A growing and significant part of the record and culture of the UK is now in digital form. The lives of staff working in our institutions, current students, and private individuals will be increasingly influenced by these trends and the growing demand for professionals to curate digital assets.
The School of Library, Archives and Information Studies (SLAIS) at University College London aims to raise awareness of digital stewardship. Following the highly successful inaugural series of C21st Curation public lectures last year, SLAIS organised a second series of public lectures by eight leading speakers, open to students, professionals and general public during April and May 2006. Podcasts and presentations from the series are being made available online .
The four evening sessions each attracted an audience of professional librarians, archivists, records managers, museum curators, publishers, and students. Each session provoked lively discussion and debate. Speakers and attendees continued informal discussion during the receptions held afterwards which were kindly sponsored by Tessella Support Services. Some of the key themes and issues which emerged from the series are detailed below.
Astrid Wissenburg, Director of Communications at the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), argued that research funders provide much of the support leading to the creation and use of many scholarly communications activities (publications, data, conferences, etc) through their funding for research and training. They also have an interest in a healthy scholarly communications infrastructure to support their researchers. The Research Councils UK (RCUK) started considering its strategies regarding supporting scholarly communications in 2004, across the many disciplines the 8 individual research councils cover. Two specific areas are under active consideration:
The presentation described the many challenges and opportunities encountered by the research councils whilst exploring these areas, with specific examples from the Economic and Social Research Council's ongoing activities.
David Brown, Head of Scholarly Communications at The British Library remarked that the times are turbulent: scholarly communication is experiencing major changes in business models, paradigms, technology, products and services and user requirements in comparison with the comparatively tranquil period of the last century. Under the formal, print-based communication system, journals became the icon for informing the global research community of new developments, and when the existing infrastructure in support of journals began to creak under the 'serials' crisis, journal publishers adapted by introducing Big Deals and libraries formed consortia. But essentially the print paradigm remained inviolate, until the Internet and the World Wide Web introduced new technological options which promised speedier, more efficient and in some cases more equitable distribution of the information relating to society's research efforts.
Open access, in all its forms, has challenged the business model which had sustained commercial and learned society publishers so well. As the Internet allowed and fostered the exchange of vast amounts of data between worldwide 'collaboratories', interest in access to raw data increased. The semantic Web became a rallying cry for some pundits operating at the frontiers of Web developments.
More recently, the hierarchical structure of even the semantic Web school of thought has been put to the test by the emergence of a new form of scholarly communication built around social publishing, social bookmarking and a general networking of researchers all outside the traditional journal publication system. This movement has spawned Connotea, flickr, del.icio.us, mySpace, blogniscient, lulu, wikipedia, etc. These are essentially part of a free movement, generating a new sense of community.and though the origins may lie in the fields of information, news, and entertainment, it spills over to the scholarly and academic community, particularly in the USA. The result has been the emergence of new stakeholders 'from the edge' who are offering ambient 'findability' within the morass of new data, information and sources which has become such a significant feature of scholarly communication. The challenge of accessing, storing and maintaining these new forms and new sources in a way which enables the 'minutes of science' to be effectively recorded and supported has become a crucial issue.
Professor Susan Hockey argued that recent funding opportunities have led to the creation of digital content within institutions, such as libraries, archives and publishing houses, which previously functioned as intermediaries and managers of existing information. Unlike books, which are static and inflexible physical objects, digital resources, especially those representing humanities primary material, offer almost unlimited flexibility. How can that flexibility be harnessed to meet the needs of the 21st century?
Imitating books limits the functionality of digital resources, but what else do users want to do with them? What new systems are needed to handle integrated metadata and content? How far should the librarian, archivist or publisher go in interfering with the intellectual content by enhancing images or encoding text? What will the world of humanities research and teaching be like when users no longer go to the library and the information world is dominated by Google and Amazon? She posed many stimulating questions and then explored them further with the audience.
Suzanne Keene from UCL noted that digital technologies, notably the Internet, are often said to be 'disruptive technologies'. She explored this concept as it might affect museums as knowledge organisations and information sources. Such technologies could, crucially, help in making the stored collections of museums a usable resource: they are presently drastically underused. A consequence might be that museums treated their collections much more as a service to be provided, as are records and archives, rather than as a resource to be strictly controlled and released only with careful 'interpretation'. This would have fundamental and disruptive resource and business implications. Potential users would need to be much more active as well, in using collections for teaching, research, creativity and enjoyment.
Natalie Ceeney, the new Chief Executive of The National Archives, noted that the digital environment is causing the most significant paradigm shift yet for archives. Every 'norm' is changing. On one hand, the increase in e-decision making in government is requiring new approaches to managing information, not only in terms of new (Electronic Document and Records Management) systems, but also a fundamental change in who needs to make decisions about the capture and archiving of key information. Preservation is different - in a paper world 'benign neglect' is an option - in a digital world, disastrous. And everyone now has access to data and can do research previously undertaken by the few. The 21st century has made Google, the Internet, and BBC television programmes such as 'Who do you think you are?' tools to turn every UK citizen into a potential researcher, with unrealistic expectations of instant digital information. The National Archives is at the forefront of work to address these issues, by providing increasing leadership to government over electronic records management and digital preservation, and through ambitious digitisation programmes, aiming to achieve 90% of use of those records online. Little 'best practice' exists to guide this direction, and no extra funding to deliver the change. Service delivery in the national institutions has to change in order to rise to these challenges.
Jemima Rellie, Head of Digital Programmes at the Tate, argued museums are changing. They are changing from hermetic containers of material culture to porous platforms for cultural exchange and debate. Digital technologies are both the catalyst and the support for this change, empowering visitors and increasing their expectations while simultaneously blurring the traditional distinctions between museums, libraries, archives and public service broadcasters. Museums have embraced digital technologies and already provide extensive free and on-demand programming, catering to a range of audiences. But while the public appetite for this content shows no sign of abating, the resources required to deliver it are in short supply. It will never be possible for museums to do everything that all audiences desire in the digital age, but some rationale must be devised so that museums can prioritise their digital programming. She then explored the challenges that continue to frustrate museums in digitising delivery; focusing on Tate's digital programmes, she suggested the most significant issues facing museums include planning, audience development, content management, competition, funding and measuring success, and presented some possible solutions.
Neil Beagrie from the British Library and JISC, introduced the UK Government's Science and Innovation Investment Framework which has argued that over the next decade the growing UK research base must have ready and efficient access to digital information of all kinds such as experimental datasets, journals, theses, conference proceedings and patents. This is the life blood of research and innovation but presents a number of major risks due to unresolved challenges in their long-term management. Neil chaired and authored the report of the DTI e-infrastructure Preservation and Curation Working Group and summarised its work and recommendations.
Prof. Michael Wadsworth from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London, presented a case study of the curation of a medical research project that began in 1945 and has continued ever since. The data record the development, adolescence, and adulthood of a large study population from birth onwards funded by the Medical Research Council. The aims of the study are concerned with health, and in particular now, with the processes of ageing. He emphasised that a very long-running study requires curation that is forward-looking and flexible The curation of the data was described in terms of preservation, conservation and access management, emphasising the influence of policy concerns, in terms of health care as well as scientific policy. The issues relating to the changing demands made on scientific data over a long time frame were made very clear and the scientific value of longitudinal or life course information was ably demonstrated.
Feedback from those attending the lecture series has been overwhelmingly positive. We are extremely grateful to all the speakers who gave their time to make the second series of public lectures so enjoyable and stimulating intellectually and professionally for the audience. We hope making podcasts and presentations from the lectures available online this year will be welcomed by those who were unable to attend some of the lectures and by the many individuals from overseas who asked if this would be possible. We would welcome further feedback from those who attended or download the lectures as well as any suggestions on topics for future public lecture series.