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From the Viewpoints column of the October 2003 Perspectives

New-Model Scholarship: Destined for the Dustbin of History

Abby Smith, October 2003

The Internet has transformed the way in which scholarship is produced and disseminated, most notably in the sciences. In the humanities and social sciences, digital technologies for scholarly research, analysis, communication, and teaching have been adopted more slowly, but there has been significant innovation even in these fields. Historians have begun to join the ranks of "'new-model scholars,"' those who use new information technologies to extend teaching and research beyond what is possible within the traditional bounds of paper-based publication. Like the New-Model Army of the English Civil War, designed to recruit men of ability and conviction, no matter their status in society, new-model scholarship appeals to those eager to expand the reach of their research and teaching through the democratizing medium of the World Wide Web.

Historians have long relied on libraries, archives, and historical societies to be the trusted repositories of the primary and secondary resources upon which they base their research and teaching. However, new-model scholarship by its very nature elides the traditional streams of publication that libraries eventually acquire and preserve. One of the unintended consequences of publishing to the Web is that there is no supporting infrastructure that will capture, curate, and preserve that information, no matter how valuable. Is this scholarship destined for "'the dustbin of history"'?

Libraries and special collecting institutions are concerned about how to acquire, preserve, and make accessible some of the digital content coming from historians, literary scholars, and other humanists, as well as the primary sources in digital format on which such scholarship is based. But they face many challenges in ensuring long-term access to the "'new-model scholarship"' that is born digital. This scholarship includes the variety of Web sites and other desktop digital objects created on campuses that fall somewhere short of "'published"' but are worthy of access in the future. Humanists pose a special problem for preservationists because they are adopting digital technologies to create highly complex, often idiosyncratic digital objects that are in many ways more challenging to preserve than scientific literature. New-model scholarship shares certain crucial features. It is:

  • experimental, designed to develop and model a methodology for generating recorded information about a historical event or academic discipline that might otherwise go undocumented.
  • open-ended, generating digital objects that are intended to be added to over time.
  • interactive, gathering content through dynamic interactions among the participants. The creators intend that the interactions, as well as the content, are part of what is to be preserved.
  • software-intensive, stipulating that the tools for using the data are as valuable a part of the project as is the content, and thus worthy of equal attention by preservationists.
  • multimedia, creating information in a variety of file formats and genres—texts, time lines, images, audio and video.
  • unpublished, designed to be used and disseminated through the Web, yet not destined to be published formally or necessarily submitted for peer review.

The challenges that libraries face in affording access to these works over time include determining what content has long-term value for teaching and research, defining the parameters of objects that define themselves as open-ended and changing, deciding what must be done to make a complex digital object ready to deposit into a repository, and determining how to support digital preservation over time.

Librarians, used to thinking of selection and preservation of content, will now have to work closely with scholar/creators to determine core attributes of the resource that warrant preserving. This often means preserving software as well as content. Many of the new resources are designed explicitly as experiments, and the creators neither expect nor desire these resources to be retained permanently. But it is important that scholars work with librarians and archivists early enough in the creation of such resources that longevity can be considered, even if it is eventually rejected. We are, after all, in the era of "'digital incunables,"' and it is difficult to prejudge what will be of significance to those who follow.

It is ironic that contemporary historians often view preservation and stewardship of historical resources as someone else's business—usually that of librarians and archivists. Historians have until recently typically been the prime movers behind the gathering and ordering of historical resources in the service of scholarship, and the great research libraries of the United States were usually led by eminent historians. As Roy Rosenzweig recently noted in the American Historical Review ("'Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,"' June 2003), it is imperative that historians once again become actively engaged in the stewardship of historical resources. They must help to ensure that today's ephemeral digital records are preserved as evidence for tomorrow's generation of scholars and students.

For those historical resources that are worth preserving, several models of stewardship are emerging; they can be roughly divided into two organizational types.

Enterprise-based models are those that take some level of responsibility for stewardship of information resources created by an institution or discipline and used primarily by that community. An array of so-called institutional repositories are being developed at universities (for example, at the University of California, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford). Other enterprise-based models are seen in certain academic disciplines (such as astrophysics, social sciences, and genetics) and among both for-profit and non-profit publishers. Few of these digital archives are intended for long-term preservation as understood by librarians and archivists. Most of the emerging models that focus on electronic publications, for example, are themselves explicitly serving needs other than preservation (such as lower-cost distribution of and access to scholarly journals). Government-sponsored preservation activities at the National Archives and the national libraries do intend long-term preservation, but they will not collect new-model scholarly resources. While some scientific learned societies collect and preserve their own digital literature, the historical and literary societies do not, even the largest such as the AHA and the Modern Language Association.

Community-based models are those that offer third-party preservation services to digital creators. None have developed so far to meet the needs of born-digital scholarship, but both JSTOR and the Internet Archive offer interesting models for future development.

Funders who are active in support of building digital resources, including major federal funding agencies (National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, Institute for Museum and Library Services) have no requirements for deposit of data into trustworthy digital archives, a serious oversight that must soon be addressed. Just as serious is the lack of planning and action by the universities and other research institutions that also support the creation of digital scholarship and are its primary consumers. Librarians, archivists, and digital scholars are ideally positioned to raise awareness of this impending crisis of information loss and to articulate the new roles and responsibilities to be assumed by each member of the research community who has an interest in the future of scholarship.

—Abby Smith is director of programs at the Council on Library and Information Resources. Issues pertaining to the long-term access to digital scholarship are addressed in greater detail in a recent report from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), entitled New Model Scholarship: How Will it Survive? The report is available at http://www.cllir.org/pubs/abstract/pub114abst.html. Print copies can be ordered through CLIR's web site.