Researchers and librarians face a common concern: how can we ensure sustainable access to special collections to deliver better research?
Access to information is a 21st-century currency, and with a digital world at our fingertips it’s an exchange of data that we often take for granted. Academic researchers on the other hand, may not be feeling that we’ve quite landed in the golden age of information.
Despite progress with the open access (OA) movement, and the requirements of funders to make published research publicly available, providing wider access to the primary materials from libraries’ special and archival collections still presents a big challenge for institutions.
Traditionally, the treasures residing in many of our academic libraries, such as collections of texts, manuscripts, images, audiovisuals and archival records, have been digitised and made available to the academic market by publishers, at a cost. This puts pressure on already tight library budgets and can make access to this type of content unaffordable to the majority of institutions.
At the same time, over the last 20 years, much digitisation of special and archival collections has been carried out by academic libraries and heritage organisations with the support of public funding, making content available for everybody to enjoy. However, sustainability of digitisation is still a big problem, especially in the context of providing open access.
Although there is plenty of evidence of the positive impact engaging with this material can have on research, teaching and learning, as testified more recently by the Jisc-ProQuest study on the impact of digital collections, institutions still find it financially challenging to either purchase commercial archives or identify the resources to support digitisation activity.
So how do we reveal the hidden possibilities?
In creating sustainable digital content, there is a solution that can help bring specialist research to life, one collection at a time; and this is how Reveal Digital have approached the challenge.
The support for digitisation of materials through an innovative library crowdfunding model is already underway on the other side of the pond, with collections such as Independent Voices achieving wide popularity and support.
This collection includes complete runs of newspapers, magazines and journals from the special collections of about 30 source libraries and will compile the largest digital collection of twentieth century North American alternative press supporting research and study in the arts and humanities, women’s and gender studies, English literature, poetry and North American studies.
Hosted on the Reveal Digital platform, over 100 pledging libraries to date have controlled access until the collection moves to open access (in 2019) following a two-year embargo period, as per its cost recovery-open access model. The platform provides page image-based access with full-text searching, hit-term highlighting, searchable title and issue-level metadata and browsing by series, title and issue.
Michigan State University were an early advocate of the Reveal Digital model, providing part of the content that sits on the Reveal platform.
Peter Berg, head of Michigan State University's special collections library found that the popularity of radicalism texts for undergraduate researchers created an issue for the library – print papers would get damaged and didn’t allow students access to the materials at the hours they were studying, but by becoming a source for Independent Voices, these issues were resolved.
Pledging the way forward: a model for the UK?
We have collaborated with Reveal Digital to introduce Independent Voices to UK institutions and invite them to contribute to this new initiative. A survey Jisc conducted last year on academics’ priorities for digital content highlighted the need to improve access to twentieth-century texts in a digital format, as well as primary sources to support the humanities and social sciences, making Independent Voices an ideal fit.
Jisc has negotiated particularly favourable pledging fees for UK institutions to enable as many institutions as possible to access Independent Voices and support its innovative approach. In addition, we have agreed with Reveal Digital that half of the amount pledged by UK institutions will go towards digitisation of UK material to add to the Independent Voices collection, which Jisc can help coordinate.
We have already received a number of expressions of interest from UK institutions in Independent Voices following an initial webinar at the end of last year. The University of Sussex was already an early supporter of Independent Voices and was recently followed by the University of Sheffield and the University of Bristol.
Pledging for UK institutions is open until 31 July 2017 and can be done through the Jisc Collections website, where there is also more information on the collection and Reveal Digital’s crowdfunding model. Alternatively, I’m happy to take enquiries from researchers or librarians keen to know more.
Reveal Digital follows a similar approach to other community-based initiatives such as the Open Library of the Humanities and has been very successful in the US with Independent Voices. Might this be a model for sustainable and accessible digitisation in the UK too?