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Introducing An Integrated Model for the Digital Library

by | Sep 30, 2022 | 0 comments


By Déirdre Joyce  (Head of Digital Stewardship and the Digital Library, Syracuse University) 

Against the Grain v34#4

At Syracuse University (SU) Libraries, we are constantly looking for the next capability, how to make things more interactive for our patrons, and how we can integrate more with existing and new systems as they come online.

In the summer of 2021, the Libraries established the Department of Digital Stewardship (DDS), the culmination of a five-year effort to refine a programmatic approach to our existing, if disparate, digital library practices.  As part of this approach, the Libraries developed a very clear model of what our Digital Library should be.  For us, it is built on the twin pillars of stewardship and scholarship, the former representing technical care and handling of the materials and the latter focusing on the use and promotion of these materials as well as the construction of new types of digital objects that can be brought back in the form of Digital Humanities projects or other scholarly initiatives.

Having defined these activities and those responsible for carrying them out, we developed a cross-organizational Digital Library team to look for ways to integrate, support each other and feed more fully and organically into a digital curation lifecycle.

This model for digital library practice creates a lot of clarity for us, defining activity in a holistic structure that makes operational sense to us.  It felt right to bring production, description and digital preservation activities into DDS while the outreach and scholarship tasks and initiatives that employ these collections are managed by staff in both the Department of Research and Scholarship and the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC).

Accelerating the Pace of Change

Whatever plans were in place before COVID, the pandemic put more emphasis on the digital delivery of content and presented the Digital Library team with the challenge of delivering an integrated ecosystem that works both for patrons and for us as system managers.

Why was this a challenge? Mostly because our old digital collections management system was reaching end-of-life, having become sclerotic and difficult to use.  That system provided access through XTF, the programming and data representation framework created and maintained by the California Digital Library (CDL) (https://cdlib.org/).  We created XML files through the METS Manager, a homegrown database developed at the Libraries that brought together limited MODS (Metadata Object Description Schema) elements to create METS (Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard) files which structured our digital objects.  But the process was unwieldy, creating large, complex files that often required significant post-processing to work in XTF.  It was not easily extensible and required a lot of mitigation from our developers who had significant, competing demands on their time and no capacity to update or even maintain it to meet the expanding needs of our Digital Library.

Our Integrated Digital Curation Model in Practice

Our newly launched digital collections site (https://digitalcollections.syr.edu/) features an infrastructure diagram (https://digitalcollections.syr.edu/about/our-digital-library) that exemplifies our approach of finding the best-in-class solution for a particular job and integrating that with other systems.  For example, when we adopted our preservation solution, we didn’t expect to rely on its public-facing interface; we focused only on the preservation capabilities; so Preservica fit the bill.  On the other hand, Quartex, our new Digital Asset Management System (DAM), which stood out for many of its front-end features, has some extensible administrative capabilities that should enable it to become almost an engine to make our entire ecosystem work.

SU Techstack 2022

Of course, what that ecosystem needs is content.  As our faculty and teaching librarians move online, we are partnering with SCRC to select and produce content for the biggest pedagogical impact.  Many digitized resources have been sitting on hard drives, unreachable in any meaningful sense, and we hope to remedy that situation by making them available and accessible through our new platform.  Moreover, investing resources in developing our own unique content and making it accessible to end-users through both our digital collections portals and our open access institutional repository, SURFACE (https://surface.syr.edu/), contributes to a virtuous circle of knowledge production that is underwritten at the point of creation.  This has at least two profound effects for the Libraries.  First, it reinforces the value of publishing, rather than purchasing, locally-created scholarship in support of the research enterprise, permitting us to showcase the unique creativity of the Syracuse research community.  Second, by creating digital objects and collections from our unique manuscript and analog holdings, we help demonstrate what makes Syracuse University Libraries a distinctive and strong research and teaching partner on campus.

One functionality of our new system that we are especially excited to use is the easy export function of the DAM, which will allow us to offer collections metadata as end-user datasets.  Inspired by the work of the Collections as Data (https://collectionsasdata.github.io/) project, we realized that our description work is publishable in its own right and can offer researchers valuable insights into digitized collections that are not always visible at the object level.  Because the metadata is created locally, we can make it available to end-users regardless of the rights on the digitized objects being described.  This is such a benefit when copyright restrictions prevent or limit the digital publication of certain objects or collections.  For example, as we create enhanced descriptions for a unique collection of 12,000+ Latin American 45s — for which copyright restrictions prevent full, digital public access to audio files — we can share rich, descriptive metadata with researchers who can repurpose these in new, creative ways. 

So far, we have largely worked with already digitized materials.  Now that we have relaunched our core collections in our new platform, a priority will be to pursue grants and other partnerships to bring more materials online, including backlog materials that never made it into our old system.  That’s going to be one huge marker of success for our department as well as a fantastic addition of resources for our user community.

Building Strength Through Mutually Supportive Partnerships

Now is an exciting time as we form our new library strategy and consider how digital libraries fit into the larger library infrastructure.  We are also creating a local digital library framework to formalize our operating model within that wider context.  Part of that is how we work in partnership with other departments across the campus, creating stories that allow us to further engage with our various stakeholders. 

One such area is with faculty publications in the institutional repository.  In April 2020, the SU faculty senate endorsed a draft open access policy, and we expect to see movement on this in the coming year which will require the development of collection models, application profiles, workflows and documentation to support increased publication on library platforms.

Partnering with our advancement team in the Libraries is another space where the Digital Library shows impact.  For example, our team worked closely with the advancement team to create a webinar series that demonstrated a variety of collaborations taking place.  One episode focused on a long-term digitization project undertaken in support of the School of Architecture: the digitization of architectural working drawings.  This had originally been pitched as a digitization project that complemented the remodel of the King+King Architecture Library on campus.  Through efforts like this, we hope to generate support and interest in our often unrecognized labor by generating a variety of digital collections and giving our advancement team a tangible story to tell.

The highly-regarded School of Information Studies offers more potential collaboration opportunities as library students seek experiential learning opportunities through internships and assistantship.  As the Digital Library continues to take shape, we hope to create experiences that span the digital curation lifecycle, giving hands-on opportunities across the entire operation.  This exposes a new generation of librarians to digital librarianship and starts them thinking about what the next big challenges might be.  Personally, I find this work incredibly rewarding.  Mentoring students is one of the reasons why I love working at an academic institution like SU.

The recent hire of a digital preservation librarian emphasizes our commitment to support the full digital curation lifecycle and will create additional prospects for programmatic outreach in time, including work with records management and born-digital materials.  We already have 100 terabytes of data in Preservica, but this is a drop in the bucket for a backlog that includes digital transfers produced from the Belfer Audio Laboratory and Archive, home to one of the largest audio archives in the United States.  We are currently focused on thinking more comprehensively about what our digital preservation activity should look like, including the workflows and campus partnerships that will inform it.

Finally, circling back to the aim of employing the best tools for the job in a developer-lite environment, we recently found another use for our DAM, which we had initially onboarded to support the digital collections created from the Libraries’ holdings.  In early 2020, we began a deep collaboration with the D’Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) who had come to us seeking advice for managing their internally produced content and developing a single research portal that would combine IVMF-authored research with carefully selected, externally created resources.  While we had a ready solution for the former need (our institutional repository), the challenge of providing an effective public-facing front-end that effectively combined both resource types proved steeper.  Initially, vendors hired by IVMF tried to accomplish this by bending a CMS not designed for robust internal search, using web developers unused to thinking in library management terms.  In late 2021, however, approximately one year into our Quartex migration, we realized that the flexibility of this system meant it could also support the IVMF’s descriptive metadata needs for all resource types and serve as an effective front-end for their digital library project as well as our own.  Once we modeled how it could work, the IVMF project was built and published in four months.  As a result, the new IVMF Digital Library site (https://divmflibrary.syr.edu/) operates essentially as an expert resource index for IVMF’s constituency of veterans, military families and their employers.  Our partners and stakeholders at IVMF have been enormously satisfied with the result and we look forward to our continued work with them as they continue to add and curate new content.

Thinking back to that holistic infrastructure, and the potential extensibility of certain platforms, that really is one of the most exciting things for our team moving forward — the scope to do more with the services we already have. 

As well as helping to strengthen existing relationships, our model of digital library management and delivery poises us to create efficiencies and value for our own processes and outputs and helps us integrate the work we do much more closely with that of departments and stakeholders across campus and in the wider global community.  


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