The Future of the Digital Humanities Archive/Centre

This is a republishing of an article I wrote for the Strange Bedfellows project.  The original url is here.

I have been working with Professor William Bowen on an initiative to create a Digital Humanities Research Centre on the University of Toronto Scarborough‘s (UTSC) campus, much like the HRC on the University of York’s campus.  While the concept of such a centre is very nascent at UTSC, many of the faculty and staff I have talked to seem to share an idea of this centre ultimately being a repository for all of the digital work going on at UTSC whether that means a collection of data points or contacts for various digital tasks.  Due to this, I have been researching a lot about digital humanities centres, including their various functions, ideologies, and output, and I have found that a lot of scholarly writings directly address this idea of a Humanities Research Centre as a digital archive.

The idea of an DHRC and its role as a central archive is complicated, in part because its nature as a digital archive.  Bill Bowen was recently at a conference in Cuba that examined the nature of digital artifacts and their place in digital records/cyberinfrastructure.  When Bill came back, he mentioned that it was very interesting to be at a conference talking about digital technologies when he could use so few of them there.  This got me thinking about digital technology and its innate intangibility.  For instance, what does the complicated structure and high level of organization of a digital database matter if you cannot even access a computer?

After I came home for the holidays, a recent snow storm deposited nearly 20 inches of snow in one day and was coupled with 50 mph winds.  Needless to say, my entire family was stuck  at home and no one in the area went very far that day.  In past years such storms would frequently knock out the Internet service or even the power (thankfully that did not happen this time) but it was interesting to consider just how much I relied on the Internet, especially that day, in my life.  I was able to access files that I was working on with other people, check my email, and do research in multiple digital databases.  If I would not have been able to use the Internet, I would have lost most of a day of work time.

To this end, I have always wondered “what happens when the Internet ceases to be?”, whether its end is due to new technology or a lack of electricity.  A lot of effort goes into digital scholarship, particularly in markup and making “data-rich” texts.(Fitzpatrick)[1]  Similarly, official recommendations for DHRCs encourage centres “to require from applicants a plan for sharing and preserving data generated” (commonwealth 31)[2] and to implement a “LOCKSS (‘Lots of copies keep stuff safe’) approach of distributing static copies of digital resources as widely as possible” (Zorich 26-27).[3] The Internet offers great advantages to the physicality of things: materials, places, people.  I was able to work with materials from the UK, be in the USA, and communicate with people in Canada, mostly thanks to the fact that the information I needed was stored as electrical signals on a hard drive.  However that aspect of the DH, which requires constant electrical input in order to be used, also makes it very unstable compared to a tangible object.

Since I just did my dissertation on the instability of Shakespearean texts, I should note that all stability is relative.  However, my point is that, in theory, a book could be left alone on a shelf for hundreds of years and still be a book at the end of that time.  Conversely, a digital archive needs power in order to be useful after the same amount of time.  DH is gaining a greater and greater presence on university campuses and arguably is “shaping the course of undergraduate degrees”.[4]  But given the dependent nature of DH, whether it is on power or a specific version of software (which is often incompatible with older formats, etc.) is it wise to devote the time and resources currently being used for things like intricate text markup, massive digitalization (like Google Books), and creating Digital Humanities Research Centres which ultimately function as digital archives?  Will the digital ultimately ever replace the material or will the nature of digital archives always be temporal?

Happy Holidays Everyone!

[1] Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. New York: New York University, 2009. <;

[2] Welshons, Marlo (ed). Our Cultural Commonwealth: The Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences. American Council of Learned Societies, 2006.

[3] Zorich, Diane M. A Survey of Digital Humanities Centers in the United States. Washington D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources, 2008.

[4] Digital Humanities and the Undergraduate. April 2011. <;


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