More and more frequently the web is the starting point for researchers when they begin a project.
Research carried out among the UK’s academic community during 2012 found that 40% of researchers kicked off their project with a trawl through the internet for material, while only 2% preferred to make a visit to a physical library space. That’s a huge change in a relatively short period, fuelled by the sheer richness of the digital content that is now potentially available online.
It is no surprise that this and other findings from the research have been helping academic librarians to redefine the way they curate the content in their own collections and also to find new, better ways to facilitate access to content from other sources. For me, one of the most arresting facts that has come out of the recent Spotlight on the digital co-design project is this: nearly half of all items within digitised collections are not discoverable via major search engines by their name or title. That’s significant, because researchers, teachers and students usually look for specific items, not whole collections.
The finding itself was not unexpected, but now the project has identified the scale of the difficulty and it sends a call to action to anyone who creates or looks after digital content. That includes my own organisation, Research Libraries UK (RLUK) and the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL), both of which partnered with Jisc on the Spotlight project.
It’s a priority for us to make sure that the investment in digitisation of resources made over the last decade brings real returns and enriches research, teaching and learning. The project has been a way for us all to scope out the problems that hinder discoverability of digital assets and to devise solutions that will both support discovery of existing content and help to ensure that resources digitised in future have built-in discoverability.
What else did the project team find?
They found that people search for digital resources in ways not fully understood by those charged with looking after resources. We need to put ourselves in the shoes of researchers and students, to develop a deeper understanding of the ways that they think, work and interact with digitised materials.
Moreover, as the project’s report and recommendations show, digitised collections become harder and harder to find over time, for a variety of complex reasons.
All in all, the report makes interesting reading and identifies a number of key areas where additional work at national level will bring real improvements. These include the need to build institutional capacity by further developing and embedding good digital skills within library teams and also leveraging specialist expertise at scale to develop software tools and provide advice on issues such as licensing.
The document also suggests plans to develop collective ‘watchfulness’ so that the sector is ready for future technological developments and has time to plan carefully to take full advantage of the benefits they will offer.
The next phase
The national-level recommendations are intended primarily for the three project partners. Now it’s time to act on them and we have secured funding for Spotlight’s next phase. Work begins in the next few weeks to create and test new tools and services to foster long-term discoverability of digital resources.
At the same time, the project has identified some practical, ‘bottom up’ steps that can be taken by those who create and manage content within institutions. Information on these is contained in a new web resource created to accompany the report and recommendations.
Spotlight on the digital’s first stage really underlines the fact that digitisation of resources can’t be seen as a one-time event. Instead, it is an ongoing process in which the resources have to be carefully looked after, much like traditional paper-based ones and original artefacts. What’s more, because of the pace and variety of technological change, fresh interventions must keep happening to stop collections fading from view.
To find out more read the Spotlight on the digital report and recommendations or take a look at the new guide. The digitisation and content programme blog includes posts specifically about the eight-month project and describe it in more detail.
Read more about co-design on the Jisc website.