Thursday, February 5, 2009

Digital Repository Services: A New Frontier

An ARL Digital Repository Issues Task Force has released its final report: “The Research Library’s Role in Digital Repository Services.”

The report begins: “Digital repositories are developing rapidly as a key element of research cyberinfrastructure” (11).

Existing digital repository collections include (cf. 5):

  • published faculty research archived for institutional purposes
  • unpublished text material from faculty
  • research data in various numeric and image formats
  • administrative records
  • primary source documents from libraries and research centers
  • digitized book, journal and image collections
  • instructional materials and courseware
  • platforms for publishing journals
  • software

From an archival point of view, what is interesting in this list and in the report is the recognition of a broadening collection scope for repositories—from one that focuses on scholarly publications to one that includes research and institutional material:

Twenty-first century institutions now require new kinds of services to manage all sorts of unique content that have enduring value (15).

As daunting as it may be to consider the diversity of [digital records management] issues, research libraries have substantial expertise in content management and opportunities to support high-value institutional content and to complement repository services being developed to serve campus research. Particularly where these activities draw on existing relationships, capacities, and expertise, libraries are likely to meet with success in assuming a broader role in supporting content such as course-related assets or institutional records (17).

Digital repositories require ongoing content curation to ensure that current content remains usable and valuable into the future. Much digital content is unique content, in the sense that only a single institution may be able or willing to take responsibility for its management (21).

(I’ve advocated for this approach to institutional repositories here and elsewhere.)

From a special collections point of view, the report’s expectations for the future shape of library collections are rather interesting:

The balance between investing in management of unique collections and supporting widely replicated content will have shifted substantially. Similarly, libraries will have reallocated resources from supporting local collections to collectively managed collections. Network technologies and digital collections will have significantly transformed traditional emphases on local, individual, and uncoordinated strategies toward new approaches that more efficiently manage collections collaboratively. At the same time, managing unique content, not just traditional special collections but entirely new kinds of works and locally-created content, will be an important emphasis for collection and management (33).

(Almost five years ago, I filed away a statement by James Neal that appeared in a Library Journal article titled “Rarities Online.” Neal said: In the future, I believe great research libraries will be evaluated more and more on their special collections.”)

This report stresses that digital repository services “present libraries with attractive opportunities to develop roles that will become increasingly mission-critical for the research enterprise” (21). (The term “frontier” is invoked on page 41.)

Researchers and scholars with access to a spectrum of repository services will possess a substantial advantage in conducting cutting edge research, delivering high quality teaching, and contributing valuable services to society (10, 41).