Embracing Endings: Principles for Digital Longevity and Their Importance for Research Software Engineers

The Endings Project: Building Sustainable Digital Humanities Projects.

In the ever-evolving digital landscape, the concept of digital longevity is of paramount importance. As Research Software Engineers or Data Stewards, we are all too familiar with the challenges of maintaining, preserving, and ensuring the usability of our digital projects in the long run - possibly even beyond its end of life (or end of funding). The Endings Project, spearheaded by the University of Victoria, offers a set of principles that provide a roadmap to ensure the sustainability of digital projects. This blog entry is an introduction to the principles and an example of their application in the Stadt.Geschichte.Basel project in Switzerland.

The Background of the Endings Principles

The Endings Principles were born out of the University of Victoria’s extensive experience with a broad variety of SSHRC and CFI-funded DH projects over the past 15 years. The multidisciplinary team behind the Endings Project includes research faculty from several disciplines, programmers, and librarians, all of whom have collective theoretical and practical experience in various fields.

The Endings Principles for Digital Longevity provide a valuable framework for ensuring the sustainability and longevity of digital projects. Incorporating these principles into the work of Research Software Engineers allows for the assurance that the projects will stand the test of time and continue to provide value to the scholarly community for years to come.

What are the Endings Principles?

The Endings Principles for Digital Longevity are a set of guidelines that divide digital projects into five primary components: Data, Documentation, Processing, Products, and Release Management. Each component is governed by specific principles that ensure the longevity and sustainability of digital projects.

  1. Data
    Data is the expression of the source information, knowledge, and expertise of our researchers. The following principles apply to data:

    1. Data is stored only in formats that conform to open standards and that are amenable to processing (TEI XML, GML, ODF, TXT).
    2. Data is subject to version control (Subversion, Git).
    3. Data is continually subject to validation and diagnostic analysis.
  2. Documentation

    1. Data models, including field names, descriptions, and controlled values, should be clearly documented in a static document that is maintained with the data and forms part of the products.
    2. All rights and intellectual property issues should be clearly documented. Where possible the Data and Products should be released under open licenses (Creative Commons, GNU, BSD, MPL).
  3. Processing
    Processing code is written and maintained by the project technical staff, and is also subject to version control. Processing code provides all the following functions:

    1. Relentless validation: all processing includes validation/linting of all inputs and outputs and all validation errors should exit the process and prevent further execution until the errors are resolved.
    2. Continuous integration: any change to the source data requires an entire rebuild of the site (triggered automatically where possible).
    3. Code is contingent: while code is not expected to have significant longevity, wherever possible, all code should follow Endings principles for data and products.
  4. Products
    Products are the project outputs intended for end-users, typically in the form of websites or print documents. The following principles apply to products intended for the web:

    1. No dependence on server-side software: build a static website with no databases, no PHP, no Python.
    2. No boutique or fashionable technologies: use only standards with support across all platforms, whose long-term viability is assured. Our choices are HTML5, JavaScript, and CSS.
    3. No dependence on external libraries or services: no JQuery, no AngularJS, no Bootstrap, no Google Search.
    4. No query strings: every entity in the site has a unique page with a simple URL that will function on any domain or IP address.
    5. Inclusion of data: every site should include a documented copy of the source data, so that users of the site can repurpose the work easily.
    6. Massive redundancy: every page contains all the components it needs, so that it will function without the rest of the site if necessary, even though doing so means duplicating information across the site.
    7. Graceful failure: every page should still function effectively even in the absence of JavaScript or CSS support.

    These principles are tempered by the following concessions:

    1. Once a fully-working static site is achieved, it may be enhanced by the use of other services such as a server-side indexing tool (Solr, eXist) to support searching and similar functionality.
    2. The use of an external library may be necessary to support a specific function that is too complex to be coded locally (such as mapping or cryptography). Any such libraries must be open-source and widely-used, and must not themselves have dependencies.
  5. Release Management
    Release management handles the public release of products. These principles apply to release management:

    1. Releases should be periodical and carefully planned. The “rolling release” model should be avoided.
    2. A release should only be made when the entire product set is coherent, consistent, and complete (passing all validation and diagnostic tests).
    3. Like editions of print works, each release of a web resource should be clearly identified on every page by its build date and some kind of version number.
    4. Web resources should include detailed instructions for citation, so that end-users can unambiguously cite a specific page from a specific edition.
    5. URLs for individual resources within a digital publication should persist across editions. Any moved, retired, or deleted resources no longer available at a previously accessible URL should be redirected appropriately.

Why Do We Need Them?

The digital world is susceptible to what experts warn could be a new “digital dark age.” Our capacity to produce digital information is outpacing our ability to preserve and access that knowledge for the long haul. This is particularly essential for digital humanities (DH) projects, where the disregard of preserving and future-proofing these projects jeopardizes their future. The Endings Principles provide a practical solution to these challenges, offering a roadmap for the successful conclusion, archiving, and preservation of digital projects.

How Can You Use Them for Your Work?

The Endings Principles can be applied to any digital project, regardless of its scale or complexity. By adhering to these principles, Research Software Engineers can ensure that their projects are sustainable. This means that the projects will remain accessible, usable, and valuable for the foreseeable future, far beyond the estimated 10-year lifespan of most current formats.

Application of Endings Principles for Digital Longevity in Stadt.Geschichte.Basel

In Stadt.Geschichte.Basel, more than 70 historians and archaeologists are comprehensively researching the history of Basel. The project runs from 2017 to 2025 and has a budget of more than $9 million. It focuses on current and under-researched topics such as the industrial and commercial history of the 19th and 20th centuries and the history of migration. The project also aims to explore the regional and international connections of Basel's history on the economic, political, and cultural levels. The project will result in a series of nine books, to be published in stages, covering the history of Basel from the Celts to the present. The project's website will provide access to documents, data, and materials for research and teaching, as well as insights into the processes of creating historical research and public interest in the city's history. To achieve this, the project has established a team of five people responsible for managing the researched data and creating the necessary software tools.

In the Stadt.Geschichte.Basel project, we recognize the importance of ensuring the longevity of our digital resources. To this end, we have adopted the Endings Principles for Digital Longevity, which guide our approach to managing and preserving our digital assets.

Principle 1: Durability by Design

We design our digital resources with durability in mind. This includes the use of open, non-proprietary formats for our data and metadata, which ensures that our resources remain accessible and usable over time. Our online portal is designed to be continuously updated and maintained even after the end of the project period, ensuring its long-term viability.

Principle 2: Openness and Transparency

We are committed to openness and transparency in our work. Our online portal provides public access to a wide range of data on Basel's history, and we actively engage with our stakeholders, including researchers, media, schools, memory institutions, and the public, to ensure that our work meets their needs and expectations.

Principle 3: Respect for User Community

We regularly survey our users to understand their needs and expectations, and we involve them in the development of our work packages. We establish focus groups that include researchers and partners involved in the project, who we consider as data producers. In our team, we have two Data Stewards. This role is responsible for surveying the working methods and needs of authors, defining the focus of research data management, creating requirements specifications, and offering consulting, workshops, and colloquia as needed. We also try to understand the users of our online portals and educational materials, who we consider as data consumers. To gather feedback, we survey these focus groups at irregular intervals using online questionnaires and workshops. The topics we cover in these surveys are directly relevant to the development of our project.

Principle 4: Recognition of Complexity

We recognize the complexity of digital preservation and have established a dedicated role of Data Stewards to manage our digital resources. Our Data Stewards are responsible for various tasks, including the management of image data, cartographical material, literature and tables. They also participate in ongoing training and networking activities to stay up-to-date with the latest developments in research data management and digital humanities.

Principle 5: Sustainable Resourcing

We understand that digital preservation requires sustainable resourcing. We have allocated specific workloads for tasks related to digital preservation, and we have established partnerships with various institutions, such as the University Library of Basel, University of Bern and the Land Registry and Survey Office, to ensure the long-term preservation and accessibility of our digital resources.

By adhering to these principles, we aim to ensure that the digital resources produced by the Stadt.Geschichte.Basel project remain accessible, usable, and meaningful for future generations.