Magazine article Computers in Libraries

The Surprising Impact of Digital Repositories

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

The Surprising Impact of Digital Repositories

Article excerpt

The pace of online "content creation" has never been faster. The explosive growth in blogs and their growing influence, not to mention the money they create for entrepreneurs, is just the most obvious case in point. We now take for granted the prompt creation of high-quality content from myriad think tanks, advocacy groups, and even mainline newspapers such as The New York Times. Massive ebook repositories such as Google Scholar finish off the picture, and the media see them as inevitable. But there's one sector of digital content creation that receives less mainstream attention, and you may not even know much about it unless you work in academia: the digital repository. I see a great deal of long-term value in this area of digital library development. And lately, my experience with it has been very direct, very engrossing, and, not least, an intellectual challenge.

Built to Last

Unlike blogs with accretions of documents and commentary or websites with masses of ephemeral pages that come and go, digital repositories have a more plodding pace of development. They conform to demanding standards for metadata and information architecture--and those standards are still evolving. They often operate on open source platforms and are attached to research universities or nonprofit outfits. But despite the pedestrian, even dull, aspects of repository development, announcing new repositories can cause a big splash. I'll talk more about that later.

Repository development also has an unexpected benefit: It reinvigorates the best in our long-term professional values and makes them understandable for contemporary society. Good repository projects take root at the local level and follow the interests of researchers or scholars who care a great deal about very narrow slices of the information universe. From this specialized environment, a digital repository can spring into being as a fully operational digital tool, which has already enjoyed years of careful organization. My view is that we are often storing treasures in musty corners; some of you may agree. Never mind how obscure the source is. For example, when was the last time you, the reader, studied a collective bargaining agreement? It's unlikely you ever have--but in my case, I can name a dozen local scholars, and more around the globe, who do exactly that. Art historians, immigration researchers, anthropologists, and legal scholars can tell similar stories about the hidden treasures in nearly forgotten sources.

From Vertical File to Virtual World

The power of digital repositories lies in ubiquitous internet access. All of a sudden highly specialized, local collections become searchable from anywhere in the world. Scholars and special librarians who have their fingers on the pulse of important historical collections can be midwives to surprisingly popular repositories. Here are a few examples.First is the California Loyalty Oath (www.ban coroft.berkeley.edu), which documents the University of California's controversial faculty oath. The oath bars trafficking in state secrets. (I signed that oath when I was appointed here, even though the Berlin Wall came down about the same time.) It's colorful--and fully accessible to all. Second is the California Digital Library's eScholarship repository of working papers (who woulda thought that they'd be "hot," generating more than a million full-text downloads in a year?). Lastly, at UCLA, Gabriella Gray and others created an archive of political campaigns within Los Angeles County. Projects both large and small can create new excitement about research libraries and reframe stodgy archivists as "hipsters" on a mission. The new acclaim can also save formerly sleepy collections from the wrecking ball--a victory for scholars everywhere, every time it occurs.

Stepping Up to the Digital Plate

In thinking about digital repositories, I see two principal challenges that face prospective developers. …

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