Kunika Kono is Technical Lead for Digital Humanities at the Digital Humanities Research Hub, School of Advance Study, University of London

Over the last year, many universities in the UK faced organisational restructure, departmental closures and job cuts. The School of Advanced Study and its institutes were no exception, and in February 2021, the Digital & Publishing department in the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), where I worked, effectively closed.

IHR Digital & Publishing was the team behind a wide range of digital research projects, resources and publications, including the Bibliography of British and Irish History, Reviews in History and most notably British History Online.

British History Online is the IHR’s flagship digital library of printed primary and secondary sources and a key resource of the study, research and teaching of British and Irish history. It currently holds free and subscription content comprising 1,330 publications with 124,075 pages, 332,190 scans of original pages and 10,380 maps. For over fifteen years British History Online has been widely used by researchers, students and media and as a teaching/learning resource in universities and schools, and it has 10 million page views per year.

Despite the closure of IHR Digital & Publishing, the impact and risk to British History Online has been minimal. While re-allocation of responsibility remains to be decided, the continued access to the resource is assured and this is thanks to the project team behind the current version of British History Online. They are longstanding advocates and practitioners of open access, digital sustainability and preservation, and their considered and consistent strategy included:

  • Implementing a sustainability plan based on hybrid subscription model, to support ongoing maintenance, digitisation of new content and digital preservation lifecycle management.

  • Documenting not only the resource data but all things that surround it. Rich metadata is added and stored with the resource. A substantial amount of historical and recent information about the resource, editorial and technical processes and considerations are recorded in a form of wiki, issue tickets and code repositories.

  • Architecting the platform with preservation considerations, such as interoperability and reuse of data in its database design, and separation of concerns in the build.

  • Ensuring ongoing relevance and value of the resource, through partnerships and collaboration with those working in digital research, and providing a sustainable platform for preservation to research projects, such as The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England and British and Irish Furniture Makers Online.

  • Actively advocating to sustain buy-in within the institution, and to retain existing and acquire new subscriptions.

  • Building trust with the resource users, by way of open and transparent communication about ongoing and future sustainability and preservation plans.

For British History Online, proactive preservation efforts have proved their value. However, this does not mean all is well and good. Digital preservation is an ongoing process, and challenges lie ahead in adapting the current digital preservation values and strategy in the new organisational structure. It will require rethinking, and that must be in creative ways.

This is a challenge faced by many institutions, big and small, and not only in the UK but across the world. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated our use of technology and digital resources, and thereby our reliance and expectations on their availability and access. We are all affected and digital preservation is now more than ever a concern for everyone.

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