Digital History

Oh my Goodness It’s November – Module 8: Digital Sustainability and Preservation

After reading Trevor Owen’s book The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation and perusing resources found at NDSA’s Levels of Digital Preservation and The Socio-Technical Sustainability Roadmap (a wonderful resource meant for a team to sit down and go through the modules to assess needs for their project), I have a better idea of what entails digital preservation and sustainability. I say this potentially obvious fact as I mull over website revisions for RRCHNM I have been working on with other DH fellows for (*checks watch*) oh, months now. I didn’t really have any idea of what preservation and sustainability meant. I have a better idea now, though I do not envy archivists and librarians or future historians working with digital-born resources, as this stuff is hard.

By doing these website revisions I have perused dozens of DH projects spanning about two decades. Some are and look more ancient in the grand scheme of technology, others feel more current even if they’re not, and plenty of projects are active. Very few have issues with broken URLs or issues seeing and interacting with the sites, due no doubt to ongoing sustainability work with my colleagues at the center (the upkeep of the woefully out-of-date CHNM site will not be discussed in-depth to save me from me and y’all from me). I knew these projects were being sustained, whether that meant archived, flattened, other’s orphan projects taken in by CHNM, and some ended, but beyond that my knowledge halted. To preserve my website or any projects I did on my own, I planned on just keeping the domain and checking the site to make sure it looks okay. That’s not really digital preservation, as Owens succinctly told me.

What is digital preservation? Well, to not give you a direct answer, Owens writes “[t]here is no such thing as digital preservation, there is only the conservation of digital media’” (12). Preservation is an ongoing process and never truly over; as technology and DH changes, how we preserve and conserve will need to change, as well. He explains: “Digital preservation must be a craft and not a science because its praxis is (1) grounded in an ongoing and unresolved dialogue with the preservation professions, and (2) it must be responsive to the inherent messiness and historically contingent nature of the logics of computing” (72).

Computers make mistakes, fail, die, age-out; technology changes and we can’t read data or transfer it the same way, different servers or interfaces are used, and all of this means no universal solution can be used. Instead, figuring out preservation intent, significance, what should be saved, and working through the life span of a project (using resources such as the module linked above and below by Landmead), one can start to see how preservation might come together for a certain project. Also: make copies. Lots of copies. And keep them in different places. And maybe figure how not to rely on Google Docs (CAROLINE THAT’S A POINTED REMARK).

King’s Digital Lab at King’s College London did just this. KDL had over 100 projects that were either of high-quality or seminal research work that they had to figure out how to save and maintain. Older works had relied on “[t]he spirit of 1990s cyber-utopianism – which assumed electronic media would be cheap and technically straightforward to maintain, and that libraries would develop subscription models able to support bespoke non-commercial projects – held back proactive funding of archiving and sustainability initiatives [Turner 2008].’ We’ll figure it out later, and it’ll be fine, said earlier researchers, but later does come. KDL took stock of their 100 projects, figured out what could/should be saved, came up with a workflow and actual plan for maintenance, and decided that future projects would start with an idea of sustainability from the get-go. One full-time staff member spent months figuring out and implementing the plan, and they were able to get five-year funding from the Faculty of Arts & Humanities. As discussed in the article, this is finite funding for a finite amount of time; it doesn’t fix all of the issues, but it’s a start. And as Owens writes, all preservation is a start, and never really ends. Funding issues, prevalent in orphan projects and other underfunded institutions, stand at the forefront and must be considered.

For me, this means that I have more insight into the inner-workings of CHNM’s sustainability plan, and though I am still intimidated by the process, I have more respect for the work and the need for it. I also realize that I need to consider the longevity of my own work; I have few digital projects to secure longevity for, but I know this will change as my work at CHNM continues and my own research develops. Short-term may the work be, but access should be on-going. The Combing Through History project I have been working on with my classmates this semester also necessitates a sustainability plan. We do not plan on continuing the work but want to keep the accessibility. Langmead’s modules may do us good, even though it is a small-scale project.


 Digital Library Federation/National Digital Stewardship Alliance’s “Levels of Digital Preservation

Alison Langmead, et al, “The Socio-Technical Sustainability Roadmap

James Smithies, et al, “Managing 100 Digital Humanities Projects: Digital Scholarship & Archiving in King’s Digital Lab,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 13, no. 1 (2019),

Trevor Owens, The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018)

5 replies on “Oh my Goodness It’s November – Module 8: Digital Sustainability and Preservation”

Great post Caroline. To add to your paragraph on computers making mistakes, Owens admits that “One of the most challenging aspects of writing practical things about digital tools and technologies is how the quick rate of technological change can make the work seem dated. I hope that in focusing on a way of approaching and making decisions about objects that this book can have a long shelf life” (187). So in addition to the technology becoming outdated, so too do the articles and guides which help us understand and utilize them. So Owens made judgment calls on presenting the materials in his book in hopes that it will last through tech changes since he raises both practical and theoretical questions. Yet, given the uncertainty surrounding what comes next, who knows!

Good stuff here, Caroline. I enjoyed your comparison between preservation and conservation. I think you, and Owens, are completely right in showing how divergent those things can be. I like to think of this at how nature cannot be preserved, but conservation protects nature for sustainability and long-term efforts for future generations to enjoy. I think that situation can mesh well with how with think about DH.

Caroline, great post and a fun read. But one thing jumped out at me and stuck with me the entire time: Your one line and broken URLs. Copy-pasting a URL to reference another site seems like such a mindless task when working on one’s own project, but that string of information can be so consequential … especially if the URL expires or just changes. What should have been a seamless click-through now is an open taunt in the shape of “404.” Reflecting upon it, I can’t picture a way to future-proof a project for this kind of eventuality. Perhaps my imagination is just limited – the only solution I have is just to manually change each link if there are any issues. That feels like such a dreadful chore …

Yes! Longmeade’s modules will only help you! Work projects typically mean that you will be working with other co-workers and having a plan in place is important – even if you don’t follow every jot and tittle. Owen’s suggestion to plan for a lifespan of three years is one I will remember, and, should the website be archived? If you work for an institution your records management department will help you with these decisions. Yes, back-up everything! You never know when that cup of tea might spill!

A very comprehensive insight. And you are right, computers age, VHS or old audio cassettes age or have aged already. As Owens noted: “a various old new media type developed over time: wax cylinders, records, cassette tapes, 8-millimeter film, VHS tapes…Given that many of these audiovisual media are not particularly long-lived, scholars in the field of A/V preservation have largely come to a consensus that they need to digitize this content.” (p.25)
I still have old audio cassettes with audio recordings of my parents and my voice going back to the 1980s. Need to digitize ASAP.

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