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Is applying international standards to special collections worth the effort?

Two librarians from the National Library of Scotland share their experiences.

Reaching people via the internet has revolutionised everything we do, from ordering a takeaway to spreading news and views to world-wide audiences. Previously, the first port of call in the search for specialist knowledge was a library. Now, with the world-wide web, knowledge is increasingly democratic and open.  

However, in an era of increasing expectations and decreasing budgets, disclosing and disseminating knowledge online in a cost-effective way has become a daily challenge for many librarians.

As Gill Hamilton, digital access manager at the National Library of Scotland, says:

“People often want our content which is great, but it can take us weeks to identify, collate, process and distribute our resources in the formats required. While we’d love to participate in projects that make our collections more visible, it can be a real challenge to actually make it happen.”

Most collections need reformatting so that they are aligned with widely-recognised standards ensuring collections are compatible with other institutions’ content banks and digital infrastructure.

“There are many different digitisation programs out there, often working to different standards – some of which are internal to the organisation,”

says Sarah Ames, digital scholarship librarian at the National Library of Scotland.

To help university libraries expose their collections to larger audiences, Jisc has partnered with global research and teaching platform, JSTOR, which provides access to more than 12 million academic journal articles, books, and primary sources in 75 disciplines.

The partnership gives UK higher education institutions (HEIs) the opportunity to add their digitised content to JSTOR’s Open Community Collections programme, which enables libraries, museums, and cultural organisations around the world to reach a global audience of academic teachers and students. 

Ames adds:

“Last year, we launched our Data Foundry, a service that makes the Library’s collection resources openly available for computational use. We have seen digital scholars, researchers, data scientists and others use the service to source material for text and data mining, machine learning, data visualisation and creative and artistic projects.

While developing the service we decided that the machine-readable formats that we would provide should comply with international standards, specifically METS, MODS, PREMIS, ALTOXML, MARCXML and Dublin Core.

While the primary focus of the Data Foundry is “collections as data”, an unforeseen benefit of us applying the international standards is that the data we supplied to the JSTOR Open Community Collections programme was easily integrated in to the JSTOR platform because our JSTOR colleagues were familiar with the standards we used.”

The National Library of Scotland has provided JSTOR with six digitised open collections. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1768-1860), papers from the Edinburgh Ladies’ Debating Society, A Medical History of British IndiaScottish School Exam Papers, 1888-1963, materials from geographical dictionary the Gazetteers of Scotland and editions of The Spiritualist newspaper.

“We’re always interested in extending the reach of our collections because people don't necessarily visit to the National Library of Scotland to find things. However, by making our content available on a major platform like JSTOR, which is used by many researchers and academics, really helps make our collection more visible to a wider audience, and raises the visibility of the Library as a major resources to support learning and research.”,

adds Hamilton.

The choice to include these collections in the Open Community Collections was a practical one, explains Ames:

“Unfortunately, what we make available openly often comes down to practicalities. Copyright assessment is extremely time-consuming and we had already completed assessment for these collections and made them openly available.

We have a digitisation selection schedule, which factors in the Library's strategic priorities, and we always look to highlight diversity within our collections, as well as materials that are particularly focussed on Scottish subjects. But, ultimately, the amount of material we can make available through initiatives such as the Community Collections programme is very small, which can be frustrating.”

Gaining maximum exposure of our collections is important, continues Ames:

“We want our collections to be featured on as many platforms as possible, and to enable this the Library is committed to making its resources as openly available as possible. After all, as each platform has different audiences, there's no point having collections if people can't access them and can't use them.”

The work undertaken by the National Library of Scotland highlights a shift in the library’s strategy, explains Hamilton:

“Our previous strategy (The Way Forward 2015-20) was about making more content available digitally with an ambitious goal of making a third of our collection available by 2025, the Library’s 100th anniversary. However, our new strategy (Reaching people, 2020-2025) is about engaging with diverse audiences, users and non-users. 

And with that in mind, we’re looking to make our collections available for platforms such as Wikipedia. It’s great to reach millions of researchers through JSTOR, but if we are to reach the rest of the world, we need to have the Library’s content on those platforms, too.”