In preparation for the 2008 Scholarly Communications Institute (SCI 6) focused on humanities research centers, the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) commissioned a survey of digital humanities centers (DHCs). The immediate goals of the survey were to identify the extent of these centers and to explore their financing, organizational structure, products, services, and sustainability. The longer-term goal was to provide SCI 6 participants with a greater understanding of existing centers to inform their discussions about regional and national centers. The yearlong study took place in two phases: (1) a planning phase during which a working definition of DHC was developed, selection criteria were established, candidates were identified, and methodology was planned; and (2) an implementation phase during which the survey was conducted and responses analyzed. Thirty-two organizations took part in the survey, which was conducted through interviews with senior management, and through Web site and literature reviews of the participating DHCs.
The results show that DHCs can be grouped into two general categories:
- Center focused: Centers organized around a physical location, with many diverse projects, programs, and activities undertaken by faculty, researchers, and students. These centers offer a wide array of resources to diverse audiences. Most DHCs operate under this model.
- Resource focused: Centers organized around a primary resource, located in a virtual space, that serve a specific group of members. All programs and products flow from the resource, and individual and institutional members help sustain the resource by providing content, labor, or other support services.
The study findings also show that DHCs are entering a new phase of organizational maturity, with concomitant changes in activities, roles, and sustainability. Of late, there is a growing interest in fostering greater communication among centers to leverage their numbers for advocacy efforts. However, few DHCs have considered whether an unfettered proliferation of individual centers is an appropriate model for advancing humanities scholarship. Indeed, some features in the current landscape of centers may inadvertently hinder wider research and scholarship. These include the following:
- The silo-like nature of current centers is creating untethered digital production that is detrimental to the needs of humanities scholarship. Today’s centers favor individual projects that address specialized research interests. These projects are rarely integrated into larger digital resources that would make them more widely known and available for the research community. As a result, they receive little exposure outside their center and are at greater risk of being orphaned over time.
- The independent nature of existing centers does not effectively leverage resources community-wide. Centers have overlapping agendas and activities, particularly in training, digitization of collections, and metadata development. Redundant activities across centers are an inefficient use of the scarce resources available to the humanities community.
- Large-scale, coordinated efforts to address the “big” issues in building a humanities cyberinfrastructure, such as repositories that enable long-term access to the centers’ digital production, are missing from the current landscape. Collaborations among existing centers are small and focus on individual partner interests; they do not scale up to address community-wide needs.
The findings of this survey suggest that new models are needed for large-scale cyberinfrastructure projects, for cross-disciplinary research that cuts a wide swathe across the humanities, and for integrating the huge amounts of digital production already available. Current DHCs will continue to have an important role to play, but that role must be clarified in the context of the broader models that emerge.
When one is investigating collaborative models for humanities scholarship, the sciences offer a useful framework. Large-scale collaborations in the sciences have been the subject of research that examines the organizational structures and behaviors of these entities and identifies the criteria needed to ensure their success. The humanities should look to this work in planning its own strategies for regional or national models of collaboration.