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Web person at the Imperial War Museum, just completed PhD about digital sustainability in museums (the original motivation for this blog was as my research diary). Posting occasionally, and usually museum tech stuff but prone to stray. I welcome comments if you want to take anything further. These are my opinions and should not be attributed to my employer or anyone else (unless they thought of them too). Twitter: @jottevanger

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ithaka report ith a catastrophe (for me)

I am tho thcrewed.
Ithaka S+R has produced a report for JISC, the SCA, NEH and NSF entitled "Sustaining digital resources: an on-the-ground view of projects today". It's a great report, outlining a sensible approach to what sustainability actually means, strategies to achieve it, and how a number of current projects put these strategies into practice. It's a follow-up to "Sustainability and revenue models for online academic resources" (2008).
The problem, for me, is that much of the originality that I hoped my PhD work would offer has vanished overnight. Their definition of sustainability; their explicit linking of financial sustainability to the value offer; their arguments for leadership that offers clarity of purpose and evidence of success; their clear-eyed distinctions between the financial versus mission-based value on which non-profits must base their measures of success and arguments for their future: all of these could have been plucked from my private writings and debates with my supervisor over the last 3 years. Yet of course they haven't been; they're the result of parallel thinking, but these guys have gathered the evidence that I'm still at the early stages of assembling.
It's not that my thoughts were especially profound, but I've never previously found any authors linking sustainability and the value proposition so clearly to the digital work of cultural heritage institutions. Now that niche is no longer empty. I'm really pleased to see that there are others of like mind out there, and of course a report like this gives me a great reference in support of my work, but the problem for me is not just one of dented pride, because I have to demonstrate considerable originality in my work and without that, no PhD. It's a pickle.
On the upside, there are some differences. The Ithaka report emphasises how important it is to be clear on the sources of value (and cost) in order to make the case to funders for continued support. I will too, but I hope to investigate more deeply the influence of decision-making processes and the sources of "friction" that may cause a discrepancy between what a resource is "worth" and what people are prepared to invest in it (complicated, of course, by questions of opportunity cost and uncertainty). Ithaka mainly looked at digitisation projects, in the sense of those offering sets of digitised material such as images, maps, papers or databases. I'm just as interested in the value of learning objects, games, mobile phone tours, exhibition websites (though admittedly my core case studies are less diverse than this), and only in a cultural heritage context, not education. I'm interested in certain "modalities of constraint" (c.f. Lessig) that aren't addressed by Ithaka, and in questions of risk management. I am looking at three varied partnerships and the effects that collaboration has on decision-making, value and funding, and partnership is an area that the Ithaka report, by its own admission, examines only briefly. So perhaps all is not lost, but whilst I genuinely think that this report is excellent and provides a lot for people in the digital humanities to chew over, it's given me quite a tricky challenge. I'm not about to give up my PhD, but with everything else that's happened over the last year I have to confess it's taken me pretty bloody close.

P.S. Ah bollocks, now Nick's at it too (para 6). Shows how un-original I was in the first place.

*Nancy L Maron, K Kirby Smith and Matthew Loy, 2009. "Sustaining digital resources: an on-the-ground view of projects today. Ithaka case studies in sustainability" http://www.ithaka.org/ithaka-s-r/strategy/ithaka-case-studies-in-sustainability

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