DH Websites and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Websites are not publications. They are services. They need maintenance to go on functioning. In fact, they often need maintenance in order to avoid becoming a security liability.

Most fields would never expect a website to remain online for twenty years without funding. DH is not most fields. So while ‘maintainability’ is discussed in web development circles, maintaining complex interactive sites for decades with little or no budget is a DH corner case.

Once, digital humanists worried about their sites being rendered obsolete by browser incompatibility or outdated standards. Now, the main threat to website longevity is security. A compromised website will be taken offline as soon as it is detected. If there is no money to fix it, it will never be restored. It could already have leaked commercially or academically sensitive data, perhaps even personal data from the general public with legal ramifications for the hosting institution.

This threat can be heavily mitigated. The methods to do so are partly technical, but they also involve choices about the scope of digital outputs and the planned lifecycle of a DH project. Should off-the-peg or bespoke technology be favoured? Should a site be hosted by an HE institution or commercially? Crucially, what happens when the project ends? To what extent should the full web offering be maintained? What should replace it? In short, what is the project’s web exit strategy?

This paper is the product of auditing over 80 DH websites, some nearly twenty years old. What lessons can be learned from this process? Which sites have aged well, and which poorly? What technical and methodological decisions taken in the ‘90s or early ‘00s paid off for PIs and developers, and which have proved burdensome? The paper will describe a broad range of strategies for maximising website maintainability for the super long term with minimal or zero ongoing budget. Some conclusions are technical, some more broadly strategic. It is relevant to all developers and PIs who plan to create a website as part of a digital humanities project.