• April 25, 2014

Born Digital, Projects Need Attention to Survive

Born Digital, Projects Need Attention to Survive 1

Andrew Shurtleff for The Chronicle

Bradley Daigle, a digital curator at the U. of Virginia, and his colleagues Matthew Stephens and Lorrie Chisholm were in charge of preserving an early digital archive on the Civil War.

Publish a scholarly book and, absent a flood or other disaster, chances are it will last as long as a library has space for it—long enough to become part of the conversation in its field if it's notable enough. But create a pioneering work of digital scholarship, and how to preserve it becomes more of a challenge—in fact, one of several. While online scholarship often has dazzle­—dynamic maps, data visualizations, or other features that invite interaction and exploration—it can have a harder time catching the eye of scholars who are used to arguments packaged in articles and monographs. Build it, and the experts won't necessarily come—at least not yet in great numbers.

The first challenge is making sure people can get to the work when they do want to come. Analog or digital, no work will have much influence if it doesn't stick around to be cited or argued with. The technological advances that make digital-humanities work possible also put it at risk of obsolescence, as software and hardware decay or become outmoded. Somebody—or a team of somebodies, often based in academic libraries or digital-scholarship centers—has to conduct regular inspections and make sure that today's digital scholarship doesn't become tomorrow's digital junk.

Bradley J. Daigle, director of digital curation services at the University of Virginia Library, calls this "digital stewardship." It's an essential but easily overlooked element in any digital-humanities project. Born-digital work can die. Digital stewardship "involves care and feeding" to make sure that doesn't happen, he says. "My unit essentially pays attention to the life cycle of the digital object."

"Most people conceive of preservation as backups," Mr. Daigle says. But tending a piece of digital scholarship involves much more than just dumping a copy in an archive.

In the past few years, Mr. Daigle's team has gotten a lot of experience in digital stewardship, as early digital-humanities work by Virginia faculty members and graduate students has begun to show its age. One notable example is a Civil War project called Valley of the Shadow, brainchild of Edward L. Ayers, a historian who is now president of the University of Richmond.

When Mr. Ayers began work on the Valley project, in the early 1990s, he was a professor of history at Virginia. He wanted to build an online library of primary-source documents that would shed light on two 19th-century American communities, one Northern and one Southern, from the time of John Brown's raid through the war and Reconstruction. (A lot of digital-humanities work in the 1990s involved the creation of online archives and editions.) Visitors can dip into life in Augusta County, Va., and Franklin County, Pa., before, during, and after the war via newspaper articles, letters and diaries, church and tax records, maps and images, and statistics.

The site invites users to do the searching and interpreting of the materials it includes. "The whole point is that you are supposed to come up with the interpretation," Mr. Ayers says.

It sounds like a simple idea, but "it took 14 years to build, and there's probably a million dollars in it," he says, much of that used to pay for the student labor that built it. By the time the last touches were put on the site, in 2007, technology had moved far beyond where it had been a decade and a half earlier. "When we began, there were no such things as PDF files," Mr. Ayers says. At one point, his team build a CD-ROM for the publisher W.W. Norton, "finishing just in time for nobody to use CD-ROMs" anymore.

"Think about the life cycle of preservation."

One of the graduate students who worked on the project, Andrew J. Torget, is now an assistant professor of history and director of the Digital History Lab at the University of North Texas. "That thing was a hairy beast because it was one of the earliest projects," he says. "It was built and rebuilt over time."

In 2009, Mr. Daigle and the digital-curation unit at Virginia's library were recruited to get the "hairy beast" back into shape technologically. Every element of the project had to be examined.

"What we essentially had to do was standardize it all," Mr. Daigle says. He compares the process to what auto mechanics used to do in the 1950s. "We basically swapped out all the parts and rebuilt the engine," he says. "We took the entire site and atomized it into several hundred thousand individual files," then analyzed them to see if they were damaged or in still-usable formats. Monitoring software now keeps tabs on the site to make sure it continues to function well. Users can email the library to report problems they encounter.

Most of that labor will be invisible to anyone who visits the Valley site, which looks a lot like it did when it was new. Some digital-humanities projects are designed to be open-ended, becoming platforms for subsequent additions, enhancements, and layers of work. (See, for example, the Perseus Digital Library, which took shape decades ago as a digital collection of Greek and Latin texts and has become an ever-expanding teaching-and-research hub for classics.) Others, like the Valley project, have natural limits.

Sometimes, to preserve its integrity as a scholarly resource, a completed piece of digital scholarship not only needs to be kept in good working order but also should look the way it did when its original builders finished it, like a specific edition of a published book that persists over time. The presentation as well as the content becomes an important part of the work's intellectual value.

The stewardship that the Valley project required was neither cheap nor easy. According to Mr. Daigle, the work took two years, a $100,000 grant from the university, and the contributions of three full-time employees and several graduate students—resources that many academic libraries cannot throw at an individual project. Even though the work was expensive, it has made subsequent projects easier to handle, he says.

"With Valley, we were able to create the manual that we can use and apply to other forms of scholarship," Mr. Daigle says. "We've become more sophisticated in how we approach these things. We're better mechanics now."

Scholars who undertake ambitious digital work have a hard reality to face: Not every project can or will get the kind of full-service care that the Valley of the Shadow received. "You can't save everything," Mr. Daigle says. "We had to make some core decisions about whether this project or this scholarship is worth preserving."

The UVa library gets "a steady stream" of old and new digital projects it could archive. If a faculty member wants to keep tinkering with a site, or if the project relies on a format, like Adobe Flash, that isn't intended for the long haul, the library might have to say no or give it a bare-bones treatment—taking a snapshot of it or making it available as a download, for instance, rather than doing an engine rebuild, as it did with Valley.

Mr. Daigle advises scholars who want to pursue digital-humanities work to consult with their librarians and put long-term archiving strategies in place early on. "Think about the life cycle of preservation," he says. "The more you do that, the longer it's going to be around, and that is time well spent."

Preserving something doesn't guarantee that anybody will use it, of course. That's just as true of digital scholarship as it is of print monographs. But digital work has the advantage of existing online, potentially within reach of anyone with an Internet connection.

The Valley of the Shadow often gets assigned in history courses, according to Mr. Ayers and Mr. Daigle. In one 24-hour period last month, the site received almost 600 visits—not bad for a digital resource that began life 20 years ago, before eye-catching visualizations and the kinds of interactive approaches one sees now. "We know that we've reached millions of people with this, and we know that it's used around the world, even though we haven't changed it in six years," Mr. Ayers says.

He's less sure that Valley has had a direct influence on scholarship. "I'm not sure you're a pioneer if nobody follows you," he says. Aside from his own book In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863, which won the Bancroft Prize in 2004, Mr. Ayers doesn't know of scholarly books that use Valley of the Shadow as a base. More people may be citing primary sources they find on the site than citing the site itself.

The project has had an undeniable influence as a training ground for a younger generation of scholars moving up the academic ranks and taking the technical skills and approaches they learned with them. "It's fundamentally shaped my research," says Mr. Torget, of North Texas, who had no tech skills to speak of when he went to graduate school at UVa to study the South.

Working with Mr. Ayers and the Valley group gave him "the confidence to learn new technologies as I needed them for my own work," he says. He learned how to manage a project and build a team of collaborators, which is vital to much digital-humanities work but isn't part of traditional humanities training.

For his dissertation, Mr. Torget created the Texas Slavery Project, "animating and exploring" the history of emancipation in the Texas borderlands. The work was heavily informed by Valley of the Shadow. And like Valley, the borderlands site has appealed to people who aren't professional historians. Mr. Torget gets more email about it from genealogists than from any other group.

It makes sense, he says, because much of the scholarly give-and-take in history is "a very slow book-by-book kind of thing." Digital scholarship "invites a broad spectrum of people who wouldn't be reading our stuff in The Journal of American History or The American Historical Review," two of the field's leading scholarly journals.

Still, Mr. Torget hopes that scholars as well as genealogists will pick up on what he's done. The Texas Slavey Project gets used "for classes and for research," he says, but as far as he knows it hasn't yet been cited by scholars. "I would love to have somebody take the materials I've put together and use them," he says. "It's something I've come to believe: that the most interesting thing someone's going to do with your data is something you've never thought of."

Although it comes in a multitude of forms, digital scholarship can be cited and referenced like more traditional work. (The day is coming when phrases like "more traditional work" won't be useful anymore, as digital approaches become more common and visualizations or other nonmonographic treatments of literary and historical data start to look as familiar as book-length arguments.) And while citations aren't yet plentiful enough to satisfy many digital scholars, there's immediate proof of their influence: Their work keeps inspiring new work. Look at the next round of digital scholarship under construction at places like the University of Richmond's Digital Scholarship Lab. It just released an interactive digital edition of Charles O. Paullin and John K. Wright's 1932 Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States. Robert K. Nelson, the lab's director, describes the atlas as a "prelude" to a much larger attempt to rethink what a historical atlas ought to be and do in the 21st century.

Mr. Nelson got his start as a digital humanist on another seminal first-generation digital project, the Walt Whitman Archive. The lab's associate director, Scott Nesbit, worked with Mr. Ayers on Valley of the Shadow.

Mr. Nelson and Mr. Nesbit describe how digital-humanities work has begun to evolve from its early emphasis on editorial projects—building online collections and editions of primary materials, for instance. "You do that and you realize you want to do things that are interpretive," Mr. Nelson says.

That spirit animates another of the lab's creations, Visualizing Emancipation. It maps specific "emancipation events"—people fleeing slavery, for instance—that touched individuals all over Civil War-era America, not just in the halls of politics or on the battlefield but also on farms and plantations, in cities and towns. The work keeps expanding; at its heart is a data set of 3,400 "documented places where we've found slavery changing in some way during the war years," Mr. Nesbit says.

Presenting those data as different, manipulable layers provides "a much richer picture of how emancipation works," he says. "It did not run in one direction. It looked very different at the level of the individual than it did to the nation as a whole. We wanted to be able to build a map that reflected this complexity."

Unlike Valley, which is more self-contained, the site makes other kinds of connections as well. It points users to relevant digital-humanities sites elsewhere, as long as those sites are "robust and mature" enough to be reliable, Mr. Nesbit says, invoking the need for good digital stewardship.

The Visualizing Emancipation site wouldn't exist without precedents like Valley of the Shadow, according to Mr. Nelson. But the field has only begun to explore the kinds of fresh analyses that digital approaches have put within humanists' reach.

"That's probably one of the modest disappointments of digital humanities 20 years into this enterprise—that it hasn't spawned more broad scholarship," Mr. Nelson says. "The challenge and the opportunity for the digital humanities is to start making arguments and producing interpretations that are going to be of interest to people who are not necessarily invested in the digital humanities as an enterprise."

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