Because good research needs good data

Birds of a Feather session at IDCC15: Forging our digital future together

A report on the Birds of a Feather session on collaboration between digital archives, held on Day 1 of the International Digital Curation Conference, 2015.

Alex Ball | 10 February 2015

One of the aims of the 2015 International Digital Curation Conference was to take a look at how digital curation has matured over the past decade. A notable sign of this increasing maturity is the move away from each organization developing its own bespoke solutions. These days we have more of a marketplace, where organizations mix their in-house tools and services with off-the-shelf and cloud-based offerings, and seek economies of scale through collaboration.

Collaboration was the theme of one of the very first Birds of a Feather sessions to be held at IDCC: ‘Forging our digital future together: collaboration as the key to making “digital” work’, led by Chris Awre (University of Hull). Chris began the session with some reflections on the factors that can make collaboration easier or harder, and the benefits that can be reaped by successful collaborations in the context of digital archives. He identified three main barriers:

  • Inertia. Often this is the result of waiting for a tool, service or funding call to come along that precisely fits the archives’ needs. Alternatively, tackling issues of complexity or ownership might seem just too daunting.
  • Cost and capacity. Even though working collaboratively might be more efficient in the end, it can be hard to find the skills, time or funds in an individual archive to make the transition.
  • Lack of momentum. Some collaborations start but run out of steam before the benefits are felt.

So what can help make a collaboration successful?

  • Common factors. It is easier to identify common goals and build trust if archives already have something in common such as type of material, use cases served, or consortial membership.
  • Network benefits. If a resource, tool or service can be coordinated across multiple partners, there is a technical benefit from having a larger team working on the core, common components; an economic benefit from eliminating duplicated effort; and a practical benefit from adding local value to a common service, instead of starting from scratch.

Libraries have been successful doing this with resource discovery tools (such as virtual union catalogues), library management systems, subject guides, interlibrary lending and so on.

Digital repositories are perhaps not quite so far forward, but there have been notable successes.

  • The Hydra project has created a reusable framework for building Fedora-based repositories; it started with five partners, but the partnership has grown to 27 organisations.
  • The Sharing Repository Services Working Group of the Northern Collaboration of 28 English university libraries is looking for ways to enhance repository services through network effects. Among the promising areas of collaboration are content discoverability, strategy, policy, training, preservation and storage.

At the end of his presentation, Chris opened up the discussion to those present, asking for their thoughts on existing and possible future collaborations.

In terms of barriers and pre-requisites, the costs of collaboration were recognised, arising both from throwing away locally developed solutions, and transitioning to collaborative ones. There was an emphasis on the need for trust: between the partners, and between repositories and depositors. For advocacy purposes, one suggestion was to collect case studies of depositors who are excited and enthused about using the repository.

The Research Data Alliance was cited as a well-functioning collaboration, or perhaps more precisely a framework supporting very many fruitful collaborations across nations, disciplines and sectors.

The suggestions for possible areas for future collaboration included shared, affordable training and discipline-specific digital curation. The latter thought was that institutions cannot afford to have domain experts for all the data they archive, but perhaps within a consortium each institution could contribute expertise in a couple of areas, so that in aggregate there was comprehensive domain coverage.

The final thought of the session was that although there are many benefits to collaboration, it is still healthy for there to be friendly competition between partners as a driver towards excellence.

The slides introducing the session are available.