The Keepers Registry: Ensuring the Future of the Digital Scholarly Record

Photo of a paper-strewn desk.

Humanités Numériques, on Wikimedia by Calvinius: http://bit.ly/2jacCXv.

This is a guest post by Ted Westervelt, section head in the Library of Congress’s US Arts, Sciences & Humanities Division.

Strange as it now seems, it was not that long ago that scholarship was not digital. Writing a dissertation in the 1990s was done on a computer and took full advantage of the latest suite of word-processing tools available (that a graduate student could afford). And it certainly was a world away from the typewritten dissertations of the 1950s, requested at the university library and pored over in  reading rooms.

Yet these were tools to create physical items not much different than those dissertations of the previous forty, fifty or a hundred years. That sense of completion and accomplishment came with the bound copy of the dissertation taken from the bookbinders or with the offprints of the article sent in the post by the journal publisher.

Now, instead of using digital tools to create a physical item, we create a digital item. From this digital item we might make a physical copy but that is no longer a necessary endpoint. Once we have created the digital item encompassing our scholarly work, it can be complete. Now when we talk of the scholarly record, we talk of the digital scholarly record, for they are almost entirely one and the same.

The advantages of this near-complete overlap are evident to anyone who works with scholarly works or with any creative works for that matter. The challenges, on the other hand, can be less immediately apparent, though they are not hidden too deeply.

A library gutted by fire.

“The library at Holland House in Kensington, London, extensively damaged by a Molotov ‘Breadbasket’ fire bomb.” On Flickr by Musgo Dumio_Momio. http://bit.ly/2j5q5vr.

The most immediate of these challenges relate to managing and preserving the digital scholarly record as we have done for the scholarly record for centuries and millennia (if we draw a curtain over the destruction of the Library of Alexandria). We have had those centuries to learn how to manage, keep and preserve the textual part of the scholarly record, to use it while also keeping it safe and usable for future generations (e.g. keep it away from fire).

With digital content, we do not have those centuries of knowledge; the sharp shift to digital creation and to a digital scholarly record has not come with a history of experiences in keeping that record safe and secure.

Which is not to say that preserving, protecting and ensuring the ongoing use and value of that digital scholarly record are hopeless dreams or that there is not a lot of work being dedicated to accomplishing these ends. This is a concern of anyone with an interest in scholarly works and in the scholarly record as a whole and, as any who delve into this at all know, productive work is being undertaken by a variety of groups using a variety of means in order to ensure its survival.

The Keepers Registry, based at the University of Edinburgh, is an important effort to preserve the digital scholarly record. The Keepers Registry brings together institutions and organizations that are committed to the preservation of electronic serials and enables those institutions to share titles, volumes and issues they have preserved.

In doing so, The Keepers Registry allows us to identify which parts of the digital scholarly record are being preserved, which institutions have taken on this responsibility and, just as important, which parts of the digital scholarly record are not being preserved and are therefore at higher risk of being lost.

There is a clear general benefit in sharing the names, missions and holdings of the institutions and organizations (those Keepers), thus committing themselves and their resources to the preservation of these parts of the digital scholarly record. But there is also a very clear benefit to those individual Keepers to better know their fellows who have similarly committed themselves to serve as Keepers of the digital scholarly record.

Since all are committed to the same end, the staff behind The Keepers Registry organized meetings of The Keepers and other similar organizations in Edinburgh in September 2015 and in Paris in June 2016. The organizations and institutions – and the individuals who represented them at these meetings – can and in some cases do meet and interact with each other in other forums. But the meetings arranged by The Keepers Registry allowed for a focus on the preservation of the digital scholarly record and how that can be accomplished collectively.

The preservation of the digital scholarly record cannot happen except through collaboration and cooperation. And none know this better than the individual Keepers and their colleagues at these meetings who have committed resources to the issue. The very existence of The Keepers Registry is an admission that the preservation of the scholarly record is larger than any one institution and in fact cannot be entrusted in any one institution alone.

But as much as this is known, the answer to how best to work, collaboratively and cooperatively, is less readily apparent.  We benefit from the opportunities to discuss this in person.

Images of interconnected human silhouettes.

CC0 Public Domain.

These meetings and discussions, while valuable, were not intended as an end unto themselves.  The meetings helped crystallize in the minds of the participants that, because of what they do and because of their participation in The Keepers Registry, they form a Keepers network.

As such, they have a shared commitment and a shared idea of how they can do for the digital scholarly record what they have managed for the scholarly record in centuries past: ensure its preservation and ongoing use.  This vision has been encapsulated in the joint statement that representatives from the Keepers issued this past August, “Ensuring the Future of the Digital Scholarly Record.”  It sets out a plan of engagement with other stakeholders –- especially publishers, research libraries and national libraries -– who also have a role in this mission.

To this end, the Keepers network welcomes any institution, organization or consortium that wishes to endorse the statement, as some have already.  And it encourages any stakeholders which wish to begin working with the Keepers network to let them know.

The Keepers network is committed to making all parties aware of their roles in the preservation of the digital scholarly record and have already begun reaching out to those stakeholders, such as at the Fall Meeting of the Coalition for Networked Information.  This is a shared need and a shared responsibility.  No one institution has to do it alone. We cannot succeed in preserving the digital scholarly record unless we do it together.

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