Strategic or Open Digitisation?

The recent projects that JISC has funded as part of its Content Programme contain a fascinating range of materials – archives relating to the 18th-century Board of Longitude, the UK’s collection of fossils and reports documenting the health of modern London.

But the fascination of such an eclectic range of sources could also be construed as a weakness – the programme shows little deliberate join-up between the material being digitised.

This is very much a result of JISC’s approach; an open call, with each project being judged on its educational and technical merit, as part of a balanced portfolio of subjects and approaches.

An alternative strategy would be for JISC to, in consultation with the community, select a small number of strategic themes and request proposals only related to those themes, e.g. climate change, immigration to Britain or the history of European integration.

If four or five projects were funded in each of these themes, the opportunity to develop a critical mass of material is much greater. Many successful digitised resources (e.g. Early English Books Online – now available via the JISC Historic Books platform, or the Old Bailey Online) have succeeded by drawing material from diverse physical archives, but ensuring a focus on a particular community of practice.

But such an approach creates a number of challenges.

Above all, there exists the thorny question of what to focus on. A few years ago, JISC commissioned the Discmap survey in an attempt to marry researcher needs with outstanding non-digitised special collections in the UK. The report makes interesting reading (pdf), but only serves to show the breadth of both undigitised collections and researcher needs.

Alighting on particular fields, therefore, creates some specific risks. For instance by working with particular topics, one alienates whole reams of both curators, and researchers and teachers, whose fields have been excluded. For JISC, this has a remit to work with the whole HE community, this is an important factor.

Innovation is also important to JISC – indeed, its part of its very raison d’etre – and JISC wants to fund projects that integrate innovative practices into their digitisation. Experience has shown that innovation germinates in unexpected places. Sometimes bigger, well-established institutions – the type of place that would be more likely to play a role in ‘strategic’ digitisation – cannot innovate in the way the younger, more nimble organisations can .

Finally, developing strategic digitisation also entails partnerships. Working with others is great and helps create better digital resources, but they need time to grow and flourish. But when forced, they are more largely to cause friction, to the detriment of any joint output. In a landscape where there are plenty of large-scale organisations who need to achieve their own strategic goals, forging such broader partnerships can difficult.

Despite all that, the notion of a a critical mass being developed via a strategic approach remains appealing, especially if associated with a larger notion of a UK Digital Collection.

And JISC’s recent call in relation to World War One, and its completed programme of work in Islamic Studies, start to address this – seeking proposals that will pull together digitised content on a particular theme.

As funding tightens this is a discussion that will continue – do we want the creation of digital content to be focused on a select area and done in great depth or do we want a broad approach that creates a wider constituency of curators and users, but perhaps without the same intensity?

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