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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.