On November 12 - 13, I had the opportunity to represent DiRT Directory at a workshop on user interface and software sustainability in the humanities and social sciences, hosted by the Center for e-Research (CeRch) at the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London. Workshop participants included developers and project managers from a variety of European infrastructure projects designed to support digital research in the humanities and social sciences. The discussion was framed and facilitated by project team members from the Tools E-Registry for E-Social science, Arts and Humanities (TERESAH), which is currently under development. We hoped that DiRT Directory, a tool registry driven by a community of volunteers and powered by open source software, would offer useful lessons in project sustainability.

Software Sustainability in DH

The European digital humanities ecosystem presents a different set of opportunities and constraints. There, digital humanities work features a variety of state-funded, joint infrastructure projects that service multiple language communities. Despite these differences, we shared common concerns about the technical sustainability of DH projects. Both in Europe and North America, the funding proposals offer limited resources for technical support after the conclusion of project development. Even projects that are relatively simple are built in an ecosystem of connected, interdependent technologies. Some of these pieces will, inevitably, “break” a project as various pieces of technologies are updated or made obsolete. By making software sustainability a priority from the proposal stage, project directors, in consultation with technical staff, can make smart decisions to ensure their work remains accessible in the long run.

Project directors and developers can strive to mitigate inevitable technical hiccups by opting for open-source tools and reserving time for developing good technical documentation. Popular open source projects (such as Wordpress and Drupal), with code that is freely available for modification and reuse, are often maintained by a large and diverse community of developers. When pieces of a project’s technical infrastructure break, there is a greater likelihood that technical staff can draw upon this community of expertise to find a solution. Good technical documentation also facilitates this process by thoroughly explaining the technology underlying a project, their interdependencies, and any customization utilized in the project. This practice is especially crucial in the digital humanities, where the technical leads that build a project (e.g. graduate students, freelance developers) may be different from the staff responsible for its long-term maintenance (e.g. library or IT staff).

Though not every person involved with a DH project is expected to be a technical expert, project directors should be prepared to discuss technical sustainability concerns when writing grant proposals. What do these questions look like? Ithaka S+R’s “Sustaining the Digital Humanities” report provides a useful toolkit, which includes an overview of the lifecycle of a digital resource and a questionnaire for new digital projects. While a project director may not be able to answer all of these questions, this is an opportunity to proactively consult with staff and share the responsibility of building and sustaining successful DH projects.

*Are you working on a digital project proposal? Contact a digital humanities consultant for help with developing a sustainability plan, taking advantage of campus technical resources, and more.