Nov 14

Digital Graveyards

In my Dork Short I presented my observation that there’s been a great push to get digital materials up and online, and not necessarily a lot of thought as to what happens to those collections/portals afterwards. This has resulted in what I call “digital graveyards,” a term I’ve since loosely defined as:

“A site or portal, designed as an information resource, usually but not necessarily providing access to digitized archival materials, on which no future development is planned.”

I say “loosely defined” because this definition may include sites that would not be considered “graveyards” (or may not even be broad enough!).  As I think about the issue, especially its definition, I come up with more questions surrounding it. For instance, can a website ever be considered final in the same way a published book is? My inclination is no, if I come across a site that looks like it’s outdated, I automatically have the tendency to discount the information it provides. I don’t necessarily feel the same way about a book, but I do react to the information a book provides based on it’s publication date; I attempt to place the book in a contextual history, so to speak. If I’m writing a literature review, I may mention the book in a narrative time frame that explains its reflections on the topic on which my thesis relates to, but I would then continue on to list more recent analysis of my topic, concluding with discussion of the most recently published items. Perhaps the way I respond to an outdated site is based on not understanding the context in which it was created.

Which brings up an additional question: can such resources be compared to books? As an information professional, I try to describe materials in the most objective manner possible, observing faith to the original and leaving analysis to the researchers using the materials.  But description doesn’t happen in a vacuum; much like a publication, it happens in a time and a place. Archivists continually struggle to maintain objectivism while providing contextual information they feel is necessary for a researcher to understand a collection. Any description of archival materials, no matter how standardized and data-ized it may be reflects the current thought of the time and place it was created, much the same way a published book is expected to.

Books are often revised. Finding aids, the main descriptive tool used by archivists, often need to be revised. Why would we not expect the environment of digital collections or websites to need to change as well?

This leads me back to my question of what really could be defined as a digital graveyard. Is it akin to a finding aid that never gets revised? Are the circumstances of the publication of the digital site obvious enough to researchers that they can evaluate it within the context it was created? And of course there’s always the bigger question of who is responsible for making sure such a site stays published online, let alone updated.

As I process these questions, I’m interested in what you would define as a “digital graveyard.” Is it a project that existed, but today is not online? Am I being too broad or too narrow in my definition, which is based on my own observations as a librarian/archivist and not a digital humanities person? And most importantly, do you have examples of projects you would consider digital graveyards?

Although this post has been mainly focused on me trying to define the term “digital graveyard,” my goal is to eventually be able to identify the common factors that relegate a project ultimately to being unsustainable. This may be a difficult venture- no one likes to talk about unsuccessful projects. But I strongly believe that the evolution of successful projects is based on learning what went wrong in the past, and I don’t feel there is a better forum for that takes into account not only the data providers (librarians and archivists) viewpoint but also that of those that use such materials.


  1. Trip Kirkpatrick

    I mentioned the MIT Beta Graveyard on Twitter, but didn’t have a link for it at the time. Here ’tis: libraries.mit.edu/help/betas/graveyard.html

  2. people.umass.edu/arubinst

    And Digital Commonwealth: www.digitalcommonwealth.org/, which currently sports a “The service is not available. Please try again later” badge on its home page.

    To opine without much forethought:

    A traditional way to look at the role of archivist is as steward — physically preserving, intellectually curating, and providing access to archival collections. In some cases, we digitize collections in their entirety or at least in large part, and in other cases we create online exhibits from selections of our physical material. My biggest concern as an archivist is the former. Why shouldn’t our stewardship extend to our digitized material. There seems to be an aimless drive in many archives to digitize materials in order to take advantage of potential grant funding, or because we feel like we *should* be throwing digital stuff online. There is no plan, no priorities that sync with collection policies, and no organizational plan to maintain and evolve content and discovery systems over time.

    I think the digital preservation field is starting to tackle some of these issues in the context of digital libraries their output will be useful to see how folks are thinking about what stewardship of digital materials might look like.

    For online exhibits, then I think we get into the issues with revising and evolving that you raise. Personally, I see many online exhibits as equivalents to physical exhibits; they are creative, engaging, and ephemeral. But, as we don’t keep old, uncared for material lying around our reading rooms, let’s not leave unsightly stuff in our web presences either.

    And, if I may toss out one more opinion, there should be a call to not see our finding aids as static documents. We interpret and as our understanding changes, so must our descriptions.

    Looking forward to hearing more about this!

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