Digital Library Sustainability

We probably have all come across projects on the web that were quite interesting. The project website declares that funding has been awarded and lays out the mission of the project. As you explore the pages of the website, blog posts discuss the project and its larger ramifications, a digital library is created and added to, and people flock to the page to submit well thought out commentary on the project. The project hums along with activity, until all of a sudden it doesn’t. Sometimes there is a note with a link to a continuation of the project somewhere else. Often it is just radio silence after a certain date. And you realize that what you were looking at was more a museum piece frozen in time than a dynamic space for content.

I found myself spending a lot of time reading the very thorough and valuable information in the JISC report on post-grant digital library sustainability (Maron and Loy, 2011). In their report, Maron and Loy quote another report that found “… that while most of the projects could still be accessed online…over two-thirds had either not been updated since their launch years earlier, or were characterised as having ‘no known URL or URL not available’.” This abandonment of websites depicts a troubling trend. It made me wonder if this is just the unfortunate cycle of many grant funded digital libraries.

Maron and Loy argue that “Content developed through the course of a grant may end up on a platform that is not well maintained or developed over time, where few are likely to find and use it. In a worst- case scenario, a project team disbands and the resource languishes, available to those who may know where to find it in the short term, but at risk in the long term.” (Maron and Loy, 2011). I found it troubling that Maron and Loy found that the term “sustainable” was considered and measured differently, even in the same institution on different projects. That highlights the need to have all stakeholders come to an agreement on the definition and metrics for sustainability at the beginning of a project.

It seems as though some grant-making organizations have been working to address these concerns as well, perhaps as a result of the ignominious end for some grant-based digital libraries. Many trainings for organizations interested in applying for grants help them think through these questions in very concrete, detailed ways. The IMLS suggests that inexperienced grantees either partner with or use as mentors more experienced organizations (IMLS, 2017). That makes sense, because an organization that has not only gone through the grant application process but also the implementation of the grant would be a great resource as far as lessons learned. I agree with the authors that mentoring future grant applicants should be a part of grant requirement, so that any organization that receives funding would be required to share their experiences. That would be a great way to strengthen the community and the projects. Maron and Loy’s report offers some concrete points such as considering if the organization has the resources to continue paying for software licenses after the grant ends, if there is a plan for replacing a broken server after a grant ends, and who will handle long-term technical support, especially in places that do not have dedicated tech staff (Maron and Loy, 2011).

The IMLS has published an essay arguing that digital infrastructure needs to mirror and embody the mission of libraries (Owens et al.,2018). This high-level framework complements the more concrete considerations in Maron and Loy’s report. Since the IMLS is responsible for many digital library grants, it makes sense that they would work through and lay out the thinking behind their investment strategies. This kind of information is crucial for planners and maintainers of digital libraries. Hopefully more reports and essays will help organizations think critically about the big picture and the details involved in the long-term sustainability of their hard work, and increase the chances that the work will be accessible for a long time after the grant ends.


Institute for Museum and Library Services (October 10, 2017). “Open Digital Preservation Training and Professional Development Opportunities”. Retrieved from


Maron, N, and Loy, M. June, 2011. “Funding for Sustainability: How Funders’ Practices Influence the Future of Digital Resources”. Ithaka S+R. Retrieved from

Owens, T., Sands, A., Reynolds, E., Neal, J., Mayeaux, S., and Marx, M. (March 9, 2018). “Digital Infrastructures that Embody Library Principles: The IMLS National Digital Platform as a Framework for Digital Library Tools and Services”. Retrieved from



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