Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

What We Talk about When We Talk about Repositories

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

What We Talk about When We Talk about Repositories

Article excerpt

In this column, Mike Furlough writes about repositories from a user services perspective. His engaging and accessible article provides a fascinating history of repository hype, a primer on technical tools, and thoughtful reflections on the future of institutional repositories. Mike Furlough joined The Pennsylvania State University Libraries in 2006 as the assistant dean for Scholarly Communications and co-director of the Office of Digital Scholarly Publishing. Furlough's graduate training is in American Literature, but he ran away to join the University of Virginia Library, where he developed and led a number of services to support digital scholarship. He currently serves as a member of the Association of College and Research Libraries' Scholarly Communications Committee and begins editing a column on that topic for C&RL News in 2009.--Editor

Throughout the past few years, I have come to dislike the word "repository" because it obscures the variety of problems we are attempting to address through their development, and in turn may constrain our thinking about what may be possible through the services they can enable. Modifiers such as "institutional," "central," "digital," "open," and "collections" (or some torturous combination of these) do not help because each variation implies a singular technological solution to a set of complex changes in the way research is conducted and information is communicated. "Repository" carries with it many connotations, some of them rather unfortunate. In general it describes a place where things lay, not where things are happening. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a repository could be "a vessel, receptacle, chamber, etc., in which things are or may be placed, deposited, or stored" (definition 1.a). Definition 5--"A person to whom some matter is entrusted or confided"--is a less common use, but one that certainly resonates with the institutional mission and responsibilities that libraries hold for their collections. Yet it is also hard to overlook definition 2.b: "A place in which a dead body is deposited; a vault or sepulchre." (1)

"Institutional repository" (IR) often refers to a service that supports and encourages the deposit of student- and faculty-created materials, primarily open-access versions of research articles that have been formally published elsewhere or not at all. The early energy surrounding IRs centered on a hope that promoting open access could serve as a countermeasure to commercial publishing power and its ability to distort the market for knowledge. Taking control of our institutions' research by providing the ability to distribute this information to the world in an open-access mode seemed to be an inevitable outcome of the Internet. What follows is a brief history of IR hype.

In July 2002, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported "'Superarchives' Could Hold All Scholarly Output: Online Collections by Institutions May Challenge the Role of Journal Publishers." (2) Also in 2002, a Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) position paper declared that

   institutional repositories--digital collections capturing
   and preserving the intellectual output of a single
   or multi-university community.... provide a critical
   component in reforming the system of scholarly
   communication--a component that expands access
   to research, reasserts control over scholarship by the
   academy, increases competition and reduces the monopoly
   power of journals, and brings economic relief
   and heightened relevance to the institutions and libraries
   that support them. (3)

But in 2004 The Chronicle provided an update: "Papers Wanted: Online Archives Run by Universities Struggle to Attract Material." (4) IRs soon became the butt of jokes, even inside the community of practitioners. In March 2006, Dorothea Salo, an institutional repository manager, rechristened herself in her blog. …

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