Graceful Degradation: Managing Digital Projects in Times of Transition and Decline

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Bethany Nowviskie

    University of Virginia

  2. 2. Dot Porter

    Digital Humanities Observatory - Royal Irish Academy

Work text
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Past panel discussions at Digital Humanities conferences
(including one on the question of “finished”
work and another on innovative management techniques)
have offered anecdotal evidence about factors
contributing to the success of digital projects.1
journals and conference programs brim with accounts of
work in progress, generally presented at the height of its
success. The exigencies of grant funding and conference
or publication submissions tend to make the record more
sanguine about our projects than, perhaps, their full lifecycle
would merit. This poster takes a deliberative look
at that darker side of project management with which we
are all too familiar – the experience of projects that have
entered states of transition or even decline. We will open
and describe a research methodology for a broad survey
of the digital humanities community related to project
management – specifically on how we think about our
projects and behave toward them when they face times
of transition and decline, and what we see as the causes
and outcomes of those times.
Decline is an especially pressing issue for the digital
humanities because of the tendency of our projects to
be open ended. Traditional, long-term scholarly projects
(even the small subset which, like the majority of
digital projects, are collaborative in some way) are generally
projected to end with the publication of a monograph
or scholarly edition – something solid to sit on the
shelves, regardless of whether the project itself endures
past a publication point. Digital humanities projects are
more likely to have output such as databases or websites,
objects that beg a sustainability plan and require longterm
curation even if they are not continually updated.2
They are also more collaborative than most scholarly
projects and therefore more dependent on the continuing
energy and goodwill of various institutional and intellectual
partners. One could argue that digital projects are,
by nature, in a continual state of transition or decline.3
What happens with the funding runs out, and the original
project staff has moved on or been replaced? What happens when intellectual property rests with a collaborator
or an institution that does not wish to continue the work?
If projects are particularly vulnerable in transitional
phases, how can we anticipate and ameliorate the effects
of these times? Does the valuation of projects against
conventional measures of scholarly success (teaching,
research, service) or within traditional disciplinary
boundaries impact their continuity or conclusion? Is
there actually something qualitatively different about
digital projects versus “traditional” scholarly undertakings?
Are there new models for scholarly output that
match more satisfactorily to the real-world outcomes and
trajectories of digital projects? Do certain kinds of early
planning make projects more likely to weather changes?
What brands of institutional support are most helpful to
projects that are meeting their natural or unnatural ends?
Survey questions address the following issues:
• basic questions of project funding (its duration and
dependability) and the role of local, institutional
• the early definition of the project and its potential
for “mission creep;”
• the definition of short-term vs. long-term goals for
the project and to what extent the project met them;
• the relation of the project to inquiry in traditional
disciplines, to pedagogy, to published research, and
to tenure and professional advancement;
• staff retainment and continuity;
• matters of intellectual property and open source;
• the use of tools or techniques for project management;
• explicit risk management in project design and the
“sustainability” both of the product of the work and
of its production process;
• and whether the views of survey participants regarding
digital scholarship have evolved over time in
response to transitional experiences with their own
projects or to larger changes in academic culture.
The “Graceful Degradation” survey has been constructed
under advisement of experts in qualitative data analysis
at the University of Virginia. It will be conducted online
and in paper format over the course of several months
beginning in the summer of 2009. The authors of the
survey are well positioned to solicit responses from both
North American and European projects and will endeavor
to reach out more broadly – both geographically and
to communities of practice (including digital history,
computer music, and electronic publishing) that have
been somewhat underrepresented at past digital humanities
At Digital Humanities ’09 in Maryland, we will solicit
responses from conference attendees and present our
methodology in poster format. We anticipate that this
survey will help us to determine fruitful lines for future
inquiry, including projects deserving of careful case
study presentation. We hope to identify and share some
best practices in the design and management of projects
that weather transitional periods well. We would also
deem this poster presentation a success if it broke the
taboo on conversation about those digital humanities efforts
that – for reasons we will be prepared to describe
– have failed to degrade with a measure of grace.
“Innovations in Interdisciplinary Research Project
Management,” Ramsay, Digital Humanities 2008
(Oulu, Finland) and “Done: ‘Finished’ Projects in the
Digital Humanities,” Kirschenbaum, Digital Humanities
2007 (Urbana-Champaign, Illinois).
Daniel Pitti, “Designing Sustainable Projects and Publications,”
in A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed.
Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. Oxford:
Blackwell, 2004.
(accessed 13 November 2008).
Diane Zorich, “A Survey of Digital Humanities Centers
in the United States.” CLIR Reports, November 2008.
(accessed 13 November 2008).

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2009

Hosted at University of Maryland, College Park

College Park, Maryland, United States

June 20, 2009 - June 25, 2009

176 works by 303 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (4)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None