Module A4: What are the project’s sustainability priorities?

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When thinking about sustaining your project over time, it is important to recognize that, as a persistent information object, your work has a number of different conceptual parts. Indeed, some of these components may feel more important to you to maintain than others. This module is designed to take you through the process of thinking about the basic, informational building blocks of user-facing digital humanities projects and how you might wish to sustain them, even differentially, over time.

Content, Context, and Structure

At the most abstract level, all complete information objects–such as your digital project–have three main components: content, context, and structure. There are a number of ways that you can decide that these three characteristics are distributed across your work, but we offer here a general model of how they tend to fit together.


Content comprises any narrative argumentation inherent to your project as well as the data used to make the argumentation tick. Content is often considered to be the intellectual “meat” of a project, and it certainly often is, but without context and structure, it is incredibly difficult to interpret and understand your content appropriately within the scholarly scaffolding of your particular point of view. That scholarly scaffolding will be made up of both technological and discursive parts.


Context comprises the information needed to understand how your project operates institutionally, technologically, and socially. For example, what discipline(s) does this work belong to? What is the institutional environment in which this project was created and sustained? Who is its audience and how do they interact with the project? Who is in charge of the intellectual argumentation? Where did the data come from and who does it belong to? What technologies were used to run this project? Often, contextual information is organized and contained by the various metadata structures within your project, but it can also, importantly, be found in the external recordkeeping systems (paperwork) surrounding your work.


Structure comprises the operational components that make your project function. In the main, a digital humanities project will have three major structural pieces: its data, its technical stack, and its interfaces (presentation layer). Data is, of course, also part of a digital project’s content, but here we are thinking of it as structural component of the technological architecture rather than as the interpreted content that serves as evidence of the intellectual labor of the work. Each of these parts of your project’s structure may be more or less critical to the work as a whole. Not all digital humanities projects are structured the same way. As a preview of upcoming Roadmap activities, Module B2 will take you through the process of thinking through your data storage, your technical stack, and your presentation layer more closely.

Significant Properties

As you work through these three different aspects of your project—content, context, and structure— this module will mainly focus on identifying which exact components and sub-components of your work, such as particular technological features, interfaces, or interpretive scaffoldings, are more critical to the overall project than others. This analysis will result in a list of your work’s “significant properties,” also sometimes talked about as “significant characteristics.” This term, which is a term of art within the professional digital preservation community, designates those parts of your project that are critical to its intellectual and technical goals.

To think this through, begin with the question, “What are the features without which your project simply would not be your project?”

It may be shocking to think that there might be components of your project that are more significant than others, and it may be the case that all parts of your project are equally essential. However, it is certainly worth the time to go through and decide this intentionally. Many long-standing digital humanities projects may, for example, have processes and products that were put into place by previous project participants and that are no longer mission-critical. These components would then receive different types of attention when it comes to sustaining the project as a whole.

Make Mindful Decisions

Having gone through the process of identifying and prioritizing the significant properties of your project can lay the ground work for making mindful decisions about how much time, effort, and money to raise and spend on any particular sustainability goal. As we move forward with the Roadmap, the work of having thought through how your project is structured and what parts of it are most important to the team will pay significant dividends.

Additional Resources

Beaudoin, Joan E. “Context and Its Role in the Digital Preservation of Cultural Objects.” DLib Magazine 18 (November/December 2012).

Dappert, Angela and Adam Farquhar. “Significance Is in the Eye of the Stakeholder.” In Research and Advanced Technology for Digital Libraries (ECDL 2009: Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol. 5714). Edited by Maristella Agosti, et al. (Berlin: Springer, 2009).

Faniel, Ixchel M. and Elizabeth Yakel. “Significant Properties as Contextual Metadata.” Journal of Library Metadata 11 (2011): 155-165.

(Module last updated September 2022)

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