Digitisation conference 2007

Five Key Issues in Digitisation – JISC Digitisation Conference, 2007

The JISC Digitisation Conference was held at the St David’s Hotel and Conference Centre in Cardiff on 20/21 July 2007. It gathered together some of the leading digitisation projects, funding-bodies, publishers, archives, libraries and many of the key thinkers in the area. There was an international delegate list, drawing in representatives from the UK, France, Germany, Italy, the US, Canada and elsewhere.

The full report, including details of all speakers’ presentations, is available to download as a PDF file (303kb).

The aim was to discuss the key issues affecting those engaged in digitisation and draw conclusions about how best to take these issues forward. Numerous topics were proposed, debated and argued over through the course of the two days; below are the five issues which most regularly surfaced during the conference.

1. Reintegrating the User

A persistent theme was the need to re-focus on the end user. Speakers highlighted how easy it is to lose sight of the key reason for digitisation – providing your audience with knowledge. The complexities of mass digitisation and the rush to ensure a successful process can sometimes result in a compromised final product. Too many projects have confusing or half-baked interfaces, obscuring the content they have worked so hard to digitise.

Successful technology, it was emphasised, should be invisible. End users have no need to know how a TV or a washing machine works, and the same is true of putting content online. Digitisation projects should not forget to document its processes, but behind-the-scenes concern for data capture, disclosure, aggregation, and discovery should not overshadow how the final outputs are presented to the end users.

2. Building a Mass of Content

An echoing lament throughout the conference concerned the ‘silo effect’ – digital content continued to be created in separate silos, unconnected to other relevant content locked away elsewhere. Users, therefore, were continually at the mercy of the idiosyncrasies of search engines and also their own patience in locating and exploiting relevant content.

New strategies are needed. The wishes of specific user communities need to be recognised and responded to but within a larger need to aggregate and present content (both new and existing) in particular areas that can resonate with multiple communities. Equally, development of tools and standards must continue so as to catalyse technical interoperability among digital content.

3. The Shadow of Google and YouTube

Google and YouTube have done marvellous things in making content freely available. There is much the digitisation community can learn from their expertise, as existing partnerships are already showing.

However, the public sector needs to remember the differing perspectives of the web giants. Values such as the insistence on scholarly quality, the importance of provenance and metadata, and the necessity of sharing and preserving digital data are aspects that the public sector arguably values more than the private sector. The educational communities therefore must be prepared to negotiate in the light of their own values.

4. Business Models and Sustainability

Experience has replaced early naivety – maintaining content online requires infrastructure, expertise and hard cash. The digitisation community needs to develop and deploy sophisticated business models to enable it to support the content it has so carefully digitised. This will also have the advantage of focussing the digitisation community on what content it really values and what content it is prepared to put to one side.

No firm answers are presently available. Business models must be experimented with, both with and without collaboration with the private sector. The present climate offers an excellent window of opportunity for engagement with commercial bodies. However, it is vital that information on the success or otherwise of such partnerships is shared within the wider community.

5. Increased Collaboration

Addressing all the issues cited above requires greater collaboration between all the relevant participants – publishers, collection curators, funding bodies, user communities, vendors and standards bodies. Therefore the most urgent call from the conference was for all these stakeholders to picture how they slot into, respond to and profit from the larger sphere of digitisation. It was not a call to start from scratch – frameworks, agreements and associations already exist – but to cultivate existing partnerships and foster new ones where needs be.

Collaboration should not happen simply for its own sake – otherwise the lack of flexibility it engenders may damage final outcomes. However, when applied within the correct strategic backdrop, collaboration will help projects reach further end-users, break down silos of digitised material and provide sophisticated business models to ensure long-term access to digital content.

Further Directions: Next Steps for JISC

Any large-scale conference not only identifies common themes but signals new directions to follow; in this case the next steps that the digitisation community should be following.

For JISC such steps have guided the way to its Digitisation Strategy. The conference gave JISC the opportunity to launch a draft strategy and receive discussion from conference delegates. Now complete, the strategy illustrates JISC’s aims and priorities for the second phase of its digitisation programme, due to complete in Spring 2009. It is part of a wider and integrated e-content strategy to improve access to digital resources within the higher and further education sector. This is done in coordination with other strands of JISC work, such as e-content licensing through JISC Collections and the Digital Repositories programme.

As a result of this strategy and as part of its digitisation programme, JISC is taking these issues forward through a number of activities and initiatives that are being planned or currently underway.

1. Emphasising User Focus in Creating Digital Collections

Highlights of current JISC actions

  • Creating digital resources that allow for interaction, personalisation and contextualisation
  • Continuing to refine a rights framework for the flexible use of digital material within the educational community

The strategy places particular importance on emphasising user focus in creating digital collections, and the projects that form part of the programme will offer a range of functions that allow interaction with, and personalisation of, a resource. Collections will have a strong emphasis on the creation of learning packages to accompany the digitised material, thus providing a richer contextual background for a variety of users primarily within the higher and further education sector and, when possible, schools and lifelong learning.

In addition, JISC’s development of an appropriate legal framework that governs the creation, delivery, use and re-use of digitised material within an educational context will ensure that educational users can freely engage with the resources while respecting Intellectual Property Rights in a manner that is neither inflexible nor too restrictive.

2. Developing a Critical Mass of Content

Highlights of current JISC actions

  • Funding specific projects to bring dispersed digital content together
  • Researching user needs in general and in specific areas, e.g. Islamic Studies
  • Updating accepted digitisation standards to assist with continued technical interoperability

The needs of specific user communities are driving a number of initiatives that JISC will carry out in order to break down “content silos”, enhance resource discovery, and make the most of content that is already currently available on the Web but not necessarily joined together.

A number of projects within the digitisation programme are already bringing together dispersed resources within a particular theme and that are in demand by academic users (e.g. Irish studies). JISC will also fund the creation of portals in specific subject areas that will harvest metadata from relevant collections and allow cross-searching from a single access point. This will be complemented by further studies to ascertain gaps in the provision of digitised content. Further investigation into users’ needs will also consider the interest in, and potential for, digitisation of resources in particularly topical subject areas such as Islamic Studies.

The adoption of technical standards for the capture, description, and preservation of digital assets that also fosters interoperability among resources is a strong element of the JISC digitisation programme. More work is planned to update the JISC technical standards catalogue, developing it to include, where feasible, an assessment of the costs, benefits and challenges of employing such standards.

3. Creating High-quality Content for the Educational Sector

Highlights of current JISC actions

  • Digitising a broad range of resources in physical formats currently ignored by other mass digitisation programmes.
  • Integrating high standards and professional metadata into all digitisation projects to ensure academic quality is maintained

Most of the resources digitised through the JISC digitisation programme include special and unique collections spanning a range of formats (newspapers, images, photographs, maps, audio-visual material, population data, manuscripts and ephemera) and centuries. As discussed during the conference, such collections privilege a “quality” approach, often require a high degree of curatorial input, and perhaps demand more sophisticated business models for their sustainability then those offered by initiatives such as Google Print and YouTube.

4. Researching Viable Business Models

Highlights of current JISC actions

  • Via the digitisation programme, exploring a range of possibilities for sustaining digital resources
  • Undertaking international research to ascertain the feasibility of different models

Current projects within the digitisation programme are experimenting with a variety of business models which include public-private partnerships, the use of existing services and infrastructure for the delivery of content, or ensuring a smooth transaction from project to service within an institution’s own “business as usual” remit.

Projects are still testing viable models and JISC is committed to sharing the outcome of such experiments with the wider community by capturing and disseminating the lessons learnt and examples of best practice that emerge from the digitisation programme.

In coordination with the digitisation programme, the work of the Strategic Content Alliance (SCA) in particular addresses key issues such as sustainability models, IPR and the need for collaboration in order to ensure seamless access to publicly funded e-content for all users. The results of such research will be invaluable for the digitisation community.

5. Undertaking National and International Collaboration

Highlights of current JISC actions

  • Working with the US National Endowment for the Humanities to fund transatlantic digitisation projects
  • Collaborating with the Quality Improvement Agency to contextualise digitised resources for the further education audience in the UK

The call for increased collaboration, both at national and international level, resonates in particular with JISC’s current and future work. Partnerships are already a key component of the current digitisation programme – the collaboration with the Quality Improvement Agency (QIA) aims to broaden access to resources targeting in particular the further education sector. While partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has resulted in a transatlantic digitisation initiative that brings together UK-US collections for the benefit of international researchers. During the two days of the conference seeds were planted and JISC will continue to pursue new and meaningful collaborations with both public and private initiatives.

Next Digitisation Conference: 2009

JISC is planning a repeat of this successful event – currently slated for Summer 2009. This will once again bring together key players in digitisation from different sectors and keep momentum going in debating, and exploring possible solutions to, critical issues within a fast changing e-content landscape.

In the meantime, we urge those in the digitisation community to continue engaging with JISC, in the hope that discussion of ideas and plans for collaboration can continue to unfold.

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