1) (I want ah, I want ah, I want ah, I want ah, I want an easy to search database of thematic research collections. Possibly hosted by the Internet Archive. Zigazig-ah.)
As a digital humanities (DH) student, I see amazing projects from around the globe on a daily basis. However, some of the projects I read about for class are no longer available online. Why? The most common response I’ve received is “funding”— the funding dries up, the project can’t be maintained, the project disappears. Scholars move on (just like they move on after writing books and articles), and institutions move on, because scholars don’t use these projects frequently enough.1 Fair. The humanities, however, are not thriving if innovative projects simply disappear. In this post, I argue for a small research infrastructure project with big implications; I will explain why I think the ethical imperative is on digital libraries to facilitate the development of this tool; and finally, I will address a critique of research infrastructure and explain why a database of thematic research collections (TRCs) sidesteps these problems.
First, the idea. I want a database like JSTOR or ARTstor, but rather than connecting users to journals or works of art, it connects users to TRCs. Fundamentally, I argue that access leads to longevity. If undergraduate students learn to consult a TRC database with as much ease and frequency as they would JSTOR, Project Muse, etc., TRCs will get more visits, more cachet, and more funding. DHers attempt to attract scholars and the nebulous “public,” sometimes to no avail, while students at their own institutions haven’t even heard of their work. For example, undergraduates studying Native American literature won’t find the Writing of Indigenous New England hub on the first page of a Google search. They are missing out on a resource that connects them with primary sources and scholarship, and DHers are missing out on a user base.
Access matters to tech-savvy undergraduate students who want to complete their research quickly. The few sites that provide access to digital projects (NINES, for example) connect students with particular objects, but simultaneously decontextualize them from their collections. This partition discourages students from delving into an archive. As Alan Liu points out, one of the best recent DH accomplishments is a shift in how we do research: “from testing or verification to playing around” (23).2 Students are distanced from this play when they don’t have easy access to the web locations where it is occurring.3
2) Why TRCs?
While I’d love to see every digital project ever created easily accessible, I think the best place to start is with TRCs.4 As Carole Palmer argues in her chapter in A Companion to Digital Humanities, TRCs are the humanities’ answer to the science lab—a place to find and play with primary sources. Students writing essays about these sources would benefit from access to such laboratories. However, TRCs deserve accessibility not only because of their utility, but also because of their research status. Palmer argues that TRCs should count as scholarship—not just in the fight for tenure, but also in how to approach them. Libraries, Palmer writes, “can treat thematic collections like the documents produced by scholars—by selecting, acquiring, and organizing them” (16). She envisions a new kind of library collection, which she calls “mid-level,” organized around “constellations of high-quality thematic collections” (17).
However, it’s unreasonable and unnecessary to expect libraries to assess the quality of TRCs—NINES and its sister projects already perform peer-review work. The breadth of the database is much more important. The IFLA Manifesto for Digital Libraries (DLs) argues that preserving and disseminating information is an ethical prerequisite of DLs.5 TRCs help fulfill that ethical prerequisite by providing pre-organized access to many kinds of information otherwise sequestered in physical collections.6 Howard Besser in his work on digital libraries also argues that DLs must be guardians of information and providers of access to otherwise inaccessible objects. Specifically, Besser refers to items hidden behind paywalls, but TRCs provide access to objects rendered inaccessible by their physical context in libraries and archives as well.7
3) I choose you, Internet Archive!
Who should be in charge of hosting and maintaining this database? First, let me clarify my use of the word “database.” I essentially mean a search tool, but it could be called a digital library of digital collections as well.8 If we call the tool a DL, a likely candidate for its hosting and maintenance is the Internet Archive, a preexisting DL committed to hosting websites, books, etc. The Internet Archive already has a tool for making TRCs (Archive-It); a tool for accessing TRCs is a logical next step. Brewster Kahle, digital librarian with the Internet Archive, says in a video on the institution, “Access drives preservation” (Deepspeed Media). TRCs are valuable resources that deserve to be preserved, but they sometimes disappear due to lack of funding/interest. If the Internet Archive’s goal is to offer “permanent access […] to historical collections that exist in digital format,” it could do worse than to support these collections.9 But regardless of interest from the Internet Archive, scholars themselves should advocate for this tool’s development. Kahle argues that, “it’s keeping things in use, active, that keeps it part of the mindshare, keeps people knowing about it, liking it, caring for it.” To get institutions to care about TRCs, they must be easily accessible to many people.
4) You have to spend money to make money
Earlier, I called this tool digital infrastructure.10 I have a vested interest in doing so. Preservation projects no longer get funded, but digital infrastructure projects do. A TRC database is something I genuinely want to see developed, so of course I’m going to argue that it’s the sexiest thing on the block. However, Geoffrey Rockwell in his musings on cyberinfrastructure expresses a valid concern. Rockwell fears that infrastructure projects will divert funding from actual research (Rockwell 10). And he’s right—making new tools is significantly more lucrative than using them. You get the big bucks for inventing Twitter, not for posting a Tweet. However, I return to Kahle’s point: “access drives preservation.” If he’s right, then if students start to really use TRCs, institutions will begin to maintain them. And as projects gain cachet, funding initiatives for new projects will become more popular. I’m reminded of that quote from Field of Dreams: “If you build it, he will come.” When it comes to TRCs, the story isn’t that simple. Build a tool that lets students easily access digital scholarship, and teach them how to use it alongside other popular tools like JSTOR—then, I believe, students will finally use TRCs, and institutions will maintain them properly.11
1: This idea comes from Rockwell: “We expect publishers and libraries to maintain our scholarship after the research, why not have equivalent service infrastructure to maintain our virtual scholarship” (5).
2: One of Liu’s critiques of DH scholarship is that it hasn’t addressed the changing (disappearing?) role of close reading. I contend that giving undergraduate students access to these tool is a good step towards ensuring their use in the close reading process.
3: Crowdsourcing has partially addressed this problem for the general public, making interested citizens a part of digital projects. A database of DH projects could be the equivalent outreach for the undergraduate community.
4: For a great introduction to thematic research collections, see Palmer, cited below.
5: Since we’re talking about born-digital scholarship, it makes sense to use digital libraries, as well.
6: They also help fulfill another IFLA recommendation: that libraries should “collaborate with other cultural and scientific heritage institutions to provide rich and diverse digital resources that support education and research” (IFLA).
7: Interestingly, Besser also argues that DLs need to help users “see that information within its context” (Besser 573). This is one of the greatest strengths of TRCs—they take resources and place them in a constellation with related objects, helping users contextualize their search.
8: Specifically, I picture a combination of NINES and Biblissima’s resource page. If I searched for “Rossetti,” for instance, the database would return a link to every project connected to Rossetti (like Biblissima). Nestled beneath each link would be previews of particular objects in the TRC. It’s important that students are redirected to the TRC itself, however–the point is to encourage undergraduates to engage in digital scholarship.
9: It occurred to me that the Wayback Machine might provide access to old projects, so I used it to explore IVANHOE. A few pages of the defunct project were captured, but not enough to be considered useful.
10: A definition of infrastructure from Rockwell: “Anything that is needed to connect more than one person, project, or entity” (4).
11: As I began researching this topic, I became concerned that someone had beaten me to the punch—Project Bamboo. So it was with mixed feelings that I learned that Project Bamboo is now defunct. Quinn Dombrowski’s article about the project’s failure helped me clarify some of the strengths of the tool outlined above (namely, the simplicity of the concept and its relatively small scale) while alerting me to the reality that what seems simple and obvious to me may not be so to all users in all communities. I acknowledge that a TRC database may not serve academics and students as I think it will, and they may not be interested. I still want one.