Overview

clipart image of a social network

Humanities Commons — now three years old and serving nearly 25,000 users around the world — has become a key piece of online scholarly infrastructure. In order to ensure that the Commons becomes and remains sustainable, we have established some strategic plans for the network’s technical, financial, and governance future.

Our goal for these plans, and for communicating them to you, is transparency, both because we believe it's important for our users to understand how the networks on which they rely operate and because we want you to be involved and invested in the development of our network.

Background

Humanities Commons was first launched in December 2016 as an expansion of MLA Commons, which had itself been in operation since January 2013. MLA Commons was originally conceived as a benefit for MLA members, allowing them to continue year-round the kinds of conversations they have at the annual convention, but we quickly received expressions of interest from members engaged in active collaborations with folks in other fields, as well as from other scholarly societies looking for similar means of fostering member-to-member communication within their organizations.

With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we began a pilot project designed to test the viability of a network of networks, with each node serving the members of a scholarly society while permitting members of multiple such societies to participate through a single account. Along the way, however, we recognized that there was a vast need for a network serving all scholars and practitioners across the humanities, without regard for institutional affiliation or society membership. As a result, we tied the proprietary society nodes -- MLA Commons, ASEEES Commons, AJS Commons, and CAA Commons -- together via an open hub: Humanities Commons.

That openness is simultaneously the greatest strength of the network we have built and its greatest challenge. Our values are deeply rooted in openness, equity, and inclusion, and so it was obvious to us that we wanted to build a network that was and would remain free and open to anyone who wanted to create an account. Humanities Commons thus embraces a form of open access that's not just accessible to all readers, but accessible to all participants.

However, making such a free-and-open network sustainable is a challenge. Organizations that might have been persuaded to help support the Commons if its use were an exclusive benefit they could provide to their members have been less able to justify the expense of joining a Commons that is open to anyone. And yet the costs of operating the Commons remain real, and substantial -- and growing, as the network grows.

Grant support has been an enormous help in getting us this far, but grant support isn't an adequate sustainability plan. And three and a half years into what has been a phenomenally successful experiment, we now need to place the Commons on more stable, sustainable footing.

Sustainability

Working with the Chain Bridge Group (and again with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), the Commons team conducted a deep analysis of our expenses and our potential market, and based on that analysis developed a plan for network sustainability. That plan includes a few key transformations:

  1. Seeking a larger, more flexible fiscal sponsor and host for the network.
  2. Expanding the network to include a greater number and variety of participating organizations.
  3. Establishing governance processes that will keep the community involved and invested in the network's future.

The rest of this site explores those transformations in greater detail, but here's the tl;dr:

  • As of approximately 23 October 2020, the Commons will be hosted by Michigan State University, and its development will be overseen by MESH Research, an R&D unit established in 2019 as a co-venture of the College of Arts & Letters and the MSU Libraries.
  • In conjunction with the move, the network's Terms of Use and Privacy Statement will be revised to indicate that MSU rather than MLA is the network's operator, and thus that the university is the network's data controller.
  • New membership organizations have recently joined the network, including the Association of University Presses, the Society of Architectural Historians, and in the coming months more organizations, including the Art Libraries Society of North America will follow.
  • Additionally, we are opening participating organization membership to colleges and universities, in order to provide an academy-owned alternative to commercial repository, publishing, and profile services. We're piloting institutional membership through MSU Commons, which launched in beta in June.
  • As we open membership in the Commons to colleges and universities, however, we need to support all members of those institutional communities. As a result, Humanities Commons will soon be joined by disciplinary hubs dedicated to the social sciences and to STEM fields. We'll also be launching a new top-level hub -- the Commons -- to support cross-disciplinary collaborations.
  • Finally, in order to ensure that participating organizations and end users both have a voice in the future development of the Commons, we have developed a set of bylaws for the network that provide for its governance.

We hope that you'll explore the details of these transformations and send us any feedback you may have. And we hope that you'll get involved and help support the development of the Commons as we move forward.

For the Commons team,
Kathleen Fitzpatrick's signature
Kathleen Fitzpatrick
Director, Humanities Commons