On Sustainability

Though sustainability may seem like a problem unique to digital projects, print materials have had issues (acidity, humidity, fire, etc.) of sustainability throughout their existence. Over time archivists, publishers, scholars, and others have developed ways to prolong the lives of print materials (acid-free paper, climate control, fire departments, etc.). As more and more “stuff” is produced and stored digitally, the sustainability of digital materials is becoming a pressing issue that needs someone (archivists, publishers, scholars, others?) to develop solutions. I use two digital history projects to raise some issues of sustainability, though I omit many other important aspects (version control to name one among many).  Although I have more questions than answers, I think a good starting point to making any project sustainable for the future are clarity and simplicity.

Clarity: Does anyone still use Real Player?

A good comment on my What Makes a Good Digital History Project? by my colleague Jason Heppler suggested adding sustainability to a key ingredient to a good Digital History project helped get the idea of sustainability into my head, but a project review for my digital history seminar really forced the issue. I am reviewing The Flint Sit-Down Strike Audio Gallery, a good collection and presentation of oral histories of the sit-down strike at a GM plant in Flint, MI in 1936-1937. I actually used this project a few years back as an undergraduate and found the project very useful, but I was surprised to see that I could not readily access the oral histories or other multi-media on the website when I visited the website recently. Firefox could not automatically find the missing plug-in and I was a bit concerned that the project was no longer accessible. However, the project meticulously noted what programs and standards they used so I could find that I needed to download Real Player to use any media on the project. My next thought was then “Does Real Player still exist?” (it does).

Perhaps I had to download Real Player to use the project in undergrad and simply forgot, but the project’s use of Real Player raises a few issues of sustainability. Without a compelling reason to figure out how to use the website (class), I probably would have stopped at Firefox checking for, and not finding, a plug-in. How projects are saved greatly affects the later accessibility. With technology it seems that there are always new problems with formatting and eventually most formats run out of programs to run them. However, the website was made roughly ten years ago and for digital scholarship to mean something, it must last longer than a decade. One precaution certainly would have been using a format accessible by many programs, like mp3, which still would have been readable by many programs today. Taking sides in competing formats is generally not a good idea (just ask the people who went out and bought HD-DVD players), but even if projects pick the best tool at the time, that still does not solve every issue of sustainability. I am not going to solve any great issues of sustainability right now. However, every project should do one thing the Flint project did, explain, in detail the programs and formats used. Without the project explicitly saying they used Real Player, I probably would not have figured out how to access the media files at all.

Simplicity: A Project Still Kicking

One of the first major works of digital history, The Valley of the Shadow, continues to be a valuable resource and example of digital scholarship. While it is appears the project has had more upkeep than the Flint project, what really stands out about the Valley is its well executed simplicity. The project’s clean presentation prevents the project from becoming an eyesore or looking laughable years later (nothing on the title page blinks). The idea behind the project was also simple (create a digital archive of the sources of two towns), but the project achieves its goals so well that it remains a useful online archive today. Also helpful is the project’s large amounts of text and images (saved as .jpg, which seems a pretty safe format for now) are easier to preserve as long as the project remains online. Predicting the future, and what technology there will be in it, is difficult, but if a project can prove appealing and useful to others its chances of survival greatly increase.

Though the Valley of the Shadow has provided very useful for an extended amount of time and its reliance on text and images, though there are dynamic visualizations as well, bode well for its future, the “as long as the project remains online” part I glance by above is a very major issue facing digital scholarship. The Valley of the Shadow is housed at the UVA library, and libraries certainly have served as a useful storage place for print scholarship, but the issue will become more pressing as more and more digital scholarship is produced. Scholars will have to figure out what being “published” means in a digital format and whose is responsible for preservation.

Even if the how and where a digital project is preserved is out of the control of the project’s creator(s), making scholarship that is clear, appealing, and useful can only help the chances the project is preserved by someone.

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