Once a Lab person, always a Lab person

Reflections from a KDL Research Fellow
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My ongoing research fellowship at KDL succeeded my short DiXiT secondment at the Lab in early 2016, initially working on an assessment of what sustainability means in operational terms for digital projects.

As part of my DiXiT fellowship on “Long-term business models for Digital Scholarly editions” (KNAW) I wanted to do further work on sustainability issues and partnership models for digital editing projects. It remains a compelling challenge for me to explore the afterlife of a digital humanities project; i.e. the financial, institutional and technological mechanisms that needs to be in place in order to enhance and maintain the value of a digital resource after the end-date of a project. Luck was on my side: over a conference table in early 2016, Charlotte Roueché (now Professor Emeritus at King’s College London) mentioned to me that at that time the newly established KDL was dealing with a substantial number of legacy DH projects, exploring operational and security workflows in order to archive or secure sustainable maintenance of these resources.

It was my DiXiT supervisors, affiliates to the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London and especially KDL’s director, James Smithies, that made a short secondment possible. The Lab’s ethos towards sustainable development in the digital research realm was eye-opening for my own scholarly endeavour. For my DiXiT secondment I carried out a literature review on sustainability for DH projects, I worked on the assessment of the legacy projects and drafted some initial steps towards a sustainability and archiving strategy for KDL. The sheer volume of projects and tasks was too great for a short secondment, though the need for a mature approach to sustainability was becoming increasingly topical across our domain. In October 2016 I was offered a two-year research fellowship status at KDL to continue my collaboration with the team.

During my KDL research fellowship I have focussed on exploring the complex and much-needed matrix of sustainable development and maintenance for digital humanities projects and I collaborated with the KDL team on designing a sustainability and archiving strategy for KDL-DDH legacy digital projects (a publication on this process is currently under peer review). Such an exposure to a vast array of projects, workflows and project parameters equipped me with a robust knowledge about functional project development within an Agile framework, iterative project design, data management, and, most importantly, staying zen in the face of multiplying apps/screens/working docs/projects!

Being part of the KDL interdisciplinary team and committed to enhance KDL’s original research capacity, I have benefited hugely from research collaborations both from inside and outside the Lab. To name but a few:-

  • With Ginestra Ferraro, KDL UX /UI designer, we presented a paper entitled “Design as part of the plan: sustainability in digital editing projects” at the conference Digital Scholarly Editions as Interfaces at the Centre for Information Modelling, Graz University (23 September 2016), exploring iterative content design as an integral part of project development of digital editing projects (a publication of the paper is currently under production).
  • I presented the paper “Designing a Sustainable Future: An approach to the Assessment, Archiving and Preservation of Digital Projects”, a collaborative output from myself and James Smithies, at the workshop “Complexities of Project Logistics” organized at the 13th annual conference of the European Society for Textual Scholarship (ESTS) “Digital Scholarly Editing: Theory, Practice, Methods”, at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, (5 October 2016);
  • With James Smithies and Carina Westling we presented the paper “Preserving 30 years of Digital Humanities Work: The Experience of King’s College London  Digital Lab” at the 2nd ‘Digital Preservation for Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities’ conference (DPASSH 2017) “Preserving Abundance: The Challenge of Saving Everything” at the University of Sussex (14 June 2017).

By working on these papers we were able not only to shape and finalise KDL’s sustainability and archiving strategy but also to communicate and enhance our approach with experiences and workflows from other institutions undertaking similar tasks. Through a hierarchy of technical, administrative and financial priorities and a set of risk management and cost-benefit assessments, we updated the Lab’s Software Development Lifecycle (SDLC) engineering process, and placed sustainability and maintenance at its core, whilst being mindful that security and archiving are challenges to address holistically and pragmatically. As such, a comprehensive, scalable and pragmatic approach to sustainable development in digital humanities labs is a non-trivial problem. The KDL strategy can be seen as a flexible pilot for other centres and teams also engaged in the problem of maintainability or sustainability for high quality digital scholarship.

As a KDL fellow I have been able to participate in several KDL-enabled events such as the Critical Infrastructure Studies initiative and workshop (29 March 2018, London) as well as to collaborate as an Early Career Investigator in a Short-term Scientific Mission (STSM) on the COST Action “Distant Reading for European Literary History”, on resources development, annotation requirements and quality assessment for digital literary collections and distant reading methods.

All these opportunities during my KDL PhD Research Fellowship, alongside the welcoming, supportive, diverse and vital lab culture of the fantastic KDL gang, have significantly contributed to my intellectual, technical and research progress over the last couple of years and helped shape my future career. Working with people from business and project management, research software engineers, analysts, developers, UX/UI designers, I was able to conceptualise a new Digital Humanities development and research at the intersection of academia, technology and society. To this end, working at KDL as a fellow is for me an ideal way to start building my own ‘alt-ac’ professional path and I feel KDL is currently a one-of-a-kind environment for these types of careers and endeavours. KDL’s culture also celebrates and promotes transparency, respect, work-life balance, equality, openness, curiosity and experimentation, values that are often squeezed beneath the institutional burden.

I am now looking forward to continuing  and expanding my collaboration with KDL in a new capacity, as I have recently embarked on a new position, as a Post-Doc Research Fellow in Media History and Historical Data Modelling at the University of Sussex and Sussex Humanities Lab (once a lab-person, always a lab-person!).

Links and further reading

At its inception, KDL inherited just under 100 digital research projects and websites. Aware of the intellectual and cultural value of many of these projects, with the support of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at King’s College London, KDL took on its responsibility to the community to steward them in a responsible manner. When the options of setting up a Service Level Agreement for further hosting and maintenance with KDL and/or undertaking migration to IT Services at King’s or other institutions were deemed infeasible or inappropriate, the archiving process was initiated.

We would like to thank research leads, the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at King’s College London, and partner institutions, for their support in this process.

For further information on KDL archiving and sustainability process see:

by Anna-Maria Sichani on