In the planning phase of every digital humanities project, the individual or team has to grapple with the issue of digital sustainability and preservation. When the project is finished, who is going to maintain it? How long will it be updated? Will it be hosted by a library, university, or publisher? Will the project be hosted in perpetuity or is there a plan to transition it to a digital repository?
For one of my own projects, I recently discovered that the answers to “who is going to maintain it?” and “how long will it be updated?” are “no one” and “under four years,” respectively. Likenesses Within the Reach of All, a project I completed as part of my CLIR Postdoc at The University of Alabama, has effectively ceased to function. Users can still access the 3,356 cartes de visite that formed the basis of the site, but the database, map, and visualizations that highlighted the significant aspects of the collection have broken.
As far as I can tell, Likenesses started to break as a result of a WordPress upgrade. As a result, the banner that sat beneath the title on the homepage had moved to the bottom of the page and was stretched much too wide. More distressingly, I recently discovered that the underlying database and the embedded maps and visualizations were no longer connected. As a result, there are essays explaining nonexistent visulaizations and a map showing the spread of southern photography without points.
To say that I am disappointed with the current state of Likenesses would be an understatement. After I accepted my current position at Emory University in the spring of 2017, I suspect Likenesses fell between the cracks of two different departments. Ultimately, the project now testifies to the importance of digital sustainability. When designing a project, it’s crucial for all parties to understand when a project is “complete” and what that means in the long-term. Otherwise, your project might end up as a digital ruin.