professional reflections

A minor response to Repositories thru the looking glass

In Repositories thru the looking glass over on the eFoundations blog, Andy Powell gives a summary of a keynote he gave to the Vala Conference last week. It's interesting stuff, and I will take the time to look at the presentation slides as well. I mostly agree (vehemently in some instances) with Andy's points, though I do find myself questioning some parts of this, so I'll quote some snippets and make a few comments here.

Firstly, that our current preoccupation with the building and filling of 'repositories' (particularly 'institutional repositories') rather than the act of surfacing scholarly material on the Web means that we are focusing on the means rather than the end (open access)

It's hard to deny that there is a current preoccupation with establishing repository systems of one kind or another and populating them with content, and also that there is a focus on institutional deployments. However, I'm not convinced that open access is (or at least is going to remain) the sole driver behind the development of institutional repositories. From an institutional perspective, it absolutely makes sense to want to manage the outputs of research conducted within the auspices of that institution.

A common use for an institutional repository is to house eprints. Were it not for the open-access imperative, we might have expected software designed to manage eprints to fall somewhere between a document-management and a content-management system - both familiar to a large number of institutions. I think it is interesting that it might be considered to be open-access which has skewed the development of repository software in some respects - the community has largely started from scratch, building repository software, where it might have made more sense to simply adapt what was there.

So I half agree with Andy - we do seem to be focussed on the means, but I think I am sympathetic to those (institutions at least) who find themselves pre-occupied with this.

Secondly, that our focus on the 'institution' as the home of repository services is not aligned with the social networks used by scholars, meaning that we will find it very difficult to build tools that are compelling to those people we want to use them. As a result, we resort to mandates and other forms of coercion in recognition that we have not, so far, built services that people actually want to use. We have promoted the needs of institutions over the needs of individuals.
Instead, we need to focus on building and/or using global scholarly social networks based on global repository services.

There are four sentences here, and I completely agree with the first three and a half! I find myself wondering who 'we' are in this. Now that institutional repositories are becoming a reality, the 'we' is going to expand to include people who simply have institutional interests - who have no real interest in open-access for example beyond it being a requirement for them to support. The MIS Manager of your average institution, for example, will start to get involved once institutional repositories get embedded into the business which is a university. The half sentence I don't quite buy is the "global repository services". Why can't we "focus on building and/or using global scholarly social networks" (which I support) based on institutional repository services? We don't have a problem with institutional web sites do we? Or institutional library OPACs? We have certainly managed to network the latter on a global scale, and built interesting services around this….

Finally, that the 'service oriented' approaches that we have tended to adopt in standards like the OAI-PMH, SRW/SRU and OpenURL sit uncomfortably with the 'resource oriented' approach of the Web architecture and the Semantic Web. We need to recognise the importance of REST as an architectural style and adopt a 'resource oriented' approach at the technical level when building services.

Absolutely - couldn't agree more. Yesterday, at a JISC committee meeting, I argued that a resource-oriented-architecture and the service-oriented-approaches being encouraged by the e-Framework could complement each other if intelligently and judiciously applied. Incidentally, last Friday, I attended an excellent CRIG workshop devoted to exploring the relevance of ReST to repositories. Matt Zumwalt of MediaShelf showed a working ReST interface on Fedora, and Oxford University's Ben O'Steen used this to develop a client app, in real time, in Python.

I think we agree that the individual's interests may often be orthogonal to those of the institution. This may have always been the case but it is, perhaps, increasingly an issue as recent developments and trends on the Web empower the individual at an accelerating rate. I wonder if the user-centric/institutional/global debate around repositories is just symptomatic of a tension about to become apparent all over the (institutional) Web?

Having said all this, when visiting the outer limits of repository software development, I am occasionally reminded of the Knight:

'I see you're admiring my little box.' the Knight said in a friendly tone. `It's my own invention – to keep clothes and sandwiches in. You see I carry it upside-down, so that the rain can't get in.'
'But the things can get OUT,' Alice gently remarked. Do you know the lid's open?

(from Alice Through the Looking Glass, via Project Gutenberg)

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