These are challenging times for librarians in research libraries. Alongside funding issues, digital technology is changing the way collections are managed, accessed and used, and transforming the role of libraries and of librarians.
Librarians have had to come up with radical new approaches and start some hard conversations, but I’d bet that gladiatorial combat hasn’t often been the preferred method for sorting out difficulties.
But now it’s been tried, at least once.
At Research Libraries UK (RLUK), we are working to ensure that the UK has the best research library support in the world. Now, RLUK is also one of the stakeholders working with Jisc on its pilot co-design programme, an experiment that is expanding on the way that Jisc habitually works with its partner organisations. Co-design is a way to ensure partners are involved in projects from the initial generation of ideas, through project evaluation and implementation, and into the development of products, services and other outputs. Working like this, the partners will all be closely scrutinising projects so that the project team is able to make faster, better-informed decisions to change a project’s focus, speed it up or stop it completely if it looks unlikely to deliver useful results. Outputs should be more refined and better tested as a result, and will be in better shape to meet the requirements of end-users in universities and colleges.
I was keen for RLUK to get involved in Jisc’s co-design pilot from the start. It makes sense for us to explore Jisc’s new approach and help to shape its priorities to support our own focus on improving and developing research libraries. I also thought that the co-design approach was fresh, original and would be an exciting model to find out more about.
In particular, we - along with the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) - were keen that the co-design pilot should include projects designed to make sure that all the work done to digitise collections over the past decades is not wasted. Paradoxically, as research funders are placing greater emphasis on open access and making sure that new research and its supporting primary sources and data are digitised, there are real concerns that digital content is not always easy to access through the channels and devices that people mostly use to search. That is bad news for scholarship, and also for universities and colleges wishing to showcase their assets and boost their reputations for academic excellence.
So RLUK’s attention was particularly focused on two potential projects that looked promising – Open Mirror and Spotlight on the Digital, both designed to make existing digital content easier to find and to re-use, to ensure its long-term preservation, and to make sure that discoverability is built in from the start when new digital resources are created.
But with many other projects vying for a slot in the co-design pilot it looked like only one of these could go ahead, so Jisc programme manager Andy McGregor proposed a gladiatorial contest, in which both would be pursued for a month, and then assessed to see which looked likely to offer the best payback on investment.
Happily, though, the hard-fought contest had two winners, with both proving so promising that Jisc has found the means to proceed with both.
Between now and January 2014 the Spotlight on the Digital project is working to scope out how extensive the problem of discoverability actually is, and to identify strong practical solutions to tackle this issue.
The Spotlight project is exploring solutions at both institutional and national levels. It is aiming to deliver a decision-making tool called the Discoverability Playbook, to help creators and managers of digitised resources such as senior librarians and information professionals to decide the best discoverability tactics to employ – whether that is search engine optimisation (SEO), library discovery services, or social media channels.
As a project team, we are also carrying out a web-based assessment of collections that were digitised over the last 15 years to help us identify broad patterns and barriers to discoverability, and we expect this will help to answer some fundamental questions through evidence-based data. For example - How many collections are still available online? What percentage of collections perform adequately in relevant searches on the open web or through relevant aggregators? What percentage of collections display editorial and technical currency?
The answers to these and other searching questions, together with further consultation, desk research and synthesis of relevant work by Jisc and others in this area, will be invaluable in helping us to devise better solutions.
While individual institutions will be able to take some steps on their own, we are also creating a shortlist of possible national solutions that could be implemented to aid discovery in a more coordinated and centralised way. These will be considered initially by Jisc and the project partners, and then more widely.
An additional output will be detailed specifications for three new technical tools that could be developed to assist with discovery. The next step will be to identify three technology-savvy institutions to help us develop these, via modest grants from Jisc.
Of course, this is just the start. Everyone in the project team hopes that there will be a second stage to take more of this work to fruition. In the meantime, you can find out more about how things are progressing on the Jisc digitisation blog, and you can read more about co-design at Jisc on the website.