Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Collaborative success factors

Recently, I filled out a survey from the Content and Scope Workstream of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) effort. Emily Gore and others were asking about the kinds of aggregated metadata we have in the Mountain West Digital Library and whether we would be willing to have it harvested into the first round of content for the DPLA. The first version of a DPLA portal is slated to be released in April 2013, and we are very excited about being involved.

Digital Public Library of America logoOne of the survey questions dealt with the characteristics of success in existing digital collaboratives around the country. The committee wanted to know how we think about our successes and what is vital to maintaining a collaborative. They also asked what we would adjust or improve. The idea was that the lessons learned through the state, regional, and genre-based digital collaboratives already in existence can now be leveraged into the creation of a national digital library. I thought I would share what I answered about our experience here in the Mountain West:

We believe much of our success in the Mountain West Digital Library is due to the tiered structure of our collaborative. We think long and hard about what to centralize and what to keep distributed. Here are the tiers we are working with.

(1) CENTRAL MWDL: Currently we centralize the search portal, with harvesting from 20 regional repositories. The portal at is the clearest value we provide to all partners. We have developed task forces composed of partner representatives to agree upon metadata standards, pricing for digitization services, and partner roles -- all the agreements that allow our interoperability.  We have a long history of working together across institutions through the Utah Academic Library Consortium (which, by the way, includes member libraries in Nevada and Idaho), and there is a high level of trust among participants. We also welcome participation by partners who are not UALC members. We also are moving towards centralizing some highly detailed and intensely technical aspects of collection management, notably Encoded Archival Description (EAD) finding aids; we are doing this only after the distributed management of those collections over the last five years failed to meet archivists' needs. Because digital preservation is expensive to do right, we are exploring the idea of a centralized digital preservation repository for the region; we will ensure distributed management of collections with this, and I expect a significant number of our partners will be interested in participating. We centralize the outreach to new partners and sharing with other collaboratives around the country.

(2) REGIONAL REPOSITORIES:  All hosting of digital collections is done by the 20 regional hubs, who are currently serving 61 collection partners (i.e., the cultural heritage organizations). Most of the hubs, but not all, offer digitization and archiving services as well.  Only a handful of centers offer the full range of digitization services, including audio and video digitization, transcription, and streaming. Our architecture permits an individual partner to work with multiple hubs to obtain the range of services needed, and hubs frequently subcontract services to each other. Training of collection partners in metadata assignment is mostly devolved to the regional repositories, who have the direct relationship with collection partners.  We supplement this with webinars coming out of MWDL on selected topics several times a year. These typically involve some collection partners sharing their innovations.

(3) COLLECTION PARTNERS:  The management of collections is almost entirely in the hands of the collection partners, and we emphasize the local control over selection, metadata assignment, rights, and branding. Many partners also choose to do at least the simpler digitization tasks themselves, with flat-bed scanners, for example. The local management of collections creates a considerable training and support burden, and sometimes partners in remote areas of our region particularly feel lonely or frustrated with the new tasks involved in digitization and metadata assignment. We depend heavily on staff at the regional hubs to provide this training, and we would like to improve support for that from MWDL. However, the benefits of a distributed network have been clear to us from the beginning, and we are likely to continue to maintain it as much as possible. Because cultural heritage collections are prized, we want partners to feel comfortable in their control over them. We never want it said that "'They' took our treasures away from us." Many doors have opened only because that local control is clear. Because cultural heritage collections are difficult to catalog, we want partners to be involved in the metadata creation. The people closest to the materials need to be the ones cataloging them. We would like them to be more involved in creating the context for them as well.  Because all our partners are involved in the work, and because they directly experience the value added by participation in the MWDL network, there is a high level of buy-in and support. We would like to increase the involvement of all partners in all levels of decisions about MWDL, and we have recently stepped up communications via listserve and social media.

Currently there is no fee for participating in the Mountain West Digital Library network and taking advantage of the tiered services. The expectation is that all partners will contribute what labor they can to the growth of the network -- both up and down the line. The growth of MWDL is straining the resources of the Utah Academic Library Consortium, however, and we are exploring how to supplement the support from UALC with other funding sources and in-kind contributions of labor. We will strive to maintain the balance of the tiered collaborative in any new funding models we adopt.

Thank you for asking these thoughtful questions. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this further with DPLA committee members, and I look forward to being involved in DPLA's success!

--Sandra McIntyre

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