Infrastructure Matters: Why DH Needs a Reality Check, Part Two

April 8, 2013 in Uncategorized

At the end of my previous infrastructures post, I was struggling with finding a sustainable hosting space for the RCAH Center for Poetry’s digital archive.

When I discovered that the RCAH itself could not support an archive for the Center, I decided, at the suggestion of my advisor (one of the most prominent DH scholars at MSU), to talk to the digital humanities librarian at the MSU Main Library. When I finally got a chance to speak with him, he told me that, if the library were to house the collection, everything–all the resources and media files–would technically belong to the library, and the library would build the archive without mine or the Center’s input. It would be as though the Center had no connection to its own archive. No idea how long this would take, either. This was obviously not ideal and would not work at all for what the Center wanted for itself, and what I wanted for the Center.

My next stop was Matrix (the organization who is sponsoring this Day of DH). Matrix houses a number of prominent archives, including the Quilt Index ( and H-Net ( Since the Center for Poetry could not house its own archive, I felt that Matrix would be an appropriate choice for alternative hosting. I spoke with Dean Rehberger, one of my advisors and co-director of Matrix, to see if this was possible. Dean explained that it would be possible, but since there was no funding to host a separate site, the Center for Poetry would have to be accessed through Matrix’s domain ( I should note that the directors Center for Poetry were willing to pursue grants for this archive, but, as I will note later, grants take time. A lot of time. And I did not have a lot of time. I decided to use Omeka (  for the Center’s archive. Omeka is a CMS which is geared toward archivists and museum administrators. It is designed to build collections and exhibits, mainly those that use the Dublin Core metadata set. Dean also warned me that Omeka “did not play well” with Matrix’s servers, but I was at a loss for what else to use. Like I said, I’m not a coder. I couldn’t scratch-build an archive that would work for the Center’s needs and be easy for them to use and maintain after I was gone.

By this time, it was well into March and I was becoming very worried about getting the archive done. Unfortunately, it takes time to secure hosting and set up a database. I had to wait for a few weeks before receiving a sheet of paper (!) with the database codes and passwords on it. This past weekend, me and a colleague spent about four hours trying to install Omeka into the server and database provided by Matrix. After trying just about everything we could think of, we realized that it was useless. Nothing worked. I also discovered that the CD that the Center for Poetry gave me–and which was supposed to contain all of the audio and video for the archive–was actually just a handful of images with no metadata. Frantic emails were sent.

So this is where I am right now: No archive. No content for that archive. About ten days left to get something done enough to present at the Spring Fellows Symposium. The acronym “FUBAR” comes to mind. I’m going to see if there’s any way I can install WordPress on the Matrix server and at least build a kind of skeleton for the Center for Poetry’s archive. If that doesn’t work, I’m really out of luck.

What to make of all of this? Certainly I have made some mistakes here. I have been a victim of bad luck, and I shouldn’t be complaining. However, I think all of this highlights a couple of important, insidious problems with digital humanities projects. Simply put, digital humanities projects are extremely complicated, and require extensive negotiation of infrastructures. This negotiation is time-consuming; it is frustrating and difficult. Things simply do not get done, or they get done in ways that aren’t ideal. I think that people who are less educated about DH assume that digital humanists–even if they are extremely educated researchers and fantastically talented coders–can “work magic” and create fully-realized projects in tiny amounts of time with zero resources. Infrastructures matter, especially when the infrastructures are more like obstacles. As DeVoss, Cushman, and Grabill note:

When the tasks of composing–including the tasks of thinking, of imagining, of creating–are not consistent with existing standards, practices, and values, infrastructure breaks down, revealing the need to meet the demands of new meaning-making practices (DeVoss et al 33-34).

This was the case with my project, and it’s true that even I succumbed to these assumptions. So, I guess I learned quite a bit, which was one of the goals of the RCAH Fellows program in the first place. Unfortunately, I have nothing to show for my learning but a pile of false starts and failings.

I hope I can do something worthwhile for the RCAH Center for Poetry. I’m frustrated, sad, and angry. I haven’t given up, but I really do hope that my experience can serve as a testament to those who think that DH projects are straight shots at a goal. Infrastructures exist, and they break down. Projects break down. People break down. This is the reality of doing DH. Those who don’t know, or don’t want to know, need a reality check.