Planning the Lifespan of Digital Projects

The web is not known for its permanence. But just how long should the shelf-life be for a digital history project?

One year? Five years? Forever? And what then? Should the project be updated in either content, design, or programming, or should it be archived as-is?

For those of us creating new online tools and resources, project lifespan is an important but often overlooked decision in the planning process.

" circa June 1997, courtesy of the Internet Archive"

After all, sooner than you think, that cutting-edge site you’re currently pitching to your bosses, colleagues and/or funders may look or act like a digital dinosaur. If you need a reminder about just how quickly web standards have changed, go play around with the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. There, you can visit 150 billion web pages archived since 1996, perhaps including pages from your own institution.

You may chuckle at a few of the old sites, but don’t laugh too hard. That digital public history project you’re working on right now might look equally old-fashioned in even less time.

So how do you plan the right lifespan for your digital history project?

First, let me assure you that there’s no “right” answer to this problem. Some projects will be worth maintaining, updating, and transforming for many years to come. Others deserve a significant investment now, but won’t in the future. Only you will know what makes sense for your own project.

Of course, for those of us working in the nonprofit world, one of the most important factors in planning digital shelf-life is (of course) money.

No one can be guaranteed financial support indefinitely, but what are the chances that you’ll have resources available for updating the content, design, and/or programming down the road? If you can’t think of a permanent staff position at your institution under whom this project would fall, the odds for a long shelf-life are not looking good. How else might you find the resources to help the project evolve over time?

You should also think about whether it makes logical sense to update the project as time passes. Does your digital history project fit with long-term programmatic goals of your organization, or is it more opportunistic, marking a specific anniversary or event?

Finally, evaluate how closely your project is tied to a single platform or technology. Are you building a digital project to take advantage of a unique tool that’s popular right now, or are you intending the project to work with diverse platforms? The more narrow your technological focus now, the more work you may face to adapt it in the future.

"The same site circa September 2011"

And that is the key to thinking about digital lifespans. The only thing we know for sure about the digital world of the future is that it won’t look or work exactly like the digital world of today.