Arts and Culture: A Conversation with Mike Furlough about HathiTrust


September 25, 2023

This interview is re-published from the Non-Profit Finance Fund (NFF) blog, Arts and Culture: A Conversation with Mike Furlough about HathiTrust, posted on June 28, 2023. HathiTrust participated in NFF’s Mellon-supported Building Financial Resilience in the Digital Humanities cohort.

As technology continues to rapidly evolve, digital humanities organizations have been at the forefront of innovation in humanities. They use technology to improve education and scholarship. And they find new ways to preserve stories, voices, and digital creations.

In June 2020, NFF kicked off a project to support a cohort of digital humanities organizations by deepening and strengthening their financial resilience and adaptability. With more people operating in digital spaces than ever before, the work of digital humanities organizations is crucial for developing, preserving, and sharing cultural artifacts, representations, and scholarly work for generations to come.

Following is an interview with Mike Furlough, Executive Director of HathiTrust, about some of the unique dynamics digital humanities organizations face and how a change capital grant has catalyzed opportunities for growth.


Digital humanities is a broad term and field – how do you define it?

I would define digital humanities as deliberately and intentionally using digital technologies as an interpretive methodology of the humanities. The humanities are about helping us understand ourselves and the ways we create meaning in the world, the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the past and help imagine our future. Fundamentally they’re about helping us live our lives and make sense of what we’re living through and how we are doing so.

Technology shapes, constrains, and influences how you experience the world. Today there’s not really any aspect of the work we do in libraries or humanities that’s not in some way digitally enabled. People can access library collections that were previously unavailable to them without travel. Imaging technology allows people to scan photographs or manuscripts and enhance elements that you might not have picked up before. With the aid of a computer and some programming, people can gather documents such as 19th century novels and gain new insight into concepts such as gender as a social construct in the 19th century, and reflect on how such a system has influenced our world today. Technology is really the means to an end. It’s one more tool in a kit of techniques, methods, and theories to employ.

In your own words, can you share a little bit about your organization and what it does?

HathiTrust is a member-driven organization of over 200 academic research libraries around the world. We were founded to collaborate on digital preservation and access with the idea that through collaboration, we could tackle local issues at the system level.

We collect, preserve, and make accessible the record of human knowledge. Most of what we focus on is collecting digital versions of books, serials, journals, and other published materials.

We’re best known for the HathiTrust Digital Library, which preserves about 18 million scanned books. But there’s no such thing as preservation without also ensuring future access – those two things go hand in hand. We try to make our collection as open and accessible as possible to users worldwide, though we often find ourselves constrained by copyright law both within and outside the US.

We also offer a number of additional programs that support academic libraries and students, teachers, and researchers – we’re an extension of their collections and services. I don’t usually think of HathiTrust as a “digital humanities” organization, but we certainly are a critical resource for humanists, including digital humanists, like libraries in general.

Can you tell us a story that shows us how your work impacted a person, organization, or community?

One of the best examples comes from the early period of the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially we didn’t know much about how the virus was being spread and there was real concern about whether it was even safe to handle circulating library materials, much less be in proximity to others. Libraries were closed or largely inaccessible; universities and colleges sent their students back home and put their classes online.  People could not get to the library collections they relied upon.

HathiTrust’s collection of 18 million digitized books were scanned primarily for preservation and access. This gets a little bit into the weeds of copyright law, but they were scanned without the permission of the copyright holders – which is perfectly legal to do, but if you don’t have permission from the rightsholders, you are limited in what you can do with those scans and whether or not you can share them online. In some cases you can legally make them fully available to individuals, such as when the person is blind or disabled and isn’t able to physically hold up a book – I’ll come back to this in a moment – but we can’t make those millions of books publicly viewable for general users.

With COVID closures starting, we immediately understood that we had to find some way to make this collection accessible to a broader set of users, so we quickly worked through a legal analysis and determined that under the then-current circumstances, and for limited periods of time, we could and would make the digital library more open. In the course of about three weeks, we developed a new service and system that allowed member libraries and their authenticated users to gain digital access to books. If the library had the physical book, we would make the digital version available with the understanding that – at the time – the physical book was not accessible.

We heard from a lot of individuals about the difference this made to them at a terrible time. One person wrote on Twitter that “I did not expect to be doing my final corrections and reference checking for [my] new book in a pandemic with all of the libraries closed, so huge thanks to @hathitrust for emergency temporary access service.” Another wrote directly to us that without emergency access “I would not have been able to write anything. Because of this service, I was able to complete two chapters of my dissertation since the onset of these limiting circumstances.” There were 200 member libraries around the world that made use of this emergency access service, with tens of thousands of users. It is the most important thing that HathiTrust has ever done, and the most important thing I’ve ever done in my career.

Prior to COVID, one of our priorities was focusing on accessibility. We have made it our mission to ensure that all researchers and students have an opportunity to use HathiTrust, regardless of their abilities. Universities and colleges have a legal and moral obligation to support their users with disabilities. But folks who are blind or have other visual or cognitive impairments have long been disadvantaged in making use of library collections when books are only published in print. Historically publishers did not mass produce books in special formats for blind readers. It’s costly to produce a book in Braille, and time consuming to produce a book on tape. But starting in the 1980s and 1990s, digital versions could be more easily provided and allow people to use screen readers or other devices. From the beginning of HathiTrust, we made sure that we had the services and policies in place to create legal pathways for these users to obtain digital access to these books and put them into the formats or devices necessary to read them.

What are some of the unique challenges that digital humanities organizations face compared to other humanities and culture organizations?

It’s a whole lot easier to come up with a good idea than it is to plan for how to carry it out over decades and decades. So in some ways, the challenges are quite similar to other kinds of organizations, but there are notable differences. It’s almost always the case that mission and ambition don’t match well with resources. But in the digital humanities, because so much of it is individually scholar-driven, there has not been a history of professional administration of and large-scale collaboration on these kinds of projects and programs.

If you compare other kinds of cultural organizations like museums, a large part of the professional discipline is focused not only on collections and curations, but also on governance, finance, fundraising. Through the work we do as librarians, we also gain skills in administration, financial oversight and so forth – and there’s a big network you can turn for mentorship – but the business of higher education is not designed to support individual scholars in their idiosyncratic research and programs. Higher ed revenue is driven by tuition, fees, endowments, and public appropriations in some cases. Money flows to departments to support the teaching mission, and a little bit of the research mission. But researchers are generally expected to look for external funding – from granting agencies – to support digital humanities projects, especially if these projects or programs are carried out over many years. So projects by scholars are often smaller in scale and done on shoestring budgets and little means for sustainability. There isn’t really a business model that supports them.

Similarly, the business of higher education recognizes the importance of libraries, and funds them “from the center” usually without an expectation that they will raise revenue.  As a library administrator I had exposure to budgets and financial management but had never faced the need to generate revenue. Academic libraries receive funding from the university in amounts that are more or less historically based. There are few opportunities to create new income-generating opportunities, and we are generally discouraged from saving money from year to year.

HathiTrust is very different though.  We are essentially a non-profit enterprise that is heavily dependent on a revenue-based model – our member libraries provide 99% of our budget. So my previous experience with budgeting did not totally prepare me for my current job.  At HathiTrust I came to recognize that I’m running a business and that I had to became familiar with budgets and financing in a new way.

Starting in June of 2020, our team at NFF got to work with you on strategic financial management. Can you share a little bit about your experience diving into your organization’s finances and looking more closely at things like business models and full cost?

Certain concepts have been extremely helpful, such as the concept of full cost and unfunded expenses. It’s relatively simple, straightforward, and obvious, and yet I didn’t look at or think about finances in these ways without having them brought to my attention by NFF.

The concept of change capital is really critical. Typically in our field we tend to think about using grants or reserves to innovate, and create new things that may generate new interest and new income. And we do need to do that.  But it was helpful to recognize that reserves can and should also be used for helping us make progress on the so-called “bread and butter” operations. By that I mean the internal things that will make our organization run more effectively and efficiently, make better decisions, understand our impact.  If you lead a non-profit, you need to reinvest in yourself to help your organization change business practices to better carry out your mission.

Both concepts helped me think through the fact that at HathiTrust we were emerging out of a startup mode. We are at that period in an organization’s life where we need to build up our internal infrastructure – human resources, professional administration, program management, and resource planning.

What are your plans for the change capital grant that you received from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation?

We needed the funding to support new positions dedicated to building our analysis of HathiTrust’s impact. One role is for someone who would be the lead for our analytics activity. We’re sitting on a lot of data and we need help digging into it and drawing conclusions that can help us with decision-making in service design, features, collecting, and other strategic aspects of our work.

Another position goes to developing a more disciplined, rigorous, and thoughtful process around resource planning and – even more importantly – sequencing and scheduling. The team comes up with lots of good ideas, but we often find ourselves unable to anticipate how long something will take. We need someone to help manage deadlines and understand when a tool will be at its end of life. The funding will help us better understand what our impact is and the resources we need to achieve that impact.

What have you learned from this initiative that you would like to share with other digital humanities organizations?

Do not sell yourself short. Don’t be afraid to invest in yourself. Show what it actually costs to do your work. You may be shoe-stringing things, but if you believe in your mission, you believe it should be funded appropriately. Do not be afraid to build surpluses into your budget. If you don’t develop surpluses in some way, you’re going to find yourself cash constrained at some point.

A lot of great work in the digital humanities has owed its successes to brilliant individuals, but it’s not possible to run certain kinds of organizations with only one person. It’s natural and sensible to add people who specialize in things that are critical to your mission and executing on it.  At a certain point you’ve got to invest in the overall processes that actually can make your organization run well.

How can funders support organizations like yours with the right kinds of capital?

I used to not say it this strongly, but I’ve come to see that it is – quite frankly – irresponsible to send money out into the field and expect innovation to lead to ongoing activity without giving people the right tools, knowledge, and resources to create sustainable and resilient programs. I want to give credit to Mellon for starting this program and for their shift in funding practices over the past years, moving away from a model that’s less heavily focused on making a thousand flowers bloom, and for putting a greater emphasis on equitable access to knowledge. Funders need to build long-term health into this field to make sure their funding has an impact down the road.