A&SL annual seminar

Last Friday a number of members of the CDG Committee were lucky enough to be able to attend the Annual Seminar of the Academic & Special Libraries section of the LAI. The seminar, “Content Creators – The Digital Frontier” aimed to discuss the issues that we as curators of knowledge and information need to think about when creating digital content. A number of speakers from organisations across Ireland spoke about some of their amazing digital collections as well as the opportunities and challenges they encountered when creating their own digital content.

First up was the seminar’s keynote speaker Simon Tanner, Deputy Head of Department and Director of Digital Consulting in the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London. In his talk, “To educate, enlighten and entertain – if you build it, will they come and help?”, Simon opened with a vision of how things could be in the world of digital content where we walk through the doors of a cathedral and can pull up information and digital resources on that cathedral all located in one place online regardless of where they are located in the world. We don’t do this now and cannot do it unless we open up our data and allow users to engage with it.

From there, Simon spoke about other opportunities and challenges for the creators of digital content. Challenges for content creators include engaging with users in the attention economy, curation challenges, demonstrating value of return to and measuring the impact of our collections on our communities. Engaging with our users is paramount when we create digital collections and in the attention economy today we compete for every eyeball. And yet, it is not the page views that we should focus on but the building of a community around our content and the value that our users get from our collections. We also need to offer better access to our collections. Our users search for contexts, places and events relevant to their own lives so we need to build this access for them. If users do engage with your content, be clear about what you will be doing with the data they provide. And acknowledge them, credit them, reward them!

We also face curation challenges when we have a mandate to preserve digital collections in perpetuity but our projects have finite funding cycles. We need to use our resources, our funding and research to engage with the future as well as preserving the past. In a time of reduced resources, we also need to justify the money spent on digital collections by looking at what benefits they return to us and to the community. They open up new research areas, provide insight into the creative processes of artists, encourage users to be creative themselves, bring new or damaged material to light and have an impact on how your organisation is viewed by others. They also have economic and community benefits, a full list of which can be found in the JISC report “Inspiring Research, Inspiring Scholarship”. Finally, Simon spoke about the impact of our digital collections. Impact is not just in the number of users we have or the money we make from our collections. We need to think our own values and perspectives in order to find a balanced approach to measuring the impact of our collections. More details can be found in his report, “Balanced Value Impact Model” available at King’s.

Julia Barrett, the Research Services Manager in UCD Library, was the next speaker. Her talk was about the challenges and opportunities in making collections, both historical and contemporary, available online to researchers and students. Julia’s talk was enlightening, particularly in emphasising the vast scope of the content that is available in UCD and the technical knowledge required to make this content available digitally. Of course, the focus was on UCD’s Irish Virtual Research Library & Archive (IVRLA) an impressively vast network of collections including special collections, national folklore collections, collections regarding Irish dialects and so on. Having such a wealth of information is wonderful, of course, but Julia wanted to inform us as to how UCD made these collections available digitally.

Embracing new technological developments was key. Julia spoke of the move from the Linux-based operating system Fedora 2.2 to the updated Fedora 3.5. Searchability was also an important factor, and Julia discussed their use of the Solr search server, an open source search engine with hit highlighting that enabled users to maximise their time researching the archives.

Julia was also keen to address common misconceptions about digitising projects, primarily that digital projects were about more than just scanning documents. After all, what use is a scanned image if we don’t have metadata which can help us identify items, and so make our databases intuitive to the people who need access to them?

Following Julia was Commdt. Pádraic Kennedy from the Military Archives. Pádraic focused on issues surrounding making information freely available, specifically legal or ethical issues that might surround potentially sensitive data (even if this data might not have been thought to be sensitive initially). This is a common concern amongst similar operations, but Pádraic also addressed other potential problems such as attracting negative comments on Flickr directed not at the items being made available but the politics of the people concerned or even the body that is making the information available. Despite these challenges, Pádraic was enthusiastic about the positives of utilising a site such as Flickr for disseminating information and promoting militaryarchives.ie. He mentioned that they were attracting 35,000 views per month and suggested that these figures promoted physical use of their archives, as people visiting the archives have increased in the corresponding period.

After lunch, Niamh O’Sullivan, a research officer/librarian for the Irish Blood Transfusion Service, gave an informative and highly entertaining talk about one woman’s journey from a missing display cabinet to a highly complex operation aimed at digitising photographs that the IBTS had amassed over the years. Niamh’s talk, “Banking” our memories – The IBTS Digital Photographic Archive, was a perfect example of a ‘special’ library, in that she works for a service that many may not realise utilise librarians or information professionals. Central to her talk was the idea that organisations and businesses (and not necessarily public or not-for-profit organisations) can embrace the future by understanding the past. For the IBTS, this meant connecting with the community that they serve, something which is essential for an organisation which relies on people remembering them and volunteering their time (and blood!). Niamh also touched on one of the main points raised at the conference, that of the ethics of making data widely available. Of particular concern to Niamh was whether she should allow for user-tagging of the photos that they were making available on Flickr, as there could be privacy issues given that Flickr was a widely used database that could be visible by people simply surfing the web.

The following speakers addressed the A&SL from the perspective of legal libraries. John Duffy, Sub-Librarian with the Bar Council of Ireland Law Library, spoke of the importance of standards in digitising two areas in his library. Their digitisation project, beginning in 2010, focused on the Employment Appeals Tribunal and Garda Compensation Cases. John spoke of the importance, specifically in this instance, of metadata over data, a concept that may be alien to some of us. But what did this mean in a practical sense? For John, the use of XML fields was essential in deciding what data to capture, stressing that XML fields represented a ‘flexible way of imposing a strict structure’. For John, standards are essential to him in his job as they allow for interoperability, flexibility, transparency, the ability to ‘migrate’ and validateability. Ailish Farragher works as the Legal Information Manager in Eugene F. Collins. Ailish’s talk, Content Creators: Digitisation in a law firm, was in some way a reminder that an information professional’s main priority may not be to make all information as freely and widely available as possible, especially in a legalistic framework. Ailish spoke about concerns that a legal firm may have regarding the information that they will be digitising, particularly with regards to security, redaction and theft. She also spoke eloquently about how these concerns may impact on attempting to introduce new ideas. This can be as simple as realising that office culture can be deeply embedded in the way an organisation operates and can be difficult to change.

The next two speakers spoke about the increasing prevalence of social media in the information professional’s career. Karen Skelly, Information & Resource Officer with the Irish Cancer Society, spoke about the manner in which social media has completely altered how her organisation operates. Previously the focus had been on giving support and advice over the telephone, and while this remains important, Karen noted that more and more people were utilising Twitter and Facebook in order to address their concerns. As the organisation is realising this shift is not simply a passing fad, Karen is aware that operations and working routines will have to change in order to meet this demand. Michelle Dalton, medical librarian in the University of Limerick, gave an illuminating talk about the importance of Twitter in promoting yourself and interacting with people working in your area. Furthermore, Twitter is an excellent tool for improving your knowledge of issues in the librarian world. The key is to understand how it works. Michelle compared it to a ‘stream’ rather than a static lake of water, a ‘flow’ of information that you can tune in to when it suits you. The important thing about Twitter, however, is that you interact and don’t simply ‘broadcast’ information. A useful example of this is the forthcoming irelibchat on the 12th of March from 8pm. This is the perfect opportunity to interact with the people working in your industry. This one is focusing on publishing and presenting research.

The reaction to the event (in the bar of the Radisson Hotel afterwards) was very positive. It was a wonderful opportunity to hear the pressing issues of librarians and information officers as well as those issues which may be more specific to certain aspects of the librarian world. It also gave us librarians making tentative steps on the career path a chance to meet (or at least put a face to the name) of some important people in the library world.