Repositories and library cultures

March 10th, 2009 by John

When is a repository not a repository? When it’s an OPAC? Are OPACs in reality a species of repository, however reluctantly, given that the genus is usually used with a specific application in mind – one which is a newcomer to the library world whose value is still not convincingly proven?

In the UK, JISC is about to award a tender for a study on The links between library OPACs and repositories in Higher Education Institutions. The invitation to tender states:

Repositories and OPACs … share various features and requirements. Both depend for their efficiency upon accurate metadata. Both provide a primary service to the home institution but also provide services to external users, for example in enabling access to content for a user from another institution. Various items of content may be accessible both through the library OPAC and through the repository, sometimes in different versions (e.g. a preprint in a repository and a published journal article under licence in an OPAC).

Its terms of reference include:

  • survey the extent to which repository content is in scope for institutional library OPACs, and the extent to which it is already recorded there;
  • examine the interoperability of OPAC and repository software for the exchange of metadata and other information;
  • list the various services to institutional managers, researchers, teachers and learners offered respectively by OPACs and by repositories;
  • make recommendations for the development of possible further links between library OPACs and institutional repositories, identifying the benefits of such links to various stakeholder groups.
  • Reading this reminded me that the University of Edinburgh has recently announced the introduction of an Open Access publication mandate. The Library will continue to run its Edinburgh Research Archive (ERA) open access repository alongside a new, closed, Publications Repository (PR), which will support research assessment and profiling. As the criteria for institutional deposit proliferate, the mandate document includes a FAQ section to answer researchers’ concerns. One is:

    What about research outputs which are not journal articles? The PR and ERA can accept most research output types including books, book chapters, conference proceedings, performances, video, audio etc. In some cases – for example books not available electronically – the PR/ERA will hold only metadata, with the possibility of links to catalogues so that users can find locations….

    That question of the possibility of links to catalogues is presumably one of the areas of investigation by the JISC study.

    There does seem to exist a faultline between the the growing range of venues for open access material, publications lists, digital theses and reports, etc, representing a new repository type, and the old repository landscape at whose centre is the catalogue. Having worked at Edinburgh, I know that we did fret a lot about this faultline. In particular, we agonised about theses. Why should printed and digital theses be separated into different repositories? And why did we have a thesis cataloguer for print, and a separate thesis cataloguer for the repository?

    Some of the agonising stopped when the Library licensed a federated search interface. Then it was assumed that, if only people used the federated search tool, it scarcely mattered which repository contained which type of item, as long as all were indexed. But of course, users did not all migrate wholesale to the federated search interface, and many continued to show strong loyalty to the catalogue.

    The dilemma at Edinburgh is presumably mirrored in many research libraries. How much resource attention should be given to the various species of repositories, to defining and monitoring policies for their use, and running them in a sensibly architected parallel set of services, as against deploying the resource to get materials described and findable – even if only by basic search keys – both locally and at the network level? Many librarians’ hearts are now being won by the latter idea, but their heads are vulnerable to the arguments of academic staff and researchers with specialist requirements who want the former. And it is difficult to withdraw support for individual repository access as long as superior search functionality is available there. A balance is required, but many libraries contain staff who are polarised on either side of this issue.

    We may characterise another faultline as separating OPAC-centred staff from their repository-centred colleagues (though the former group would be more likely to see the issue in terms of quality). We now have new and old repository technologies which do not articulate well with each other. How many libraries have clear policies on what records go where, and who puts them there, such that cataloguer and acquisition resource is deployed with maximum efficiency? Many will not, and one reason could be this underlying difference of cultures. The OPAC culture is identified with the cataloguing and acquisitions departments, quality-controlled MARC records, holdings data, and a policy manual with its origins in the 1970s, if not earlier. The repository culture is typically characterised by a project mentality, staff who do metadata alongside other jobs (including advocacy), less attention to quality controlled metadata, and a policy manual which is largely unwritten. In analysing repository practice, this JISC study may unearth more than the title might suggest.

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