Sustainable Design for the Digital Age

Jasmine Mulliken (right), at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute.

I spent last week at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute on the UVic campus in Victoria, British Columbia. It was one of many DHSIs that are held all over the world each summer. In addition to giving a presentation on SUP’s Archivability Guidelines, one of several guidelines we’ve created to guide our authors toward responsible and sustainable digital development, I had the opportunity to participate in one of twenty-five weeklong intensive seminars offered by some of the leading digital humanists in their fields. Since one of my roles on the Mellon project at SUP is to explore methods of archiving and preserving the born-digital content we’re publishing, I eagerly signed up for Professor Dene Grigar’s course, Documenting Born Digital Creative and Scholarly Works for Access and Preservation.

Dene has been a longtime fixture in e-literature circles, and her Pathfindersproject serves as an excellent model of the traversal method for documenting digital work that is no longer accessible without specific hardware. Building onto that model, students in her class teamed up to document their own chosen projects, which ranged from a code poem that interactively translates algebra into poetry, to an interactive essay from a larger e-lit fiction, to a music-based app, to a digital kinetic erasure poetry project.

But perhaps one of the most intensive documentations was the one my group worked on together. Over the course of two days, we put together a rich documentation of SUP’s first publication under the Mellon initiative, Enchanting the Desert.

Working under the idea that methods of preservation for ephemeral work (which many would argue any digital work is) can range from maintaining code, to migrating formats, to filming a user interacting with it, we sought to compile already existing material produced about the project like the launch presentation video, the Press’s previous blog posts, and the author’s screencasts and filmed presentations at various universities and centers. We also took screenshots and screencasts of the interface, describing for a future audience what the experience of navigating the project would have been like in its native environment. Finally, we did some sleuthing of the code powering the site’s complex console, making lists of JavaScript libraries and browser dependencies.

While we always intend to design digital work with the future in mind, adhering to current standards and recommendations, those guiding principles will change over time. And even more inevitable is the certainty of change in the hardware that renders the software we use readable. As the class read the thirty-year-old Patchwork Girl interactive e-lit work on its native bondi blue iMac G3, we were forced to face the materiality of the digital. It’s important that we capture what we can while we can and that authors and publishers commit early on in the development and publication process to documenting everything. It’s the best way to ensure that future stewards of the work will know how to update or operate it and that someone in the distant future can go back to the project and, if necessary, piece it back together.

It was an intense week at DHSI, and the experience was invaluable. The reading list for the class, which included Alan LiuNick Montfort, Christiane Paul, Abbey Smith Rumsey, Abigail de Kosnik, and many more, laid the fundamental  groundwork for a practical exercise that I will be building on and adapting for our future publications. To paraphrase Abby Smith Rumsey, more is always better when it comes to ensuring a species’ or an artwork’s longevity. More copies, more documentation, more attention to sustainable design are key in protecting not only our own work but the future of digital scholarship. I’ll be pondering the principles this documentation course explored over the coming weeks as we continue developing our own guidelines on documentation for our authors.

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