Object lesson: when researchers run repositories

Sep 17 2009 Published by under Tactics

I commented here earlier, not without frustration, about a pair of researchers who built and abandoned a disciplinary repository. I was particularly annoyed that they seemed to have done this purely for self-aggrandizement, apparently feeling no particular attachment to the resulting repository.

Such as they should not open repositories. Neither they nor any service they offer is trustworthy. I hope that's uncontroversial. Unfortunately, even vastly better intentions than that don't guarantee the sustainability of the result, even in the short term.

The Mana'o anthropology repository, started by Dr. Alex Golub on the traditional server-in-the-basement that is the origin of many a worthwhile project, has been encountering significant technical difficulties. Dr. Golub is no longer able to maintain it, and is looking for some way to hand it off.

In my reasonably well-informed opinion, any such one-person effort will need a rescue at some point. If nothing else, people die unexpectedly! Dr. Golub's mistake isn't that he wound up needing a rescue; it's that he didn't anticipate and plan for a handoff from the beginning.

It isn't just Mana'o, I'm afraid. How many disciplinary and institutional repositories have done succession planning? If not, why not? Do it. Now. It is flagrantly irresponsible not to.

Scholarly societies have the best fit with the disciplines, of course, but many who might otherwise accomplish rescues are hamstrung by the need for anything requiring effort to pay for itself or even make money. AAA won't be picking up Mana'o, I confidently predict based on their track record vis-a-vis open access.

Librarianship's continuing error, as I pointed out in the post I linked above, is that we have no infrastructure or plan for accomplishing these rescues, which (I anticipate) will continue to be necessary and may even accelerate in the coming years. Institution-based efforts such as IRs have the technical and human-resource capacity to pick up the slack; what they don't have is policy that allows them to, and coordination to notice work that needs doing and parcel it out appropriately.

As for institutional IT, which might be another natural place to look—they, too, have no policy mandate to address needs originating outside the institution.

How does this relate to data? Well, the problems are the same, really. One-researcher or one-lab IT infrastructures live on a razor's edge; one missed grant may kill them. They hardly ever consider succession planning; worst-case, their IT people (usually wrongly) believe that whatever they're doing is perfectly adequate and will not accept gentle correction.

What this suggests to me, among other things, is that passive data collection is inadequate as a data-repository population model. (Not a surprise, I'm sure; we tried that with IRs and it failed.) Someone needs to go out there and find the good stuff, then open the conversation about how best to keep it.

It also suggests that we need to open a discussion of this issue in cross-institutional fora. CNI, ARL, Educause, JISC, where are you?

7 responses so far

  • A Fellow Librarian says:

    Dorthea Salo~
    I read your post with some dismay. Your elevated position from atop that Ivory Tower seems to allow you to look down upon all the mistakes made while distancing yourself from providing a hands-on solution. I don't see you rushing down your tower steps to pick up this torch, so why the truly uppity response? An experiment was worked upon and failed, and from what I can discern, you proclaim to know so much more yet only offer disdain. Does such attitude lead towards a solution for the research and library community?
    It's time for 'academics' such as yourself to temper your words, and offer real solutions from working level; get your own hands dirty, and not just bark from your position up in the theoretical clouds.

  • I'd like to take it on, actually, but with the policy surrounding me what it is, I can't.
    I don't make the policy surrounding me.
    I did put word out in various twisty little repository corners, to some effect. I now fully expect that there will be a rescue of at least the content of Mana'o, if not necessarily the continuance of the community, and I'm pleased at that. It's a small gesture toward the growth of IRs beyond passive inward-looking troughs, and likewise the nurturing of an IR community of practice, which I've tried for for years and not got anywhere with.
    I'm sorry that I sounded disdainful. The anthropology community is in fact a model of experimentation, right in the teeth of a notoriously closed-minded scholarly society, and I love that!
    As for solutions -- I suggested succession planning, and I believe in it. If Mana'o had come to me ages ago, I could have tried for something, despite my policy environment. It would have taken time: scaring up faculty sponsors (though I know immediately whom I'd have gone to first), making the case to my employer, estimating costs and figuring out transfer procedures, dealing with legalities (because assuming control of content whose provenance may be unclear is absolutely a potential liability), et cetera. The last minute is an unfortunate time to look for a savior.
    As I said, any repo run by one (or a few) people is on a razor's edge. That's not automatically unacceptable, but it must be planned for. Not just by the small fry, either! As the arXiv situation (or even the fate of Geocities) shows, web properties come and go, and if we want the content thereof to endure, we need to do more than hope for it.
    I'm not actually an academic, by the way. I have no Ph.D and have never undergone any sort of tenure process. Make of that what you will.

  • Iris says:

    Wow. I didn't see much that was uppity in Dorothea's post at all. In fact, I saw her saying that, just like everyone else she mentions in the post, her own slice of the repository world hadn't figured out mechanisms to accommodate this need.
    Before I had seen much of what goes into creating and maintaining a repository, I didn't know how incredibly difficult and time consuming it can be to take another project's data and make it work with your project or platform. So I think it's valuable to have people who do have experience trying to rescue this kind of work to point out to the rest of us that if we start something, we should at least try to make sure that what we're doing will be compatible with something else, anything else later on down the road. Otherwise I might assume (wrongly) that I didn't need to plan for a hand off because the hand off would be relatively easily accomplished when and if it became necessary.

  • 1) Heroic efforts vs robust, scalable, sustainable *operations*. Projects, or things that start as projects still need to transition into operations for the long term. Always a sticking point. I'm queen of heroic efforts - but when I get tired of the routine, who will take it? How not to over promise? I don't blame the originator of the project and many such fail so this would have been irrelevant.
    2) IT departments - and frequently libraries - are considered infrastructure, enterprise, and/or overhead. They are *typically* not rewarded for being entrepreneurial or even, for that matter, innovative (outside of their own world). The budget is primarily for keeping the lights on, not looking for or accepting new work and particularly not for expanding scope
    3) As many of us (including Dorothea) have pointed out, project money that has a set end isn't the right way to fund "saving data forever". It's obvious, but if that's all the money that can be found, "we'll just start this way and then in 3 years we'll go out and look for more"
    I don't see any way out of this cycle - particularly any way that can be made by a librarian in the trenches (with or without torches, or pitchforks for that matter) - but we must keep waving the flag. If we don't get the point across one way, we have to re-word it and try again.

  • John Russell says:

    Hi Dorothea! I'm a bit late to the comments. You hint at some sort of Mana'o rescue which I haven't heard boo about. If you could enlighten me (via email), I'd appreciate it. I'm not looking to horn in on anything, just want to know how this part of the story ends. Thanks!

  • John Russell says:

    No problem about the delay - I know you're quite busy. Thanks for the info and for your help with the Mana'o issue.