Category Archives: repositories

Bridging the Divide: The role of libraries in the sciences

While libraries come to terms with new forms of scholarly communication and the technological transformation of the academy, has one academic domain already drifted beyond reach?

Have the sciences already become self-sufficient in their information needs? Are libraries lacking in the services and information resources that scientists require?

In the first of three reports on Research Support Services for Scholars: Chemistry Project, a study being undertaken by Ithaka S+R on UK institutions, it is clear that within chemistry, and arguably the sciences more generally, a growing distance is developing between the everyday work of chemists and the library. As the report makes clear:

“This gap in mutual understanding prevents partnerships from developing between chemists and the library”

While the Chemistry Project is a researcher-centric approach to understanding the scholarly and information needs and requirements of Chemists, this first report update has taken the library and liaison services as a starting point.

The report is based on conversations with research support professionals (mostly liaison librarians) and has some very interesting headlines:

  • An unbalanced relationship: While librarians felt their relationship to the department was critical for doing their job well, many librarians expressed concern about the distance between the daily work of chemists and the library.
  • The library as purchasing arm: The conversations and interactions between departments and library almost entirely revolve around collections budgets, acquisition and preservation of content.
  • A student focus: Connected to the point above is the increasingly centralisation of library services and spaces into a central library (or science library). Such consolidation usually focuses on delivering services to students, rather than the researcher. Where there are interesting service and tool developments for chemists these are usually done independently of the library, and are led by academics who identify a need in their own work.
  • The role of repositories and researchers is an interesting one, and in the context of this study seems to suggest that the library will have a role in promoting its use to chemists, and will be a ‘significant new research support service provided by libraries’.
  • The importance of graduate students was recognised by a number of participants in the interviews. This seems a group that bridges the divide between the department and the library. They provide an opportunity to influence research methods and practices before habits are formed.
  • There are also a number of emerging needs identified by participants that include: Research data management, discovery, research funding and open access. These emerging requirements were perceived as offering opportunities for libraries to engage with the chemistry researchers in a different way.

A few things strike me about the findings that have emerged so far from the library discussions:

How do you bridge the divide between the sciences and the services of the library? One potential answer might be that libraries shouldn’t – the relationship that currently exists works for chemists, and libraries need not expend resources on developing unnecessary and unused services.

Are graduate students the answer? There also seems to me to be an implication that something like a ‘hybrid’ researcher/librarian will develop. Is a convergence of subject knowledge and domain expertise going to be the future of library liaison?

Related to the above point is the idea of library services being embedded into the department. In the case of the group-model for chemistry departments and research this could be fruitful.

These interim findings should provide a nice complement (contrast) to the subsequent researcher based conversations and interviews, and it will be interesting to see if there are obvious opportunities for libraries and their engagement with the sciences.

Find out more about this project on the JISC webpages, and find out more about the role of libraries in the digital humanities in this recent post.

Sharing Learning Resources: shifting perspectives on process and product

I’m working on a paper with my colleague David Kernohan on the context of the UK OER Programme and it occurs to me that people understand the sharing of learning resources in very different ways. Even over the past 15 years that I’ve been involved in the field, the emphasis has regularly shifted.

One way to look at is that each iteration of the concept of sharing learning resources foregrounds different aspects of activity.

Processes and Products

For the sake of simplicity, I am illustrating this as four main activity domains: designing learning, creating resources, sharing resources and using resources. This is activities from a resource-centric perspective rather than a curriculum design and delivery perspective or a software/platforms perspective. This blog post is deliberately couched in soft systems terminology rather than practice.


(Paragraph clarified 2012/01/05 based on feedback!)

There are often multiple discourses in play at any one time – it’s not a linear or singular evolution. The diagram can just be used to describe the focus of a particular set of concerns/approaches. Sometimes the emphasis is on the process, with the product as secondary. For example, the late 90s to early 2000s emphasised the benefits of collaborative resource development. Later on, some advocates of Open Educational Resources (OER) brought to the fore the concept of content as by-product, exhaust, frictionless sharing. Simultaneously, the early 2000s saw a focus on reusable learning objects, with the transfer from resource creation process to resource use process being key. Towards the end of the decade that thread partially shifted into a discussion about the sharing process being key to open practices, a different angle again. There is currently an emphasis on making the learning resources themselves available to learners: a focus on access to product rather than improvement of process. Sometimes there is a new interest in eliciting a product/output from an existing process, for example, analytics brings to the fore the idea of usage data as a by-product of use. In parallel, approaches are maturing in designing learning, and an interest in how that design can be shared, directly as “a learning design”, implicitly as learning design built in to the resource creation process, and passively as contextual metadata to assist resource selection and use.  I could expand these examples to show more clearly what I mean.


One of the benefits of looking at it this way is that we can see different models of value. Although deeply unfashionable to talk about academic practices in this way, looked at from a soft systems perspective there are variables of time, cost and quality. The discourse about why and how to share learning resources shifts its benefits model between these variables, and whether the value is in the process or the product.

TCQ Triangle


A: PROCESS: Improving shared taught courses by using collaborative learning design

B: PRODUCT: Reducing time spent creating new resources by increasing the availability of existing resources

C: PROCESS: Promoting institutional subject expertise by sharing specialist learning resources

This was just a quick attempt to map the benefits. I found it easiest to think of examples where the driver is quality, though I seem to remember that the late 90s was more about saving time. We may be seeing a shift now to saving or making money (however indirectly). But the variables have always been there: the emphasis just shifts.

Infrastructure and Practice

I have a feeling that understanding where we are in terms of process and product will help us identify more accurately how technology can help. There is a history of sociotechnical engineering in the field of sharing learning materials that would be useful to tell. It’s not just a story of changing practices in pursuit of quality, it is also a story of government investment in a soft system, and a series of interventions (many of which I’ve been involved with), to support emerging good practices both processes and products. Maybe one day I’ll write a thesis on that!

For now though, I think it is salient to draw the conclusion that there is no reason to assume that today’s conception of the value of sharing learning resources will persist. This is a moving field. And that makes it very difficult to anticipate where public investment in supporting technologies should lie. Do we need specialist process based tools? Or generic platforms to share products/outputs/artefacts from each process?

Interim conclusions

There is more to be said about how this process and product model layers itself over individual, institutional, subject, national and global levels. There is also more to be said about how tools/services can get the balance between process-centric and product-centric models, and how this story plays out with VLEs, repositories and web2.0 tools.I found it useful to get my thoughts down on paper and hopefully some readers will be able to point me in a useful direction.

Berlin 9 conference

I am just back from the Berlin 9 conference. The “Berlin” series of conference are named after the Berlin Declaration on Open Access, and this was the first time the annual conference has been held in North America. It’s very hard to summarise my reactions from the conference, there were so many stories showing how opening up scholarship can lead to real benefits, in health, development, innovation and our quality of life. For example, Cyril Muller from the World Bank described how that organisation has adopted an open approach to the work it funds, and to its own operations, and is encouraging the governments with whom it works to do the same. Laura Czerniewicz from the University of Cape Town showed how open education resource, configured for SIM-enabled mobile devices, can make a real difference to some quite seriously disadvantaged students. And Elliot Maxwell highlighted some wonderfully elegant research studies, showing clearly how, when scientific findings and resources are made open, it leads to a greater diversity, quality and application of knowledge. Of course, there are implications. Michael Crow of Arizona State University argued that all this requires us to re-think the university as a social technology, and Philip Bourne highlighted some of the challenges we have in moving to a research practice that is native to the digital environment, genuinely reproducible, and that rewards researchers who move in that direction. The overwhelming impression, though, was of a scholarly community now adopting more open approaches, and beginning to see tangible benefits from that. Berlin 10 is on the African continent for the first time. I hope it will bring new voices to be heard in this community.

Glimpse into the Future of Repositories: videos now available!

DevCSI Challenge @ Open Repositories 2011

As usual the standard of the entrants were very high and the solutions were diverse.  There was also high energy and an infectious buzz in the room during the presentations!  See videos at

JISC Prize:


“Repository as a Service (RaaS).  Stuart Lewis, Kim Shepherd, Adam Field, Andrea Schweer, and Yin Yin Latt (University of Auckland, DSpace Committers, EPrints services and the library Consortium of New Zealand.

Repository as a Service (RaaS) is the idea that the repository is a commodity which provides a service. In order for current repositories to act like this they need standard interfaces to get data in and out.  Once these standard interfaces are in place, the repository becomes a commodity which can be swapped in and out, and the ‘repository service’ can be provided by many repositories or one.  The entry demonstrated an Android mobile app that used SWORD to deposit photos into both DSpace and EPrints.  Then using solr indexes as a common interface for getting access to the items in the repository, a tool called Skylight was demonstrated that could display the repository collections.  Identical experiences were provided by both EPrints and DSpace because of the common interfaces in and out.  In addition, the repository as a commodity was shown to be useful for providing further services – examples including translating the content of the repositories using the Microsoft Translation API, and extracting geo-location data from GPS-tagged photos.  The idea for RaaS was conceived and worked up during the conference and it demonstrated strong collaboration and agile development.

JISC Runners up:

“Distributed Research Object Creator” D-ROC Patrick McSweeney and Matt Taylor, University of Southampton

D-ROC is a data driven interface collating resources which already exist on the web to tell a story of research from the research object creators perspective. The author uses a tool to explain how resources from web sources like institutional repositories, slideshare, data repositories, youtube and other online sources are linked together to make up a full piece of research. Behind the scenes this makes an RDF linked data document which could be reused in a number of ways. For their competition entry Patrick and Matt chose to make a data driven website which aggregates attention metadata (views, dowloads, citation counts) from the various web sources but they invision far wider scoped applications for this kind of rich data. One of the key selling points is that a user can imediately see value from there time invested using to tool. To be able to design a project website in half an hour illustrates the power of the tool.

Microsoft Prize:

“Dynamic Deep Zoom Images and Collections with Djatoka” – Rebecca Sutton Koeser, Emory University Libraries

This entry used the Microsoft and Deep Zoom and Pivot applications on top of special image collections in their Fedora repository.  This has wider application to other image-based repository collections and it was impressive to see what was achieved in the time constraints of the developer challenge.

Special mention goes to Sam Adams from Cambridge University for his use of the PIVOT tool over the chempound semantic data repository (JISC Clarion project) which allows rich domain access to physical science data.

Special mention goes to Dave Tarrant from Southampton University for using the XBOX Kinect technology to drag and drop items into ePrints.  It was very ingenious and entertaining watch.

Use of SWORD prize:

RaaS  – same as above.  The project produced a SWORD App for Android mobile devices to allow photos to be deposit from smartphones.  The potential for this implementation as a mobile deposit device is fairly extensive, potentially allowing for geo location, orientation, audio, video, stills to all be recorded to an archival location in near real time, or to enable ‘citizen science’ via data collection from thousands of remote devices.

Thank you to:

  • University of Texas at Austin for hosting or11 and supporting DevCSI.
  • Microsoft Research for supporting DevCSI
  • Mahendra Mahey for organising the event
  • Peter Sefton for supporting the event and chairing the presentations and keeping the judges in order

Marketing and other dirty words

I have been thinking a lot recently about how to move beyond the rhetoric of “open equals good” towards identifying where open approaches help us meet key business cases. A notable quote from the Power of Open book launch was that “open isn’t a business model, its a part of a business model”. I’m seeing this trend in open educational resources, open access repositories and open innovation. It’s how open source became more mainstream, and we need to be learning from that journey. If we want to see open approaches sustained, we need to get businesslike about how make the case, however contradictory that might sound.

Earlier this month I spoke at a UKOLN event on metrics and the social web, and the discussion there reinforced the potential of using the web more effectively to underpin our key business goals in further and higher education.

On 26th July I am presenting at the Institutional Web Managers Workshop 2011 and I will be developing this theme further, paying particular attention to the way that web managers can support open access, open educational resources and open social scholarship.

In reflecting on how open access and OER can contribute to the core business cases of universities, I think that activities particularly worthy of more attention include:

  • Profiling academic expertise
  • Supporting REF impact metrics
  • Enhanced research publications
  • Cross-linking open content to open course data
  • Social media listening tools
  • Web analytics and visualisation

My presentation on slideshare: Marketing and other dirty words