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



Inclusive and Diverse Metadata

In his article “Everything is Miscellaneous”, David Weinberger states that “(t)ogether we construct our past for the future, making the decisions about which photographs to put next to which, ‘chunking’ the smoothness of experience into lumps of meaningful memories (Weinberger, 2007). This idea of more than one person or authority applying meaning and context to memories that are being saved and shared resonates with me. There is a consensus that bias can occur when cataloging or applying metadata to content without taking other voices into account.  What can be done to make metadata more inclusive, and what are the obstacles?

The Indiana University Bloomington has a blog about their Libraries Metadata Discussion Group, where they conduct sessions around topics of interest to people in the Information Science realm. In May of 2018, they hosted a session titled “Inclusivity and Bias in Metadata: Continuing the Conversation”, where they continued a discussion around some of the challenges to changing metadata standards. One of the interesting points for me was the mentioning of how long it takes for changes to be accepted by the Library of Congress, and how perhaps using other, potentially more flexible vocabularies could be an option (Hardesty 2018). The caveat with that idea was that there would have to be very thoughtful planning and large-scale adoption in multiple systems for such an implementation to be successful.

In her article on cataloging, Gretchen Hoffman makes the point that “Previous research suggests that catalogers are constrained in their ability to customize bibliographic records, because catalogers do not know who their users are and cannot identify their users’ needs” (Hoffman 2009). The distance between catalogers and their users creates a disconnect when creating the records for the material. Hoffman states that in her study, catalogers thought that the standards that they used were created with the user in mind. The catalogers believed that the “standards represent users” (Hoffman 2009 p 636). Hoffman’s ideas about giving catalogers more of a chance to customize records and to take on a more user-centered mindset encourages the collaboration of catalogers with their communities.

One of the more interesting ideas that I found the Library of Congress doing with their recent crowd sourcing efforts was having the regular cataloging standards, but allowing for an area where non-professional contributors can add tags that they think would be useful. This will potentially help with discovery and inclusion while maintaining the Library of Congress standards ( This is something that other institutions could try.

Yusef Omowale, Director of the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, wrote on the website Medium about how “it is not inevitable that community-based archives represent an alternative to mainstream repositories. In fact, it is more likely that we will serve to undergird the very structures we mean to displace.” He goes on to say “We must refuse the rules of inclusion, and vocabularies of recognition and legitimacy that are meant to contain our histories. We should not echo articulations that we do not already exist in the archive. We are not marginal or other to the archive, but integral to it. We may be silenced or made invisible, but we have always been present” His belief that the collection, cataloging and metadata structures in place are not enough to represent the memories of displaced and marginalized communities reinforces Weinberger’s concept about how we decide what meaning to apply to memories. There are many reasons why it is so hard to make metadata more flexible and inclusive- way too many to cover in a short blog post. Hopefully, organizations and institutions can work with communities to understand what metadata will work for them, and find solutions that are mutually beneficial.



Julie Hardesty (2018). “Summary of May 7 Libraries In-house Institute Session”. Retrieved from

Gretchen L. Hoffman. (2009) Meeting Users’ Needs in Cataloging: What is the Right Thing to Do? Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 47:7, 631-641, DOI: 10.1080/01639370903111999

Yusef Omowale (2018). We Already Are. Retrieved from

David Weinberger. (2007). “The New Order of Order.” Everything is Miscellaneous. Times Books. Available at: ​

Is perfect the enemy of good enough? Audio-visual considerations in the real world

Cc by 4.0 lasermax by kid clutch via flickr

I know archivists who are steadfast in their belief of their processes. I, however, have lain awake at night while my brain churns through the tricky details of processing collections. I have a solid understanding of archival processes, but always question whether what I did was good enough for real-world situations. Some of that questioning comes from the fact that there are many great guides to processing various types of collections, but each collection has its own issues and constraints that can derail any straightforward plans an archivist might have. Pennington and Rehberger state that “often tapes languish because we believe the process is too expensive, too difficult, and we cannot do a ‘good enough job’ (Pennington, 2012)”. What happens when the process is too difficult and too expensive for the budget and time constraints? That was something I wrestled with during a specific interesting and exasperating project.

I worked at a medical foundation that had a closet containing an undocumented mishmash of old hardware and a stack of barely labeled laserdiscs. The foundation worked with Sony Medical Systems in the late 1980s through the early 1990s to create chaptered laserdiscs with video information about specific medical conditions for patients to view with their doctors when trying to make decisions on their course of action for medical care. The laserdiscs would route to a certain video section based on information that the patient would enter onto a dedicated touchscreen from the computer.  The foundation wanted to know what they had, and they wanted digital copies of the laserdiscs. Sounds easy, right? Not so fast.

One of the immediate issues that came up was finding a vendor willing to look at the laserdiscs. Once I found a vendor, I had to transport the hardware and laserdiscs to their workspace. We were able to get the system up and running, but the laserdisc player was not playing properly. The laserdiscs all had programming to make the video chaptering work with the touchscreen. The vendor estimated the time it would take to reverse engineer the programming for just one laserdisc. The time and cost for just the programming was jaw-dropping. The “it depends” scenario that Kate Murray describes in her blog post “One Format Does Not Fit All” (Murray 2013) captures the many directions that an audio-visual project can go depending on the needs of the users of the material. She states that there is a “general rule to…make the best file that you can afford to create and maintain” (Murray 2013). What did that mean for this project? After much back and forth, it was decided that the vendor would copy the laserdisc video content to DVD-R exactly as it was laid out on the laserdisc. The DVD-R would not capture the interaction that would be possible with the programming, but it would make the video content available to users who did not have hardware for using the laserdiscs. The foundation did not have a librarian or archivist dedicated to their collection, so the maintenance for these videos needed to be as easy and user friendly as possible.

Another big issue that came bubbling up was that the foundation wanted the content to be converted exactly as it existed on the laserdiscs. This was because the laserdisc information needed to be available in case of future lawsuits from patients. That had happened once, and the whole system had to be available to lawyers for the lawsuit. Unfortunately, the project time constraints and budget would not allow for a full conversion of the material. They decided to maintain the hardware as much as possible so there would be continued access to the system. We had the lasermax player cleaned and tuned up. The computer screen and console were left alone. That was considered what Boyd called “good enough” (Boyd 2016), given the circumstances. The foundation ended up with an inventory of their material and digital versions of their video, which broadly speaking, is what they wanted.

In hindsight, I am still not sure what I could have done differently. There was so much potential to do some interesting work, but what I ended up doing was considered good enough. I often end up re-reading the fascinating “File Not Found” 3-part series by Lauren Young,, where she covers many of the access and preservation issues that are happening to data in this new age When I read that series and many articles and blog posts written by people dealing with similar concerns, it makes me remember again that we are all doing the best we can.


Boyd, D. A. (2012). Case study: is perfect the enemy of good enough? Digital Video Preservation in the Age of Declining Budgets. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from

Murray, K (2013). One format does not fit all: FADGI audio-visual working group’s diverse approaches to format guidance. The Signal. Library of Congress. Retrieved from

Pennington, S., and Rehberger D. (2012). The preservation of analog video through digitization. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from

Young, L. (2017). Ghosts in the reels: the file not found series. Science Friday. Retrieved from