyson, and others. The Survey of London (London: Elizabeth Purslowe, 1633; STC 23345).

Prof. Kenneth Price, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, USA

Good Strategies and Inescapable Uncertainties in Building Sustainable Digital Archives”

The Walt Whitman Archive has been sustained for 25 years by grant support and also by knowledgeable staff; the revitalizing work of graduate and undergraduate students; and the enthusiasm and many contributions of Whitman scholars, readers, and aficionados. Beyond funding and technologies, digital projects also need a human network.

Given the fragility of digital work, what can be done to mitigate the dangers? Open access is key—making materials readily available for others to build on our work in new and complementary ways. We also must leave our creations in formats that do not require herculean efforts to preserve them. Future librarians and scholars will need to migrate materials to new operating systems, interfaces, and infrastructures. It is easier to preserve the raw data than the interface. And yet much of the scholarly argument of an archive resides precisely in the interface, where content is organized, contextualized, and packaged in ways that frame understanding and enable interpretations. The interface, unfortunately, is the aspect of our work hardest to preserve, and libraries rarely ingest digital projects in their full complexity.

We should also build so that others may advance their own work, hopefully using our efforts as a foundation for their own project, even as they may oppose the often implicit arguments embedded within an archive or edition. To enable such possibilities, we need to make our public assets and our behind-the-scenes work, too, as open as possible. And we need to document our processes and uncertainties, failures as well as successes. At least knowing a research team’s rationale for their initial treatment of material will make it easier for later generations to duplicate (or improve upon) our creation in whatever forms make the most sense in the future.

Dr Matthew K. Gold, CUNY Graduate Center, USA

Sustaining Digital Scholarly Infrastructure: The Manifold Use Case”

This presentation focuses on the sustainability practices and strategies that open-source, scholar-led community publishing platforms can pursue as they seek to sustain themselves when grant funding ends. It focuses on the sustainability infrastructures being developed for Manifold, an open-source publishing platform supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a range of community partners. Mellon’s initial grant was part of a round of funding offered to university presses to explore sustainable paths forward for digital monographs.

In his 2019 report “Mind the Gap,” John Maxwell presented an overview of open publishing tools and platforms; Maxwell argued that “open publishing needs new infrastructure that incentivizes sustainability, cooperation, collaboration, and integration.” Maxwell’s articulation of the structural challenges involved in achieving sustainability have resonances with Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s recent book, Generous Thinking, which argues that institutions need to take collaborative, rather than competitive, approaches in the face of the austerity measures being experienced by many public educational systems in the wake of rampant privatization and state austerity measures.

This presentation will explore the larger sustainability context facing open-source community publishing platforms, grounding that discussion in the immediate challenges facing real-world projects like Manifold. I will share Manifold’s approach to sustainability from business, technical, institutional, infrastructural, and social perspectives. The presentation will describe how Manifold is attempting to meet the challenges involved in open-source community publishing, along with strategies that attendees can employ for their own projects.

Dr Molly Hardy, National Endowment for the Humanities, USA

Legacy Work and Funding Models for Digital Infrastructure”

Legacy was, and in many ways still is, the defining value of brick-and-mortar archives, which traditionally strive for preservation of the past to access it in the present and ensure its future. With more of this work being done in digital environments, cultural heritage practitioners are left to consider anew how to sustain collections in multiple ways. Recently, a community of interdisciplinary scholars who identify themselves as “Information Maintainers” have called for a reconsideration of the work of sustainability as dynamic and multi-faceted. The Information Maintainers argue that “Maintenance is not the opposite of change … and its primary aim and value is not to uphold stasis. We view acts of repurposing and revision or reuse as part of maintenance” (14-15).

This paper will address the role of funding agencies in digital sustainability. With seemingly contradictory temporal imperatives—grant funding is short-term and by definition finite while sustainability is long-term and aims to be infinite—grant funding can and should still play a central role in maintaining, modernizing, and sustaining digital infrastructure to ensure its central role in twenty-first century legacy work. This paper will consider models of using grant funding to sustain digital remediations of the literary historical records, such as the Walt Whitman Archive and the Early English Ballad Archive. It will also consider the use of such funding to sustain digital platforms for the humanities with the example of Humanities Commons, which is currently transitioning from its founding home at the Modern Language Association to Michigan State University. Digital sustainability, rightly understood, offers humanists a chance to consider not only what and how to do things with archives and platforms in digital environments, but also why they do them and how the to make legacy work operational in the new knowledge economy.