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Sustaining the Digital Humanities: Host Institution Support beyond the Start-up Phase, an Ithaka S+R Report

December 16, 2014 | By Ann Sneesby-Koch

Digital technology, tools, and platforms have transformed approaches to humanities scholarship.  Not only are faculty and students able to access digital collections, they can create and share content and engage with digital sources through technologies that facilitate topic modeling, visualizations, and spatial and textual analysis. Excited by the potential of Digital Humanities (DH) scholarship, scholars are undertaking digital projects and creating digital resources to be used by others.  In response, some institutions of higher education have invested resources to support and sustain digital humanities research by establishing DH labs and centers or providing institutional infrastructure.  As more scholars take up DH methodologies and tools and produce digital projects, and as more colleges and universities recognize the value of DH scholarship to their institutional mission, questions about the best approaches to facilitating, supporting, and sustaining digital scholarship arise.   

In 2012, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded Ithaka S+R a Digital Humanities Implementation Grant to conduct a study investigating to what extent universities and colleges provide for the creation, sustainability, and maintenance of DH output on their campuses. Building on the Ithaka Case Studies in Sustainabilitythe project set out to assess institutional support frameworks and administrative attitudes crucial for project sustainability as well as explore in-depth how campuses were supporting the creation and the long-term viability of DH projects.

Ithaka S+R published the final report, Sustaining the Digital Humanities: Host Institution Support beyond the Start-Up Phase and an accompanying Sustainability Implementation Toolkit in June 2014.  The report presents findings based on interviews of 125 project leaders, deans, provosts, library directors, senior staff of digital humanities centers, and library and IT staff engaged in digital humanities activities on campuses within the US.  The study also presents strategies for supporting DH activities and outputs based on “deep-dive” exploration of four campuses--Columbia University, Brown University, Indiana University Bloomington, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

What emerges is a discussion of faculty attitudes towards their role in not only using but also creating digital tools and content, issues of value and cost of DH research, project lifecycles, and ownership and maintenance of DH output. The focused exploration of DH activities and output on the four campuses provides examples of good practice and models for support--the service model, the lab model, and the network model.  The toolkit gives faculty, campus administrators, and library directors the means to evaluate DH scholarship at their institutions, understand the lifecycle of digital projects, assess the needs and cost of supporting and sustaining DH output, scale and customize systems of support, and engage key stakeholders in productive conversations about the value of DH scholarship to the aims and mission of the institution.

Since its publication in June, the report and toolkit has been downloaded 2400 times. The report and toolkit, in the first five months of publication, have brought around 7400 online visits, a number which continues to grow.  Nancy Maron, program director of Sustainability and Scholarly Communications at Ithaka S+R, notes that among the most popular elements of the toolkit is a Digital Humanities survey that polls faculty about the ways they are using technologies and creating digital resources.  Another popular document is, as Maron puts it, “the deceptively simple ‘lifecycle of a digital resource’ that outlines the steps we focused on in the study, from project planning all the way through dissemination.  Defining these activities as a starting point allowed both faculty and especially leaders of the service units on campus, to really ask themselves which units on campus are supporting these activities today...and which should be?”

The download statistics and a well-attended introductory webinar hosted by Ithaka S+R in July 2014 speak to wider enthusiasm and conversation within the community about exploring new approaches to humanistic research via digital technologies and methods and how to develop spaces and infrastructure for digital scholarship on campuses.  For example, the Association of College Research Libraries (ACRL) Digital Humanities interest group added the Sustainability Toolkit to their American Library Association meeting agenda and members have promoted it on their listserv.  Maron also notes that activity on discussion boards and listservs indicate that “there are dozens of campuses eager to think about the best ways to approach digital scholarship in a more coordinated fashion on their campuses.”   

The report acknowledges that this is one approach that campuses can take to foster and support digital scholarship and the creation and maintenance of digital projects. Maron is interested in learning more about how campuses are developing their own sustainability strategies and “lifecycle” plans to ensure long-term viability of digital resources created by faculty and students. “As more libraries, IT groups, and publishers work hard to forge strong partnerships, I am sure there will be many more good examples emerging of how to create that deeper level of coordination.”   

The full report, Sustaining the Digital Humanities: Host Institution Support beyond the Start-Up Phase, is available for download here. The Sustainability Implementation Toolkit offers a three-step module to developing an institutional strategy for supporting digital humanities resources and other useful links. Thanks to Nancy Maron at Ithaka S+R for providing user statistics, feedback, and insights into the project.

Sustaining the Digital Humanities Host Institution Support beyond the Start-Up Phase was funded by a Digital Humanities Implementation Grant (HK-50022-12). Implementation Grants may fund research that brings new approaches or documents best practices in the study of digital humanities. The project white paper that documents not only the findings of the study, but also lessons learned and reflections on challenges and impact of the project can be accessed here.