Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bridging the Gap: Digital collections, innovation and the user

I gave a presentation on my MA dissertation with the above working title a couple days ago, and thought it worth re-articulating some of the points I was trying to make here. This title replaces the more contentious 'Should Librarians Still be Running Libraries?' that got me through the initial planning stages. While previously I had considered that my research would explore the relation of digital collections to external stakeholder groups that could empower innovation with digital content (broadly falling under political, economic, social and technological concerns), it's become apparent that more fundamental goals are not being met by the digital resources currently on offer from libraries. These fundamental goals concern engagement with what I consider to be the primary stakeholder in the library environment, which is the user. This is the gap to which my title refers, while 'innovation' is perhaps the most likely means to bridge any gap between 'digital collections' and the 'user'.

Of course it's difficult to say categorically that there is a gap, but certain signs indicate that there might be. Within my presentation I made reference to a pair of competing views on digital libraries identified by Christine Borgman way back in 1999: (1) Researchers view digital libraries as content collected on behalf of user communities (2) Librarians view digital libraries as institutions or services. I would argue that this tension continues to be played out to varying degrees in a number of contexts. When Eric Meyer recently identified the 'gap' between web archives and users, this was describing a situation where significant web archives had been built over the last ten years, involving some impressive technological solutions, yet researchers were not particularly using them. Then, in the realm of digital libraries specifically, all funding was removed from the US National Science Digital Library by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in July. With an NSF annual budget of almost 7 billion dollars, this is not a 'cuts' situation as we face in the UK, but a simple acknowledgement that the project had failed on the grounds of utility and sustainability. Add to that Nick Poole's observation that we disempower users through mediated cultural collections and I think we have something worth exploring.

My methodology for investigating this has gradually emerged from a pilot interview I conducted back in August. Though a one-off, it clearly identified a general lack of strategy, with little integration of digital content within library culture and infrastructure, and no firm identification or understanding of users in a digital context. While I'm still interested in interviewing experts outside of the library domain (and specifically those who have funded or performed user studies), it seems important to establish some initial ground truths that identify the current position of digital collections within libraries and help to shed some light on the nature of any 'gaps' that may exist. To do this I'll be surveying individuals working within UK national and specialist libraries, institutions with which users choose to interact entirely under their own volition. For this reason I'm currently avoiding university libraries, who have a captive audience up to a point. A second part to the survey, which explores strategy, will then include external experts with whom the views of those working within library digital collections can be compared and contrasted.

While this methodology remains somewhat ill-defined and fluid for the time being, a good research output would be able to conclusively reveal any gaps and how to act on them, establish the extent to which advice from experts has been taken up by the library community and what a research library needs to be in terms of digital resources in the future and how we get there. We often talk about Google and understandably so - no other entity has more categorically smashed the library monopoly on information dissemination - but what comes after Google and what are the alternatives? Above all, it feels like a time of great opportunity.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Sustainability and Post-Digital Culture

Last night Nick Poole, CEO of the Collections Trust and Chair at Europeana Council of Content Providers and Aggregators, spoke about 'Sustainability and Post-Digital Culture' at the Centre for Sustainable Heritage, UCL. The talk was aimed at museums, though the issues under discussion could easily be applied to the entire cultural heritage sector. What follows is a brief report of his talk. Nick's slides are available here.

I'll begin by taking a brief stab at explaining the title. 'Post-digital' references the established ubiquity of technology within society and the fact that technological solutions are ever-present. While our own attitudes may still be playing catch-up, the technologies over which we worry and place much hope in equal measure have been long-established.

So what's next? Reportedly, Jacques Attali, president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, stated that museums could not provide a basis for sound investment, apparently lacking any understanding of their own value or how to leverage their content. In part, this is an understandable assumption - while museums certainly know the value of their content, it is the ability to communicate that value to outside stakeholders that is often lacking. It's an obvious parallel with libraries, though it's interesting to be reminded that museums have not even seen anything like the widespread public support that the libraries have managed to conjure up in the face of the UK Government's cuts.

In museums, the practice of collecting content has remained the same, more or less, from the beginning, but a profound change has occurred in the way museums engage with the public. At this point in time, a 'critical mass success' model applied to digital content creation is not going to work. In simply massing digital items online, this unprocessed content is akin to answering the user's call for bread by showing them a field of wheat. Above all, such an approach is unsustainable, when we define sustainability as directly linked to resilience, which in turn is linked to relevance. The obvious point is to get past the digitality of content and emphasise it's use instead (hence 'post-digital'), a strong commonality with issues reported in web archiving, described in my last post.

In closing, some key point were presented:
  • User facility and agency: a link was made to the exponential rise in gaming culture, which appeals to people's propensity to analyse large amounts of information and integrate that into the world. Facility is the competence to do so, also proving oneself to be adept technologically; agency is basically the expectation that one will be able to do these things. Facility and agency are essentially removed in the manner that cultural heritage content is usually presented - in disempowering users by removing this agency, the natural conclusion for many is to observe irrelevance in such institutions. We therefore need to articulate the value of curatorship to people who lead very different lives, and there is a balance to be found here between that and the more traditional mediated experience.
  • The role of (digital) preservation: Preservation is a by-product of use: the cost of those operations and the value of content within the 'long tail' of digital content cannot be squared. Rather, survivability is linked directly to accessibility (certainly when applied to material that exists for access, the term 'preservation' can seem like a bit of a non sequitor). For physical material, there is too much content and not enough people to look after it - the notion of maintaining these physical collections has become an artifice. That model is no longer sustainable and we can't afford a 'collect and preserve' attitude any longer.
  • Links to commercial content industries: When I asked whether the cultural heritage sector should build more bridges with the commercial content industries to move forward, the answer was an emphatic 'yes'. The idea that commercial and open ventures are irreconcilable is simply not true. Intelligent informed collaborations can happen that create content that is both commercially and freely available in its different aspects.  

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Future of the Past of the Web

'The Future of the Past of the Web' was a one-day international conference organised by the DPC, JISC and the British Library to discuss new trends in web archiving. There were two interesting issues that came up that reveal some of the challenges associated with creating digital content in a cultural heritage environment. First, recent work by the Oxford Internet Institute, presented by Eric Meyer, has observed a "persistent" gap between web archives and researchers (that is, the target user group); to paraphrase a bit, this means that few are really using web archives for social science or historical research, as one would expect. Second, Martha Anderson, Director of Program Management at the Digital Preservation Program, Library of Congress, compared web pages to books - less and less information is being held within web pages and accessed as such, but rather apps and social media aggregate the information we want, and researchers are more interested in underlying data trends, rather than exploring individual web pages.

As discussed in a previous post, there is an increasing switch towards local knowledge. To document an event these days, it's unlikely that you'll rely exclusively on a stand-alone web page, but rather aggregate comment from disparate groups of eye witnesses, from people who are interested in finer and finer aspects of experience. This content is obviously more challenging to get hold of, but EU-funded initiatives such as BlogForever and Arcomem are in the early stages of trying. Having been in operation for around ten years, the field of web archiving is starting to expand technologically and socially, away from simply collecting web pages and storing them in a box, a model that basically follows analogue principles. Yet there is a sense that web archiving and its associated technologies could have advanced much further had they been embraced by the cultural heritage community. Further, there is a large question mark over how even to engage with target user groups.

While there are fundamental differences between a web archive and other forms of digital content served up by the cultural heritage sector, a resistance to change and disengagement with the supposed user community appear to be recurring factors. It is these gaps that I would like to identify and address within my research.