By Dr Anna-Maria Sichani
Let’s admit it: what is common in every single digital scholarly output and in every single digital project is the agony around their sustainability. A concept so close yet so far is my contribution to the newly published The Bloomsbury Handbook to the Digital Humanities, (edited by James O’Sullivan, Bloomsbury, 2023), trying somehow to cast out or to better understand one of my worst fears in my digital scholarly practice.
When we talk about sustainability for our digital scholarly work, we are mainly referring to a dynamic network of technologies, infrastructures, people, financial and managerial decisions that perform a constant tug‐of‐war whilst battling about the longevity of digital outputs. From technical standards and open technologies, data and risk-management plans, institutional repositories, digital preservation and archiving, to concerns towards the environmental impact, best practices, dos and don’ts; and from skills development, capacity-building and inclusivity, as well as continuous user/community engagement to aspects of legacy management, we are all ‘fighting the good fight’ trying to prolong the life of our digital outputs. In the end, sustainability in digital scholarship and Digital Humanities discourse and practice lies somewhere between reality checks, risk-assessment and forward thinking.
But while we are constantly trying to balance the need for innovation against the need for longevity and memory, the mandate towards flexibility, dynamic and open-ended aspect of digital scholarly work and experimentation in our everyday digital scholarly practice, I think we need to courageously embrace the very idea of change, fail and loss in the digital world, be it infrastructure failure, technical obsolescence, staff overturn or the lack of funding – or all of these things. This is and will be our brand-new data- and systems-saturated scholarly world; things will eventually break. Or, using Jeff Rothenberg’s famous words, “digital information lasts forever or five years, whichever comes first” (Rothenberg 1995).
By embracing and celebrating a digital scholarly practice between maintenance and breaking, this year’s Digital Humanities Research Hub’s seminar series theme Reframing Failure presents an opportunity to reflect on practice, and to critically examine our understanding of failure within the digital humanities: the ways we can learn from it, talk about it, and hopefully reconsider our collective relationship to it. Conceived as a series of conversations, Reframing Failure welcomes those from within and outside the digital humanities and takes an international and interdisciplinary approach to failure. Keep an eye on the Digital Humanities Research Hub’s space for the full schedule of the seminar series and join us!
Jeff Rothenberg (1995), “Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Documents”, Scientific American (Vol. 272, Number 1, pp. 42-7)
Dr Anna-Maria Sichani is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in Digital Humanities working on the Congruence Engine project and based at the Digital Humanities Research Hub (School of Advanced Study, University of London). Her research focuses on computational archival science, media and cultural history, and research infrastructure, and her chapter ‘Embracing Decline in Digital Scholarship beyond Sustainability’ is published in The Bloomsbury Handbook to the Digital Humanities.