Last week I attended the JISC Repository and Preservation end of programme meeting in Birmingham. I recall being very nervous at my first JISC event in November 2007 but feel much more at ease now and enjoyed the event immensely; the programme has certainly been successful in fostering a sense of community though it’s an unusual social experience to meet people face to face, often for the very first time, when one feels you already know them from reading their blog and following them on Twitter.
During one of the breakout sessions on the first day I made a bee-line for a discussion about repositories for learning and teaching materials – as opposed to OA research repositories. I use the word “opposed” advisedly as there is certainly some strong sentiment around the issue, particularly with respect to using a common software platform. As a representative of a project that is adapting a learning object repository to also serve as an effective Open Access research repository I’m finding it a little difficult to understand the vehemence of some of this opposition, though I would be the first to acknowledge a steep learning curve and recognise that we have required extensive development, not of intraLibrary itself perhaps, but of an appropriate web infrastructure surrounding it. And yes, we would certainly have been able to implement a functioning OA research repository more quickly using EPrints or DSpace however, from the outset, it was vital that our repository had the the capacity to fulfil its broader potential – in the words of Clifford Lynch “[A] mature and fully realised institutional repository will contain the intellectual works of faculty and students – both research and teaching materials – and also documentation of the activities of the institution itself in the form of records of events and performance and of the ongoing intellectual life of the institution.” [Lynch, Clifford. A “Institutional Repositories: Essential Infrastructure for Scholarship in the Digital Age” ARL Bimonthly Report 226 (2003).]
It’s also important to be pragmatic. Historically, Leeds Metropolitan University is a polytechnic that gained chartered university status in 1992; its heritage is very much in teaching and learning rather than research with, arguably, a more vocational than academic flavour. In recent years, the research profile has steadily increased, culminating in unprecedented success in the 2008 RAE and the university is naturally keen to capitalise on this success, enhance its research profile further whilst also continuing to emphasise its student focussed teaching and learning credentials. The implementation of an integrated repository to support both research outputs and learning objects reflects this dual focus. Clifford Lynch’s article suggests that the concept of a central system to manage disparate resources in this way has been implicit within the sector for some years, however, the technology has tended to focus on Open Access to research, with the two most widely used software platforms being EPrints, developed at the University of Southampton in 2000, and DSpace, developed at MIT in 2002; early versions of both platforms were primarily designed to manage text based resources (though subsequent versions of EPrints and DSpace can manage a wide range of digital file formats.)
NB. In an extended discussion on this issue on JISC-REPOSITORIES (archive here) RepositoryMan Les Carr of EPrints refers to the fact that he still comes across the firmly held (and spurious) belief that because EPrints is used for Open Access it can’t be used for multimedia files or scientific data.
The session was chaired by Amber Thomas of JISC and I asked a somewhat blunt, perhaps naive, question about JISC’s perspectives on combined repositories of research and teaching materials. Amber suggested that JISC have been deliberately neutral on the issue which is also perhaps emphasised by the diagramatic representation of the programme structure reproduced above.
Some of the commentators last Wednesday were adamant that though it may well be possible to manage different types of resources with a single system it was far from desirable with one colleague making the pithy analogous observation that you can write letters in Excel but that doesn’t make it right. Phil Barker of CETIS was also at the discussion and in a recent blog post on the “question of whether research outputs and learning materials should stored in the same repository” is “inclined to think the answer is no, the purpose of the repository is different, a learning material isn’t an output, sharing means something different for the two resource types.” Phil goes on to say that ” If you think a repository is a database and a bit-store then you may come to a different conclusion, but I think a repository is a service offered to people and your choice of starting point in offering that service will affect how easy your journey is.” (Full post here)
I’d certainly concede that our journey hasn’t been an easy one and I also agree that a repository is a service offered to people and with our repository start-up, and also Streamline and PERSoNA, that is certainly the approach we have tried to take; with intraLibrary and the SRU interface we now have an incipient infrastructure to manage both research material and learning objects; the discrete types of material can be managed entirely separately, however, there is also potential for the ongoing development of a holistic approach to the management of the full range of digital resources produced by a modern university and as we develop our infrastructure further I hope we can utilise appropriate web-technology around a central management system (intraLibrary) to achieve decentralised resource discovery – through appropriate interfaces, widgets and environments – the VLE for example.
Then of course there is the small matter of persuading academics to part with their resources, not to mention IPR, copyright and quality control issues…
Open Access to research is an evolving paradigm and represents a considerable shift in the established academic publishing process; Open Access to a broader range of educational resources still more so. Any paradigm shift is likely to take time to evolve and Open Access, to research and other materials, is no exception, especially given that academia, perhaps, tends to subscribe rather strongly to established tradition!
JISC’s current OER programme should go some way to addressing many of these issues but infrastructure is the foundation. The perfect system almost certainly doesn’t exist and it’s surely important to be pragmatic when implementing and developing appropriate system. Here’s to ongoing discussion, debate and development.