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A Summary of a Report Published by the Council on Library and Information Resources

A Survey of Digital Cultural Heritage Initiatives and Their Sustainability Concerns

Diane Zorich
June 2003

With the rapid advance of digital technology and applications in the 1990s came a proliferation of digital cultural heritage initiatives (DCHIs) to develop or facilitate the use of digital products for cultural and educational communities. Demand for such resources continues to increase, yet many DCHIs now face unanticipated challenges to achieving or maintaining sustainability. In 2002, the Council on Library and Information Resources established a steering committee to examine the factors compromising DCHIs’ sustainability and to develop recommendations for a coordinated strategy to counter these threats. A survey was commissioned to inform the steering committee on the scope, financing, organizational structure, and sustainability of DCHIs. The survey findings depict the diversity of the digital cultural heritage environment, articulate common concerns across the movement, and suggest measures to strengthen the initiatives.


Participants included 33 North American DCHIs representing a cross-section of the cultural community, from performing arts organizations and scholarly and library associations to publishing groups and standards initiatives. Information was gathered about: type of organization, mission, digital products or services offered, needs assessments or user studies, relationships with other organizations, financial support and business plan, and achieving and maintaining sustainability.

A separate survey was developed for five government funding agencies and private foundations that responded to questions about: mission, funding categories for DCHIs, DCHI projects funded over the last year, reasons for funding DCHIs, and assessment of DCHIs’ sustainability issues.

A list of organizations and funders surveyed is available at


The survey of DCHIs revealed a diverse array of missions, products and services, programs, and governance types. Some are newly emerging; others have operated for decades but only recently developed digital products. Staff size ranges from a few volunteers to large groups of paid professionals. Products include digital libraries and portals, e-publishing, and online databases, and services include advocacy, networking opportunities, and support for special projects.

Most DCHIs identify themselves as membership organizations, although some are research projects within a larger program or institution. DCHIs tend to affiliate with other organizations: 20 of those surveyed are members of the National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage (NINCH), but the most frequent alliances are between a DCHI and organizations specific to its agenda or cultural sector.

Foundations are the largest source of financial support for digital cultural initiatives, followed by membership fees and by grants from federal, state, municipal, and other local public agencies. DCHIs receive substantial in-kind contributions from individuals and institutions, such as staff and technology infrastructure provided by a university, but such support is notoriously difficult to quantify in monetary terms.

Interviews with funders of DCHIs revealed a variety of motivations. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a leading financial contributor, regards support for DCHIs as a by-product of its mission to support scholarship, while the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the only federal agency with statutory authority to support digitization, views such support as its mandate.

Funders’ strategies for evaluating and encouraging recipient sustainability include demonstration of demand and institutional support and benchmarks to ensure accessibility over time. Several agencies have undertaken special projects to develop registries, investigate preservation standards, and encourage joint efforts between the humanities and information sciences.


Many of the DCHIs surveyed have in fact not yet reached a sustainable state, and recent developments contribute to their tenuous status. Participants overwhelmingly cited the current economic downturn as threatening their operations. Collaborative DCHIs noted that large organizations no longer participate as reliably as in the past and few new efforts are being launched. They also noted an alarming trend among foundations to discontinue arts funding.

Many respondents were critical of funding strategies, noting that funders may give seed money but are less willing to provide general operating support. Funders were also perceived as failing to understand digital humanities projects and needs. DCHIs that rely heavily on support from foundations and funding agencies often find themselves following the money rather than their own strategic plans. Many are exploring ways to diversify their funding base, but those that have yet to begin planning diversification strategies are particularly at risk. Commercial ventures present one opportunity but may jeopardize DCHIs’ nonprofit purpose and status.

Another perceived threat is the failure of cultural organizations to treat digital cultural heritage projects as a permanent part of their operations. This tentativeness results in inadequate financial resources, a lack of long-term planning, and huge burdens on staff, and is exacerbated by an absence of community-wide preservation and archiving standards and management policies. There is uncertainty about which business models work best, and some questioned whether collaborative models are still viable. Respondents also note issues surrounding online intellectual property rights, tensions between DCHIs and parent organizations, increased competition within the nonprofit community and from commercial vendors, and failure to articulate and promote the value of DCHIs.


There was general agreement that it is time for DCHIs to reassess and clarify their missions. Suggestions for improving sustainability included the following:

  • Planning and marketing: conduct needs assessments prior to establishment, create business plans, develop knowledge management practices, and raise visibility among targeted communities and the public.
  • Training: improve training in management, technology, and leadership for managers and practitioners.
  • Integration and culling: convene the DCHI community to clarify missions and audiences and reduce overlap for better economies of scale.
  • Stable repositories: survey universities, publishers, and other repositories to examine their viability for long-term partnerships as stable repositories for digital cultural resources.
  • Improved communications: create opportunities for discussion between DCHIs, funders, and cultural heritage constituencies to clarify differing perspectives and align sustainability concerns.


A Survey of Digital Cultural Heritage Initiatives and Their Sustainability Concerns
Diane Zorich, June 2003.
ISBN 1-932326-02-2. 50 pages.

The text of the report is available free on CLIR’s Web site at Print copies will soon be available for ordering at this URL for $20 per copy plus shipping.

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