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Digitizing Intellectual Property: The Oxford Scoping Study

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Stuart Lee discusses the Mellon Digitization Scoping Study for Oxford University.

In 1998 the University of Oxford initiated a nine-month study into its digitization activities: past, present, and future. The 'Scoping Study' as it has now become known, was funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation and completed its findings in July 1999. This paper briefly outlines the reasons behind the study, its methodology and how this might be applied to other institutions, the main results, and the planned next stages.

Reasons for the Study

The University of Oxford, like many other institutions, has been involved in digitization projects throughout the 1990s. In some cases this has been as a result of successful bids under national initiatives, in others responding to offers from external sponsorship. Similarly, like many institutions, at the beginning of the decade the projects undertaken were having to design systems and guidelines from scratch; the relatively new nature of the subject meant that there was very little experience to build on.

As activity (and funding) in digitization is showing no signs of easing off, the University felt it was time to draw together its experiences to see what could be learnt from all the projects (internal and external) and how this could be taken forward at an institutional level. This desire was coupled with the recognition that the library system at Oxford was currently undergoing a major process of integration since the appointment of Reg Carr to the post of Director of University Library Services.

As at other institutions many of the initiatives undertaken by Oxford have worked in isolation of each other, often repeating the same mistakes, or discovering similar solutions. The attraction of bringing these projects together in terms of efficiency gains is obvious. Furthermore, as the digitization of a critical mass of resources has been overtly identified as one of the library system's principal strategic objectives the need to find a way forward was pressing.


Oxford received funding from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation to cover a nine-month study [1]. Most importantly, reflecting Mellon's remit, this meant that wherever possible the general conclusions and deliverables of the study should be produced in such a form as to be of help to other institutions.

The aims of the study were:

* to document, analyse, and evaluate Oxford's current digitization activities, as a basis for assessing the effectiveness of the various methodologies used;
* to investigate the possibilities for building on the existing project-based work and for migrating it into viable services for library users;
* to develop appropriate selection criteria for creating digital collections in the context of local, national, and international scholarly requirements for digital library products and services;
*to make recommendations for further investment and activity within the Oxford libraries sector, and potentially within the UK research libraries community.

To achieve the above the study outlined a work-plan of deliverables. To begin with key areas of investigation were identified (selection criteria, digitization methods, metadata, and copyright). In turn, research was undertaken into these looking at initiatives and projects worldwide to try to get an up-to-date picture of recent developments. All of these were written up as reports and are available on the we site as appendices.

Furthermore, as we were aiming to indicate potential future investment levels, external consultancy was bought in from HEDS the UK's Higher Education Digitization Service) who were charged with developing both a business plan and model to take this forward. Immediately, this brought into focus the question of what exactly was needed in terms of services? A model cannot be constructed without a plan, and a plan depends on clear objectives.

In a sense, part of the service envisaged had already been identified. It was agreed that at Oxford one of the most urgent needs was to introduce an on-demand digitization service for users. This was termed 'reactive' digitization, i.e. responding to reader requests for digital images of items in the library sector. The next logical step was to expand this to a more proactive service which could cope with project level demand, but more importantly to target collections for conversion. Therefore, workflows for both services were drawn up and presented to HEDS (these are available also in the appendices of the report). HEDS were then asked to plan and model, in isolation, the conversion facility that could cope with this level of demand. Simply put, they were asked to cost the level of hardware, software, staffing, and finance, that would be needed to establish a unit that could convert all these requests into the required digital objects (based on an estimated figure of 500,000 images per annum). The plan presented in Appendix A of the report then does this and no more. It was always recognised that such a unit could not exist in reality without other services, i.e. it was only part of a much larger picture (see below).

Finally, and in a sense the most important activity, was to ascertain the level of digitization activity in Oxford past, present, and the potential level in the future. There were two stages to this activity. First, a questionnaire was circulated to get an accurate list of all the projects that had been undertaken, but also to ask librarians and curators what collections they could identify as possible candidates for digitization. Second, the author interviewed everyone who had replied and performed a basic analysis of their project or the items offered as candidates for conversion (the interview sheets and questionnaires are available as Appendix C on the study web site).

Results of the Interviews

The most apparent conclusion from the interviews was that Oxford could clearly demonstrate a proven track record in digitization (over 11 major projects attracting in excess of £2.2 million in external grants), and a great deal of expertise in all aspects of digital activity, both project-based and service-based. Many digital resources had been created within the University, and access to them was managed by a range of systems and services. There was significant collaboration in place between libraries, services, and individuals, and a considerable infrastructure of support services to help advance the University's activities in the digitization arena. More importantly, there was a good groundbase of knowledge about the possibilities and potential for digitization, though many still saw its main content focus as being on rare and unique items.

However, more specifically, certain topics continually arose as areas of concern or further investigating. In short, these were:

Access v Preservation: most of the people interviewed saw the main advantage of digitization being the potential for increasing and widening access to items. However there was considerable suspicion about the digital object acting as a preservation copy (in comparison with the known medium of microform), although its potential to reduce handling of the original was noted.

Accurate Knowledge of Collections: in many cases accurate cataloguing of collections was often notable by its absence, especially to the level of the individual item. This made assessing large collections extremely difficult.

Central Advisory Service: as well as the need for an on-demand digitization service (noted above and confirmed during the interviewing stages) there was a repeated request for some form of central service that could provide information and advice about digitization.

When it came to looking at the collections offered for digitization some new work had to be performed. The study had been charged with developing selection and assessment criteria for judging whether an item or items were suitable for digitizing, and to rank these in terms of importance. To do this it had to draft new guidelines, going far beyond any existing decision matrices. The main decision matrix in Appendix B, which was designed during the study, satisfies this. In addition it could be used by any institution to assess a collection proposed for conversion. After some initial questions on available surrogates and copyright, the matrix proposes a series of categories under which the item can be assessed in terms of it in creasing 'access', matching 'preservation' needs, and fulfilling the 'infrastructure' goals. Once these have been addressed it then presents a separate matrix assessing the possible digitization method one could employ (e.g. in-house v out-source), and then returns to check the 'feasibility' of the project.

In the initial trawl of potential collections 93 were identified (a 'collection' here could mean a single item, e.g. a manuscript, or an entire archive). These were visited and studied to produce some form of initial assessment of the material. Four representative collections were subjected to a more considered analysis by Simon Tanner of HEDS, to produce more accurate ideas on costing and methods of conversion (see Appendix J).

The main list of collections is presented in Appendix D of the report as a prioritized list; however, due to the security risk this list has not been made publicly available. In short, though, each collection was briefly discussed identifying potential problems (e.g. copyright, lack of cataloguing, etc.) and some recommendations on how they could proceed (if at all). Collaborative projects of collections containing similar content were suggested, but more importantly each was subjected to the assessment matrix described above and ranked (Low, Medium, and High) in terms of their access, preservation, and infrastructure priorities. Most importantly, Oxford now has a starting list of prioritized collections that have undergone an initial assessment, ready to respond to new national funding initiatives. The University can also demonstrate that it has thoroughly investigated and evaluated its current practices.

The Way Forward

Having assembled all this data the next stage was to sketch out a development plan that addressed the identified objectives of:

* migrating projects into services
* reactive and proactive digitization

As already noted with the limitations of Appendix A, it was clear that any service or services offered had to cover all aspects of the digital library, e.g. management, administration, conversion, data management, and so on. At the same time, it was unrealistic to assume that this would be green-field development and any system proposed would collaborate with existing units and services on offer at Oxford (in keeping with the present climate of library integration at the University).

The model proposed then was the Oxford Digital Library Services (ODLS). This would act as a central point of advice, consultancy, and dissemination of good practice in matters related to digitization. It would cope with both reactive and proactive digitization, with the overall aim being to deliver a critical mass of digital materials to support teaching and research.

Its remit was defined as '... to expand access to Oxford's own collections through digitization, including the creation of new materials in response to reader requests, a proactive targeting of collections, and the provision of an interface with collections already digitized.' More importantly it should ' be able to convert analogue material to digital form (or commission external vendors and agencies to do so), and administer, manage, catalogue, and market a fully functional digital library.'

Quite clearly, however, these short recommendations contain much that needs to be discussed further, as the implications for funding (at the very least) are considerable. Furthermore, one of the criticisms of the study (and it is recognised as a fair observation) was that it was library-centred, and that the users of the proposed service were not truly identified or consulted. Therefore, Oxford's approach to the next stage has been to establish a development team. Partly charged with filling in the gaps left by the initial study, this will establish working groups to formalise approaches to such things as user needs, metadata, architecture, collection development, and delivery systems. It will then map out a more detailed plan encompassing the other services needed for the ODLS to succeed, and show how this would fit into current structures. At present the team has begun its work and is aiming to produce its final conclusions by July 2000.


[1] In terms of staffing there was one FTE (the author), seconded from his current post at the Centre for Humanities Computing in Oxford. Furthermore a steering group was established consisting of: John Tuck (Chair), Deputy to the Director of University Library Services; David Cooper, Manager of the Celtic and Medieval Manuscripts project; Marilyn Deegan, Manager of the Refugee Studies Programme digital library; and Peter Leggate, Keeper of Scientific Books at the Radcliffe Science Library, and joint-manager of the Internet Library of Early Journals project. All members of the group met at regular intervals to discuss the study and guide its progress. Most importantly, every member of the group and the Director of University Library Services offered numerous contributions and took part in the editing of the final report.

[The report is available at]

Stuart Lee
Head of the Centre for Humanities Computing, University of Oxford


Date published: 
21 December 1999

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How to cite this article

Stuart Lee. "Digitizing Intellectual Property: The Oxford Scoping Study". December 1999, Ariadne Issue 22

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