NOTE: I have a new My Word's Worth column, "Growing Like Weeds," at http://marylaine.com/myword/notweed.html
CREATING AN INSTITUTIONAL REPOSITORY: A ROLE FOR LIBRARIES
by Blake Carver
People have been predicting the death of libraries for decades. New technologies are often seen as an easy replacement for libraries and librarians, though in fact the rich arrays of resources librarians are able to provide to their patrons are difficult, if not impossible to replace. Despite the fact that our skills are more important than ever, we can't ignore the fact we are slowly being marginalized by electronic publishing in a number of ways. Institutional repositories, true digital libraries, may be one part of an interesting new role for libraries in the decades to come. I was part of the earlydevelopment of one such system at The Ohio State University Libraries during 2002, the Ohio State University "Knowledge Bank".
The OSU "Knowledge Bank" was first proposed by a high level committee on Distance Learning/Continuing Education in the summer of 2001. The Committee found the preservation of intellectual content on campus sorely lacking, and felt a new system and more focus was needed to preserve and protect electronic output that was being completely ignored, and going unused. The Knowledge Bank was first envisioned as a digital library, so the committee passed along the idea to the library.
A planning committee chaired by Joseph J. Branin, director of University Libraries began exploring not only the issues involved with creating a digital repository for any and all intellectual output from the university, a Herculean task in itself, but also the many similar projects being carried simultaneously around the nebulous OSU campus, and around the world. First, we needed to figure out just what The Knowledge Bank should be, and who would run it. The answer to the latter was obvious, librarians, but the former wasn't entirely clear at first. No one really knew what it would take to preserve the staggering number of digitally created documents from the enormous population at OSU. Exactly what is a digital library, what is a knowledge bank, and what could we do with it? We came up with this definition:
"The 'Knowledge Bank' is envisioned as both a 'referatory' providing links to digital objects and a repository capable of archiving the increasing volume of digital content created at OSU for long-term use, dissemination, and preservation."
It is, in short, a true digital library. Like a traditional library, The Knowledge Bank needed to be able to collect, catalog, preserve and share anything created by the OSU community: electronic books, journals, digitized videos, and any other digital file. It needed to be safe, secure, and built to last for generations. Last, and certainly not least, it needed to be easy to use. It needed to make vast amounts of electronic information easy to retrieve. We also needed to consider the legal and intellectual property issues in such a system. Further, we needed to work through cost, technical feasibility, support, and policy concerns.
All of this, and the "why" was still not entirely obvious. Why did OSU need a place to store digital materials? What did the campus, and the library have to gain from such a project?
A modern university of any size has an ever increasing amount of electronic information created by its faculty, staff, and students that is not being preserved. Useful information is forever lost when a hard drive crashes, or a student graduates. Articles, papers, preprints, technical reports, formal publications and other useful documents are created, only to be lost to the institution because the responsibility for preservation has been left to the individual scholar. Should the need for long term storage of such materials be recognized, most libraries do not have a system in place.
The Knowledge Bank's primary purpose is to improve access to scholarly communication throughout its life cycle, to shine light in a dark corner of academic output that for years has gone unexamined. The Knowledge Bank would, for end users, simply be another web site. They could search, browse, upload, and download files. They could browse the stacks in the Knowledge Bank just as they would browse the stacks of the library. In theory, the size of the system is unlimited, allowing anyone to upload any type of digital document (MSWord, Text, Spreadsheets) for preservation, and if they wish, to share with the world. Controls on who can upload, download, view and maintain files could be initiated by both systems administrators, and by the users themselves.
The dissemination and preservation of OSU's digital content, entirely ignored up to this point, would fall to the libraries, where traditional librarian skills could be applied in this new digital world. As the original proposal points out, "The potential benefits of the Knowledge Bank will be realized only if members of the University community are well prepared to make significant deposits into it." Getting campus "buy-in" was the main worry of many members of the committee. Buy-in would require a shift in how things are done, and any shift in academia can often be a frustrating process.
Slow, glacial, inertia, sloth, academic time. While many words are used to describe academia, flexible, and speedy are not anywhere near the top of the list. While the details on the creation of The Knowledge Bank were enough to cause nightmares for most of the committee members, this work would be pointless if the campus did not see the benefits to using the system. We could see it, we knew that have a digital library would help professors stay organized, and save time. It would allow students to find new information, and gain new knowledge they would have never had the opportunity to find before. The hardest work ahead of the committee may be simply getting anyone to start using the system; though MIT reports little trouble with its comparable DSpace project, it remains a major concern for most still involved with the project.
So why is this so exciting? As Wendy Lougee writes in Diffuse Libraries, "Because research libraries support all sectors of academic life, they reflect a context where these issues converge. This presents them with a challenge of unusual scale and complexity." The issues she presents are common to any library in academia today. Technological and social issues are forcing changes on the library world, and it is within this context The Knowledge Bank makes the most sense.
This new system allows different parts of the campus community to be tied together via the library. The library then takes on a new centralized role which extends our traditional skills of preservation, cataloging, and access control.
More and more, scholarly output is bypassing traditional libraries and publishers in favor of the Internet. With it's ease of use, speed and global reach, the Internet offers the academic community an instant world-wide audience without the hassles and costs associated with traditional publishing. This is not the same world the library on campus can offer. This may be hard to admit, especially by those who have spent their life building a recognized collection of exceptional printed materials. While these materials will forever be useful, as will libraries, The Knowledge Bank helps to move libraries into Lougee's third phase, the library as a "Diffuse Agent."
Libraries move from the traditional role of custodian, access, and distributor, into a new role as part of the creation and dissemination process. We become involved in every stage of the publication process, and we greatly increase our relevance, and visibility on campus. We ensure that we are part of the decision making process, and avoid having ultimatums passed down upon us. "Rather than being defined by its collections or the services that support them, the library can become a diffuse agent within the scholarly community." This is in many ways hard to imagine. With an increasing number of students off-campus, and nearly all intellectual output coming in digital form, our users and those who supply our materials are changing, and will drive the changes that occur to us in the future. Our budgets continue to shrink, costs increase, and staff dwindles. Collaboration in the past was a great idea, while in the future looks to be more of a necessity to survive.
This movement, or progression, should be easy to understand and embrace for most of us who believe in, and understand the role libraries play on campus. For those who believe libraries are irrelevant and relics of an old way of thinking may also see a new use for librarians, rather than calling for an end to libraries all together. As Michael A. Keller, Victoria A. Reich, and Andrew C. Herkovic put it so eloquently in "What is a library anymore, anyway?", "the confidence with which such predictions are made is inversely proportional to the predictor's professional habitual use of published information." More often now predictions lean towards a gradual shift in or ever changing roles, assisted by technology, rather than being destroyed by it. A campus wide repository may be just the ticket to tying together two diverse, seemingly incompatible views of libraries in the future.
* * * * *
There is something unfortunate in the widespread assumption that a project is successful only to the extent that it meets its proximate goals of creating content or metadata. I would argue for more projects that attempt to prove a model or methodology and genuinely risk failure. Failure is a very important event in the creation of knowledge.
Abby Smith. "Issues in Sustainability." First Monday, May, 2003 http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue8_5/smith/index.html
* * *
You are welcome to copy and forward any of my own articles for noncommercial purposes (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2003.
[Publishers may license the content for a reasonable fee.]
Please do NOT copy and post my articles to your own web sites, however. Instead, please copy a brief excerpt and link to my site for the remainder of the article.