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February 13, 2008

Repositories thru the looking glass

P1050338 I spent last week in Melbourne, Australia at the VALA 2008 Conference - my first trip over to Australia and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.  Many thanks to all those locals and non-locals that made me feel so welcome.

I was there, first and foremost, to deliver the opening keynote, using it as a useful opportunity to think and speak about repositories (useful to me at least - you'll have to ask others that were present as to whether it was useful for anyone else).

It strikes me that repositories are of interest not just to those librarians in the academic sector who have direct responsibility for the development and delivery of repository services.  Rather they represent a microcosm of the wider library landscape - a useful case study in the way the Web is evolving, particularly as manifest through Web 2.0 and social networking, and what impact those changes have on the future of libraries, their spaces and their services.

My keynote attempted to touch on many of the issues in this area - issues around the future of metadata standards and library cataloguing practice, issues around ownership, authority and responsibility, issues around the impact of user-generated content, issues around Web 2.0, the Web architecture and the Semantic Web, issues around individual vs. institutional vs. national, vs. international approaches to service provision.

In speaking first I allowed myself the luxury of being a little provocative and, as far as I can tell from subsequent discussion, that approach was well received.  Almost inevitably, I was probably a little too technical for some of the audience.  I'm a techie at heart and a firm believer that it is not possible to form a coherent strategic view in this area without having a good understanding of the underlying technology.  But perhaps I am also a little too keen to inflict my world-view on others. My apologies to anyone who felt lost or confused.

I won't repeat my whole presentation here.  My slides are available from Slideshare and a written paper will become available on the VALA Web site as soon as I get round to sending it to the conference organisers!

I can sum up my talk in three fairly simple bullet points:

  • Firstly, that our current preoccupation with the building and filling of 'repositories' (particularly 'institutional repositories') rather than the act of surfacing scholarly material on the Web means that we are focusing on the means rather than the end (open access).  Worse, we are doing so using language that is not intuitive to the very scholars whose practice we want to influence.
  • Secondly, that our focus on the 'institution' as the home of repository services is not aligned with the social networks used by scholars, meaning that we will find it very difficult to build tools that are compelling to those people we want to use them.  As a result, we resort to mandates and other forms of coercion in recognition that we have not, so far, built services that people actually want to use.  We have promoted the needs of institutions over the needs of individuals.  Instead, we need to focus on building and/or using global scholarly social networks based on global repository services.  Somewhat oddly, ArXiv (a social repository that predates the Web let alone Web 2.0) provides us with a good model, especially when combined with features from more recent Web 2.0 services such as Slideshare.
  • Finally, that the 'service oriented' approaches that we have tended to adopt in standards like the OAI-PMH, SRW/SRU and OpenURL sit uncomfortably with the 'resource oriented' approach of the Web architecture and the Semantic Web.  We need to recognise the importance of REST as an architectural style and adopt a 'resource oriented' approach at the technical level when building services.

I'm pretty sure that this last point caused some confusion and is something that Pete or I need to return to in future blog entries.  Suffice to say at this point that adopting a 'resource oriented' approach at the technical level does not mean that one is not interested in 'services' at the business or function level.

[Image: artwork outside the State Library of Victoria]


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As Universities are investing more in building/supporting/maintaining Digital Object repositories - specifically for OA purposes - I'm also starting to see quite a bit of 'anti-repository' sentiment on various blogs. Perhaps the earliest post I saw in ... [Read More]


Andy, great post and look forward to perusing your slides.

I'm still intrigued and bemused as to *why* repositories (at all) and will shortly be posting a similar kind of question on my blog and (hopefully) interview with someone from Bath Uni. As you know, I'm very familiar with the web based distributed tech paradigm, the API, loosely coupled systems, etc and I'm *still* (after asking the question of a number of people who really should be able to articulate this) really struggling with *what repositories actually bring to the equation*.

I'll chuck up something to be knocked down: Isn't a "repository" another name for "silo": hidden, ringfenced, inflexible, proprietary..? Don't repositories go against the key factors we've all identified as being vital with the web: lightweight, distributed, flexible, fast, experimental?

Can you or any of your readers give me the elevator pitch as to why anyone would invest in a piece of technology such as a repository when the web itself (with a good search engine, distributed tagging, flagging, editing tools layered on top) seems to do the job *so* much better? I mean "elevator pitch", too - not 4 pages of description but one concise, easy to understand statement about "why"...

I'm intrigued (and more than ready to be shown the error of my ways!)


Replying to Mike (rather than the post):

I can't do concise statements (I'm working on it!).

What do Repositories bring to the table (I'll refer to Institutional Repositories - IRs - though appreciate you weren't specifying those)?

These seems like it can be broken in to two questions: why to make research available at all. And why using this model.

I won't go in to detail for the first, research is so often locked away by publishers who take the copyright but add little value (some now insist the academic formats it for final publishing, i.e. exact template for printing). Lots of research takes place with public money but is only accessible by a very few and thus not reaching its potential.

If making research available on the web is good, then how and why IRs?

You're right IRs are silos. But shareable silos. They are distributed, rather than one monolithic international entity

If Eduserv (or any organisation) produces something useful, like some research, I expect that research to be made available by that organisation.

To be doing these things at an organisation level seems like a good fit. Orgs can manage it, mandate if they wish and fit in to their working structures.

IRs are infrastructure. Other websites and services will come to depend on the IR (yes with APIs etc).

Of course the way they present their data is crude and certainly not how people work when trying to find research (with the caveat that a job applicant assessing if a Uni is a good place to work, or a head of department it may well fit in to their needs in letting them see the outputs of a particular department).

But this is the job of other services. Like so much on the web, the possibilities are endless, all sorts of cool webapps can be built to create useful services and discovery tools. Take engineering.ac.uk or the ethos project, both use (or will use for ethos) data from IRs and present it in a more useful way.

Finally, I'd ague that IRs are not "hidden, ringfenced, inflexible, proprietary" they are built with open systems, open source, with APIs and open protocols and are designed to share their data. Likewise I would argue that they are - to varying degrees(!): "lightweight, distributed, flexible, fast, experimental". Lightweight and fast are hard to define (I would say they seem fine on both these fronts), but they are distributed in nature and have a degree of flexibility and experimentation, though could probably do with more.

The alternatives to IRs seems to be:
-nothing: research locked away by publishers
-a central research service
-open access journals, a long way off
-research held at departmental or personal level, rather than institutional.
None of these seem - to me - better options for the time being, but I may have missed your point or not though of alternatives (would be happy to hear of other ideas!)

Chris Keene.

A couple of sentences:

"Repositories have put digital asset management on the agendas of Institutions"

"Repositories support creation of Web content and deliver said content consistently and reliably much like other "Web 2.0" brands"

"Investing in a repository *IS* investing in the foundation information architecture of the institution, which, in turn, *IS* investment in the Web output of that institution."

"Asking 'Why invest in repositories?' in this context is a bit like asking 'Why invest in a Institutional Web site when all the academics have personal home pages?'*"

* maybe you *are* asking that too... The more I think about it, the more I wonder...

Following on from that last comment, I mean: "the more I wonder about asking that question" *not* "the more I wonder if anyone here is asking that question" if you see what I mean...

Couldn't agree more with the first two points of your presentation, and I will look forwards to a non-techie explanation of the third.

Slightly WRT "we are doing so using language that is not intuitive to the very scholars whose practice we want to influence" I was dismayed to hear that my institution is trying to think up some "clever" name for its repository, rather than use plain English. There are already enough daft names, as anyone can see from a glance at http://www.opendoar.org/countrylist.php?cContinent=Europe#United%20Kingdom (as well as some nice, plain English ones as well).

Roddy MacLeod

In reply to Mike Ellis's question - I think two words:


Whether you think these are good or bad things perhaps depends on your perspective, but I'd argue they are important.

I think that repositories are getting a bit of a raw deal here - see my own blog post for some response, but I'd back some of Chris's comments about what they are capable of.

After all, Flickr, Wikipedia, delicious - they are all repositories - it's the community focus and activity around them that is different, not the technology.

Andy, I don’t really see that there is conflict between encouraging more content going into institutional repositories and ambitions to provide more Web 2.0 type services on top of aggregated IR content. Surely these things go together? Yes, encouraging development of IRs will need to hit different buttons depending on which users are being addressed - the message will need to vary depending whether one is addressing authors, research managers, institutional service providers. All of whom may be users as searchers.

By way of a reply to Mike’s ‘why?’ – One of the main aims of institutional repositories is to support academic authors putting their outputs on the Web. In addition, repositories need to meet several individual and institutional requirements that are particular to scholarly outputs. Such requirements (depending on the institution) might include that the repository will interoperate with other institutional systems connected with research management such as reporting and submitting research outputs to funding bodies and/or research assessment; providing lists of publications for cv’s; ensuring outputs are ‘well-managed’ i.e. curating outputs over time; providing a trusted source for research outputs with known provenance; linking in a sustainable fashion to research data curated within the institution. In summary the repository is a well-managed and trusted place of safe-keeping that frees individual researchers from the burden of curating(making available on web, submitting to other systems, migrating etc) their research outputs over time.

Btw there is an overview of the need for a repository and the expected benefits put together by the Repositories Support Project at http://www.rsp.ac.uk/repos/justification

And as for disparagement of the 'repository' word... there was much heated discussion a few years back that we should just use 'digital library' as there was little difference in technology, meanwhile the community championing development of these things favoured 'open archives', so I think we had a compromise solution which has just stuck.

I think we may be missing some rather pedestrian reasons for the drive to create and populate institutional repositories at universities.

First, university libraries are looking for new mandates as their physical warehousing function declines in importance. Look at Harvard: now their library is the home for the "Office of Scholarly Communications."

This is not necessarily a bad thing; it may be a very good thing. Digital warehousing, as it were. As long as the stuff in the warehouse is discoverable and available, that is a plus for the scholarly community, and even the non-scholarly community.

Copyright restrictions—and getting around them through scholarly use/fair use—play a very real role in tilting toward a (more defensible) institutional warehouse, rather than a global warehouse.

Faculty disinterest is another reason. When the first repositories were opened for business, the assumption was that faculty would rush to re-publish their stuff. That didn't happen. Faculty members have not wanted to invest the time to learn how to post their old stuff, nor the time to actually do it. In order to start building content, the academic library has had to step in and proactively search out faculty publications, ask for an "OK" from the author, and put it up there on his/her behalf.

University "branding" may also be a factor. Come look at our faculty's output, says XYZ University, see how impressive we are.

And, last and not least, there is the question of money. Ideal global communications platforms are all very nice, but who will pay to create them, and to maintain them? Institutional repositories have some level of committed funding from the library, or the provost's office. Real money, real staffing, real hardware and software—these are all necessary inputs for a true scholarly commons. We can think about revolutionary change, but without a source of steady funding, we'll have to settle for evolutionary change.

Andy and others - thanks. It's great to understand some of the debate around this space and also see that the points of view aren't actually that different from those I've argued for sooooo long.

For my part as long as the repository supports what "makes the web good" (increasingly: REST/SOAP, RSS, OA, extensibility, scale, searchability, lightweightness) then cool. I guess at some level I'm still worried about the institutional approach because it tends to move away from innovation and individuality. I haven't seen - for instance - mashups built around respositories. It may be that I don't know where to look, or that this stuff is there but in its infancy?

On the other side of the coin, I suppose, uniformity can be good (especially for academics!) and yes, I can also see that the profile of "doing online content" at all has been raised.

I disagree with the "global=expensive" argument - the web democratised the provision of global content the moment it was, erm, "rolled out"..

Overall I understand a little better but I'm still uneasy. I guess we'll see...

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