Module A2: How long do you want your project to last?

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Regardless of where you are with your project, from taking the first exciting steps or ambling through the project’s nth year of existence, it is essential to think about how long you want your project to last. If you are conscious of the desire or need to keep your project sustainable for a certain, known period of time, it is more likely that you can successfully implement a correspondingly precise plan for carrying that out.

Here are some factors to keep in mind as you think through an honest answer to “How long do you want your project to last?”:

  • The intellectual goals of your project
  • Available funding sources
  • Current and future staffing
  • Preferred technologies

This list of concepts will return again and again over the course of the Roadmap’s modules, and it is good to start thinking about them now.

Sustainability Goals Are Not One-Size-Fits All

Contemplating this question is not only good practice, it will also help you and your team formulate responses to the questions asked in the succeeding modules. Also, keep in mind that not everyone has the same sustainability goals and even your own team’s answer to this question may change over time.

In fact, because staffing, funding, technologies, and goals can all change for expected and unexpected reasons, the iterative, three-year cycle of Socio-Technical Sustainability Roadmap is an opportunity to reassess your own expectations of project longevity on a consistent and continuing basis. Moreover, if thinking about the long, distant future of your project seems overwhelming or daunting, it is also worth noting that this same three-year cycle can be a baseline sustainability goal for any project. Any longer life span could be reduced to a series of three-year increments, if this suits your needs and your priorities.

What phase of development are you in?

Before jumping into a discussion of the overall desired lifetime for your project, it is a critical first step to become familiar with the basic phases of digital project development, and also identify what phase you are currently working within. There are three main phases for you to consider:

  • Active Creation (including planning/renewal/recreation)
  • Ongoing Maintenance
  • Retirement

It is important for you to note that the overall digital project development cycle can be described so simply, and it is also important for you to identify which phase you are currently in—or between which two phases you are moving. Knowing what your current goals are will be key to understanding what you should plan to do to sustain your project over the next three years (that is, until the next iteration of the Roadmap).

In order to help you identify where you are right now, we offer some of the management activities or technological strategies that project creators or teams may be undertaking in each phase. We have categorized some, but certainly not all, possible project tasks to give you an idea of the wide variety of actions that could be taking place. However, you will see that many of the actions like, “containerization,” could certainly take place across any number of phases.

Active Creation

In this phase, a project’s vision, working parameters, and overall characteristics are in the process of being developed or updated. This includes all necessary planning activities as well as active implementation. It is utterly critical to note that, for digital projects, “Active Creation” is not limited to the time of original inception. In general, if you are transforming your project, either in terms of its intellectual content, or its technological infrastructure, you are in this phase.

When you are actively creating your project, you could be starting from scratch, in the process of adapting it from a previous incarnation, translating it to a different intellectual environment, or reimplementing it within a new technological context. You could be in the process of reinterpreting your data or your findings. You could even be regenerating the work on any number of different levels, from its argumentation to its methodology to its collection of data. It is critical to note that professional digital preservation behaviors such as migration (moving a project between similar technological infrastructures) and emulation (re-contextualizing a project within a virtualized historical technological environment) are also all acts of (re)creation.

Containerizing a project as a technique for facilitating ongoing sustainability is an approach currently being investigated by a handful of professional organizations and scholarly working groups. This activity would also be categorized as belonging to the “Active Creation” phase due not only to its parallels to the process of emulation, but also because of the large numbers of decisions, actions, and changes that need to take place in order to successfully containerize a project.

Ongoing Maintenance

After active creation, digital projects enter a phase of ongoing maintenance in which regular, non-transformative activities to sustain the project are undertaken. These activities may include software updates, maintaining hardware and operating systems, updating incorrect or outdated content, or other such behavior. Ongoing maintenance is required to ensure the integrity of an emulation or container, as well.

Depending on your expectations for project longevity, “Ongoing Maintenance” could last for days, months, years, or decades. However, as the name suggests, a strategy of ongoing maintenance requires dedicated staff and resources to actively pay attention to maintain a project, even if their actions are consistently minor or non-transformative. Ongoing maintenance sustains a project’s full functionality and compliance with current system standards and needs.


When your project moves to a state of no longer being actively managed or maintained, and has by all accounts “ended,” it is moving towards retirement. While ending a project may seem a more cut-and-dried affair than actively maintaining it, the reality is, of course, more complicated. The end of a project is not always at the forefront of a creator’s mind in the early planning and development phases of a digital project, though there are many advantages to developing end-of-project plans with its ongoing sustainability in mind. The “Retirement” phase is the transition from “Ongoing Maintenance” through to either graceful degradation or proactive removal.

Graceful Degradation

“Graceful degradation” is a project state in which you allow your work to persist for the foreseeable future by maintaining only its most basic functionality, allowing components to fail or become obsolete. While it is true that there will never be no maintenance necessary to keep a digital project available to users, the state of graceful degradation is defined by its utterly minimal interventions and accepting partial failures of the total system in due course.

Another way to decide if your project is entering a graceful degradation is by looking through the lens of your proactive project goals: in this next three-year Roadmap cycle, will you be re-entering the “Active Creation” phase through emulation, migration, containerization, or any other means? Will you be committing to sustaining your project at an “Ongoing Maintenance” level? If not, you will want to think very seriously about consciously beginning a graceful degradation. By choosing not to maintain your project to its fullest extent, you will begin to lose functionality that will be very difficult to reimplement the longer you wait to perform necessary maintenance work.


As the name suggests, this strategy consists of the active, deliberate removal of a project from its previous point of access. This may mean taking a website offline, delegating access to services such as the Internet Archive, or deleting a hosted account. In this phase, project managers will still need to determine whether or not to select any project components for long-term, proactive preservation elsewhere. Module A4 can guide you through the process of figuring out which parts of your work are the most important to you, and therefore the most important components for long-term preservation. You can have different sustainability goals for different parts of your overall project, but by selecting some segments for preservation but not others, you are in effect creating a new project with this new subset of features that will then need to be sustained in its own right, over time.

Should you be deciding to remove your project from active circulation, we would highly recommend that you store all of your project’s long-standing documentation in a place that can be securely accessed by all appropriate members of your project team, and (if applicable) your institution. The future will be interested in your work.

Digital Project Lifespans

Just as there are three basic phases of digital project development, there are three main digital project lifespans to consider in the context of the Roadmap. Your expectations of longevity rest on the foundations of your current phase of production as well as your future plans for renewal.

1) Projects expected to be in the active creation or ongoing maintenance phases for fewer than 3 years from today

These projects could either be meant to “bloom and fade,” that is to be created and retired within three years, or they could be longer-term projects headed towards retirement.

Example: The Gallery of Lost Art (2012-2013)

This online exhibition, curated by Tate, designed by ISO, and produced in partnership with Channel 4, existed for one year. The project team set an expiration date for the website at the outset, and remnants of the exhibition now exist only through documentation. The team no longer maintains the exhibition site itself, including its interactive components and hyperlinks.

2) Projects expected to be in the active creation or ongoing maintenance phases for longer than 3 years, but with an expectation of eventual retirement

These projects could last anywhere from 3 years to 100 years, but they are not intended to be sustained indefinitely. Each time the project team runs the Roadmap, they should assess this project for its current needs and possible retirement date.

Example: Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 1898-1935 (unknown- 2008)

Jim Zwick’s project housed a vast collection of primary-source literature, political cartoons, poetry, pamphlets and writings, as well as historical analyses by Zwick and other authors. Zwick died in 2008 and the website disappeared with him.

Read more: Joseph Yannielli, “The Long Goodbye,” Digital Histories @ Yale (2015),

3) Projects that are expected to be in the active creation or ongoing maintenance phases for longer than 3 years, but that have no current plans for eventual retirement

These projects, slated to last “forever” or for “BookTime**,” live on with the assumption that they will last for as long as is possible with no planned retirement date. This expectation of ongoing longevity is important to identify because such projects might more productively participate in professional-grade sustainability practices that also tend to make assumptions of indefinite preservation.

Example: Perseus Digital Library (1985-????)

This project, hosted by Tufts University, continues to evolve and grow. The funding history and related publications are well documented on the website itself. Further information can also be found on the NEH funded projects site.

** “BookTime” is a term we have coined to denote a project lifespan equivalent to, “As long as a paper-based codex would last in the controlled, professional conditions of a library.” It may often be assumed that this is coterminous with “forever,” but that belief relies heavily on a number of latent expectations about the nature of libraries, the inherent affordances of paper and glue, and other infrastructural dependencies.

Additional Resources

Camille, Robin. “The Final Death(s) of Digital Scholarship—An Ongoing Case Study of DH2005 Projects.” Robin Camille Davis. March 1, 2019.

Holmes, Martin, et al. “Endings Principles for Digital Longevity.” The Endings Project. Version 2.2. August 31, 2022.

Nowviskie, Bethany and Dot Porter. “Graceful Degradation Survey Findings: How Do We Manage Digital Humanities Projects through Times of Transition and Decline?” 2010.

Rockwell, Geoffrey, et al. “Burying Dead Projects: Depositing the Globalization Compendium.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 8 (2014).

Ronallo, Jason and Bret Davidson. Sunsetting Book. Last updated April 12, 2018.

Rothenberg, Jeff. “Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Documents.” Scientific American 272, no. 1 (1995): 42-47.

“Docker Overview.”, n.d.

Yannielli, Joseph. “The Long Goodbye.” Digital Histories @ Yale. December 18, 2015.

(Module last updated September 2022)

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