Engaged Users and Reliable Backers – the Sine Qua Non of Sustainable Digital Collections

by Matthew Amyx

According to the Association of Research Libraries, sustainable digital exhibits or archives must consistently engage an enthusiastic user base and attract reliable donors. (ITHAKA S+R: Searching for Sustainability, November 2013, 16) Both cultural and academic institutions must address these challenges. (20) A multiplicity of financial supports also strengthens a digital archive, assuring that one source drying up will not threaten the viability of the project. (23) To facilitate considering how some of these principles play out, I look at Lincoln/Net, a product of Northern Illinois University’s Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project. Lincoln/Net contains over 7000 primary documents, bu its truly unique (at launch) function is the multiplicity of music and video media also on the website. While Lincoln’s own writings formed the heart of the collection when VandeCreek joined the project in 1998, it has since broadened its scope to use primary sources related to Lincoln to educate visitors on the historical context the Great Emancipator lived in. (For more information, see the 2015 Digital Humanities Quarterly article on the site.)

Attracting Users

In order to justify a project’s long term existence (and the funding demands that go along with it), one must be able to demonstrate an engaged and at least somewhat reliable user base. Lincoln/Net has achieved this on a few levels. First, the website contains an impressive array of primary documents and a functional search engine that attracts both academic researchers and lay history buffs. There would have been plenty such traffic alone due to the popular topic of Lincoln, but the inclusion of “peripheral” documents dealing with – among other things – the Blackhawk War, abolition, and women’s suffrage, selected and tagged based on relevancy to Lincoln, increases the site’s draw for researchers. The site also offers resources for schools, with a teacher’s section offering detailed lesson plans and discussion questions. However, there are no curated digital exhibits or suggested paths. (According to his DHQ article, VandeCreed was going for a Carl Becker-style “Everyman His Own Historian” feel that allowed visitors to blaze their own path through the site.) While I appreciate an “0ff-rails” option, I wonder if including an “on-rails” exhibit, especially one supported with music and video clips (interviews with scholars) from their collection could have offered school teachers a shared experience they could assign to their students. Doing so could open up more funding lines with instruction-based institutions. As the ARL report found, “The best online “versions” of the physical collections do not just translate them to the web; they transform and enhance them, making them potentially even more useful than their physical counterparts.” (29)

Attracting Funding

The site appears to be doing well with funding, however. A look at their About page reveals financial support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the McCormick Foundation, and several others. The project is strengthened by so many lines of support. I also know (from personal grant-research experience) that these sources (especially IMLS) require fairly detailed grant proposals, meaning that the ALHDP must have excellent sustainability plans. Part of those may be the institutional support they enjoy; they are supported by the University of Chicago, Chicago Historical Society, Newberry Library, Illinois State Library, Northern Illinois University, and several other state and local organizations. These connections assure that Lincoln/Net will likely have access to fresh primary sources and expertise for some time, allowing them to update and maintain relevancy in their materials and curation. Universities can also offer free or subsidized space on their servers, another important sustainability consideration.

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