by Bartłomiej Szleszyński
Projects and digital humanities are closely related. It has been said that “DH is project-oriented scholarship”1, and even that a “project is a basic unit of digital humanities (DH) scholarship”.2 This is an obvious generalization – there are complicated, interdisciplinary, collaborative projects existing in ‘traditional’ (non-digital) humanities, as well as huge ventures in digital humanities which are organized and funded by means other than project funding.3
Bearing this in mind, it is safe to assume that: 1) most of the work in DH is organized through projects; 2) most digital projects are much more complex and difficult to handle than ’traditional’ projects in humanities; and 3) a significant part of funding in DH is project funding.
‘Production’ is a strong factor, which is not applicable (or at least or not very important) to “traditional” humanities, but is important in the case of digital projects. For a digital collection to be complete, a number of elements, such as content, software, graphic design and all graphic elements, typographic design, and sometimes films, must be created and assembled within an estimated time and budget.
There are two main issues in terms of the organization of work in projects. One of these is how to manage and successfully finish different types of DH projects. The other, equally important, is how to build and, more demandingly, how to maintain a team without providing permanent, full-time employment to the team members.
In this paper, I would like to discuss some issues concerning project management and project funding from the perspective of the New Panorama of Polish Literature (referred to as NPLP hereon) team. I will outline examples of difficulties we have encountered during the realization of digital humanities projects in the 2013–2018 period.
2. The New Panorama of Polish Literature
The New Panorama of Polish Literature is a team at the Institute of Literary Research, Polish Academy of Sciences. I will refer to this institution as IBL PAN, its abbreviated Polish name. IBL PAN is one of the most important institutions in Polish humanities. It not only conducts research on literature and the theory of literature, but also has a long history of creating scholarly editions and lexicographical and documental work.
The NPLP team has created and developed two sites. One of them is NPLP.PL, a platform for the presentation of research results in the digital environment in the form of scholarly digital collections. The other site is TEI.NPLP.PL, used for making scholarly editions to the TEI standard.
Figure 1: New Panorama of Polish Literature – structure of a team, structure of a project
The NPLP team’s overall goal can be described as to translate traditional scholarly concepts into the digital environment at the level of planning digital structures, creating software, and finally entering content into those structures using the software created.
In 2013, when the NPLP team was being formed, some essential decisions had to be made. We needed to define the role of the team in relation to 1) the scholars responsible for the content, 2) the programmers, and 3) the graphic designers. These decisions determined the structure of the team, as well as the structure of the projects we would be working on.
As can be seen in Figures 1 and 2, although the NPLP team has worked with the same pair of programmers since its inauguration, these programmers are not part of the team; we only delegate precisely specified and costed tasks to them. The NPLP team also cooperates with different scholars from outside our team, who are responsible for research, creating content, and overseeing the overall scholarly form of our digital collections.
Figure 2: New Panorama of Polish Literature – working with scholars and programmers
It is not uncommon for some of our team to also be competent in the relevant scholarly field of the project. There is one project, for example, where my role is that of a booth – the main researcher and project manager – and the NPLP team is responsible not only for the digital aspects of the project, but also plays an important role in creating the content. As mentioned above, the team becomes something of an intermediary between scholars and programmers, translating scholarly needs into the specification of digital tools – into ways of using existing or, at times, new software. We are, however, also responsible for the visual and typographical side of our collections. For this reason, a graphic designer is a regular member of our team. This is also why it is important for some members of the team to be competent in typography. We therefore spend a lot of time planning our interface in order for it to be as user-friendly as possible.
Even though the basic sustainability of our projects is secured by IBL PAN, meaning that members of the NPLP team can take advantage of equipment, infrastructure, servers, legal and accounting services, and, in many cases, a travelling budget, most of our work was and still is project-funded.
3. Project Funding in Poland
Project funding in Polish humanities entered a larger scale after 2010, when Barbara Kudrycka, then-Minister of Science in Donald Tusk’s first government, decided to allocate a large portion of budget not to universities and institutes but, through governmental agencies, directly to specific projects.
Currently, in 2019, there are two large governmental agencies awarding grants – Narodowe Centrum Nauki (National Science Centre) for sciences, and Narodowy Program Rozwoju Humanistyki (National Program for the Development of Humanities) for humanities. Since 2010, funding from these institutions has been crucial for humanities in Poland, especially for research-only institutions such as the Institute of Literary Research. Since then, the ability to acquire project funding and project management has become a vital skill for scientists in Poland.
It must be noted that Polish humanities have long relied on ventures like monumental scholarly editions or multi-volume lexicons. Such ventures demand long-term work that takes decades, which is why five-year funding, the longest possible grant available from governmental institutions in Poland, is somewhat insufficient. This is also why, in general, project funding for humanities is largely unsuitable even for non-digital humanities.
An additional challenge for the NPLP Project is the fact that the grant system described above seems to be rather inadequate for digital projects, as it does not include, or significantly limits, the possibilities of employment for specialists who are not scholars in the traditional meaning – for example, the previously mentioned graphic designers, who are crucial to projects realized by the NPLP team. This is not a local concern exclusive to Poland – scholars from other European countries have quoted similar difficulties.4
Despite the flaws in this method of financing digital humanities, it is most often the only way to implement large-scale scholarly ventures. Therefore, IBL PAN developed an infrastructure to help its employees obtain grants and support their implementation, which is why project funding is such an important issue for NPLP.
4. Timetable of NPLP Projects
Figure 3: New Panorama of Polish Literature – timeline of the project
Figure 3 depicts a general timetable for NPLP projects (particularly the larger ones, including the production or extension of software). At each level, tasks are marked out to be completed by publishing houses, scholars collaborating with NPLP in the project, task NPLP, and programmers.
An example of one of our first big scholarly edition projects is Skamandrycka triada na emigracji (‘Trio from Skamander group on emigration’). In 2014, NPLP team members were invited to a meeting with Beata Dorosz, an editor who is experienced and highly qualified in the field of traditional paper editions of correspondence. Dorosz wanted to create a new edition which included approximately 1,500 unpublished letters. This was an opportunity to create one of the first digital scholarly editions in Poland to use TEI. After discussing the content and gaining knowledge about TEI, the NPLP team contacted programmers. The programmers were willing to take up this new challenge, and after a brief analysis they managed to create budget and timetable for producing the necessary software for this project. The NPLP team, along with Beata Dorosz, were then able to produce a grant proposal. After a few months of waiting, the funding was granted, and after some formalities work on the project began in the latter half of 2015. Beata Dorosz and other scholarly team members started to work on the edition on a traditional basis, and the NPLP team began a cycle of meetings with programmers to specify details of the software. Upon the completion of each module of the software, it was tested and feedback was given. Meanwhile, the NPLP team had to create a visual conception of the TEI.NPLP.PL site and all of the necessary visual elements. Finally, in the summer of 2017, the software was ready and fully operational. This was when the NPLP team started entering content and marking it with TEI. The project is expected to be finished in 2020, with all letters both on our TEI.NPLP.PL site and in four printed volumes.
What is evident in Figure 3 is that a lot of work needs to be done before the formal inauguration of a project. The question is, who is paying for this work? If this is done by someone who earns a regular salary, it can be assumed that this is part of his or her regular duties. More often than not, however, this is not the case – most of the NPLP team members receive salaries only for their projects. This means that preparation for a new project ends up being unofficially paid for out of the budget for other projects.
Another important issue illustrated in Figure 3 is that if software is created or upgraded during a project, there is often not much time to enter the content created by scholars during the last phases. A general method of dealing with this is to work with unpolished content, with the assumption that the quality of the content in the online version will be improved during the phase of corrections and additions. In order for this to be the case, appropriate time and money must be allocated during the planning of the project.
5. Difficult Questions about Project Funding
Figure 3 does not provide answers to some very important questions regarding the matter of finishing a single project.
First of all, what happens to team members when a project and its funding end? A simple answer would be for these individuals to start working on another project which has been acquired in the meantime. However, this has its complications – it requires putting in a lot of effort into creating grant proposals alongside scholarly and production work. Therefore, some phases of one project have to become the first stages of a new one. This means that, in many cases, the team has to work on more than one project at a time.
Secondly, as can be seen in Figure 3, there are different phases of a project requiring different skills. The question is how to ensure that two, arguably contradictory, goals are met: financial security and predictability for the team members, and a certainty that specific tasks will be made for specific money in specific time. Placing too much emphasis on the former may, and most probably will, lead to paying out too much too soon, and being forced to finish a project with a very small budget in its last stages. In turn, focusing only on the latter may cause difficulties when team members have unpredictable financial problems caused by delays beyond their control.
The third question is where to find time to analyze the scholarly effects of work and to write papers about general conclusions from different projects.
These issues seem to have no easy solutions other than to fundamentally change the way in which teams are financed and to minimize dependency on grants.
6. Projects – When the Content is Ready
In this part of the paper I would like to share some experience about several projects the NPLP team has finished.
When most of the content is ready at the beginning of the project, the situation is easier for the project manager to handle. This was the case during the creation of our first digital collection called PrusPlus, which is dedicated to Bolesław Prus – a Polish writer from the latter half of the nineteenth century – and his most famous and culturally significant novel, The Doll.
The collection consists of three parts: The Doll Lexicon (a digital version of the book published by the IBL); Prus’ Warsaws(a revised version of the application released primarily as a CD); and Novelists on The Doll (a set of articles written by Polish writers on The Doll).
The content was ready from the outset, and IBL PAN was legally able to use it. Because this was the first NPLP collection, our main concerns included creating structures that would work not only for this collection but also for future collections, as well as finding visual content to illustrate entries in the Lexicon, and deciding how we wanted to use it.
After some consideration, graphics from nineteenth-century newspapers were used – the IBL PAN library has an excellent collection of these, so legal issues were not a hindrance.
In 2017, we created an English version of this collection, translating all the articles and adding English subtitles to the films.
6.2. Atlas of Polish Literary Romanticism
What was most important in terms of this digital collection was one basic concept: to change the paradigm of writing about Polish literary Romanticism. Instead of creating a narrative structured around a few main writers, as was often the case in Polish research on this period, a map-based structure of the digital collection needed to be created.
Most of the content was ready at the beginning of the work on this digital collection; the NPLP team was provided with approximately 100 articles about different places important to Polish literary Romanticism, and several dozens of maps connected with some of the articles.
The first challenge the NPLP team had to face was to invent and create functionalities to match the concept of a space-driven collection. A unique interface was constructed: the main site of the collection takes the form of a map with marked places and articles. After clicking on a place, the user is taken to the article about this place. The user is able to match names with specific places, see which places are close to each other, and identify areas with higher density (meaning they are more important for Polish Literary Romanticism than others).
The second challenge for the NPLP team was to find a way of processing maps into digital format. Even though the maps were created by a professional and competent cartographer, they were at the same time unreadable and unsuitable for the Internet. Members of the NPLP team, with great contribution from the graphic designer, made the maps interactive, with different mechanisms for different kinds of maps created by programmers. This was the first of many projects on NPLP.PL which uses interactive maps to tell digital scientific stories.
7. Projects – When Content must be Created during a Project
Experience shows that it can be much more difficult when content has to be created during the project. On the one hand, it allows for the adjustment of form to content; on the other hand, it complicates and extends the duration of the project.
7.1. Roots of Janusz Korczak
This is an example of a digital collection that, in its final version, is more than satisfactory. It contains high quality content (with some information found especially for this project), uses interactive maps and a complex (also interactive) genealogical tree of Goldszmit family, and a lot of unique, rarely shown visuals are used. It has also taken the NPLP team much more work than expected, not only because of its longer duration, but also due to delays in other projects causing unexpected difficulties. This happened mostly because of the means of funding for this project, with much too little time being allocated for completing such an ambitious scholarly project, including the creation of a digital collection.
The schedule of the project required working on the digital collection at the same time as research was being done. After some time, it became evident that a lot of important information about addresses and biographies was emerging and would need to be included in the digital collection. As a result, some maps, as well as the genealogical tree, had to be modified dozens of times, which required additional work from the whole NPLP team.
This experience demonstrates that the timetable for this type of project, i.e., when content is modified during the project, must be planned very carefully and modestly.
7.2. Postmodern Sienkiewicz
Figure 4: Postmodern Sienkiewicz – digital laboratory. Structure of a Project
The final project about I would like to discuss is Sienkiewicz ponowoczesny – laboratorium cyfrowe (‘Postmodern Sienkiewcz – digital laboratory’). The project started in 2016 and finished in March of 2019. My role is again that of a booth – a scholar responsible for the conception and content (literature from the latter half of the nineteenth century is my primary field of interest), and project manager. As can be seen in Figure 4, the NPLP team is at the centre of the project, cooperating with many parties and institutions: the authors of the content (twelve articles about Henryk Sienkiewicz’s works and biography); the National Museum in Kielce and Oblęgorek Palace; sources for high quality visuals (including a professional photographer); programmers; and translators. The production of a book is also part of the process controlled by the NPLP team, the aim of which is to avoid the involvement of a publishing house.
We hope this collection will be a huge step in methods of creating digital scholarly narratives. We have tried to take the quality of visuals and interaction to a new level. We have also attempted to structure content in a new, experimental way.
Although the project was planned with some time reserves, its complexity resulted in a number of delays. Some stages were impossible to initiate without finishing others first – for example, the structure and categorization of the content were difficult to plan without finishing all the articles, new functionalities were difficult to plan and implement without all the visuals, and translation of the content could not begin without the final versions of the articles in Polish. Here, the NPLP team learned a lesson in making projects simpler.
Finally, I would like to present a few conclusions based on the many projects the NPLP team has completed during 2013-2018 period.
Firstly, it is important to clearly define the role of the digital team and the structure of the projects in relation to scholars and programmers, specifying precise procedures and timetabling.
Secondly, timetables need to be realistic, and delays must be given careful consideration. It is better to plan fewer tasks and have too much time to work on them than struggle to meet deadlines. It is inadvisable to agree upon potentially unrealistic timetables.
Thirdly, a good evaluation of labor costs is critical. A project manager must be certain that at every stage of the project he will be able to find a suitable person to do the job, and so cannot agree on an unrealistic lowering of fees as this may make the project unworkable.
Finally, when building a digital empire, project funding can be a good method of financing some first conquers. To ensure stability and organic growth, a reduction in project dependency is needed. The New Panorama of Polish Literature is at the stage of modifying its financial model in order to gain more independence from grants. It is my hope that in a few years I will be able to write about the NPLP experience referring to varied ways of DH funding.
- E. Tabak, A Hybrid Model for Managing DH Projects, Digital Humanities Quarterly (DHQ), 2017, Volume 11, Number 1.<http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/11/1/000284/000284.html> accessed 19.10.2018
- E. Tabak, A Hybrid Model for Managing DH Projects, Digital Humanities Quarterly (DHQ), 2017, Volume 11, Number 1.<http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/11/1/000284/000284.html> accessed 19.10.2018
- A Polish example of such a venture is the scholarly TEI edition of Ioannes Dantiscus’s letters presented at the University of Warsaw by Anna Skolimowska’s team, (A. Skolimowska, M. Turska with collaboration of K. Jasińska-Zdun, Internet publication of Corpus of Ioannes Dantiscus Texts & Correspondence. information about the project) < http://dantiscus.ibi.uw.edu.pl/> accessed 04.03.2019
- A. Prescott, Made in Sheffield: Industrial Perspectives on the Digital Humanities. in: C. Mills, M. Pidd, E. Ward. Proceedings of the Digital Humanities Congress 2012. Studies in the Digital Humanities. Sheffield: The Digital Humanities Institute, 2014. <https://www.dhi.ac.uk/openbook/chapter/dhc2012-prescott>[accessed 19.10.2018]; E. E. Snyder, A Framework for Supporting the Digital Humanities: An Alternative to the DH Centre. C. Mills, M. Pidd, E. Ward. Proceedings of the Digital Humanities Congress 2012. Studies in the Digital Humanities. Sheffield: The Digital Humanities Institute, 2014. <https://www.dhi.ac.uk/openbook/chapter/dhc2012-snyder > [accessed 19.10.2018]