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:


(2018) Kristin R. Eschenfelder, Kalpana Shankar, Rachel D. Williams, Dorothea Salo, Mei Zhang, Allison Langham,  “A nine dimensional framework for digital cultural heritage organizational sustainability: A content analysis of the LIS literature (2000–2015)”, Online Information Review, DOI:

(2018) “Making the case for data archiving: The changing value proposition of social science data archives” Eschenfelder, Kristin; Shankar, Kalpana; Williams, Rachel.  Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Vancouver BC. Preprint

(2017) “Two Views of the Data Documentation Initiative: Stakeholders, Collaboration and Metadata Standards Creation”  Williams, R.; Shankar, K.; Eschenfelder, K.  Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

(2017) Eschenfelder, K. Shankar, K. Organizational Resilience in Data Archives: Three Case Studies in Social Science Data Archives. Data Science Journal, 16, p 12. DOI:

(2016) “Social Science Data Archives: A Trans-Atlantic History of Field-Level Knowledge Infrastructures from 1960-2004.”  Science & Technology Studies, Shankar, K.; Eschenfelder K.E.; Downey G.  Preprint 

(2016) “Collaboration Among Social Science Data Archives” IASSIST Quarterly 40(1)

(2016)  “Designing Sustainable Data Archives: Comparing Sustainability Frameworks Preliminary results paper at the 2016 iConference. Eschenfelder, K.R.; Shankar, K.

(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.


Conference Panels and Posters

(2018) Kalpana Shankar, Kristin R. Eschenfelder, Rachel Williams. “The room where it happens: The hidden business of infrastructure in social science data archives”, Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S), 2018, 30 August-4 September, Sydney, Australia.

(2017) Panelist “Organizational and Institutional Work in Data Infrastructures”  American Society for Information Science Annual Meeting, Crystal City VA.

(2017) Designing Sustainable Data Archives: Comparing Business Models Over Time. Poster at the IASSIST Annual Conference (poster)

(2017)  “Infrastructuring Social Science Data Archives: The Role of Field Level Organizations” Workshop on E-Infrastructure for Collaboration in the Social Sciences and the Humanities at the Computer Supported Cooperative Work Conference, Portland OR  Eschenfelder, K.R.; Shankar K.

(2016) Panelist “Organizational resilience, financial strategies, and social science data archives” SciDataCon, Denver CO. (became the DataScience Journal paper)

(2016) What are we talking about when we talk about (organizational) sustainability of digital archives, repositories and libraries?  Poster at the Annual Conference of the American Society for Information Science & Technology, Eschenfelder, K.R.; Shankar, K.; Williams, R; Langham, A.; Salo, D.; Zhang, M.

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

(2016) “Comparing Theories of Organizational Sustainability” Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies brown bag series, February.

(2015) “Beyond the Spreadsheet: Conceptualizing Sustainability” Digital Humanities Research Network, UW-Madison.

(2015) “Data Downstream” Juried Panel Organizer and Presenter Society 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.

(2015) ” Sustainability of Social Science Data Archives: A Historical Network Perspective” IASSIST 2015 Conference Proceedings. (Winner of conference best paper award).

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


Other Recommended Resources:

CESSDA Toolkit: Archive Development Canvas

European Commission Research Infrastructures Project

OECD Global Science Forum and CoDATA

Knowledge Exchange Project



Many thanks to our student team members and colleague collaborators:

Morgaine Gilchrist-Scott, Lauren Gottlieb-Miller, Allison Langham, Ellen Le Clere, Rebecca Lin, Jenny McBurney, Rachel Williams, Mei Zhang, Dorothea Salo, Laurie Buchholtz