Legacies and Sources

There have been some interesting discussions in the last week or so re: maintaining legacy sites and making sure 404 errors aren’t the most common decoration on your site about the history of cats during the French Revolution. The thing is, this problem has been around since…well, since Oregon Trail was the most well-known form of digital history scholarship, and there really isn’t a solution.

I put together a project (my first in a DH class) using a series of links to classical texts and art hosted by a (unnamed to protect the aggravating) very large university that I assumed wouldn’t randomly change all of their URLs and kill all of my links. The information is still there, but when I went back to fix my links, I chose a different repository (we’ll see how well that goes. If links can’t be trusted to last more than a few months, is it even possible to maintain the links on a site that’s 10 years old? Maybe. If you’ve got the funding or a lot of determination. I tend to fall into the ‘when it’s dead it’s dead’ camp on the question of maintaining old sites, but definitely agree that some sites are worth updating – or completely re-doing – because they offer unique information or a unique experience. There is, however, a point where a site owner/maintainer has to take an honest look at their project and ask ‘Is it worth it?’

Onto a less depressing but potentially more challenging subject: maintaining a working knowledge of the DH field. A few years ago, this wasn’t much of a challenge. Keep up with a journal or two, maybe the personal blog of a favorite DH personality, and pay attention to upcoming booklists, and you were probably okay. Now? It’s essentially impossible for any one person to read every blog post/publication in the Digital Humanities without giving up eating, sleeping, and any form of gainful employment. And while graduate students may have a lot of experience with not sleeping, we’re unlikely to give up eating or working toward that dissertation/eventual actual paying job.

So what are our options? We can’t just bury our heads in the sand and assume we’ll catch anything really important on our twitter feeds or through our departmental mailing list. I try to keep up as well as I can through RSS feeds or collated twitter feeds, but I freely admit that I don’t catch everything – or even most of the things that would potentially interest me. I’ve also somewhat randomly skimmed through the DHNow twitter feed and pulled out links that looked interesting, but I had never really applied my own difficulty keeping up with new posts/innovations/problems in DH to the question of how the creation of a collating and publishing machine like DHNow would work.

Today, however, we had the opportunity to meet with the Editors (in-Chief) and got a look at what goes on behind the scenes of the site. Mostly I just want to play with their feeds – I get easily distracted by interesting titles and tend to fall into a black hole of interconnected blogs and somehow end up reading about migrating flocks of koalas in the Alps. (The same thing tends to happen on cracked.com and tvtropes, to be honest. And Wikipedia is just dangerous.)

This is getting long, so I’ll focus on a few things that caught my attention, and some very important concerns that were raised during the conversation. The look we got at the (current) Google reader-based collation highlighted how difficult it is to effectively filter RSS feeds using the kinds of tools that are freely available (at the moment), forcing editors to sort through posts on football, swans, and potentially migrating koalas, in order to get to the point where they can evaluate those posts with actual DH content. On a related note, during the conversation, the editors addressed the danger of essentially putting all of your RSS eggs in a single toolbox. Google and Yahoo! tools are useful in the short term, but like my favorite university site of dead links, these tools can change format or stop supporting their tools at any time (and with little or no warning). The editors are working on incorporating the tools they need into WordPress, which should take some of the danger out of the process.

DHNow is a fascinating project, and one that could change the way at least some academics look at publishing, but it is still subject to the bigger problem of web permanence. Once the funding for PressForward ends, the framework – and the networks – designed by the editors should survive, and hopefully will continue to collate at least some parts of the massive information dump that is DH scholarship on the web. I think it’s worth it.

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