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Born digital, projects need attention to survive

Publish a scholarly book and, absent a flood or other disaster, chances are it will last as long as a library has space for it—long enough to become part of the conversation in its field if it's notable enough. But create a pioneering work of digital scholarship, and how to preserve it becomes more of a challenge—in fact, one of several. While online scholarship often has dazzle­—dynamic maps, data visualizations, or other features that invite interaction and exploration—it can have a harder time catching the eye of scholars who are used to arguments packaged in articles and monographs. Build it, and the experts won't necessarily come—at least not yet in great numbers

Bradley Daigle, a digital curator at the University of Virginia, and his colleagues Matthew Stephens and Lorrie Chisholm were in charge of preserving an early digital archive on the Civil War. Photo by Andrew Shurtleff for The Chronicle
The first challenge is making sure people can get to the work when they do want to come. Analog or digital, no work will have much influence if it doesn't stick around to be cited or argued with. The technological advances that make digital-humanities work possible also put it at risk of obsolescence, as software and hardware decay or become outmoded. Somebody—or a team of somebodies, often based in academic libraries or digital-scholarship centers—has to conduct regular inspections and make sure that today's digital scholarship doesn't become tomorrow's digital junk.

Bradley J. Daigle, director of digital curation services at the University of Virginia Library, calls this "digital stewardship." It's an essential but easily overlooked element in any digital-humanities project. Born-digital work can die. Digital stewardship "involves care and feeding" to make sure that doesn't happen, he says. "My unit essentially pays attention to the life cycle of the digital object."

"Most people conceive of preservation as backups," Mr. Daigle says. But tending a piece of digital scholarship involves much more than just dumping a copy in an archive.