Getting to the Repository of the Future – reflections

A week after the Getting to the Repository of the Future workshop, it is useful to reflect on what thoughts emerged from the event that we can take forward.  The workshop itself was very helpfully blogged by resident RepoFringe bloggers Rocio and Nancy, which captures many of the points raised.  There was also a follow-on round table discussion held the day after, from which additional ideas and suggestions emerged.  All contributions are being written up into a document to inform Jisc in their planning, but will also be openly reflected back to inform conversations back home within institutions and elsewhere.

By way of continuing the discussion online, I reflect here my own initial thoughts and conclusions from the discussion.  Feedback very welcome.

  • Repositories will become capable of dealing with content types according to their needs

Repositories have been established to manage many different types of material, with probably the largest focus being around research articles.  Nonetheless, with digital content collections of all sorts growing and needing better management, can repositories cope with this?  Discussion suggested that we have a technology available to us that can be used for a variety of use cases, and so can usefully be exploited in this way.  In doing so, though, it was recognised that we need to better understand what it means to manage different types of material so this exploitation can take place effectively and add to the value of the content.  As to type of repository, it should be recognised where materials benefit from being managed through specific repositories rather than a local repository, e.g., managing software code through GitHub or BitBucket, or holding datasets in specific data centres.  Overall message emerging: understand more how to deal with different types of content, be realistic about where they are best managed as part of this.

  • Repositories will move beyond being a store of PDFs to enable re-use to a greater extent

It was one very specific comment at the workshop that highlighted that many repositories are simply a store of PDF files (there was also a debate about whether repositories holding metadata are real repositories, but that’s another discussion).  PDF files can be re-usable if generated in the right way (i.e., are not just page images), but are never ideal.  Part of the added value that repositories can bring is facilitating re-use, and enabling the benefits that come from this.  To do this we need to move to a position where we can effectively either store non-PDF versions instead or alongside, or identify ways of storing non-PDF files by default.  The view expressed was that if we don’t address this we risk our repositories becoming silos of content with limited use.

  • Repositories will benefit greatly from linked data, but we need persistent identifiers to be better established and standardised

There is a chicken and egg aspect to this, as there is with a lot of linked data activity.  Content is exposed as linked data, but is not then consumed as much as might be anticipated, in part because the linked data doesn’t use recognised standards, and in particular standard identifiers, in its expression.  These weren’t used because there wasn’t enough activity within the community to inform a standard to use, or there are a number of different standards but a lack of an authoritative one.  One example is a standard list of organisational identifiers: there are a few in existence, but a need to bring these together, a task that Jisc is currently investigating.  Repositories could make use of linked data if the standards existed, but where is the impetus to create them?  An opposing view to this is that the standards pretty much do exist, it is more a matter of raising awareness of the options and opportunities in how these can effectively used within repositories, e.g., ORCID, which is now starting to gain traction, or the Library of Congress subject headings.  Whichever view you take, linked data screams ‘potential’, and there was little doubt that it will become part of the repository landscape in a far greater way than it does today.

  • Repositories will focus on holding material and preserving it, leaving all other functions to services built around the repository / Repositories will become invisibly integrated within user-facing services

At first site this theme appears to suggest that we reduce a repository, which seems to contradict the benefits that the previous statements suggest.  Discussion at the workshop, though, saw this more as getting repositories to play to their strengths; we need somewhere to store and preserve digital ‘stuff’, using a digital repository as the equivalent to print repositories.  Of course it can be held in a way that allows it to be exploited through other services, but should we not focus on what a repository does really well rather than become application managers as well?  Discuss.  In taking this line, we enable content to be made available from the repository (a ‘lake of content’ as expressed by one workshop attendee) wherever it is needed; do users need to know where it came from?  Issues of perceived value clearly raise their head here given the battles to establish repositories in the first place, and moving in the suggested direction will certainly require attention to this with budget-holders.  But for users this was felt to make sense.  One approach suggested was to consider repository as infrastructure rather than application, as this may change views of the support required.

  • Repositories will be challenged by other systems offering similar capability / Repositories will develop ways of demonstrating their impact

This theme was a natural follow-on to the previous one.  The debate about CRIS’s storing content, or VLEs for that matter, seems high on the agenda in affected institutions, and will no doubt continue.  This suggests a need for clarity in the role of each system, and an understanding of their respective benefit and impact for the institution in how they work together.  We cannot take repositories for granted, though the general perception at the workshop was that they have huge value (biased audience I know, but one with experience) and we need to continue identifying how we demonstrate that to best serve our institutional needs.

So, a full afternoon.  No blinding flashes of inspiration, perhaps, but some useful staging posts against which we can plot the future course of repositories in the next 2, 5, 10, etc years.  Repositories will only be what they are then because of what we choose to do now.

My main general takeaways from the workshop:

  • The role and need for a repository as a place to manage digital ‘stuff’ seems well accepted and here to stay

    but

  • There is a need for re-stating and defining the clarity of purpose for our individual repositories, and taking ownership/leadership in how they develop
  • No specific gaps were perceived – we know what we wish to achieve with repositories, we just need a way of doing it

    but

  • We need to clarify the barriers getting in the way and look at ways of overcoming them

What are your thoughts?  Or, indeed, what processes would work best to address these points (both institutionally and across the community)?

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