SFU Library blog for the DHIL, with a banner showing a hand and keyboard

News about the Digital Humanities Innovation Lab

Digital Longevity in the Digital Humanities

Published by Alison Moore

Endings-symposium-blog-image 

This blog post was contributed by Sophia Han, a former Digital Fellow in the Digital Humanities Innovation Lab. 

Sustainability in the digital humanities has as much to do with planning and coding practices as it does with infrastructure and funding. In this interview, DHIL's user interface developer, Joey Takeda, explains "Endings principles" and discusses questions around digital longevity and preservation. 

How did you come to attend the Endings Symposium?
I’ve been working with the
Endings project since 2017. The Endings project was a SSHRC-funded project out of the University of Victoria. It was a collaboration between researchers, librarians, and developers to determine how we can best create digital projects that are archivable and sustainable in the long term with little to no maintenance. Much of the initial work was focused on projects at UVic, but "Endings principles" have now been applied to various projects beyond the core Endings group.

What we ended up discovering is that seemingly-retrograde mechanisms — in particular, static websites with no server dependency — allow projects to be easily archived, ported, and sustained.

The symposium that took place in April evolved from these questions around longevity and preservation, but focused on external case-studies from researchers and practitioners outside of the group involved with the Endings project. 

What does digital longevity mean in the digital humanities and why is it important to address the question of digital longevity?
A lot of time, money, and effort goes into creating DH projects, many of which not only support the work of individual researchers, but become essential resources for the broader scholarly public.


The assumption is that the digital is ephemeral and will go away, but the Endings project has demonstrated that this doesn't have to be the case. DH projects not only make texts, data, and information available in new or methodologically-innovative ways, but are often the only place where those resources are available. There are many instances of recovery work within the Digital Humanities—like The Women's Print History Project—where the project itself is the only place where that information is available. This kind of work can challenge assumptions about the past and if these resources go away then that knowledge is gone—that’s a worrying state of affairs.

What are some factors that have tended to make these digital projects ephemeral and what sort of recommendations have come out from conversations at Endings?
Web development at large has focused on ways to make websites more interactive and convenient to produce, but in doing so they have created complicated infrastructures that are difficult to maintain. In trying to determine what technologies will last in the long term, we looked to the beginning of the web, and found that they use precisely the same web technologies that we use today: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The goal, then, was to figure out how to take these highly-complex projects and make them into static collections of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript that could be stored in an archive, run on some server, or just kept on your local computer that work exactly as it did when it was originally released. 

 

Web development at large has focused on ways to make websites more interactive and convenient to produce, but in doing so they have created complicated infrastructures that are difficult to maintain.

 


Where can people learn more about sustainable approaches to digital projects?

The Endings website contains information about the the project activity, the list of Endings projects, and the Endings Principles for Digital Longevity. Originally, the Principles were meant to guide the Endings team as we worked through the core Endings project, but over the duration of the project, the Principles have become both a summary of what the project's learned over the last four years as well as a set of recommendations for creating sustainable and archivable projects. 

What is the significance of a gathering like this?
It shows that there are a lot of people who have come up against these problems and that issues of sustainability, preservation, and data loss are not isolated to any type of project or institution. While some issues are structural or institutional and can't be addressed by a set of coding practices or principles, the Symposium offered a good opportunity to see how other institutions, projects, and individuals have either overcome or, at the very least, come up against similar problems.
 

 

The assumption is that the digital is ephemeral and will go away, but the Endings project has demonstrated that this doesn't have to be the case.

 


Through your participation in Endings, what were some main takeaways for yourself and your work at DHIL?

This line of inquiry is really important to push
from the start and acknowledge right from the get-go that projects will inevitably end. And this has been a central and long-standing concern for the DHIL—project proposals include questions about licensing and data management because those concerns are, in many ways, just as important as the research questions that generate the project. Part of what makes the DHIL unique is that, as part of the library, we have really great opportunities to collaborate with our colleagues across the library and draw on their expertise; these kinds of collaborations are crucial to project sustainability.

To learn more about the Endings Principles for Digital Longevity, visit the Endings website. Findings from the 2021 symposium will also be shared in a special issue of the Digital Humanities Quarterly.

Article: Joey Takeda with Sophia Han