Can a website achieve immortality? How can contemporary researchers ensure that archival manuscripts documenting Venetian elections find new digital audiences? The original rulers of 14th century Venice, Italy,  never foresaw that 21st-century scholars might be interested in examining their social networks and election results, but manuscripts that document hundreds of electoral contests among the wealthy noblemen of Venice comprise a critical set of research materials and have found an enduring home online.

The Rulers of Venice project, a digital scholarship project shepherded by Dr. Monique O’Connell (Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History), consists of a research dataset, website with maps and search tools, essays, and manuscript transcripts and images that enable scholars around the globe to explore electoral records from medieval Venice. As with any digital project, Rulers faces significant challenges to its long-term sustainability. In order to remain discoverable and usable, it’s necessary for the project team to develop a plan to refresh and reimagine the digital manifestations of the project. 

Supporting the long-term viability of digital scholarship projects was at the forefront of the Sustaining Digital Humanities (DH) workshop that we attended in January in Atlanta, Georgia. Sponsored by an NEH grant and hosted by faculty at the University of Pittsburgh, the Sustaining DH workshops offer attendees an opportunity to learn about the Socio-Technical Sustainability Roadmap (STSR), a process-based approach to developing documentation and preservation plans for digital humanities projects. Sustaining DH workshops, which are held in a wide range of locations in order to engage institutions from around the country, focuses on helping teams develop practical, effective sustainability “action plans” for current digital humanities projects.

We envisioned using the workshop as a space for supporting DISC’s work on the Rulers of Venice project’s sustainability plan. Sustaining DH lead instructor, Alison Langmead (Clinical Associate Professor and Director, Visual Media Workshop and Associate Professor, School of Information Sciences), has developed a thoughtful, comprehensive curriculum that guides teams through each step of the STSR. The process results in detailed documentation and a “sustainability action plan” that support digital projects’ transparency and promote their long-term viability. 

The STSR prompts teams to think about projects from a variety of facets that all contribute to long-term sustainability. The core questions digital teams are asked to address include:

  • What is the scope of the project?
  • How long do you want your project to last?
  • What are the project’s sustainability priorities?
  • What is the technological infrastructure of the project?
  • Who are the key personnel on the project?
  • How can you create a sustainability and preservation action plan?

Each component of the STSR curriculum guides teams toward a more thorough understanding of all of the factors that go into sustainability (documentation, awareness of any “red flags” that might hinder digital preservation; using feasible preservation checks to be sure we’re backing up the project and utilizing appropriate metadata, file formats, and permissions).

One of the most important takeaways from the workshop is that digital projects require a series of intentional actions and decisions in order to remain viable and accessible. Digital objects do not age gracefully when left to their own devices, and no digital project is guaranteed a long shelf life; in fact, it’s safe to assume that many digital projects will degrade relatively quickly. Rather than try to save everything they create, teams should anticipate their projects’ graceful “retirement” and make decisions mindfully. For active projects, it is critical to document their processes, technology, and decision making so that sustainability is possible. We hope to integrate components of the STSR in our project planning going forward.