DMLBS online – an update

In this post we set out the present position with regard to online publication of the DMLBS.

As one of the promised outputs from the currently funded project, work on a plan for online publication began promptly at the start of the current grant period to maximise the time available to obtain funding for its implementation and implement it alongside the on-going final editorial work. We evaluated a broad range of possible options for development, hosting, maintenance, and funding. The eventual plan, which was developed in collaboration with the Bodleian Library’s Digital Library Systems and Services (BDLSS), formed the basis for applications for funding of its implementation. Central to our decision to pursue this collaborative route was consideration of long-term sustainability beyond the planned end of the project.

As regular users of medieval and early modern written materials, we are extremely conscious of the digital paradox. Digital resources offer new possibilities not available in non-digital materials, but while copies of DuCange’s printed work are still usable more than three centuries after its production and the project has often used state records at the National Archives that are more than seven hundred years old, it is not uncommon for more recent formats to become inaccessible in less than a lifetime due to technological changes.

Electronic resources are inherently fragile and future technology uncertain. Thus our plan and intended collaboration recognised the vital importance of ensuring the sustainability of the resource once development, and indeed the project itself, had been wound up. A system developed for the dictionary would require regular rebuilding to keep it compatible with current technology.

In fact, all electronic systems are also at the mercy of their unavoidable dependence on other systems. This point has been thrown into sharp relief by the emergence of the Shellshock security vulnerabilities in the last week (and of Heartbleed in April of this year). Thus not only would a system eventually go offline simply due to the march of technology, it is easy to see that an online DMLBS could suddenly be forced offline due to a security issue in some standard component on which it relied, and without resources to enable its restoration it might remain down indefinitely.

Connected to software dependency of this kind is also dependence on the availability of a suitable infrastructure. The system requires an institution to host it, and that institution needs to inspire confidence in its own durability and in its long-term commitment to providing the necessary infrastructure for hosting our resource.

With all this in mind, our plan of collaborative development with BDLSS allowed us to be confident of a secure future environment for the resource, always provided that suitable finance could be found for initial development and on-going support.

To this end, we envisaged as an ideal obtaining both funding of the set-up costs and an endowment to provide ongoing income for hosting, maintenance, and periodic rebuilding (such an endowment would also provide the security of financial independence that would enable transferring or rebuilding the resource elsewhere should its host environment no long be secure).

However, an application for combined funding for both the initial development and an endowment to provide for the long-term hosting, maintenance, and periodic rebuilding of an online publication of the DMLBS did not meet with success.

For reasons of continuity and efficiency, the initial development of the resource was planned to run concurrently with the final months of the project, with parts of the development done within the team alongside parts by BDLSS. Though the lack of success for the development and endowment application introduced a very significant delay in our ability to make progress and led to a need to reallocate the development work within the plan entirely to BDLSS (with their agreement), adequate time remained for us to retain the planned schedule in taking our next step; it was, however, clear that a strict timetable would have to be maintained if the plan were to be successfully implemented.

While still bearing in mind sustainability, we then sought to fund just the initial development of an online publication, for which an application to the John Fell OUP Research Fund was successful; we planned instead to use the initial period of availability of the resource to raise the funds and make arrangements to secure its long-term future.

Sadly, however, it did not in the end prove possible for BDLSS to undertake the initial development work within the strict timeframe we had been able to allow for in that application and consequently the project was obliged with regret to discontinue the BDLSS work, returning the associated funding.

Although as a result no development work is presently under way, the project remains committed to sustainable online publication of the DMLBS and, in renewed consultation with the British Academy, is currently actively pursuing alternative strategies with other potential partners. We hope to be able to make further announcements about the nature and timing of these plans in the coming months. In the meantime we would ask you to bear with us.