The Repositories Debate

Andy Powell recently wrote a post on the eFoundations blog about his opening plenary talk at the VALA 2008 conference.

His post generated interesting discussions and debate amongst those involved in repository activities in the UK and the wider community. Paul Miller was in agreement with Andy’s comments in his post on the Panlibus blog entitled “Andy Powell is Spot On” with Paul feeling that “Our current approach, fundamentally, is totally, completely, utterly wrong, isn’t it?”.

Over on his blog my colleague Paul Walk has given his thoughts on Andy’s post expressing agreement in several areas but disagreeing with Andy’s view that “we need to focus on building and/or using global scholarly social networks based on global repository services“. Paul (W) responds by asking “Why can’t we “focus on building and/or using global scholarly social networks” (which I support) based on institutional repository services? We don’t have a problem with institutional web sites do we? Or institutional library OPACs?”. My former colleague Rachel Heery has responded in a similar vein to Paul in a response to Andy’s post: “I don’t really see that there is conflict between encouraging more content going into institutional repositories and ambitions to provide more Web 2.0 type services on top of aggregated IR content. Surely these things go together?“.

Meanwhile over on his Overdue Ideas blog Owen Stephens gives his thoughts from the perspective of a practitioner involved in setting up the Spir@l institutional repository at Imperial College with a wittily-titled post “R.I.Positories“. Owen concludes “we need is a system that helps us administer the workflow around the delivery of digital objects in a corporate environment, but that is invisible to those not involved in the administration – and that’s what I want out of a ‘repository’ – so, for me, the Repository is dead, long live the repository“.

And a few minutes ago I noticed a pop-up alert informing me of a blog post entitled “RESTful Repositories?“. An intriguing title, I thought, so I viewed the post and came across Stu Weibel’s contribution which suggested that “One way to think about repositories is as the bookshelves of the digital library“. Stu went on to point out that “We don’t ask scholars, having just published an article or book, to ‘go to the library to find the most appropriate place for it… and don’t come back until you do!’”   This sounds reasonable to me – there’s a need for the physical library and the infrastructure that is associated with it, but the researchers don’t need to know how it works. This might be an approach to be taken with institutional repositories – so let’s not scare them off with the ins and outs of the metadata schemas.

Engaging With A Distributed Debate

There’s clearly an interesting debate taking place around the approaches which should be taken to maximising access to the UK’s research papers. But if you have an interest in institutional repositories how do you find out where the debate is taking place and how do you participate?

I have had discussions with colleagues who feel that such debates should be centralised and should use a ubiquitous communications channel – namely email. From this perspective the debate about institutional repositories within the UK higher education community should take place on the JISC-Repositories JISCMail list. However I feel that this will result in the debate being marginalised to those with a particularly strong interest in repositories, will tend to focus on the nitty-gritty details which email tends to encourage and, in the case of JISCMail, the debate will be trapped within the JISCMail Web site, not only because the JISCMail archives are not exposed to search engines such as Google, but also because of the ‘uncool’ URIs for messages in the archive.

And, of course, email discussions fragment, in any case, and I suspect the Australian participants at the VALA 2008 conference will be having their own discussions about repositories on their own mailing lists.

An alternative view is that the debate with take place via scholarly articles published in peer-reviewed journals. This may be the case in many areas of research, but man in the digital library community would be frustrated by the lengthy timescales that process would entail.

Like it or not, the debate is taking place using a variety of communications tools, including the blogosphere.

So, if you wish to engage with such discussions, how do you find out what is happening? In my case my RSS reader (Feedreader) will automatically inform me of new posts for the blogs I’ve subscribed to. This includes the eFoundations blog, although in the case of Andy’s post I was alerted to its publication a couple of hours after it had been published via a tweet on Twitter.

The distributed nature of such debates has benefit, such as allowing the discussions to be brought to the attention of different communities. When doing this, there is an expectation that bloggers will link to the original post. And if blogs allow trackbacks, it will be possible to follow links from an original post to blogs which have commented on it.

Returning to Andy’s original post, Paul Walk noticed that the eFoundation’s blog hadn’t included a trackback to Paul’s post. This is probably a technical glitch – but this incident made me think about the importance of trackbacks in the integration of distributed discussions. Owen Stephen’s R.I.P.ositories post included a link to a post on The importance of being open the eFoundation blog dating back to October 2006. But comments to such old posts are disabled – I assume to minimise the effort in deleting spam comments. But this is breaking the linkages to related discussions. How, then, should we balance the benefits of allowing such tracebacks versus the maintenance costs of managing misuse?  Or do you disagree with blogs being used for this type of discussion and debate?