The Commons at Five

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, having this 5th birthday celebration for the Commons come so soon on the heels of Thanksgiving and Giving Tuesday, but the coincidence of these events has had me thinking about the many many aspects of this project and its development for which I’m grateful, and the ways we’re hoping to mobilize our resources, and our community, to transform the development, sharing, and preservation of knowledge in and around the academy.

We’ll be sharing some of the numbers in other posts — the growth in our membership, the flourishing of our repository, and more — but I want to focus a bit on our path to sustainability. As we originally noted in our plan for Sustaining the Commons, we migrated the platform to Michigan State University in order to have a secure home base from which to begin a program of expansion that we believe will lead us to both technical and financial sustainability in the years ahead. That expansion is supported by an Infrastructure and Capacity Building Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a program which has challenged us to raise $1.5 million in order to release $500,000 in federal matching funds. Thanks to a generous change capital grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and a wide range of gifts from groups including the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and Digital Scholar — not to mention, of course, community members like you — we are nearing our goal, with only a bit over $200,000 to go. The combined fund created by all of these gifts provides us with a five-year runway to establish the business model that will enable us to be fully sustainable.

We’ve begun that work by investing in our team. Earlier this year, we hired Mike Thicke as our full-time lead developer. Mike has been working hard on remediating some of the technical debt that accrued over the last few years. This work includes getting our underlying software updated and squashing up some long-standing bugs, but also updating our workflows to make them more sustainable. Our project manager, Bonnie Russell, has been a key collaborator in that process, as has our graduate assistant, Katie Knowles. Our work is backed by the rest of the team at MESH Research, including Brian Adams, Kelly Sattler, Scott Schopieray, and has been made possible in the first place by the fantastic team at the MLA, past and present, who got us to this point, including Eric Knappe, Anne Donlon, Nicky Agate, Katina Rogers, Nelson Alonso, and more.

Additionally, we’re in the process of bringing on board two more Commons team members who will help our community grow: a community development manager charged with bringing in the new organizations and institutions whose investments in the platform will be the basis for our future financial sustainability, and a user engagement specialist who will work to ensure that individual users are successful in their goals for using the platform. And we’re also searching for a couple of technical folks: an AWS-oriented systems architect and administrator, and (posting soon!) an identity management engineer.

This expanded team will allow us to do the thing that we’ve all been hoping for: to move beyond a non-stop round of Whack-a-Mole with the most immediate day-to-day issues, to instead focus on the platform’s future. That future includes significant expansion, as we not only bring on new partner organizations but also add hubs for the social sciences and STEM fields to the Commons constellation. It also includes creating new forms of interoperability with other key scholarly tools, allowing your Commons account to serve as a hub for a wide range of online collaboration and communication activities.

Beyond the financial and the technical, however, lies another category of sustainability, one that we believe makes the others possible: social sustainability. This form of sustainability arises from the commitment of a community not just to working together on a particular project, but to the idea of building the conditions for that togetherness in the first place. We’re working to enable this social sustainability by implementing a governance model that gives our partner organizations and institutions a voice in the platform’s development, and that draws on the insights and goals of our users in establishing that development path. To that end, our Participating Organization Council — the equivalent of a governing board for the project — has appointed members to two new groups: a Technical Advisory Group and a User Advisory Group. We’ll be meeting with those groups in January, and we’ll keep all of you posted on how you might connect with them to provide your input into the future of the Commons.

All of this work has been made possible by the support that we have received from our host institution, Michigan State University; from our partners, the Modern Language Association, the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, the Association of University Presses, and the Society for Architectural Historians (plus a few more soon to be announced!); from our funders; and most of all from you. We’re enormously grateful to all of you, and very much looking forward to what we might do together in the next five years.