Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sheila Cavanagh: “Digital Archive Economics”

Sheila T. Cavanagh

How Does Your Archive Grow?:
Academic Politics & Economics in the Digital Age

1> “Access” is a familiar word in the electronic age.  As blogs, YouTube, and other self-publishing venues proliferate, the supposed democracy of the digital era becomes more entrenched in popular imagination.  While the ranks of the electronically published grow daily, common perceptions about this trend do not accurately reflect important constraints upon the creation and maintenance of digital scholarly archives. Even though digital humanities is becoming more accepted as a field and is gaining exposure in the academic press, the economic and political obstacles facing this realm have not been addressed sufficiently. Those directly involved with digital archives contend with numerous issues that the general academic community often fails to understand or address, even though they bear significant implications for the future of scholarship.  While discussions on relevant topics occur at germane conferences, such as the annual Digital Humanities conference (at Stanford in 2011; in London during 2010; http://dh2010.cch.kcl.ac.uk/home.html), are beginning to be aired more frequently in venues such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education, and are being tackled by the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTC), the digital world is evolving far more rapidly than most academic communities can adapt.  As the 2010 Berkeley study on “Assessing the Future Landscape of Scholarly Communication” indicates, “Experiments in new genres of scholarship and dissemination are occurring in every field, but they are taking place within the context of relatively conservative value and reward systems” (Executive Summary, v).  As a partial consequence, while “access” may be a popular buzzword in the early twenty-first century, electronic scholarship is often far less “open” than many of us would wish.

2> In this essay, I will discuss some of these vexing concerns from my perspective as Director of the Emory Women Writers Resource Project (EWWRP) since 1995. A digital collection of over three-hundred female-authored and female-centered texts, the EWWRP includes genres such as travelogues, novels, romances, broadsides, plays, and pamphlets, extending from the 16th to the early 20th centuries, and ranging in subject matter from Native American Writers, to World War I poets, to Suffragists, Abolitionists, and to Early Modern Women Writers. This evolving archive is available without charge at
http://womenwriters.library.emory.edu/. The EWWRP began as a solo project fairly early in the era of electronic archive formation and it has encountered many of the challenges, as well as some of the successes, that shape such ventures. For example, the EWWRP became a collaborative effort almost immediately, due to limitations of funding and technical expertise. While collaborative undertakings still face opposition in the humanities during promotion and tenure decisions, they are essential in most digital endeavors.  As the Berkeley report indicates, “Balancing the institutional need to evaluate an individual’s body of scholarship with the collaborative demands of grand challenge questions will only increase” (17).  Particularly in the humanities, where collaborative scholarly endeavors tend to be viewed with suspicion, innovative scholarship is being hampered by evaluative mechanisms that have not kept pace with nontraditional models.  This mistrust is unfortunate.  As Christine L. Borgman notes, it is often true that “Collaborative projects attract more resources and more attention.  If properly designed, they may also be more sustainable, creating platforms on which new projects can be constructed” (48).

3> Recognizing the institutional roadblocks that can thwart such endeavors, the 2006 MLA task force report on promotion and tenure suggests that “Departments and institutions should recognize the legitimacy of scholarship produced in new media, whether by individuals or in collaboration, and create procedures for evaluating these forms of scholarship” (11).  The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and NINES (Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century Electronic Scholarship) also acknowledge these issues.  Accordingly, they are co-sponsoring an institute designed to produce “collaborative working papers that might influence the larger cultures of peer-review and promotion/tenure”
(http://www.nines.org/). There is little indication, however, that typical departments and institutions of higher learning are responding adequately to this charge, despite the widespread recognition that traditional publishing venues can no longer support the ongoing needs of many scholarly communities.  In my case, I never intended for the EWWRP to replace the second monograph commonly needed for promotion to full professor.  This is fortunate, since I have never received any indication that this database or its large NEH grant played any role in the decision-making process when I was promoted.  Many reports on current faculty assessment practices suggest that this response to digital scholarship is common and that scholars seeking tenure and/or promotion generally avoid such risky projects.  For example, although the Berkeley study indicates that some (unnamed) humanities programs are beginning to welcome nontraditional scholarship, it also emphasizes the professional dangers still associated with such work:

We found no evidence to suggest that “tech-savvy” young graduate students, post-doctoral scholars, or assistant professors are bypassing traditional publishing practices.  In fact, as arguably the most vulnerable populations in the scholarly community, one would expect them to hew to the norms of their chosen discipline, and they do.  Established scholars seem to exercise significantly more freedom in the choice of publication outlet than their untenured colleagues. (1)

4> Despite the academy’s constant appetite for new ideas and approaches, this report indicates insufficient recognition of the need for new paradigms to be accommodated more expeditiously in promotion and tenure procedures, if modern scholarship is going to take advantage of twenty-first century possibilities.  MLA and HASTAC are producing guides to the evaluation of digital scholarship (“Tenure in a Digital Era” 1), but few colleges and universities have existing models for them to draw from. While such endeavors are gaining institutional support, the information presented at the 2008 and 2009 MLA convention workshops on evaluating digital scholarship (the first such “official” MLA gatherings) suggests that efforts to formulate appropriate evaluative criteria for these projects have not progressed substantially. In addition, as Rosemary Feal, Executive Director of the MLA, indicates, current tenure guidelines fail to acknowledge that digital work can simultaneously fit into teaching and research categories.  Furthermore, many institutions count all digital scholarship as service, “a solution seen as unsatisfactory because many of these project (sic) are in fact focused on scholarship and teaching, and because service typically doesn’t count for much in tenure reviews” (“Tenure” 2).

5> Luckily for my project, when I started the EWWRP, I had just achieved tenure and was largely undistracted by future evaluative considerations.  In addition, Emory’s Woodruff Library had recently received foundation support in order to establish the Lewis H. Beck Center for Electronic Collections and Services; without the Beck Center, it is unlikely that the EWWRP would have survived or flourished.  In the early days of the collaboration, Beck Center Director Chuck Spornick and I gradually built the EWWRP with the financial backing of a couple of internal grants, which we used to hire graduate and undergraduate student assistants.  The Beck grant provided hardware, so the EWWRP was predominantly in need of intellectual and physical labor.  Dr. Spornick and I had relatively free rein to work as we saw fit. Since part of the Beck Center’s charge was to cooperate with faculty on such projects, establishing and maintaining the partnership was fairly straightforward.  Applying for our successful NEH grant, which allowed us to add over two hundred texts to the site, was more complicated and demanded significant institutional support, but we didn’t need anyone’s approval to start the search for external financing.  We discovered a relevant funding opportunity and pursued it. The application process itself was arduous, but Vice Provost Dr. Joan Gotwals, then Director of the Library, supported our endeavor at every step.

6> Now, however, grant applications do not coalesce with such relative ease.  Before we can start any fundraising venture, Emory’s library and university development offices must agree that our project and its needs rank with sufficient prominence on various institutional priority lists.  Other divisions of the library or university may also be eyeing grants from the NEH, the Mellon Foundation, the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), or other potential funding agencies, and there are now institutional review boards that need to grant approval before an application can be undertaken.  In any given year, it is by no means guaranteed that innovations we envision for our database of early women writers will coincide with institutional desires.  Similarly, funding entities change their granting criteria regularly.  Digitizing, for instance, is now far less a priority than institutional collaborations, technological trendsetting, or developing innovative support for scholarship; such changes to funding criteria are continual. A further complication arises, as Matthew G. Kirschenbaum observes, because “we now have the great benefit of digital start-up grants, but not dedicated awards for finishing or closing projects” (3).  Most individual faculty members are hard-pressed, moreover, to keep abreast of relevant funding opportunities and obstacles germane to both internal and external financial sources. Furthermore, as Julia Flanders, a pioneer in digital humanities, notes, those who do both electronic and textual scholarship continue to confound current categories of academic work:

In this context, my own detour from graduate study into the academic workplace has raised a number of pressing questions about the nature of academic work, and specifically about the distinction between the more "applied" or "low" forms of academic activity (textual editing, running journals, compiling reference works, organizing conferences, directing research centers, serving on committees, and the like) to the more "pure" or "high" forms involving textual interpretation and the writing of books.  Even the institutional location of the job I have held—within the division of the university responsible for technology support—is significant here, making my hybrid role as a researcher and an administrator/consultant all the more anomalous to both my scholarly and my technical colleagues.  The fact that in any given week I might design a database, write an academic article on textual editing or on text markup, write a grant proposal, fill out payroll forms, or serve on an MLA committee, suggests a chaotic professional space and identity in which some essential boundaries have eroded.
7> Flanders interrupted her traditional graduate career in the English Department at Brown in order to work with the Brown Women Writers (BWW) database, then wrote her dissertation on related issues.  Currently, such hybrid positions as she describes are appearing in some conventional departments, but the job descriptions of most faculty members do not yet accommodate the possibility of electronic scholarship, including archive building.

8> While Emory Library has created a number of relevant positions with titles such as “digital strategist,” and some international electronic archives, such as the path-breaking BWW, boast full-time academic and digital staff, the processes by which an individual professor can establish and maintain a digital project remain relatively undefined at Emory and elsewhere.  Since the EWWRP was created before the current economic downturn, it has been the grateful recipient of several internal awards, including funding for a series of graduate fellows who served as project managers. Many of these talented students have parlayed this experience into dissertation chapters, publications, and subsequent employment opportunities. My former graduate student, Dr. Erika Farr, for instance, has been featured in the New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Guardian for her cutting-edge work with Salman Rushdie’s digital archive.  Director of born-digital initiatives at Emory’s Woodruff Library, Dr. Farr notes, “those computers [in the Rushdie archive] coming through the doors of Woodruff Library have redirected my career. This is not a one-off. This is a transformative change” (Loftus, 3).  Dr. Farr’s lengthy experience with the EWWRP helped prepare her for the work she now undertakes to great acclaim.  It remains unclear, however, how long this legacy of training new graduate students through the EWWRP can continue in our constricted financial climate.  The prospects for new projects are even less certain, as universities seek to reduce expenditures.  While interest in digital undertakings is growing, financial resources are diminishing, at least for the immediate future.

9> At the same time, since digital work still prompts evaluative hesitation, other kinds of professional support can also not be taken for granted.  Consequently, the production of digital archives remain challenging undertakings for junior faculty and may also be foolhardy choices for more senior academics. Successful archives need to keep adapting to what is considered germane and important to a wide array of institutional interests, many of which bear no relationship to the organizing principle of the archive or to the scholarly interests of involved faculty members. Nevertheless, most archives are neither formed nor expanded as self-published projects. As the Berkeley report indicates, for instance, “The preservation and storage of a researcher’s own data are thorny issues. . . Scholars are tremendously dependent on third parties, such as curators, librarians, publishers, and even political authorities (in the case of archeology) for the conservation of primary materials” (18).  As this observation suggests, “access” to texts, funds, and other modes of support remains daunting. Projects like the EWWRP, therefore, can only grow if those involved stay alert to innumerable technical and institutional issues. Women writers, like other archival voices, need advocates with a wider set of skills and knowledge than traditional subject expertise in order to establish and maintain broad access and sustainability.

10> Another kind of digital archive developed at Emory concurrently with the EWWRP, through a process that illustrates some of the challenges facing digital scholars who pursue other routes toward building archives.  Harry Rusche has been teaching at Emory since 1962, so he no longer faces tenure or promotion concerns.  About a decade ago, he established the Shakespeare in the World archives at Emory, which are openly accessible at http://shakespeare.emory.edu/. At that time, he was able to enlist staff from the library to help design his website.  If he were initiating the project today, he would be less likely to find such assistance, because there are more scholars seeking to take advantage of electronic resources and more official barriers impeding informal arrangements between faculty and staff.  Apart from this initial computer assistance, Rusche has built his archive largely independently of institutional support.  Today, the Shakespeare and the Players section of the site contains approximately nine hundred images and about eight hundred pages of accompanying text.  The Shakespeare in the World site is billed as remaining continually “in progress,” since it is not an endeavor that can ever be deemed “complete.”  As Kirschenbaum and the other authors of a 2009 cluster of articles in Digital Humanities Quarterly suggest, however, the contradictions inherent in declaring a digital project either “done” or “in progress” can create significant problems in current institutional structures. This indeterminacy works for Rusche only because he does not face internal pressures to proceed at any artificially-induced pace or to “finish” his digital collection.  At the same time, he does not receive university financial support, outside of his salary and the standard computer equipment all faculty receive; neither has he sought external funding.  The archive, which includes original postcards depicting historic Shakespearean actors, has grown through his private acquisition of materials and diligent commitment of time.

11> His project, which consistently receives substantial internet traffic and scholarly accolades, suggests that some archives can be built with modest institutional financial support; it also demonstrates one way that digital innovation can be influenced-- positively or otherwise-- by individual career needs.  If the state of technology had enabled Rusche to begin such a digital resource as a younger scholar, he would have risked tenure by devoting his time and expertise here rather than to traditional publishing. Even by the time he came up for full professor, there were few early modern scholars working on digital projects who could be asked to evaluate his electronic archives.  As mentioned, groups such as the MLA have only recently begun to discuss the evolving role of digital scholarship in conventional promotion and tenure models and few universities have established criteria for evaluating such projects (http://www.mla.org/guidelines_evaluation_digital).  The Berkeley findings suggest that it would still be unwise for a junior scholar to devote significant time to the creation of digital archives.  Accordingly, the fact that both Rusche and I had tenure before we embarked on our individual digital adventures over a decade ago made this work possible. In her Presidential letter 2010 MLA President, Sidonie Smith, acknowledges that “Doctoral students in the modern languages will increasingly cre­ate and use digital archives and invent multimodal forms of scholarly presentation and communication in the next decade (2).” She further predicts,  “Future faculty members in the modern languages and literatures will re­quire flexible and improvisational habits and collaborative skills to bring their scholarship to fruition” (2).  While Smith’s statements seem irrefutable, the academy has a long way to go before it adequately addresses the implications of such scholarly changes.  Degree programs and promotion and tenure guidelines need to make far more rapid advances in adjusting to the electronic age than the typical glacial pace of academic reform generally accommodates.

12> Although some of us who are developing digital archives can ignore the substantial challenges of conforming to doctoral and promotion requirements, the timing of Rusche’s project signals other important concerns about this field that have barely begun to be widely addressed.  Having taught at Emory for forty-nine years, Rusche is unlikely to remain on the faculty indefinitely. Along with other first-wave digital innovators, he will undoubtedly move on to other interests in the foreseeable future.  Those who build archives are neither immortal nor static.  Some retire, lose interest, change institutions, or otherwise become unable or unwilling to continue their digital scholarship.  In a conversation last year, Dr. Naomi Nelson, then Acting Director of Emory’s Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Library (MARBL), noted that such individual professional realities are beginning to prompt discussion at Emory and she used Rusche’s site as an apt local example, since it is one whose value is widely acknowledged.  Although institutions have long histories of dealing with ageing print scholarship, digital work raises a host of new questions.  How, for example, can sites be preserved and/or disseminated when the original creator(s) exit the scene for whatever reason?  Who decides which faculty projects should be absorbed into other institutional units? When and how should this happen?  Who “owns” the content of such sites? How can the expanding range of technological, intellectual property, and other relevant issues be adjudicated? What happens to faculty projects not deemed “worthy” of retention? Since faculty members who build archives in isolation typically choose their own software and procedures, how complex will ongoing preservation and dissemination become?  Whose financial and intellectual responsibilities come into play?  Emory, like most institutions, faces these and other unpredictable and vexing questions regarding the long-term prospects of digital projects. The EWWRP is fortunate that the current director of the Beck Center (Dr. Alice Hickcox) and her predecessor  (Dr. Chuck Spornick) have been involved in its development since its inception.  Such participatory stability cannot be assumed, however, so the vagaries of institutional memory and commitment also come into play as long-term projects are managed.  As Smith remarks, “Experimenting with new media stimulates new habits of mind and enhanced cultures of collegiality” (2).  Currently, at least in the humanities, such models of collegiality and collaboration, as well as the assessment of projects involving these new media venues, remain largely unexplored in traditional frameworks for awarding merit. The issues raised by Smith and others, therefore, need urgent consideration, given the unstoppable rate of electronic innovation and the already harsh environment facing graduate students and junior faculty.

13> At the moment, a number of Emory librarians, faculty members, and others share interests and responsibilities in the digital domain; this year, the Digital Scholarly Commons (DiSC) and the graduate Digital Certificate Program are being launched, thereby ensuring continued institutional attention to related issues.  These initiatives, currently distinct from each other, are designed to carry Emory forward into the next phase of digital development.  DiSC, to be housed in the Woodruff Library under the direction of Dr. Miriam Posner and Dr Stewart Varner, will coordinate and support faculty engagement with digital projects.  Its specific charge has not yet been made public, but it has been developed in response to the long-term desire of faculty members and librarians to have a central resource for information and assistance in digital projects--such as archive-building--that demand expertise in germane technological, copyright, and ownership issues, as well as providing leadership through the inevitable, unpredictable developments in this field.  The Digital Certificate Program, on the other hand, co-directed by Dr. Spornick and Dr. Allen Tullos, editor of the digital journal Southern Spaces, will offer Emory graduate students the opportunity to earn certification in digital scholarship and media through the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts.  The certificate will require a series of relevant courses, as well as an internship with an appropriate electronic Emory venture.  Comparable to Emory graduate certificates in Women’s Studies and Psychoanalytic Studies, the new credential will prepare students to teach and do research in these areas.  While archive building is only one facet of current and forthcoming digital scholarship, one can assume that at least some of the students who graduate with this expertise will participate in future archival projects.  Moreover, we can hope that the introduction of official certification within a long-standing division of a prominent research university will help further the progress and acceptance of digital scholarship in our evolving academic world.

14> While the concept of “open access” will probably remain fairly restricted for the near future in academic domains, professional acceptance and recognition for such work seems more imminent.  Economic pressures appear likely to force universities to treat digital scholarship as legitimate successors to traditional scholarly production. As this essay suggests, however, professors, librarians, and other members of the academic community have considerable work to do before digital work, including the creation of archives, reaches professional equilibrium.  Although I remain sadly skeptical that “open access” in the academic world will ever resemble the “open access” found in the electronic domain more broadly, I believe that the power and longevity of this digital age is irrefutable and that domestic and international universities can no longer postpone more adequate recognition of the ways that the internet is altering our scholarly world.


Borgman, Christine L. “The Digital Future is Now: A Call to Action for the Humanities.” Digital Humanities Quarterly, Volume 3.4: Fall 2009. Web.

Center for Studies in Higher Education: University of California, Berkeley. Final Report: Assessing the Future Landscape of Scholarly Communication: An Exploration of Faculty Values and Needs in Seven Disciplines. Diane Harley, Ph.D., Senior Researcher and Principal Investigator; Sophia Krzys Acord, Ph.D.; Sarah Earl-Novell, Ph.D.; Shannon Lawrence, M.A.; C. Judson King, Professor, Provost Emeritus, and Principal Investigator. CSHE 1.10 (January 2010). Web.

Cohen, Patricia. “Fending Off Digital Decay, Bit by Bit.”  New York Times, March 26, 2010.

Emory Women Writers Project. Sheila T. Cavanagh,
Flanders, Julia.  Digital Humanities and the Politics of Scholarly Work2005.
Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. “Done:  Finishing Projects in the Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities Quarterly. Volume 3.2: Spring 2009. Web.

Loftus, Mary J.  “The Author’s Desktop.” Emory MagazineWinter 2010. 

Madrigal, Alexis. “The Best Parts of Rushdie’s ‘Papers’ are His Old Computers.”
http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2001/01/the-best-parts-or-rushdies-papers-are-his-old-computers/69211/. Web.
Modern Language Association. Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Promotion and Tenure. December 2006. 

Naughton, John.  “If You Have Lofty Ambitions for Your Legacy, Head For the Attic,” The Observer, 9 January, 2011.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/jan/09/digital-archiving-cloud-computing-salman-rushdie. Web.

NEH/NINES call for applications. Summer Institute: Evaluating Digital Scholarship.
Nelson, Dr. Naomi. Private Conversation. February 12, 2010.

Shakespeare Illustrated.  Harry Rusche, Director. 

Smith, Sidonie. “Beyond the Dissertation Monograph.” 2-3. Modern Language Association Newsletter. Spring 2010. http://www.mla.org/nl_archive Web.
“Tenure in a Digital Age.” Inside Higher Ed. Web.

Sheila T. Cavanagh is Professor of English and 2010-2011 Emory College Distinguished Teaching Scholar at Emory University.  Author of print books on Edmund Spenser and Lady Mary Wroth, she is Director of the web-based Emory Women Writers Resource Project and Editor of the digital journal, The Spenser Review.
Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern
Literature & Culture,
ISSN: 1946-1992,
Volume Four (2011): Texts & Contexts

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