UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Distributed Discussions On Repositories

Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 19 February 2008

The Repositories Debate

Andy Powell recently wrote a post on the eFoundations blog about his opening plenary talk at the VALA 2008 conference.

His post generated interesting discussions and debate amongst those involved in repository activities in the UK and the wider community. Paul Miller was in agreement with Andy’s comments in his post on the Panlibus blog entitled “Andy Powell is Spot On” with Paul feeling that “Our current approach, fundamentally, is totally, completely, utterly wrong, isn’t it?”.

Over on his blog my colleague Paul Walk has given his thoughts on Andy’s post expressing agreement in several areas but disagreeing with Andy’s view that “we need to focus on building and/or using global scholarly social networks based on global repository services“. Paul (W) responds by asking “Why can’t we “focus on building and/or using global scholarly social networks” (which I support) based on institutional repository services? We don’t have a problem with institutional web sites do we? Or institutional library OPACs?”. My former colleague Rachel Heery has responded in a similar vein to Paul in a response to Andy’s post: “I don’t really see that there is conflict between encouraging more content going into institutional repositories and ambitions to provide more Web 2.0 type services on top of aggregated IR content. Surely these things go together?“.

Meanwhile over on his Overdue Ideas blog Owen Stephens gives his thoughts from the perspective of a practitioner involved in setting up the Spir@l institutional repository at Imperial College with a wittily-titled post “R.I.Positories“. Owen concludes “we need is a system that helps us administer the workflow around the delivery of digital objects in a corporate environment, but that is invisible to those not involved in the administration – and that’s what I want out of a ‘repository’ – so, for me, the Repository is dead, long live the repository“.

And a few minutes ago I noticed a pop-up alert informing me of a blog post entitled “RESTful Repositories?“. An intriguing title, I thought, so I viewed the post and came across Stu Weibel’s contribution which suggested that “One way to think about repositories is as the bookshelves of the digital library“. Stu went on to point out that “We don’t ask scholars, having just published an article or book, to ‘go to the library to find the most appropriate place for it… and don’t come back until you do!’”   This sounds reasonable to me – there’s a need for the physical library and the infrastructure that is associated with it, but the researchers don’t need to know how it works. This might be an approach to be taken with institutional repositories – so let’s not scare them off with the ins and outs of the metadata schemas.

Engaging With A Distributed Debate

There’s clearly an interesting debate taking place around the approaches which should be taken to maximising access to the UK’s research papers. But if you have an interest in institutional repositories how do you find out where the debate is taking place and how do you participate?

I have had discussions with colleagues who feel that such debates should be centralised and should use a ubiquitous communications channel – namely email. From this perspective the debate about institutional repositories within the UK higher education community should take place on the JISC-Repositories JISCMail list. However I feel that this will result in the debate being marginalised to those with a particularly strong interest in repositories, will tend to focus on the nitty-gritty details which email tends to encourage and, in the case of JISCMail, the debate will be trapped within the JISCMail Web site, not only because the JISCMail archives are not exposed to search engines such as Google, but also because of the ‘uncool’ URIs for messages in the archive.

And, of course, email discussions fragment, in any case, and I suspect the Australian participants at the VALA 2008 conference will be having their own discussions about repositories on their own mailing lists.

An alternative view is that the debate with take place via scholarly articles published in peer-reviewed journals. This may be the case in many areas of research, but man in the digital library community would be frustrated by the lengthy timescales that process would entail.

Like it or not, the debate is taking place using a variety of communications tools, including the blogosphere.

So, if you wish to engage with such discussions, how do you find out what is happening? In my case my RSS reader (Feedreader) will automatically inform me of new posts for the blogs I’ve subscribed to. This includes the eFoundations blog, although in the case of Andy’s post I was alerted to its publication a couple of hours after it had been published via a tweet on Twitter.

The distributed nature of such debates has benefit, such as allowing the discussions to be brought to the attention of different communities. When doing this, there is an expectation that bloggers will link to the original post. And if blogs allow trackbacks, it will be possible to follow links from an original post to blogs which have commented on it.

Returning to Andy’s original post, Paul Walk noticed that the eFoundation’s blog hadn’t included a trackback to Paul’s post. This is probably a technical glitch – but this incident made me think about the importance of trackbacks in the integration of distributed discussions. Owen Stephen’s R.I.P.ositories post included a link to a post on The importance of being open the eFoundation blog dating back to October 2006. But comments to such old posts are disabled – I assume to minimise the effort in deleting spam comments. But this is breaking the linkages to related discussions. How, then, should we balance the benefits of allowing such tracebacks versus the maintenance costs of managing misuse?  Or do you disagree with blogs being used for this type of discussion and debate?

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7 Responses to “Distributed Discussions On Repositories”

  1. Firstly, thanks for the summary. The fact that it is necessary (which I suspect it is) says something about the slightly fragmented nature of the discussion??

    I dunno what is going on with trackbacks to eFoundations. We’ll check this out.

    I also take your point about comments on older blog entries. On the other hand, blog comments are not a great way to have an ongoing conversation, especially the comments on older posts, so I’m not yet convinced that disabling them on any post older than, say, two months is a bad thing.

    In practice, I’m constantly torn between commenting on other people’s comments and starting a new blog post to pick up the pieces – sometimes I’m so torn that I don’t manage to do either :-).

    The beauty of mailing lists was that everyone at least knew how to have the conversation – you knew where to look for stuff. We (or at least I) are still learning how to sustain conversations via blogs. Note: I’m not saying we should go back to email lists – there were lots of problems with them as well – just that we need to keep learning!

  2. Yvonne said

    I like the fact that the discussion is taking place on blogs, because blogs are better than mailing lists and forums – you can post your views, link to others’ posts, and most importantly, subscribe via RSS feed.

    My two cents’ worth on repositories:

    * The URLs should be tiny (or there should be a facility to make them so, as provided in Confluence wiki software);
    * The document format should be future-proof;
    * There should be a minimal amount of metadata required for people to put stuff in them (because otherwise they won’t use them);
    * We should only be putting documents in them if they are better as documents (e.g. because of their authoritative status as journal articles) than as information distributed across pages on a website.

  3. Kara said

    Wait a minute – who’s telling researchers about metadata schemas and repository software? Certainly not me. Should I should be pontificating more about the underlying architecture when I’m in a departmental meeting explaining the service?

  4. Hi Kara – when I first started promoting the Web in 1993 I told users about the client-server nature of the Web, how a click on a link resulted in the client sending a GET request to the server and when the server delivered the file, again over HTTP, the HTML file would then be rendered by the browser.

    Too much information – and IT people tend to be guilty of over-emphasising the technical aspects of services, which ideally would be transparent to end users.

    People in the Library sector are better, in my experience, at addressing the user’s needs – so I’m really pleased that you don’t pontificate about the underlying architecture in your meetings :-)

  5. It’s all interesting stuff.

    From my perspective I’d like to see us all drop labelling things “institutional repository” and “CMS” and concentrate on speaking a language the average user will understand. We aim to deliver intuitive services so we should use intuitive language.

    It doesn’t matter what our underlying systems are (or what they do for the average user) – it’s all part of the big picture – managing and exposing our data on the web.

  6. ostephens said

    I had one of those ‘brilliant ideas’ a couple of years ago that a web site for ‘Conversations IDs’ could be my path to fame and fortune. The idea being that you could tag a conversation in any format with an ID, and the web site would trawl the web for all things marked with the ID – so bringing together blog posts, mail archives, etc.

    As with so many of these flashes of dubious inspiration it came to nothing… and of course, Technorati does some of this pretty well http://www.technorati.com/search/http://efoundations.typepad.com/efoundations/2008/02/repositories-th.html

  7. [...] Distributed Discussions On Repositories « UK Web Focus (tags: network lrb2008) [...]

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