Costing Out a Small Digital Humanities Lab

In conversations with fellow digi-dorks, it became clear I was looking at this wrong. To answer the question, how much does it cost to start a small digital humanities lab; first, consider the most expensive element: personnel. The other costs: a few computers, web-hosting, software, and furniture are relatively inexpensive. The other big issue, and one where the costs may not necessarily be monetary, is physical space. Is there office or lab space available on campus?

Before approaching the question of cost though, there has to be a serious look at need. Do you need a digital humanities lab? What’s the purpose? Is this the equivalent of an Internet cafe from 2002, just something to check off on a list of features and services, or is it filling a demonstrable need for students and faculty?

The Highest Cost

Faculty members and students don’t need a digital humanities lab to do digital humanities scholarship. They need a computer with admin privileges, web-hosting of some kind, and most importantly, time. There’s a learning curve and experimentation requires patient failure until one gets it right. When you see a cool project online, you’re seeing a finished product and not the effort it took to get there. In a similar fashion, when you read a novel, you’re reading the final version after editing and not the countless drafts, notes, and research files. Some projects may have blogs or timelines that document the process and provide insight into how long it took to take an idea and transform it into something tangible for users, but that’s not the forefront of what people see.

Work Remotely, Embrace the Cloud

Collaboration requires communication and access. It doesn’t mean one needs to be in the same physical space. If multiple faculty members are working on a project, they can work on the project together from their own offices or homes. This makes sense, because faculty are supported in their research by the institution. They have space from which to work and they have a computer. Granted there may be some negotiations in order to secure admin privileges or software, but for the most part faculty members are supported by the institution.

The complicating factor is supporting students. Not every student has a computer or a laptop, so how does an institution equitably support students? Traditionally, the answer is a lab, a physical space from which the student can work.

Laptops Not Labs

Instead of creating a digital humanities lab, why not purchase laptops for the project and loan them to students? Academic libraries are already loaning out laptops and iPads to students, so there is a model from which to work. One problem with this idea is availability. Instead of scheduling time for students to come in and work, a schedule would have to be created for using laptops. There may be more flexibility though as students could have the laptops overnight.

Collaborative Learning & Coworking

So, you’re not convinced about working remotely. It’s okay. I get it. I like people and whiteboards too. For those still stuck on the need for space, why not create a mixed-use space that fills a number of roles on campus? Consolidate services. Let teams or projects reserve an office or workspace for a semester or a year. Design with flexibility and future needs in mind. Too often, and I’m thinking of my experience in libraries, learning commons or media centers are created in a static, misunderstood way. Essentially, they become quiet computer labs and fall short of their lofty goals.

Getting Back to Staffing

At the beginning of this post, I said, the biggest cost was personnel. That’s still true if you are providing support for faculty and students to develop digital projects; however, it also depends on the scale of development. A tech-savvy faculty member working with a handful of students requires a different level of support, than a large-scale digitization project. By providing resources and space (if it’s needed), the staffing issue may be bypassed for a while. If interest in digital projects picks up though, a case could be made for support staff.

Earlier, I mentioned consolidating services, and this is another way support for digital humanities projects could be achieved. By having a number of skilled people that can support a range of student and faculty needs, an institution may be able to save money.

The Bottom Line

Laptops run from $400 to $1,500+. Web-hosting, if you have to pay for it, is $5 to $20 per month. A domain name can cost $10 a year. There’s a lot of great tools and open-source software that are free, but software may need to be purchased depending on the project. For instance, I use Oxygen to encode in TEI and transform data with XSLT. It costs $64 under an educational license, but it may not be necessary unless the project uses XML.

Faculty and students shouldn’t let a lack of space stop them from pursuing digital humanities scholarship. Instead of costing out a digital humanities lab, follow trends set by coworking and startups. Get tools in people’s hands and get to work.

4 thoughts on “Costing Out a Small Digital Humanities Lab”

  1. Good points, Tim. An interesting, appropriately scaled project with an active, engaged team is more important than a formal space or pricey infrastructure. I’d even go so far as to say that the right project and people are prerequisites to infrastructure, since they demonstrate community interest.

    A good project doesn’t have to be technologically fancy. I’ve been selling Built St. Louis ( as a fairly simple effort (one guy with a camera, basically) that over time has created a comprehensive resource.

  2. I agree with a lot of your points about space, tools and flexibility. As a librarian I think in terms of what my library can do to support digital humanities on campus and I keep coming around to expertise. Knowledgeable and approachable staff (or librarians or faculty, etc.) who can help researchers at any level get started and continue learning the skills needed to do DH work are what I would like to continue to see more of on my campus.

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