Sunday, May 22, 2011

Are digital initiatives just a technicality?

The double meaning here is of course that developing and holding digital collections are often analysed from a mostly technical perspective, and, by extension, their full potential and impact may not be fully appreciated and utilised.

I've come at this project with the attitude that the biggest challenges in digital collections development are probably not technical. How so?

A conference paper that a colleague passed to me the other day gives a nice example. As most people reading this will know, XML is an open standard markup language that provides a technological basis for interoperability across library systems. One reason for focusing so much on technical aspects of digital collections has been an ongoing effort to achieve interoperability - unlike some other sectors, libraries and the cultural heritage sector are essentially non-profit and, importantly, collaborative. It is therefore important that information should be easily searched, accessed and shared.

Interoperability is rightly held as a priority, and XML is a great basis for achieving it, but what is actually happening in practice? The paper I mentioned, by Jerome McDonough, notes an experiment by the Library of Congress in which digital objects were exchanged between institutions in the US. Despite all of these institutions correctly using the same XML-based encoding format, exchanges failed based on what might be described as differing syntax applied to the same grammar, rather like regional dialects that manifest from a common language. McDonough concluded his paper by noting that, while individual institutions may well need local flexibility to best serve their users, and must balance that with a need to share information within the sector, "If libraries are to survive and thrive in this new information society, they must alter their own value structure to prioritize communication with other communities [that do not share libraries' standards practices or values]...."

This example shows that even within the technology itself, there are social factors. This makes sense, since technology is made and used by people. It's also tempting to go a bit further and make the assertion that unless many non-technical factors are accounted for (including, critically, funding), technical concerns would never have the opportunity to exist in the first place. The lessons from McDonough's observations, and the economic, social and political crunch that libraries face now, is that they need a strategy that goes beyond technological concerns, linking digital initiatives to the real business drivers of the organisation, which in turn connect the organisation with new users and new communities.

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