What We Talk About When We Talk About Repositories

Diane Zabel, Editor
Mike Furlough, Guest Columnist

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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. Furloughs 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. “I have a new title. Innkeeper of the Roach Motel,” she wrote, describing her repository as a site where data goes in but doesnt come out.5 By November 2008, attendees at the SPARC Repositories Conference worried openly about how faculty can be persuaded to use the IRs on their campuses and how these services were going to survive the worst economic crisis in decades if they didn&srquo;t.

Many of my publishing colleagues have warned me that if IRs are successful they will go out of business, and eventually the entire scholarly communication system will start to break down. I can assure my friends that their jobs are quite safe. The emphasis on opening access has been driven heavily by our institutional (library) hopes, not the needs of our users, whose work is changing and who require new services to keep pace in their fields. Archiving single articles didnt make much sense to them in that context. While IRs have generally had limited success, many publishers have adapted their policies to allow authors to distribute pre– or postprint versions of articles in open-access forms. Those changes are at least partly related to funder and public pressure and the availability of repository outlets. Some institutions have begun to have luck negotiating with publishers for the rights to deposit their facultys articles in those same repositories. However, continuing to focus on IR “deposits” by faculty and students—which sounds like a one-way proposition for the information—will not carry us forward.

Repository tools and many related programs have been developed with a potential scope of use broader than that implied by the IR hype, and may yet serve, as Clifford Lynch and Joan Lippincott wrote, as “general-purpose infrastructure within the context of changing scholarly practice.”6 Deployment has varied. Some libraries have focused first on “the intellectual output of the institution,” others have focused on particular disciplines or user groups, while still others have attempted to better manage and provide access to digitized versions of the physical collection of the library. Libraries also are using these services to manage born-digital resources acquired by the library from a variety of sources, including vendors and publishers. None of these activities are mutually exclusive, and it is likely that libraries will end up working with all of these materials simultaneously.

So what is it that we think we are talking about when we talk about repositories in research libraries today? Are repositories things? If so, they are more like conglomerate rocks than uniform applications and programs. Are they places, like the open stacks or the closed archives? If so, they are Victorian follies—an aggregation of features, not all of them fully functional, offering none of the transparency of Phillip Johnsons glass house. In the widest possible sense, when we are talking about repositories, we are talking about a set of organized methods for content management, not about specific applications or even specific access points online. Managing and providing access to diverse digital content requires many different processes, methods, policies, and technologies, just like a physical library collection. Collectively, we are today determining how to manage digital data as smoothly and with the same degree of certainty as we do physical collections.7 Repository-based content management can and must serve many functions at once, and successful implementations will recognize this to move beyond our early narrow focus to succeed. So, where do we begin? One potential answer to these questions is provided by Catherine Mitchell, who at the 2008 SPARC conference presented with the title “Lets Stop Talking About Repositories,” arguing instead for a talk about services.8 That is a critically important, rhetorical shift.

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