Three Emerging Digital Platforms for 2015

‘Twas a world of limited options for digital libraries just a few short years back. Nowadays, however, the options are many more and the features and functionalities are truly groundbreaking.

Before I dive into some of the latest whizzbang technologies that have caught my eye, let me lay out the platforms we currently use and why we use them.

  • Digital Commons for our institutional repository. This is a simple yet powerful hosted repository service. It has customizable workflows built into it for managing and publishing online journals, conferences, e-books, media galleries and much more. And, I’d emphasize the “service” aspect. Included in the subscription comes notable SEO power, robust publishing tools, reporting, stellar customer service and, of course, you don’t have to worry about the technical upkeep of the platform.
  • CONTENTdm for our digital collections. There was a time that OCLC’s digital collections platform appeared to be on a development trajectory that would take out of the clunky mire it was in say in 2010. They’ve made strides, but this has not kept up.
  • LUNA for restricted image reserve services. You and your faculty can build collections in this system popular with museums and libraries alike. Your collection also sits within the LUNA Commons, which means users of LUNA can take advantage of collections outside their institutions.
  • Omeka.net for online exhibits and digital humanities projects. The limited cousin to the self-hosted Omeka, this version is an easy way to launch multiple sites for your campus without having to administer multiple installs. But it has a limited number of plugins and options, so your users will quickly grow out of it.

The Movers and Shakers of 2015

There are some very interesting developments out there and so here is a brief overview of a few of the three most ground-breaking, in my opinion.

PressForward

If you took Blog DNA and spliced it with Journal Publishing, you’d get a critter called PresForward: a WordPress plug-in that allows users to launch publications that approach publishing from a contemporary web publishing perspective.

There are a number of ways you can use PressForward but the most basic publishing model its intended for starts with treating other online publications (RSS feeds from individuals, organizations, other journals) as sources of submissions. Editors can add external content feeds to their submission feed, which bring that content into their PressForward queue for consideration. Editors can then go through all the content that is brought in automatically from outside and then decide to include it in their publication. And of course, locally produced content is also included if you’re so inclined.

Examples of PressForward include:

Islandora

Built on Fedora Commons with a Drupal front-end layer, Islandora is a truly remarkable platform that is growing in popularity at a good clip. A few years back, I worked with a local consortia examining various platforms and we looked at Islandora. At the time, there were no examples of the platform being put into use and it felt more like an interesting concept more than a tool we should recommend for our needs. Had we been looking at this today, I think it would have been our number one choice.

Part of the magic with Islandora is that it uses RDF triples to flatten your collections and items into a simple array of objects that can have unlimited relationships to each other. In other words, a single image can be associated with other objects that all relate as a single object (say a book of images) and that book object can be part of a collection of books object, or, in fact, be connected to multiple other collections. This is a technical way of saying that it’s hyper flexible and yet very simple.

And because Islandora is built on two widely used open source platforms, finding tech staff to help manage it is easy.

But if you don’t have the staff to run a Fedora-Drupal server, Lyrasis now offers hosted options that are just as powerful. In fact, one subscription model they offer allows you to have complete access to the Drupal back end if customization and development are important to you, but you dont’ want to waste staff time on updates and monitoring/testing server performance.

Either way, this looks like a major player in this space and I expect it to continue to grow exponentially. That’s a good thing too, because some aspects of the platform are feeling a little “not ready for prime time.” The Newspaper solution pack, for example, while okay, is no where near as cool as what Veridian currently can do.

ArtStor’s SharedShelf

Rapid development has taken this digital image collection platform to a new level with promises of more to come. SharedShelf integrates the open web, including DPLA and Google Images, with their proprietary image database in novel ways that I think put LUNA on notice.

Like LUNA, SharedShelf allows institutions to build local collections that can contain copyrighted works to be used in classroom and research environments. But what sets it apart is that it allows users to also build beyond their institutions and push that content to the open web (or not depending on the rights to the images they are publishing).

SharedShelf also integrates with other ArtStor services such as their Curriculum Guides that allow faculty to create instructional narratives using all the resources available from ArtStor.

The management layer is pretty nice and works well with a host of schema.

And, oh, apparently audio and video support is on the way.

Digital Author Services

The producers of information at our academic institutions are brilliant at what they do, but they need help from experts in sharing their work online. Libraries are uniquely suited for the task.

There are three important areas where we can help our authors:

  1. Copyright and Author Rights Issues
  2. Developing Readership and Recognition
  3. Helping authors overcome technical hurdles to publishing online

Copywhat?

Several libraries are now promoting copyright and author rights information services. These services provide resources (often LibGuides) to scholars who may be sold on the benefits of publishing online, but are unclear what their publishers allow. In fact, in my experience, this is one of the most common problems. Like I said, academics are busy people and focused on their area of specialization, which rarely includes reading the legalese of their publisher agreements, let alone keeping a paper trail handy. This is particularly true for authors that began their careers before the digital revolution.

At any rate, providing online information followed up with face-to-face Q&A is an invaluable service for scholars.

Lucretia McCulley of the University of Richmond and Jonathan Bull of the University of Valpraiso have put together a very concise presentation on the matter, detailing how they’ve solved these issues at their institutions.

Another service, which I’m actually developing at my institution presently, is providing copyright clearance as a service for scholars. In our case, I hope to begin archiving all faculty works in our institutional repository. The problem has been that faculty are busy and relying on individual authors to find the time to do the due diligence of checking their agreements just ain’t gonna happen. In fact, this uncertainty about their rights as authors often stops them cold.

In the service model I’m developing, we would request faculty activity reports or query some other resource on faculty output and then run the checks ourselves (using student labor) on services like SherpaRomeo. When items check out, we publish. When they don’t we post the metadata and link to the appropriate online resource (likely in an online journal).

Developing Readership & Recognition

Another area where library’s can provide critical support is assisting authors in growing their reputations and readership. Skills commonly found in libraries from search engine optimization (SEO) to cataloging play a role in this service offering.

At my institution, we use Digital Commons for our repository, which we selected partly because it has powerful SEO built into it. I’ve seen this at work: where a faculty posts something to the repository and within weeks (and even days), that content is rising to the top of Google search results, beating out even Facebook and LinkedIn for searches on an author’s name.

And of course, while we don’t normally mark up the content with metadata for the authors, we do provide training on using the repository and understanding the implications for adding good keywords and disciplines (subject headings) which also help with SEO.

The final bit, is the reporting. With Digital Commons, reports come out every month via email to the authors, letting them know what their top downloads were and how many they had. This is great and I find the reports help spur word-of-mouth marketing of the repository and enthusiasm for it by authors. This is built into Digital Commons, but no matter what platform you use, I think this is just a basic requirement that helps win author’s hearts, drives growth and is a vital assessment tool.

Walking The Last Mile

MacKenzie Smith of MIT has described the Last Mile Problem (Bringing Research Data into the Library, 2009), which is essentially where technical difficulties, uncertainty about how to get started and basic time constraints keep authors from ever publishing online.

As I touched on above, I’m currently developing a program to help faculty walk the last mile, starting with gathering their CVs and then doing the copyright checks for them. The next step would be uploading the content, adding useful metadata and publishing it for them. A key step before all of this, of course, is setting up policies for how the collection will be structured. This is particularly true for non-textual objects like images, spreadsheets, data files, etc.

So, when we talk about walking the last mile with authors, there’s some significant preparatory work involved. Creating a place for authors to understand your digital publishing services is a good place to start. Some good examples of this include:

Once your policies are in place, you can provide a platform for accepting content. In our case (with Digital Commons), we get stellar customer service from Bepress which includes training users how to use their tools. At institutions where such services is not available, two things will be critical:

  1. Provide a drop-dead easy way to deposit content, which includes simple but logical web forms that guide authors in giving you the metadata and properly-formatted files you require.
  2. Provide personal assistance. If you’re not providing services for adding content, you must have staffing for handling questions. Sorry, an FAQ page is not enough.

Bottom Line

Digital publishing is just such a huge area of potential growth. In fact, as more and more academic content is born digital, preserving it for the future in sustainable and systematic ways is more important than ever.

The Library can be the go-to place on your campus for making this happen. Our buildings are brimming with experts on archives, metadata, subject specialists and web technologies, making us uniquely qualified to help authors of research overcome the challenges they face in getting their stuff out there.

Library as Digital Consultancy

As faculty and students delve into digital scholarly works, they are tripping over the kinds of challenges that libraries specialize in overcoming, such as questions regarding digital project planning, improving discovery or using quality metadata. Indeed, nobody is better suited at helping scholars with their decisions regarding how to organize and deliver their digital works than librarians.

At my institution, we have not marketed our expertise in any meaningful way (yet), but we receive regular requests for help by faculty and campus organizations who are struggling with publishing digital scholarship. For example, a few years ago a team of librarians at my library helped researchers from the University of Ireland at Galway to migrate and restructure their online collection of annotations from the Vatican Archive to a more stable home on Omeka.net. Our expertise in metadata standards, OAI harvesting, digital collection platforms and digital project planning turned out to be invaluable to saving their dying collection and giving it a stable, long-term home. You can read more in my Saved by the Cloud post.

These kinds of requests have continued since. In recognition of this growing need, we are poised to launch a digital consultancy service on our campus.

Digital Project Planning

A core component of our jobs is planning digital projects. Over the past year, in fact, we’ve developed a standard project planning template that we apply to each digital project that comes our way. This has done wonders at keeping us all up to date on what stage each project is in and who is up next in terms of the workflow.

Researchers are often experts at planning out their papers, but they don’t normally have much experience with planning a digital project. For example, because metadata and preservation are things that normally don’t come up for them, they overlook planning around these aspects. And more generally, I’ve found that just having a template to work with can help them understand how the experts do digital projects and give them a sense of the issues they need to consider when planning their own projects, whether that’s building an online exhibit or organizing their selected works in ways that will reap the biggest bang for the buck.

We intend to begin formally offering project planning help to faculty very soon.

Platform Selection

It’s also our job to keep abreast of the various technologies available for distributing digital content, whether that is harvesting protocols, web content management systems, new plugins for WordPress or digital humanities exhibit platforms. Sometimes researchers know about some of these, but in my experience, their first choice is not necessarily the best for what they want to do.

It is fairly common for me to meet with campus partners that have an existing collection online, but which has been published in a platform that is ill-suited for what they are trying to accomplish. Currently, we have many departments moving old content based in SQL databases to plain HTML pages with no database behind them whatsoever. When I show them some of the other options, such as our Digital Commons-based institutional repository or Omeka.net, they often state they had no idea that such options existed and are very excited to work with us.

Metadata

I think people in general are becoming more aware of metadata, but there is still lots of technical considerations that your typical researcher may not be aware of. At our library, we have helped out with all aspects of metadata. We have helped them clean up their data to conform to authorized terms and standard vocabularies. We have explained Dublin Core. We have helped re-encode their data so that diacritics display online. We have done crosswalking and harvesting. It’s a deep area of knowledge and one that few people outside of libraries know on a suitably deep level.

One recommendation for any budding metadata consultants that I would share is that you really need to be the Carl Sagan of metadata. This is pretty technical stuff and most people don’t need all the details. Stick to discussing the final outcome and not the technical details and your help will be far more understood and appreciated. For example, I once presented to a room of researchers on all the technical fixes to a database that we made to enhance and standardize the metadata, but his went over terribly. People later came up to me and joked that whatever it was we did, they’re sure it was important and thanked us for being there. I guess that was a good outcome since they acknowledged our contribution. But it would have been better had they understood, the practical benefits for the collection and users of that content.

SEO

Search Engine Optimization is not hard, but it is likely that few people outside of the online marketing and web design world know what it is. I often find people can understand it very quickly if you simply define it as “helping Google understand your content so it can help people find you.” Simple SEO tricks like defining and then using keywords in your headers will do wonders for your collection’s visibility in the major search engines. But you can go deep with this stuff too, so I like to gauge my audience’s appetite for this stuff and then provide them with as much detail as I think they have an appetite for.

Discovery

It’s a sad statement on the state of libraries, but the real discovery game is in the major search engines…not in our siloed, boutique search interfaces. Most people begin their searches (whether academic or not) in Google and this is really bad news for our digital collections since by and large, library collections are indexed in the deep web, beyond the reach of the search robots.

I recently tried a search for the title of a digital image in one of our collections in Google.com and found it. Yeah! Now I tried the same search in Google Images. No dice.

More librarians are coming to terms with this discovery problem now and we need to share this with digital scholars as they begin considering their own online collections so that they don’t make the mistakes libraries made (and continue to make…sigh) with our own collections.

We had one department at my institution that was sitting on a print journal that they were considering putting online. Behind this was a desire to bring the publication back to life since they had been told by one researcher in Europe that she thought the journal had been discontinued years ago. Unfortunately, it was still being published, it just wasn’t being indexed in Google. We offered our repository as an excellent place to do so, especially because it would increase their visibility worldwide. Unfortunately, they opted for a very small, non-profit online publisher whose content we demonstrated was not surfacing in Google or Google Scholar. Well, you can lead a horse to water…

Still, I think this kind of understanding of the discovery universe does resonate with many. Going back to our somewhat invisible digital images, we will be pushing many to social media like Flickr with the expectation that this will boost visibility in the image search engines (and social networks) and drive more traffic to our digital collections.

Usability

This one is a tough one because people often come with pre-conceived notions of how they want their content organized or the site designed. For this reason, sometimes usability advice does not go over well. But for those instances when our experiences with user studies and information architecture can influence a digital scholarship project, it’s time well spent. In fact, I often hear people remark that they “never thought of it that way” and they’re willing to try some of the expert advice that we have to share.

Such advice includes things like:

  • Best practices for writing for the web
  • Principles of information architecture
  • Responsive design
  • Accessibility support
  • User Experience design

Marketing

It’s fitting to end on marketing. This is usually the final step in any digital project and one that often gets dropped. And yet, why do all the work of creating a digital collection only to let it go unnoticed. As digital project expert, librarians are familiar with the various channels available to promote and build followers with tools like social networking sites, blogs and the like.

With our own digital projects, we discuss marketing at the very beginning so we are sure all the hooks, timing and planning considerations are understood by everyone. In fact, marketing strategy will impact some of the features of your exhibit, your choice of keywords used to help SEO, the ultimate deadlines that you set for completion and the staffing time you know you’ll need post launch to keep the buzz buzzing.

Most importantly, though, marketing plans can greatly influence the decision for which platform to use. For example, one of the benefits of Omeka.net (rather than self-hosted Omeka) is that any collection hosted with them becomes part of a network of other digital collections, boosting the potential for serendipitous discovery. I often urge faculty to opt for our Digital Commons repository over, say, their personal website, because anything they place in DC gets aggregated into the larger DC universe and has built-in marketing tools like email subscriptions and RSS feeds.

The bottom line here is that marketing is an area where librarians can shine. Online marketing of digital collections really pulls together all of the other forms of expertise that we can offer (our understanding of metadata, web technology and social networks) to fulfill the aim of every digital project: to reach other people and teach them something.

New Thoughts on Digital Publishing Services

Back in early 2011, I gave an overview of the library as a disruptive publishing platform. Three years is a long time in “disruptive agent” years. So where do we stand today?

First of all, the publishing industry has not fallen yet…but the great disruption goes on.

A friend of mine was recently describing his rodent control neighbor, a charmingly opaque Eastern European gentleman whose central point about controlling rats can be summed up in a single pronouncement: “Fighting rats is F@#%ing 24×7 War!”

I’m seeing value in this statement for the effort to liberate information. As I’m learning in my contact with faculty and other librarians, the rat warrens run deep into our institutions. So invasive are their labyrinths that they threaten the very financial underpinnings of our information services.

Luckily, we are not passive observers in this state of affairs. We are active participants in creating something new. We have tools at our disposal to fill in the rat holes with a digital foundation that will ensure a long, fruitful future of open access publishing that will empower our users in ways traditional publishing could never do.

New Openings

I’m seeing a number of openings libraries are beginning to exploit that build on the “library as publishing platform” model I wrote about earlier. Namely, librarians are often becoming central hubs for a variety of digital services that include:

  • digital humanities and academic computing support
  • digital project consultant services for everything from how to migrate online content to advice on metadata to search engine optimization (SEO) and usability
  • helping faculty navigate scholarly communications issues from copyright to developing readership and recognition
  • and, of course, providing the place on campus for online publishing

Taken together, all of these emerging services suggest a fairly promising future for librarians interested in transforming the profession into something more in line with current and future trajectories for information.

Ready to enlist as a disruptive agent yet?

Over the next few posts, I’ll explore each of the above and how my library is building new services or augmenting older services to meet these emerging digital publishing needs.

First up, that thing that goes by the very vague and unhelpful term of digital humanities…

Ground Zero for Digital Humanities

At my Library, we have not rolled out a formal digital humanities support program…yet.

Nonetheless, we receive regular, unsolicited inquiries about platforms like Omeka and Digital Commons from faculty interested in creating exhibits and online course projects. To meet the demand so far, we’ve rolled out Omeka.net services, but what people really want is full-blown Omeka with plugins like Neatline and others the hosted version does not support.

Clearly, this organic demand suggests a far more robust DH service is required. As I write, we’ve deployed a faculty survey based loosely on one created by Rose Fortier’s work at Marquette University. With this, we hope to not only build awareness of our digital collections and services (spoiler: early results have 60% of faculty being unaware of our institutional repository, for example…24×7 war indeed!), but also we want to learn what services, like digital humanities support, would interest faculty.

Based on our Omeka.net experience, my guess is that digital humanities support services will generate healthy interest. If this is the case, then we will probably role out self-hosted Omeka plus Neatline and GeoServer, along with trainings and baseline technical support, sometime in 2015. The one hitch that will need to be overcome, will be multi-site capability, which will enable us to install Omeka once and then launch as many separate sites as are required with a single click of a button. That particular feature does not exist yet outside Omeka.net, but according to Omeka.org, the forthcoming Omeka 3/Omeka-S will provide this, greatly enhancing the practicality of launching an Omeka service for any library.

Meanwhile, as I recently presented at the 2014 Digital Commons Great Lakes User Group, we are also continuing to provide a measure of digital humanities support on our Digital Commons institutional repository. While not as sexy as Neatline, we are posting student-generated Map of the Month from the Geography Department, for example, in PDF format.

The recent enhanced, zoomable image viewer available in Digital Commons may also help in this regard.

We’ve also seen a few faculty interested in using Digital Commons for student projects, particularly around courses focused on digital publishing issues.

But, of course, as non-librarian content creators enter the collection-building business, they come ill-prepared for overcoming the kinds of problems library professionals excel at solving. And so, this is where I’d like to turn to next: the library as a digital project consultant service.