Embracing ephemerality in the digital humanities

As soon as any DH project's started, it's biological clock is ticking
As soon as any DH project’s started, its biological clock is ticking

One thing that not many digital humanists write about directly, but has become increasingly clear to practitioners in the field, is how ephemeral so much of our thought and work is, especially in comparison to traditional humanities products likes articles and books. What if, while still trying to make our projects more sustainable, we were also to accept ephemerality as central to digital humanities practice?

Not every project can last as long as The Valley of the Shadow, which, at around two decades online and still fully functional, is a marvel. It’s not just that things fall apart, although that can happen through link rot or changing standards that make projects increasingly inaccessible over time, but even that even widely used and useful tools or can disappear entirely, as was recently pointed out, Jim Zwick’s seminal “Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 1898–1935”.  Sometimes tools get replaced, very intentionally, by something better (like Scribe by Zotero), sometimes not. Sometimes some digital tool or platform that seems like a wonderful thing fizzles, like Dan Cohen’s marvelous Syllabus Finder, R.I.P., but at least eventually something more robust comes along. Even commercial tools get jettisoned. I’m looking at you, Google Reader. Sometimes they actually chug along in different ways that one might have expected; check out this article about Second Life, which is not the rage it was in academic circles a half-dozen years ago.

“It is only slightly facetious to say that digital information lasts forever—or five years, whichever comes first,” Jeff Rothenberg wrote in 1995, and I’ve heard it adapted by many people about projects in the digital humanities in general.

Compare that to traditional books and journal articles. By contrast, they are nearly permanent. I can go to my library, or OhioLink (OhioLink, how I love thee!), or interlibrary loan, and get scholarly books over a century old. Heck, most academic presses and even the big commercial houses have been using only acid-free paper for their prime hardback releases for a quarter-century. Journal articles are no less permanent, and that was true even before the databases to which many of us have access. During my grad student days at William and Mary in the mid-1990s, somehow an entire print run of the third series of the William and Mary Quarterly (the prime journal of early American history) became available, and one of my lucky peers was able to snag it. It was like he had inherited a treasure trove. But he was lucky only because of convenience: any of the rest of us could still go to the library and get articles from the beginning of the run. But I digress.

The point here is that ephemerality presents more than only a practical problem in terms of how projects are designed, administered, funded, and maintained. Rather, we must come to grips with the fact that most digital humanities work is inherently ephemeral. How does that make us think about DH differently?

I would suggest we could think and operate in these slightly different ways.

  1. Include a “snapshot” plan as a requirement for grants. The NEH, for example, laudably requires a data management plan for all DH grants. As Trevor Owens has noted, the issue of digital preservation is both crucial and quite problematic, and as Henry Gladney has written, long-term preservation is a tough nut to crack; Leslie Johnston provides a pretty good quick primer of the issues involved. At the very least, though, we should also include with projects what I’m calling here a “snapshot,” that is, when the project is completed or hits major stages or version thresholds (acknowledging how problematic determining those can be for ongoing projects), basic screenshots and a description of what the site or tool does, how it functions, and so forth, along with the source code, in the simplest and most uniform file formats possible ( such as .pdf and .txt), be deposited in a digital repository with a stable url. Maybe, as a set, they would be the equivalents of the kind of documentation used in other fields in which ephemerality is an accepted condition, such as the field reports of archaeological sites (which are, necessarily, destroyed in the process of investigation) or the curatorial books and pamphlets that document art or other museum exhibits.
  2. Embrace intentional project sunsets. Rather than having to plan for an unrealistic, unsustainable forever, we could conceive of the finite term as the norm for digital humanities projects, and plan accordingly for what happens when that term ends. How might the project be wound down, when the money runs out and people move on, when links break or formats become obsolete, when a domain is no longer maintained or a server is decommissioned? Maybe, instead of unrealistic efforts to keep things going, the usual expectation should be detailed plans to shut out the lights, so to speak, on a specific date. The project staff could take a final snapshot for the repository, maybe enter the url into the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. The last steps would be to mount a message on the project website and contact users indicating that it’s at the end of its useful life and won’t be maintained, and informing them where the project snapshots have been archived. Incidentally, except for the snapshots, which could be considered proprietary, that’s how businesses do it. My proposed rule of thumb for sunsets would match Rothenberg’s five years, and admittedly that’s arbitrary, but that might be a good general target, to be modified depending upon the needs, requirements, and resources of a given project.
  3. Live in the moment. Trust me, as a trained historian, this is very hard for me. I’m big on preserving stuff—that’s why, with Billy G. Smith, I started the Magazine of Early American Datasets—but maybe we should more intentionally think of some of our projects as ephemera, digital broadsides here today, gone tomorrow. Sure, some projects that have major institutional backing can continue. But most of us are engaged in smaller-scale efforts, depending upon only a few people, and without the kinds of infrastructure and resources needed to keep a digital project available for the long haul. So let’s enjoy the moment while it lasts, and put a little less energy into preservation of smaller projects in favor of more time spent on making them as wonderful as possible for users now.

3 thoughts on “Embracing ephemerality in the digital humanities”

  1. This post echoes some of the ideas we discussed in the “What is DH?” blog postings. I was just looking up credentials for one of my old professors at Wright State, and I noticed that she was still working on an article that she was working on five years ago when I was in school. What a contrast to DH! It’s a much quicker process, and I think that could put DHers at more of a disadvantage than at an advantage at times. This explains so much as to why it’s so difficult to define the elements of what makes DH.

    The idea of using “snapshots” would be an interesting way to conceptualize the evolution of a product and a way to document it. For example, we could see Facebook’s evolution over time, and the url could continuously be updated as the project progressed.

    I can’t help but think of how much of DH we lose on a daily basis because of the inability to create some type of database. I’m sure there were similar people out there with the similar idea to Facebook, but, for whatever reasons, Facebook became the paradigm. It solved the problems first, became the most appealing, and found the most success. Those other creators are still very important to DH. Even though they aren’t the ultimate paradigm, they are still an important part of the history of DH. And just like the sites they created, they slowly disappear.

  2. I find Jeff Rothenberg’s quote about the potential length of digital information to be very interesting and relevant. As evidenced by some of the links Dr. Schocket provided, groundbreaking websites with new information get passed up constantly. In contrast, there are thousands of books sitting unused in libraries across the world. However, I think this is similar to the progression of digital information and humanities. While these old books are still available in libraries (unlike many old websites) their information may be stale and outdated. The work of a historian is to seek new angles and arguments in a particular field. It seems, at times, some historians believe it is their mission to create an irrelevancy in old books. They strive to create a new thought-process, thus essentially casting the old arguments to the dark corner of the historical community much in the way old websites are cast aside for the next big thing (Friendster to MySpace to Facebook). While these outdated websites might still exist, their accomplishments and the innovation they once displayed is still as important as understanding the older concepts of history.

    I also found it interesting that Second Life was brought up. I dabbled in Second Life during its height, when it was a household name. I eventually got bored with it, not because there was not anything to do, but rather because there was so much that could be done I did not know how to process it all. The idea of Second Life was to create a new world for its users. It allowed them to create a world to their specifications which gave them the ability to live how they saw fit. As the article specifies, Second Life still has a large community but it is now relegated to a sort of niche group rather than the wide-reaching demographic it once enjoyed. I think that there are engines that seemingly took its place. Minecraft enjoys immense popularity and acts in a similar fashion. You can build just about anything you can imagine (as long as that infuriating redstone works properly). Although Second Life is arguably the most unique of the “world-immersion” engines, it seems as though its innovation has lived on through programs such as Minecraft. Even though Second Life is not nearly as mainstream as it once was, it is clear that it was a groundbreaking experience that has carried over to the present. I think it would be difficult, and wrong, to create a game with this same concept and not give some credit to Second Life.

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