Repository Advocacy

Just returned from an interesting day about repository advocacy hosted by Bradford University. This is relevant to us, because having set up a repository, (at considerable time and effort and expense) we want people to use it. I’m not going to regale readers with a long account of the day, rather to pick up on some useful themes that emerged.

If you want more details the slides from the presentations and notes from the breakout session are now available.

Firstly, what constitutes a successful repository? Well, one with a lot of stuff in it, obviously, but it also needs to meet user requirements which will of course vary according to who is using the repository. One of the presentations was from Julie Allinson and described how the repository software in use at York was meeting a very specific need, in this case, effectively digitising their slide library. Not every repository meets a specific need and one measure of success might be that there are more people using it and in doing so generating more funding. The challenge here is that researchers may be using content in the repository to generate bids, but not really acknowledging it, or even understanding that’s what they are doing. Ideally a successful repository should be deeply embedded in university structure. Another presentation from Shirley Yearwood Jackman explained how Liverpool University had created a role of repository editor and given this to fairly senior academic staff in the various departments. She admitted that this hadn’t worked everywhere, but where it had it had certainly raised the profile of the repository.

We will return to what constitutes effective advocacy later, but there was quite an interesting theme running throughout the day about what the barriers to a successful repository might be. Most of those present thought the very word “repository” itself was unhelpful, and were changing the name of their repository to something like “digital library” Personally I’m not totally convinced by this argument. I think pretending something is something other than it is can be counter productive in the long term. I do agree that the word repository isn’t all that familiar to many users (and sounds slightly medical) but “digital library” can have lots of other meanings, and in any case Lincoln already has an E-library. So if anyone’s got a better name, I’m listening. I suppose the main difference is that the repository is more a library of material produced by the University, whereas the e-library (at least at Lincoln) is mostly made up of things we’ve bought in.

But, that’s perhaps the least important barrier. Rather more to the point is the perennial lack of time, money and staff. There is a continuing need for the repository team to ramp up its efforts, be more structured for example be realistic about the resource that is likely to be required. Rachel Proudfoot from the White Rose Project (a collaboration between three Yorkshire Universities) reminded us that advocacy is much bigger than the project. So, what can we do to get started. One common approach is to mandate deposit, which essentially means that the University makes it a condition of research that material is deposited in the Repository. Rachel thought that this might have some benefit but a there was a danger in setting up a mandate before the university was ready for it. Mandates needs foundations or as she put it you have to have a mandate ready landscape. And you can expect some harrumphing. (At Leeds university about only about 70% of academic staff agreed that they would comply willingly, but equally only 8.5% said they would flatly refuse. A mandate might not lead to a huge rush of deposits, but she gave the example of Glasgow university where it has led to more demand for advocacy work – explaining what it’s all about.

The recommended strategy is to develop as many allies as possible, continue to use multiple routes, be clear about the benefits the repository will bring. Having some sort of demonstration package is worth a great deal. The key seems to be to finding evidence of the repository’s potential and using that to sell it to stakeholders (e.g. the repository as a marketing tool) Find out what pushes the stakeholders buttons. For example, it’s widely accepted that departments within a university have different needs, but so do researchers themselves. End of career researchers might be expected to be less interested than beginning researchers although there is some evidence that some see the repository as an excellent place for storing their academic legacy! But it is a good idea to work on the research students, and find ways to embed the repository into the research management process, even if this does fall short of a full mandate.

Finally there are some technical issues to consider. Metadata is essential to a successful repository but is not something that grabs the attention of many researchers. As Julie said, many academics believe they don’t need or want it but THEY DO! There was some discussion of commercial products such as Symplectic, but nobody present had actually implemented them (I have to admit I hadn’t actually heard of them before, but their web site does look interesting).Another issue that few of those present had been able to address was interoperability with other Campus systems. Ideally, a researcher should be able to add something to the repository from Blackboard with a single click but we are some way away from that yet. Finally, there is the issue of preservation. Most of us are happily using PDFs for our documents but there’s no guarantee that this format will last any longer than any other digital format has done, so although we claim that the repository is a permanent home, for research materials we need to ensure that we have addressed this issue if our advocacy is going to be credible. There was some inconclusive discussion about whether we should adopt the PDF/A format which is designed for longer term archiving.

A very useful day, which if it didn’t provide any instant solutions, probably on account of there not being any, did focus my mind on the fact that while we might have completed the JISC project, the work is really only just beginning.