Neil  Jacobs Digital Repositories in UK universities and colleges
Jinfo Blog

Wednesday, 1st February 2006

By Neil Jacobs


What's in a word?

Sometimes a word acquires so many meanings that it becomes difficult to use clearly. This happened to 'portal', and it may be happening to 'repository'. There is a lot of development work underway that claims to relate to repositories, that might previously have been related to 'archives', 'digital libraries' or 'content management systems'. Defining the boundaries is probably a waste of time, so for the purposes of this article, I'll take a reasonably pragmatic approach, which is to say a repository is a digital object store into which material can be deposited. Repositories therefore offer information professionals a way of becoming more involved in the processes whereby digital information is made shareable, applying their expertise earlier in the information cycle than has often been the case.

For those interested in definitions, a recent "repositories review" report <> by Rachel Heery (UKOLN <>) and Sheila Anderson, Arts and Humanities Data Service <>, went into some detail. Kerry Blinco and Neil McLean, leaders in the field from Australia, have drafted what's informally known as a "wheel of fortune" (Slide 24 in the PowerPoint presentation: <>), describing the dimensions along which a repository might be aligned (curated or personal, open access or controlled access, etc.).

These provide a background to the current round of R&D work funded by the UK Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC <>), supporting universities and colleges in the UK. The rationale for this work is that universities and colleges can use repositories as a tool to implement various strategies, such as an information strategy, research strategy or education strategy. Of course, repositories will only be used, or strategies implemented, where these help teachers, students, researchers or managers do their work. Essentially, repositories help people share digital resources, so, where this is an aim, repositories are a solution.

Standards and interoperability

Repositories only help people share digital resources where both the repositories and the resources comply with international open standards. In terms of repositories, the key interoperability standard is the Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting, OAI-PMH <>, which enables metadata to be exchanged reliably. In terms of digital resources, the standards vary according to the domain, but include: Dublin Core <> and MARC <> for bibliographic data; IMS Learning Objective Metadata <>; and ISO 19115 <> for geospatial data. Packaging standards exist to create compound digital objects, integrating both files and metadata, including METS (Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard <>), IMS Content Packaging <>, and the MPEG 21 DIDL (Digital Item Declaration Language <>).

So much for alphabet soup; where can repositories help, and what work is underway to make them do so?

Academic research

Building on a previous development programme (Focus on Access to Institutional Resources - FAIR <>), the current Digital Repositories development programme <> consists of some 25 projects that are exploring the role and operation of repositories. Many of these are concerned with how repositories can help academic researchers both do and share their work more effectively. Open access is a key driver and demands are growing for the outputs of publicly-funded research to be freely available on the web (RCUK draft position statement <>, National Institutes of Health statement <>, Wellcome Foundation policy <>). JISC and others have released guidance on open access, including a briefing paper <>, and a set of questions and answers that address some of the main concerns of researchers <>.

Repositories have a key role to play, since they both enable open access, and help universities and colleges manage the intellectual output of their researchers. Again, JISC has released guidance in the form of a simple briefing paper for universities <>.

In terms of active development, work is underway to help universities set up and populate repositories (Sherpa <>), to establish a Scottish research repository infrastructure (IRI Scotland <>), and to investigate the questions of different versions of academic papers (Versions <>). The PerX project <> is also developing a pilot cross- search of engineering open access repositories, building on previous JISC-funded work such as the ePrints-UK search <> and the Subject Portals project <>.

While access to publications is vital, the research that it enables is greatly enhanced where researchers can also access the data on which the publications were based. With the advent of Grid computing <> and computer applications based on Web Services standards <>, this is increasingly possible, though the challenges are not trivial.

There are a number of JISC-funded projects working within this area. The pioneer is probably eBank <>, which is informing a group of projects (Repository for the Laboratory <>, SPECTRa <>) that are addressing the needs of research chemists especially, though not exclusively, crystallographers. These projects should answer some of the questions that arise from attempts to link together the raw data streaming off laboratory equipment, data analysis tools and techniques, archives of research data, research reports and published journal articles.

Broadening the scope a little, the CLADDIER project <> is looking at some of these issues within environmental science, and the Grade project <> is focusing on the technical and legal issues when sharing derived works based on geospatial data. Finally, the StORe project <> is building a broad picture of linking scientific data and publications across a wide range of subject areas.

The questions may be familiar (including persistent version identification, digital rights, metadata quality, cultural change, preservation), but they appear in new guises with each new domain.

Nothing illustrates this better, perhaps, than current work to establish a prototype national service for open access to electronic Ph.D. theses. These are much underused resources when they are only available in paper form via inter-library loan, but are heavily used when available electronically. The EThOS project <> is building a prototype national e-thesis service for the UK, seeking to solve the kind of questions noted above, in partnership with a smaller project in Wales (Repository Bridge <>). Work is ongoing, too, to coordinate this kind of work across Europe, working with both national bodies such as SURF <> in the Netherlands, and international initiatives such as DART Europe <>.


Creating, sharing and using online learning materials is seen by many as a way of making the experiences of both students and educators at once more interactive and more reflective. The JISC Exchange for Learning development programme (X4L <>) proved the value of this approach and, with the development of the JORUM <> learning object repository service, has demonstrated its practicality. JORUM offers a way for educators to share the learning materials they create, and to reuse those created by others. Developer tools such as Reload <> are being developed to make it easy to create content packages to upload into repositories like JORUM in standard formats, so that they can easily be re-imported into, for example, a virtual learning environment. Interoperability means that materials can be shared at regional level too, and a range of projects are exploring this possibility (Distributed e-Learning, Regional Pilots: <>) and, in particular, what challenges arise when learning materials are shared directly between universities and colleges. To address some of these, the X4L programme has produced resources <> to help educators create, re-use and re-purpose learning material.

Barriers remain however, and the 'Community Dimensions of Learning Object Repositories' project <> will identify some of these, and will suggest and test ways of overcoming them. At the national level, a JISC repositories project <> will build a collaborative environment in which high-stakes assessment items (such as examinations for medical students) can be shared. But there are challenges within institutions as well, and the project 'Accessing and Storing Knowledge' will demonstrate how institutional systems can be joined up in a modular, more future-proof way, based on a framework of Web Services standards <>.

As in the research domain, digital rights are a key influence on the behaviour of individuals and organisations, and systems need to be built that support the appropriate rights regimes. The Trust-DR project <> is taking the experience of the JORUM in developing its contributor licence, together with the findings from a recent study <>, to establish an approach for institutions to create, express and enforce a set of rights policies for their learning materials Trust-DR will also be informed by another project <> that is studying the rewards sought by educators sharing learning materials, and the rights information that they consequently need to be able to share with those materials.

Finally, there are technologies that often come into universities and colleges 'under the radar', such as blogs, wikis and peer-to-peer repositories. The PROWE project <> is asking whether blogs and wikis in particular can be used to support the huge distributed networks of tutors associated with the Open and Leicester Universities. The SPIRE project <> is installing the secure Lionshare <> peer-to-peer system, to explore its potential in teaching and learning and, in part, to dispel the mistaken notion that peer-to-peer equals Napster equals insecure and probably illegal activity.


Images, sound, video and so on can, of course, play a crucial role in both research and teaching. The JISC has long secured such content for use in universities and colleges <>. However, the establishment of repositories across UK tertiary education and beyond has led some to ask whether the sector can do more to share the resources it already has, as well as making better use of licensed content from elsewhere.

One JISC development project, MIDESS <>, is building both a technical system and a set of policies to enable three universities to manage their image collections in a coordinated way, and better exploit them in teaching and research. A related set of studies will outline the national challenges in terms of infrastructure (Community-Led Image Collections Study: <>), preservation ('Digital Images Archiving Study' and 'Moving Pictures and Sound Archiving Study' <>), discovery and access (Visual and Sound Materials Portal Scoping Study and Demonstrator Project <>), and managing sensitive images such as those from clinical settings (CHERRI-PIE Project: <>). Taken together, this work could inform a national approach to multimedia management within universities and colleges, based on repositories.

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