Digital Repositories: Dealing With the Digital Deluge
It was that rare thing, a sunny morning in Manchester, and it was almost with regret that I entered the dark entrance hall of the Manchester Conference Centre in search of coffee and the start of the JISC conference Digital Repositories: Dealing with the Digital Deluge .
Andy Powell, Eduserv Foundation , and co-author of the JISC Digital Repositories Roadmap  kicked off by suggesting that 'roadmap' documents in this domain should be treated like satellite navigation systems rather than a traditional paper-based route planners . SatNav comes with the ability to adapt to wrong turns, changing road conditions and, presumably, the simple desire of the driver to make unscheduled stops at interesting places. It is an interesting and useful metaphor I think, highlighting the need to be agile and adaptable in the shifting sands of IT and the Web.
The road conditions are changing, particularly with the emergence of 'Web 2.0'  and all that this increment implies, and because of this, Andy suggested, revisiting the roadmap would be no bad thing. Having thus justified the need to critique the roadmap (and I got the impression that such a critique was welcomed by the delegation, but that could just have been me), Andy continued, after a summary of the key milestones, to suggest that while the policy, cultural and legal milestones remain valid, perhaps the technical milestones needed rethinking.
"Web 2.0" is user-centric. To the end-user a repository is essentially just another Web page. Therefore, Andy argued, shouldn't we be trying to make our repositories more user-centric too? This means not worrying too much about preservation as a function of the repository, not worrying too much about metadata aside from simple tagging, and trying, instead to create compelling, "obvious and intuitive" repositories that people will want to use.
It was a rousing start, and refreshing to see a little controversy introduced early on in a conference focussed on a much hyped topic.
After this the work began for real - for the delegates this meant ploughing through the conference programme and trying to work out which parts of the seven parallel strands to follow; for the events staff this meant trying to shepherd some two hundred people into the right rooms in effective but unobtrusive ways, ensuring the tight schedule was kept. In this task the events staff performed admirably, though occasionally it felt like being the last in the bar at closing time. Sometimes I felt breakout session conversations were cut short and sometimes a mysterious person arriving at the back of the room to indicate "5 minutes" remaining, was distracting, other times a welcome relief. However one felt about the interruptions, one could not help but notice that the conference, in spite of the complexity of the programme, ran to schedule.
The crowded nature of the programme (the conference Web page lists some 48 Power Point files linked from it, and this is not all of the presentations by a long way) was reflected in the breakout sessions, where (at least on the two strands I visited) it felt that rapid-fire presentations took precedence over exploration of the issues. This was, presumably, to ensure as many of the projects as possible were represented and it is true to say that the sessions left a sense of awe at the high quality of the digital repository work. However, some of the breakout rooms were a little dark, small and crowded - testament, perhaps, to the popularity of some of the strands.
It would be impossible for me to cover the details of the strands here so I am not going to try, especially when it has been done already by the rapporteurs at the sessions and I would recommend you read these as they are excellent summaries of life in those dark rooms .
The second plenary of the day, by Professor Keith Jeffery  of the Science and Technology Facilities Council , presented both starkly different and strikingly similar points of view to Andy Powell's first session. Professor Jeffery agreed with Andy in his support of repositories, stating that the advancement of research supported by the creation of repositories can fuel innovation, generate wealth and improve quality of life. Big claims perhaps, but claims we want to believe nonetheless; otherwise why were we there?
The difference was that where Andy suggested repositories should be learning from the informal, user-centric developments of the "Web 2.0" community, Professor Jeffery, informed by his work with euroCRIS , a European initiative examining and specifying a research information system, of which a repository is an integral part, argued for a large, institution-centric system, relying on detailed (presumably expert-created) semantic metadata to facilitate discovery and integration of repositories in the research workflow. This "Current Research Information System", or CRIS, is designed to interoperate with other CRISs at other institutions.
Taken together, the plenaries from day one provided a balanced view of where repositories may sit in the Web of the future, and provided two very interesting positions. What was reassuring was that both speakers, while coming from different places, readily converged on the need for repositories and how they may be achieved and there is no reason why large formal systems could not underpin informal access points - as institutional-scale management information systems may underpin address books. Perhaps the talks were not so different after all.
Immediately after Professor Jeffery, we were treated to the formal launch of "The Depot" , a new JISC service aimed at bridging the gap between an academic community that has a desire to deposit e-prints into a repository and the institution that is still in the process of developing one. The Depot is useful in promoting self-deposit prior to, or as part of, institutional repository development and has the added advantage of providing persistent links to papers submitted, even if they are subsequently deposited into an institutional repository.
Day two, a half day, began with a rally call by Professor James Drummond Bone , President of Universities UK . His high-level talk discussed why UK Higher Education should be interested in repositories, providing the rationale for the projects represented at the conference. It was reassuring to hear that repositories were starting to be addressed by an organisation like Universities UK, and the reasons presented were compelling, grounded as they were in current political and economic thinking (for example repositories to support e-portfolios ) as well as ethical and evangelical notions of Open Access . However, there was recognition of the potential controversy of repositories, and when pushed by a question from the floor, Professor Bone admitted 'one is running a business as well as an intellectual endeavour', acknowledging that research and research data can give an institution the 'business edge'.
The final plenary of the conference came just before the farewell lunch, with Rachel Bruce and Neil Jacobs presenting how they saw JISC delivering the 'Roadmap Vision' , addressing some of the more controversial things to arise at the conference:
- "We don't need metadata" and "Other [non-repository] people can handle preservation", extreme forms of the "Let us learn from Web 2.0" argument
- The programme was "a bit of a failure" because there is no content in the repositories
- "Let us ignore the legal issues and just get on with it"
There seems to be an increasing need to juggle the traditional, institutionalised buzzwords like "curation", "open access" and "reward structures" with the modern, agile innovation and glossy success of Web 2.0.
The conference closed with the ubiquitous panel discussion session.
There is little doubt that as a showcase of the talent and hard work coming out of the JISC Digital Repositories projects the conference was an overwhelming success. The sheer weight of the programme, coupled with the stature of the plenary speakers, stands testament to the importance of repositories and their role in supporting learning, teaching and (especially) research, to the JISC and the Higher Education community. The conference also highlighted the diverse ways in which repositories may be created and used, be that as part of a mash-up of repository 'services' or integrated into a formal information system.
- JISC 'Digital Respositories: Dealing with the Digital Deluge' http://www.jisc.ac.uk/events/2007/06/repositories_conference.aspx
- Eduserv Foundation http://www.eduserv.org.uk/foundation/
- Digital Repositories Roadmap, Rachel Heery and Andy Powell, April 2006 http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/repositories/publications/roadmap-200604/
- The Repository Road Map: are we heading in the right direction, Andy Powell, June 2007 http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/events/2007/06/andy_powell_presentation.ppt
- "Web 2.0" Wikipedia entry, retrieved 13 August 2007 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_2
- See "Session Notes" section on conference Web site http://www.jisc.ac.uk/events/2007/06/repositories_conference.aspx
- Repositories in the Research Life Cycle, Professor Keith Jeffery, June 2007 http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/events/2007/06/keith_jeffery_presentation.ppt
- Science & Technology Facilites Council http://www.stfc.ac.uk/Home.aspx
- euroCRIS http://www.eurocris.org/
- The Depot http://www.depot.ac.uk
- The role of repositories in supporting research, teaching and learning in UK universities, Prof. Drummond Bone, presentation, JISC Repositories Conference, 6 June 2007
- Universities UK http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/
- JISC briefing paper: e-Portfolios: What institutions really need to know, March 2006
- Open Access, Wikipedia entry, retrieved 13 August 2007 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_access and not the same as http://www.openaccess.gov.uk/ unfortunately!
- Progressing Towards the Roadmap Vision, Rachel Bruce and Neil Jacobs, June 2007 http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/events/2007/06/rachelbruce_neiljacobs_presentation.ppt