UCL Centre for Digital Humanities


LAIRAH report executive summary

his page contains the executive summary only. Please use this link to download the full report


Digital Humanities is a relatively young but very productive discipline. In its short history scholars have produced thousands of digital resources which have been funded by governments, philanthropic bodies and universities. In the UK alone, over 250 digital humanities projects have been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) since 1998. Yet what happens to such resources after completion is poorly understood. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some projects become well known but others have been relatively quickly forgotten. This is regrettable since the non-use of a resource represents a waste both of the considerable intellectual effort and time expended in its production, and potentially considerable amounts of funding. No systematic survey of digital resource usage in the humanities has been undertaken, and the characteristics of a project that might predispose it for sustained use have never been studied.

This report presents the results the LAIRAH (Log analysis of Internet Resources in the Arts and Humanities) project (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/infostudies/research/circah/lairah/) based at UCL's School of Library Archive and Information Studies: a study to discover what influences the long-term sustainability and use of digital resources in the humanities.

Research objectives

  • To determine the scale of the use of digital resources in the humanities, using deep log analysis of the Humbul, Artifact and AHDS portal sites.
  • To determine whether resources that are used share any common characteristics.
  • To highlight areas of good practice, and aspects of project design that might be improved to aid greater use and sustainability.

Key findings

Use Levels

Levels of resource use were difficult to evaluate due to changes in service provision during the research period. However, our findings suggest that 30-35% of digital resources remain unused. This is comparable to the number of scientific articles that remain un-cited.


Non-expert users found it difficult to understand the purpose of several resources. As well as an unambiguous project title, they required information about the contents, scope and how it was selected; the purpose of the resource; and advice about how it might be used.


Few projects kept formal documentation or made it easily available. The exceptions were projects in linguistics, archaeology and archives, areas in which the scholarly community regards documentation as an integral part of research.

User contact

Few projects carried out formal user testing, thus have little idea of the needs of their user community. Those projects which had carried out user tests were amongst the most well-used in our survey.


Successful projects had worked hard to disseminate information about their resource. Individual scholars served as important exemplars of good practice: respect for their scholarship in digital humanities inspired others to undertake similar research.


Staff who are knowledgeable both about humanities research and ICT techniques were key to successful projects. However, a lack of appropriate training meant that they were difficult to find, and scarce funding made them difficult to retain from one project to another.


Few projects realised the importance of ensuring their resource remained sustainable and that both content and interfaces must be maintained and updated. They did not appear to realise that archiving a resource with the AHDS does not guarantee its future accessibility. However, funding for maintenance is difficult to obtain.


The ideal well-used resource would


  • Have an unambiguous name that indicates its purpose or content.
  • Concern a subject that is either popular in a wide community or essential for a smaller expert one.
  • Retain its server logs, and make them available to their funding agency and researchers, subject to confidentiality agreements.
  • Keep documentation and make it available from the project web site, making clear the extent, provenance and selection methods of materials for the resource.


  • Have a clear idea of whom the expected users might be; consult them as soon as possible and maintain contact through the project via a dedicated email list or website feedback.
  • Carry out formal user surveys and software and interface tests and integrate the results into project design.
  • Be designed for a wide variety of users, and include information to help the non-expert to understand the resource and use its contents.


  • Have access to good technical support, ideally from a centre of excellence in digital humanities.
  • Recruit staff who have both subject expertise and knowledge of digital humanities techniques, then train them in other specialist techniques as necessary.
  • Have access to short term funds to allow it to retain expert staff between projects.


  • Have an attractive, usable interface, from which all material for the project may be accessed without the need to download further data or software.
  • Maintain and actively update the interface, content and functionality of the resource, and not simply archive it with the AHDS.
  • Disseminate information about itself widely, both within its own subject domain and in digital humanities.

Recommendations for funding bodies

Duties of projects:

  • Log data should be made available to funding bodies and publicly funded research projects, subject to a written agreement with the research centre or project. If necessary there should be the provision for a confidentiality clause, specifying that individuals may not be identified in published research output.
  • Projects should seek involvement with the AHDS subject centre throughout the development of the resource, and not simply at the time of grant writing or deposit.
  • Applicants to the AHRC should show that they have consulted documentation of other relevant projects and to discuss what they have learnt from it in their case for support.
  • Information should be disseminated widely about the reasons for user testing and its benefits, perhaps via AHRC/AHDS workshops. Projects should be encouraged to collaborate with experts on user behaviour.

Funding procedures

Log data:

  • The AHRC might require funded projects and research centres to maintain log data for an agreed minimum period.
  • Discussions could be held between all interested bodies, (AHDS, AHRC, JISC etc) to decide upon the form in which logs should be kept, and the minimum retention period for them. (If necessary LAIRAH would be happy to provide further advice on this matter)

Broad vs deep usage:

  • When choosing which resources to fund, the AHRC might bear in mind the distinction between resources on popular subjects that are likely to be used by a wide constituency, and those that are essential for a smaller research community. Each type of resource is important, but for a different purpose.
  • Experimental research for which there may be no reuse possible could therefore be distinguished from resources for which a use is expected. In the latter case applicants might be asked to provide evidence of the type of use expected, and size of the potential community.

Library and Information resources:

  • Information resources, such as libraries, archives and research centres have not been replaced by digital resources. We therefore recommend that digital resources ought not to be seen as an alternative to libraries and archives: both digital and analogue information resources and services will continue to need funding.
  • Librarians are trusted as sources of information about digital resources. They therefore require training in digital resources for the humanities in order to inform scholars about appropriate resources for their research.


  • The AHRC might consider making documentation a compulsory deliverable of a funded project.
  • Discussions could be held between relevant stakeholders and the AHRC, with the aim of producing an agreed documentation template. This should specify what should be documented, to what level of detail.


  • The issue of sustainability is vital, and further discussions might be held with the AHDS about whether it is possible for subject centres to collaborate with projects, to help to ensure sustainable resources. This would also require further investigation of funding models for long term maintenance and updating.


  • The AHRC might consider requiring evidence of how user contact and feedback will be carried out, as part of the application form. The results of such contact could then be included in the final report as a condition of satisfactory progress.

Training and career development:

  • The AHRC might consider requiring universities to offer more training for graduate students and RAs in digital humanities techniques.
  • The issue of career progression for former research staff might be considered by the AHRC, and the possibility of short term funding similar to platform grant might be worthy of investigation. Although an initial extra cost, this might avoid repeated funding of similar training for new researchers.