Social Science Data Archives: History and Sustainability

Eric Tanenbaum, “Archives and dinosaurs,” IASSIST 10:1 (1986). Eric Tanenbaum (

Illustration from Eric Tanenbaum, “Archives and dinosaurs,” IASSIST 10:1 (1986). Eric Tanenbaum (

Principle Investigators:

Research Supported By: The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the SLIS Sarah M. Pritchard Faculty Support Fund, ASIS&T History Fund, Irish Research Council.

Project Years: 2014-2018

The goal of this project is to develop a synthesizing history of social science data archives (SSDAs) and the institution of social science data archiving in the US and Europe from the 1960’s forward. SSDAs are a distributed large-scale information infrastructure that have been influential in shaping the development of the social sciences, quantitative methods, data standards, and international relationships among data institutions in the latter half of the twentieth century. SSDA exist quietly in many nations alongside flashier new examples of cyberinfrastructure and open data, curating and providing access to data sets. SSDAs predate both computers and the Internet, and their long history provides an opportunity to examine the back-end of infrastructure over time — massive changes in technical and organizational infrastructure, changes in product pricing and packaging, and changes in professional information practices — in the context of the ups and downs of funding cycles and changing fashions in the social sciences.

Knowledge about the history of SSDAs can contribute to current conversations on the sustainability of knowledge infrastructures over time.

How have data archives remained sustainable (or not)?  We want to understand what strategies and tactics specific SSDAs, and the professional organizations and working groups representing the field of social science data archiving, have employed to remain active and relevant through fifty years of institutional, financial, technological change.  The experiences of SSDA that have persisted, and the experiences of those that have disappeared, hold lessons for current STS scholarship in cyberinfrastructures, open data and labor in the information professions.   The project will frame findings with theories of gender and labor, organizational adaptation and sustainability,  and science infrastructures.

Data sources:

  • Organizational documents from SSDA (reports, grant applications, budgets, strategic plans)
  • Organizational documents from social science data archiving organizations (plans, budgets, membership lists)
  • interviews with SSDA staff and leaders of organizational groups
  • Social network analysis of interactions among SSDA via professional organizations and working groups

Current study partners/sites:

Outputs (as of March 2016):

(in progress) What are we talking about when we talk about sustainability?

This paper further contributes to understandings of what sustainability means in the context of data archives and other digital infrastructures by critically analyzing discussion of sustainability in articles representing the digital libraries field from 2005 to 2015 and comparing the results to 5 different theoretical approaches to understanding organizational sustainability.

(forthcoming) “Studying the History of Social Science Data Archives as Knowledge Infrastructure”  Science and Technology Studies, Shankar, K.; Eschenfelder K.E.; Downey G.

We map out a new arena of analysis for knowledge and cyberinfrastructure scholars: Social Science Data Archives (SSDA). SSDA have influenced the international development of the social sciences, research methods, and data standards in the latter half of the twentieth century. They provide entry points to understand how fields organise themselves to be ‘data intensive’. Longitudinal studies of SSDA can increase our understanding of the sustainability of knowledge infrastructure more generally. We argue for special attention to the following themes: the co-shaping of data use and users, the materiality of shifting revenue sources, field level relationships as an important component of infrastructure, and the implications of centralisation and federation of institutions and resources. We briefly describe our ongoing study of primarily quantitative social science data archives. We conclude by discussing how cross-institutional and longitudinal analyses can contribute to the scholarship of knowledge infrastructure.

(in press) “Collaboration Among Social Science Data Archives”  IASSIST Quarterly.  Eschenfelder, K.R.; Shankar, K.; Gilchrist-Scott, M.  See also earlier version presented at the IASSIST Conference Minneapolis MN.  (The conference paper won best paper)

This paper reports findings about inter-organizational relationships among social science data archives over time, focusing on activities of institutions affiliated with the journal International Association of Social Science Information Services and Technology Quarterly (IASSIST Quarterly).  We examine how archives interacted from 1976-2014 by tracing relationships described in articles published in IASSIST Quarterly.

(2016)  “Designing Sustainable Data Archives: Comparing Sustainability Frameworks  i conference 2016 Preliminary Results Paper  

This theory review paper argues that in order to ensure the longevity of data, we need a better understanding of the sustainability of institutions that steward data. The paper considers what sustainability means in relation to data archives. It compares five frameworks that inform the concept of sustainability in order to develop a more complex understanding of the concept of sustainability. The resulting conceptualizations of sustainability can aid data archive stakeholders, designers and analysts in making decisions about how to develop “sustainable” data institutions.

(2015) Sustaining Data Archives over Time: Lessons from the Organizational Studies Literature, New Review of Information Networking, 20:1-2, 248-254. Kalpana Shankar & Kristin R. Eschenfelder.

This article will explore how organizational theoretic approaches to understanding institutional sustainability could be applied to contemporary data archives and archival practices, with the aim of raising larger questions about data sustainability. The article is part of a larger study in progress of how one particular example of long-lived archives, Social Science Data Archives (SSDAs), have maintained themselves over time. SSDAs predate both computers and the Internet and provide a unique opportunity to examine perceptions about what makes an archive sustainable, through the ups and downs of funding cycles and massive changes in technical and organizational infrastructure

(2014)  “Social Science Data Archives: History and Sustainability”  Poster at iConference, Berlin.


Other Activities

(2016) “Beyond the Spreadsheet: Sustainability Lessons from a History of Data Archives” Research Data Access and Preservation Summit (RDAP 2016), Atlanta GA.

(2015) “Data Downstream” Juried Panel Organizers for the Social Studies of Science Conference, Denver CO.

(2015) “Sustaining Data Archives Over Time: Lessons from The Organisational Studies Literature” Digital Preservation for the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (DPASSH 2015) 25-26 June, 2015  Dublin Ireland.

(2014) “Transatlantic Data Collaborations: the SSDA Project” Presentation at the Oxford Internet Summer School.

Student Team Members:

@ Univeristy of Wisconsin-Madison: Morgaine Gilchrist-Scott, Lauren Gottlieb-Miller, Allison Langham, Ellen Le Clere, Rebecca Lin, Jenny McBurney, Rachel Williams