Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The 'born-digital' state of mind

I submitted my thesis a little while back now, and having recovered sufficiently, I thought it would be good to expand on a couple ideas that came out of it. This type of addendum seems almost necessary given the fluidity of the field, where I've always had the impression that written contributions tend to go out of date almost instantaneously; looking at the findings in my report, I hope this proves to be the case with my own work.

Right now, the conversation in libraries is all about digitisation and not about born-digital. The problem here is that users of research libraries tend to value original material above digital, and inevitably come to digital resources with certain prejudices against such collections - once those prejudices hit the wall of poor functionality and, even, poor resource description, the impact these collections will achieve is going to be low. So taking on digitisation as a way to help meet institutional targets like basic access and preservation around your original material isn't going to engage users with digital collections.

Users seem to get more interested in digital collections when they're not derivative of original holdings, but rather treated by the library as collections in their own right. What that means is seeing digitised collections as born-digital. It makes sense on several levels: first, in many respects, the technical challenges of asset management are shared by both collections as they undergo their digital curatorial lifecycle; second, and probably more important, is that born-digital demands functionality. 

The latter point is more subtle, because it's all in the mind, but if you digitise an old book and look to create an offering that allows you to turn the pages (just like a real book!) and throw in full text search, you're missing out. If you take those digitised images and metadata, and treat them as a born-digital resource, you're opening yourself up to some more interesting possibilities that your users might be interested in - the functionality that is unique to digital collections and gives them their own value that can potentially be above and beyond that of the original material.

Users think about stuff like reproducibility, sharing, collaboration, mashability, and they're expecting it more and more as they're conditioned by other online content out there. They're also idealistic: they talk about things like democratisation of knowledge and digital literacy, which often get lost as you battle through a multi-million image digitisation project. The current mass digitisation model may be tolerated by your established user research group, but it's difficult to see how it could ever impact on, say, the upcoming generation of potential researchers and interested public right now.

So on the one hand, born-digital is the admittedly tough challenge of grabbing our current cultural output and preserving it for future generations, which is a conversation that has really yet to get off the ground in most libraries; on the other, it's simply an approach to digital collections that sees them as unique resources in their own right could do something completely new and different for libraries who really want to engage users with digital collections. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Thesis available for download

I recently handed in my thesis on the current and future state of digital collections in UK research libraries; I'm now putting it up here for everyone to access.


Knowing this field, by the time it's been marked it will probably be out of date, so I can offer no guarantees as to the quality, save that I'm confident that there will be elements of interest for those involved in this area and feedback thus far has been positive. I'm very happy to field any questions that anyone has on these issues.

My thanks again to everyone who contributed!

Friday, August 31, 2012

The universal pressures of the digital economy

The thing about the digital economy is that it's all-pervasive. It taps directly into consumer behaviour and has basically smashed the traditional barriers that existed between different industries. This morning I heard Kim Winser interviewed as the Friday Boss on Radio 4's Today programme, talking about the evolution of the fashion retail industry. The parallels to the evolution of libraries and their provision of digital content are pretty obvious and I'll just let her words do the talking. You can listen here (in at 20:00), but I've picked out some parts of her interview below.

"A lot of British retailers and businesses have got old-fashioned structures and are not looking to have very flexible, very versatile business structures as a way to operate... I think a lot of them really have online as a secondary channel to the consumer as opposed to really thinking about it first... Secondly, they also buy far too much stock before they really know what the customers are wanting and the inventory is really dragging the business down, particularly when you have an excessive number of retail stores."

This prompted interviewer Simon Jack to ask: "Is there still a role for a high street presence?"

While Kim felt that there was, the obvious similarities between the transition to digital in libraries and the fashion retail industry beg the question as to whether the solutions might be equally similar. If anyone hasn't yet visited NET-A-PORTER's website, they need to go there and see a truly great example of digital content management. Kim used this example, observing that they are doing the customer a "phenomenal service, putting the customer absolutely front of house of what they want and how they want it... the whole experience of shopping on NET-A-PORTER just shows up far too many of our retailers as not impressive."

I'm not going to labour the point, except to quote from one more interview, this time one that I conducted myself only yesterday:

"I think if you were to treat the research library proposition as though it were a start-up, and if you were starting from today, you would look at creating a product that emphasised connecting people to information as quickly and as efficiently as possible, and then you would use the best of the current generation of technologies to achieve that outcome; I think you would build a business model that was around the public valuing that civic function."

Friday, August 24, 2012

Librarianship and digital collections

As I've continued my analysis I've found that a couple respondents have questioned the motive behind including this question:

A lot of information that libraries would use is now in digital form - in your opinion to what extent are librarians still equipped to collect and manage information in the current digital environment?

I agree that this is probably a thesis topic in itself, but then most of my questions could be considered so and I don't think that's a reason not to ask them. Asking a question like this is certainly not trying to knock librarians, in fact I'm making an assumption here that they should be leading digital collections activities in libraries. I simply want to find out from them, their colleagues and users of their services how they feel they're getting on in a tough environment.

Perhaps the main idea that motivated this question was that digital collections are different from analogue in so many ways: they introduce a new and highly pressured social, technical, economic and even political mix - to make digital collections work effectively you need an understanding of IT, business management and serious 'soft' skills on top of information science. As libraries change - some faster, some slower - are librarians in the best position they can be to lead that change? This is an honest question based on my aforementioned assumption that librarians ought to be the ones with the responsibility for this.

So I ask these big and perhaps slightly provocative questions to see what's on everyone's mind, and mostly there's a lot of confidence in librarians, who are clearly taking the bull by the horns. Again, it seems that it is the fact that digital collections represent entirely separate additional collections and infrastructure that makes this such a challenge - librarianship is now two jobs in one. Of the very few who felt that librarians were getting it wrong, this mostly hinged on born-digital.

I would hazard to say that born-digital has been the elephant in the room during this study. I didn't ask any questions on it specifically to see if it was on anyone's mind and based on what I've seen, for most, it would seem that digital collections equate to digitisation alone. As I explained in my previous post, this is probably the easier short-term win for libraries and the simplest extension of analogue library models into the digital space. But, of course, every library is different, and as many respondents have pointed out, it's going to take some time before we see the effects of these current approaches to digital collections.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Emerging themes: digitisation as collections preservation

If you cornered someone in the street and got them to give you their view as to why libraries are producing digital collections online, they would probably say something about 'access'. The data coming through from my survey is really no different. Access can mean a lot of things and deserves a post (or two) of its own, so instead I'm going to write about something I find to be more compelling that has come a close second in this survey: digital collections as preservation devices for physical holdings.

It's been interesting to see that the data coming from digital library professionals shows that there is an emphasis on access via digital to the physical originals, and preservation of physical holdings by creating digital 'surrogates'. It's interesting because, while there's been general support for the idea of integrating digital and physical collections, it would seem that the current reality in libraries is that digital collections are very much in a supporting role, always leading back to the physical original.

This can be explained in several ways, not least by the resource pressures that most libraries are under. Digital collections are an addition to a library's existing holdings, and demand different models for their construction and upkeep, so using them in such a supportive and economical manner is understandable. The idea of digitisation as preservation is certainly the most overt example of this.

Let's be clear: we are not talking about the mistaken notion that digital versions of physical originals will allow them to be kept in perpetuity within that medium - anyone who knows about the digital medium knows that to be naive. Rather, it's essentially the idea that once you've digitised your originals, they don't need to be consulted to the same extent, if at all, thus 'preserving' them from the most likely cause of damage, which will always be transport and handling. This makes sense when original material is at death's door (photographic and moving image collections come to mind), but unless this is the case across the board, the idea seems worth further consideration.

As an example, say you've got a few thousand ancient manuscripts kicking around - they're frequently accessed and you decide to digitise them. You want more people to be allowed to see them and maybe increase your library's profile a bit, but you also intend to minimise access to the originals once they've been digitised. If you follow the logic of preservation to its conclusion, you might try to restrict access to the originals altogether. That logic is: protect an item for the future by preventing causes of deterioration now, which is inherently at odds with an open access policy.

A couple things can happen here. First of all, much of the anecdotal evidence I've come across suggests that requests for access to originals increases once they have been put online in digital form. You then have more people seeking to view material to which they can't have access, which might upset the punters. Even with more tightly controlled access, if requests do in fact go up due to the library's online content, even requests that fit these new parameters should also be expected to rise, leaving no drop in physical handling in overall terms.

Next, having re-written your access policy to achieve this, you have to wonder whether someone higher up might not query why a library is continuing to use expensive storage (think real estate, climate control, and so on) for material that no one is actually looking at. Of course, it depends on the collection, and perhaps a collection of nineteenth century books might be removed to a salt mine, if you have one, without much ado, but it sits awkwardly alongside the library's mission.

In my experience there seems to be a disjoin between preservation ethics and the major factors influencing library development today, and I'm worried about a self-imposed obsolescence for physical holdings, paradoxically driven forward by those who treasure them the most. Add to that the fact that physical original and digital version have their own distinct attributes and seem unable to replace each other, combined with the fragile digital medium as realistically only a temporary solution, and this leaves the notion of digitisation as preservation perhaps not everything it appears to be.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Survey is now closed

I closed down my survey on digital collections in libraries earlier this week - huge thanks to everyone who participated. The survey was completed by 175 respondents, mostly from the digital libraries world, but I've been pleased to see that 13% of completions were by people who'd never even used a digital collection offered by a library. This is great, because I'm equally interested in the views of those inside and outside of the library - I feel that it's in the meeting of the two where the future of libraries could lie.

So thanks again - I would have liked to have kept it up longer, until the end of the month, but there is only one of me analysing the data and I need to get on with it at this point! I've completed six interviews so far for the second and final phase of my research, receiving comments on the survey results and thoughts on the future of digital collections in libraries. In these interviews I'm talking to digital library professionals and those who I consider to be authorities on digital content in the culture sector, but who are not currently associated with libraries directly. Hopefully all of this should make for an interesting mix of data providing a few insights, it certainly looks promising.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Emerging themes: culture sector funding

As I move towards the end of my data collection, I'm jotting down some of the themes emerging from my survey and interviews. This post has a quick look at how culture sector funding could change after the Olympic Games have finished in London:

A lot of people are enjoying the Olympics at the moment, and a lot of people in the UK will know that it was funded to the tune of over £9 billion. If you work in the UK culture sector you'll have also noticed that this portion of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport's (DCMS) purview has seen cuts of up to 50 per cent, even for the biggest players in the sector.

But what happens after the Olympics are over? On the one hand, I've heard that this may be a period of optimism: inevitably, funding will drop off for sport and regeneration in London's east end, opening up much-needed funding opportunities for culture sector institutions to regain some momentum. This could well be the case, but it may not be that straight-forward.

Firstly, the culture sector will need to re-assert itself. Since I'm talking about digital initiatives in libraries, let's focus on that. With the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) scrapped, there's no obvious source of strategic direction for moving libraries forward on this front - JISC is mostly focused on higher education and the British Library is not proving to be a heavy hitter in this regard.

While a large degree of independence is needed to tackle digital initiatives at a project level, they still need funding, and to get that they need a voice. The culture sector, which mostly trades in intangible benefits, must now compete seriously against the very tangible benefits of 14 gold medals (and counting) and third place in the medals tables which investment in sport has delivered.

And that's not all. Lord Moynihan, Chairman of the British Olympic Association, after criticising that fact that most of Britain's recent gold medalists were educated at private schools, has called for an increase in funding towards the school sports curriculum in the UK. We're talking about legacy here, which is about as important for the Games organisers as the event itself; and anyone who watched Twenty Twelve will know that "legacy is not the same as sustainability."

So we're in for an interesting time post-Olympics. The amazing accomplishments of the Olympics deserve to maintain their momentum into the future, but there must be an opportunity here for the culture sector to regain a bit of ground. The argument for that may have something to do with posterity.