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necessary given the fluidity of the field, where I've always had the impression that written contributions tend to go out of date almost instantaneously; looking at the findings in my report, I hope this proves to be the case with my own work.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.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Survey update

I wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone who's responded to the survey so far. After just one week, there were 85 responses, which is extremely encouraging. Not only that, but most people have really taken the time to provide some candid and detailed feedback, resulting in a much richer data set than I had imagined possible. It's reminded me that one of things I enjoy about working in this professional community is just how open and helpful everyone is as we try to move forward on our various projects. I also appreciate all the additional supportive comments and interest shown in the survey's findings - everyone who's given me their email address will get a copy of the report on its completion.

A few respondents have commented that it's difficult to answer some questions definitively as they require general opinions about what is a complex and diverse environment. I agree that this is the case, but I would say that the point of these questions is to get a gut reaction, an emotive response, based on personal experience - the issues here are too large to allow me to drill down into the details of each one, and each would probably require an additional thesis to do it any justice, with a more onerous questionnaire. Further, as many have observed, the critical challenges surrounding digital collections are mostly cultural, subjective, intangible problems that escape any technical solution, and this survey has been constructed in that spirit.

If you haven't yet filled out the survey and would like to, you can find it here.    

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Digital libraries survey goes live

I've just completed a survey designed to take a snapshot of current views on libraries in the current information environment and digital libraries in particular, which you can find here.

Please have a go at it. The survey has been set up so that anyone, anywhere can fill it in, and it's brief - you can complete it in five minutes or less.

I'm extremely grateful to the Strategic Planning and Policy Unit at the Wellcome Trust for the software platform and invaluable advice regarding the survey's construction. As well as generating data for my King's College thesis (which has been the subject of this blog), the online survey is part of a project I'm working on for the Wellcome Library in line with the delivery of our Digital Library Programme.

From this snapshot I'll be adding qualitative data in the form of one-to-one interviews with industry commentators on the future of digital libraries. More on that soon.

Survey home page

Friday, April 20, 2012

Shall we axe the DCMS?

The Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), a free-market think tank, has proposed that to close down the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) would save £1.6 billion. Never mind the irony of the Olympic host axing its sporting ministry at the same time as the Games, it's also a useful indication of how the culture sector is regarded by some. It's another nice effort to block social mobility and reduce quality of life in the UK, the meat of the argument being that, if we all like visiting the British Library and other subsidised institutions, then we'll all be happy to pay a fee at the door.

But it's actually more than this, because £1.6 billion is really small change - the IEA recommendations have less to do with cutting Government waste by axing the DCMS than they do with simply cutting off funding to cultural institutions - why destroy mass access to a cultural education for such paltry savings? According to the report, the Government could use all this saved money to "reduce the rate of corporation tax by a further 2%", or more inspiringly, "cut fuel duty by 3p". It's not even only those without money who would be effected, but surely most of the population - my household income is pretty decent by most standards, but living in London with a child we simply avoid a number of cultural sites that we would otherwise go to because of the costs involved, frequenting the free venues instead. It just goes to show the extent to which cultural institutions have to nail their value proposition. I don't know how mainstream this IEA sentiment is, but with this Government's emphasis on big business, the culture sector will continue to have to stand up to this kind of hard-nosed free-market economics.

Friday, April 13, 2012

What does innovation mean in a library?

In the business world, innovative firms, it is said, "grow twice as fast, both in employment and sales, as firms that fail to innovate" (that's from the Hargreaves report). This raises a couple of questions: first, what is innovation in a library, and second, why is it important for libraries - to what extent are the laws that govern the business world, referenced here, actually applicable to the culture sector?

On the one hand, it's hard for libraries to innovate in the manner of a start-up or SME; not many libraries have that kind of in house development available to them. But this isn't about libraries becoming a business, they can innovate in other ways, and can outsource those development tasks as required (and if it can be afforded). The most obvious area for innovation is building collections; there are a whole bunch of ways to build content now if you take advantage of some of the stronger aspects of digital technology. At this point, for specialist libraries interested in such things, traditional targets for acquisition are becoming scarce and expensive (I'm thinking about books and manuscripts here, or the archives of persons of historical note), this is not to mention that much of modern culture has a digital presence, more so than analogue (which will include the archives of anyone of any prominance today).

Essentially this boils down to born digital content, which could take the form of archives, a shared resource digitised previously elsewhere and audio-visual material. While these collecting methods are perhaps innovative within the current context, they are probably the bare minimum for the maintenance of relevant collections development and still function largely within the traditional library operations model. However, to effectively acquire and leverage this complex content, commercial collaboration seems an obvious route. In the same way that building a digital library requires the breakdown of knowledge silos within that specific institution, the viability of libraries themselves will increasingly rely on breaking down 'silos' between sectors, specifically the commercial content industry, whereby both parties can achieve mutually beneficial goals and expand in new directions.

I'm aware of various apps that have been produced for exhibitions at some the UK's larger cultural insitutions, but I'm interested to find out the extent to which cross-sector collaborations of mutual benefit have been examined or implemented in order to build collections and user experience in a pretty fundamental way. The problem that libraries face, I suspect, is the risk that comes with innovation, and they may not be able to stomach that alone. My interest in this comes from wondering to what extent libraries are actually now in competition with other information providers, which might necessitate an innovative path forward, just as the businesses referred to in the Hargreaves report are required to do in order to thrive.

Finally, while risk is inherent to innovation, not all of it is explicitly financial and there are some areas where libraries can really take a lead. For example, the recent 'academic spring' highlights a long-standing problem: the cost of academic journals (have a look at this article in the Economist for a picture of the farsical profit margins enjoyed by publishers at libraries' expense). Libraries could really be leaders in this movement; they could also be leaders in bringing intellectual property legislation into the twenty-first century; they could (and probably already are) leaders in how to provide compelling online information resources on a tight budget.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

"Tron" as metaphor for the digital library

In the Tron films, Kevin Flynn, played by Jeff Bridges, enters a digital world 'inside the computer' by means of quantum teleportation (or 'digitization', as it's actually referred to in the 1982 original). Watching this recently, the demarcation of a digital world and the real world felt curiously familiar to working on a digital library. I wanted to use this post to explore a few other 'gaps' that exist in digital library development, aside from my target concern of that between collections and users, specifically the nature of the gap between digital and analogue worlds.

Behind the conceptualised information we get from our computer screen are a bunch of spinning disks existing in physical space, drawing on physical resources to support them. Ultimately we have a binary machine code making the machines operate - we use programming source code translated to binary to communicate and instruct the computer, and the resulting programs lead to user interaction and often the creation of something fully comprehensible to the human eye and brain. This conceptual level is several steps removed from the physical reality of IT systems, and it can be easy to forget. Similarly, in a space such as a library defined by analogue content, IT systems solutions implemented at the higher, conceptual level may lose touch with the physical reality of the library holdings themselves. Perfectly feasible systems solutions to the problems facing digital libraries can be found in the digital space, but they don't always bear any relation to the real world. This sort of apathy, if you like, seems to be mutual and it's far too easy for one world to forget about the other and remain disconnected.

In fact, this gap is only in the mind. Libraries have two areas that need to be addressed, which may appear paradoxical. The first is the obvious one: digital as 'paradigm shift', with more information on new formats, and where users of digital content have acquired new information gathering habits and expectations. The second is a bit more subtle, but there's nothing 'new' in digital. This observation comes from examining the phenomenon from the vantage point of human history: it's just a repeating pattern. As new technologies develop, paradigm shifts occur. It used to take a little longer, and the last one hundred years or so have seen a quicker turnover, but we should be used to this by now. This was a perspective shared by Thomas Hobbes, quoted here from James Gleick's The Information: "The invention of printing, though ingenious, compared with the invention of letters is no great matter." All the talk of the 'brave new world' of digital is nostaligic hyperbole that only serves to miss the point that it's all just information.

There's one other problem that digital libraries encounter that's worth noting here. Creating a digital library within a traditional library space throws into sharp relief the knowledge silos that exist there. They didn't particularly matter before, every person performed their separate function and it was enough to point in the general direction of a physical resource, because you would probably be able to find it. But the digital library brings together disparate roles, condensing them into a project that requires unprecedented precision, because computers demand it. In response to this, either everyone involved endeavours to develop a holistic understanding of all relevant institutional inter-relationships, or one person or department has to take on this responsibility. The latter introduces an instituional divide: instead of the integrated library that contains digital content and analogue linked together and fully amalgamated, we get two libraries - one digital, one traditional - with the digital element a 'bolt-on' or supplement, which may not be the best outcome for growth and sustainability, adding limited value to library collections as a whole.