5.1 Moving toward Maturity
Theorists who study organizations describe their development in terms of life cycle phases such as birth, youth, midlife, and maturity. As organizations move through this life cycle, they become larger, more formal, and more hierarchical. Digital humanities centers, which have now been around for the better part of a decade, are moving from the small, informally run centers that characterized their startup to more organized and structured forms as they head into maturity.
Concomitant with this change is a new set of challenges. Concerns about startup funding and staffing are replaced by concerns about securing sustainable funding and identifying and retaining qualified staff. Initial programs have had time to be tested, and are now being reassessed and reconsidered. Partnerships and collaborations have become the bywords of funding agencies, and digital humanities practitioners and centers are responding in kind. Centers are also embarking on efforts to foster greater communication among one another, both nationally and internationally, as a way of leveraging their numbers for digital humanities advocacy.
In the midst of these changes, centers are assuming a new role, put upon them by humanities departments and universities, as training grounds for digital humanities theory and practice. Academic departments are coming to rely on DHCs to fill gaps in their programs in the area of humanities computing. Universities are calling on DHCs to bring informatics literacy to undergraduate education by incorporating digital humanities into liberal arts curricula. This implicit recognition of the pedagogical value of DHCs in furthering undergraduate and graduate education is helping them leverage their position and status in the university environment.
Centers continue to struggle over how to sustain their operations in the long term. The classic DHC business model starts with a relatively simple portfolio of funding contributed by a foundation or university, and migrates over time to a complex mix of monies obtained from myriad sources that change yearly because of the short-term nature of grants, state and university budget fluctuations, and an absence of any (or any significant) revenue-generating resources. Increasingly, centers are considering endowments as a way to help bring a greater measure of stability to their ongoing fiscal uncertainties.
Sustainability issues also arise apart from the financial sphere. As the centers mature, many are experiencing the “first-generation” transfer of leadership from the centers’ founders. Smooth leadership transitions are directly related to how well the center is positioned financially and politically within its larger infrastructure. Centers that receive little consideration from their parent institution, that have not proven their value to their parent in tangible ways, and that have no governance plan that covers transitions are at great risk of dissolution when current leadership moves on.
Sustainability must also be addressed at the level of DHC projects and products. How can centers sustain projects that have moved from development to implementation and are now in a steady state of production? While some projects (such as pilot projects) do have finite lives, centers increasingly develop resources that are expected by their users to be accessible for the long term. The growing numbers of these types of resources argues for sustainability plans at the project, as well as the center, level.
Of all the products DHCs offer, tools have received considerable interest of late within the digital humanities research community. As digital scholarship grows, centers are increasingly taking on a developer’s role, creating new tools (or expanding existing ones) to meet their research requirements.
In the interests of furthering research and scholarship, DHC-developed tools are made freely available via various open-source agreements. However, there is some concern that the efforts expended in DHC tool development are not being adequately leveraged across the humanities. A recent study commissioned by CLIR (see Appendix F) found that many of these tools are not easily accessible. They are buried deep within a DHC’s Web site, are not highlighted or promoted among the center’s products, and lack the most basic descriptions, such as function, intended users, and downloading instructions.
The reason for this state of affairs may be related to how tool development often takes place in DHCs. Centers frequently develop tools within the context of a larger project. Once the project has been completed, the center may become involved in other activities and may not have the resources to address usability issues that would make the tool more accessible for others. The unfortunate result is that significant energy is expended developing a tool that may receive little use beyond a particular center. Funding agencies that support tool development among centers, and that make it a requirement of their grants that the tools be open source, may wish to develop guidelines and provide support for mechanisms that will enhance the usability of existing tools and expose them more prominently to the humanities community. Funding tool development as a piece of a larger center project may not be in the best interest of the humanities community, as individual centers seem unable to maintain these tools beyond the life of the project.
DHCs are aware of the need to preserve the increasing amount of digital materials they produce, but they differ in their perceptions of how to do so. Few centers ascribe to the cardinal rule of digital preservation that preservation processes must be incorporated into the earliest phases (i.e., planning) of the creation of a digital resource. In addition, centers often equate archiving with preservation, not realizing that the former is only one component of a preservation plan.
Some DHCs place the burden of preservation on principal investigators or content providers. This shifting of responsibility is a risky and inadequate solution. Content is only one component that must be preserved in a digital resource. Software functionality, data structures, access guidelines, metadata, and other value-added components to the resource (many of which are created by, and reside within, the centers rather than with the PI or content provider) must also be preserved. Without this “digital ecosystem,” the content is stripped of its context and becomes incomprehensible over time.
Preservation is perhaps one of the most urgent problems facing DHCs, as technological changes occur at a breakneck pace and render resources obsolete in only a few years’ time. It is likely that older centers already have experienced some loss of resources, and scholars in the near future will be frustrated in their efforts to locate some of the earliest forms of digital scholarship.
5.5 Intellectual Property
The swirl of IP activity under way among DHCs is a response to the growing importance and complexity of the IP arena and the interplay between these issues and the products, services, and activities of the centers. Centers are searching for models that balance their need and desire for openness with a respect for the IP rights of others. Most complain about the “headache” of procuring and managing rights on an individual basis, a time-consuming process that detracts from their research agendas.
Centers also identified new challenges confronting them in the IP arena. A major concern is the IP issues involved in community-built resources. These resources have contributions by potentially thousands of people: traditional rights management does not scale up at this level. Another issue arises with digital art and performance, where the scoring, notating, and rendering needed to display a work creates rights issues at the interface of both copyright and trademark arenas. A third concern pits a user’s IP rights against scholarly responsibility for the historical record; namely, how does a center that offers archival or repository services respond to a user’s request to remove his or her contribution from the digital resource in the archive? These issues encroach on new terrain that the DHCs feel unprepared to address.