the pony in the field

A few years ago Private Eye made a quip which clearly assumed that only the well-to-do could afford to keep a horse or pony. In the following issue a correspondent took them to task for this, saying that second-hand tack and the goodwill of a local farmer with a spare corner of a field made this possible for people who would not count themselves as wealthy.

The present-day model of a digital humanities project can be a little like that: a much smaller affair put together in odd moments with additional labour from cheap sources such as graduate students and living on a corner of a server in space that can be spared (the equivalent of that pony in the field). I have remarked on this before.

It wasn’t always like this. Recently I read an old conference presentation from IASSIST, which alluded to projects I was involved with or whose content I used back in the years around the turn of the millennium. (I have fond memories of an IASSIST conference I attended in Edinburgh.) It was an era of ambitious, generously funded projects linking many institutions. I think for example of Intute’s attempt to catalogue resources in the whole range of subject disciplines.

Even before the credit crunch the tide was turning against projects on this scale. Intute was killed off because no institution was willing to take it over; perhaps it would have been better if it had remained as several separate services, some of which might at least have found homes. Rather like the robotic scanner which was too costly for any one institution to house. I recall also the insistence that another project I worked on was ‘unsustainable’ and the data would have to be ‘repurposed’ (though it seemed to be serving its intended purpose well enough).

So many potentially valuable resources lost because there was no ‘corner of a field’ to put them in and a managerialism that will not allow a small amount of time to be dedicated to maintaining them. (I’m not really thinking of Intute now, which would have increasingly suffered from incompleteness and link rot without significant effort.) My work in research data management has made me aware of the long-term value of preserving digital material, but all that is necessary for it to be lost is for it to fall into the hands of those who don’t understand that value. And like that pony, it need not be very expensive to keep.

One website I developed, Hidden Lives Revealed, happily made the transition to a new host (migrating it was simple and quick), and is running smoothly to this day because all the software I equipped it with still works. It seemed like a large site when I created it (we stored the files on a supercomputer at Manchester University) but as is the way with these things the amount of filespace it occupies would now seem insignificant. As its upkeep is funded by a charity I cannot imagine it has been expensive to maintain. It seems to be a matter of chance whether a resource survives, quietly cropping the grass, in this way.

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