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The TriCollege Libraries Consortium and Digital Content

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Swarthmore College. Photo by Stefanie Ramsay.
Swarthmore College. Photo by Stefanie Ramsay.

This is a guest post from Stefanie Ramsay, a Digital Collections Librarian at Swarthmore College, which is part of the TriCollege Libraries consortium.

Consortium arrangements among libraries and archives are an increasingly popular strategy for managing the large amount of digital content they produce and for providing increased access to these important materials. Luckily for us at Swarthmore College, we have long been part of the TriColleges Consortium, or TriCo, with nearby Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, all located in suburban Philadelphia.

Conversations around forming a consortium began in 1935. However, a formal agreement was reached in 1988 when the three colleges invested in a joint integrated library system or ILS. The TriCo is not a formal legal entity, and the libraries are fully independent, but we share resources and personnel and we collaborate through a number of working groups and community initiatives. This structure presents opportunities for innovative projects, along with its fair share of challenges (first and foremost, just trying to scheduling a meeting).

Our consortium efforts extend beyond the scope of digital content, such as selecting the ILS, purchasing joint journal subscriptions, developing joint collection development strategies and creating new metadata schemas for implementation. Each campus also has its own library director, giving us three leaders with broad ranges and depths of experiences to mine for the benefit of the TriCo. These topics all deserve their own post but as the digital collections librarian at Swarthmore, I’d like to address our consortium’s approach to handling digital content.

I oversee projects related to our digital collections. Our projects currently include planning an oral histories program on student activism, developing workflows for acquiring born-digital student publications and making our student newspaper archives accessible online. Though my work is focused at Swarthmore, I participate in two TriCo working groups, work closely with local and TriCo IT staff and frequently partner with librarians and archivists on each campus to think through issues around digital collections and digital preservation.

Swarthmore College. Photo by Stefanie Ramsay.
Swarthmore College. Photo by Stefanie Ramsay.

I serve as part of a TriCo group focused on Digital Asset Management and Preservation, known affectionately as DAMP! (and in its second phase, DAMPer!), which reviewed the current TriCo platforms for digital content and recommended strategic directions for streamlining our approach to managing digital assets.

The group includes metadata librarians, archivists and IT staff from across the three campuses. DAMPer! recently produced a report (PDF) that offered a holistic picture of our current ecosystem, reviewed the benefits and shortcomings of our existing platforms and recommended exploring Hydra/Fedora as we look to migrate away from our six current repositories. Using this report as a guide, the group will be moving forward with the pilot testing and making plans for an eventual migration and clean-up of current systems in the next year.

DAMPer! is one example of how we work together across the TriCo, yet it’s important even within these consortial groups to consider the differing needs of our individual libraries. A few of the obstacles we face include managing the various formats housed in each college’s collections as well as working within the infrastructure of each library.

For example, Bryn Mawr’s collections are largely centered around art and artifacts and the history of women’s education; organizationally, their Library and IT departments operate as one unit. Haverford’s digital collections focus on Quakerism, college archives and scholarly communications. At Swarthmore, our Special Libraries, the Friends Historical Library and the Peace Collection do not report up from the libraries but directly to the Provost, and our collections are diverse in scope and format. Beyond collecting and providing access to these assets, there’s also the challenge of how best to store shared materials within the TriCo, considering the institutional infrastructures in place, the increase in cloud-based alternatives and preservation standards.

It is an ongoing challenge to recognize these varying approaches and resources while working towards a unified solution. As priorities, personnel and professional developments change, the group’s responsibilities have to continuously adapt. Our focus on maintaining documentation, implementing policies and guidelines and providing increased access to digital assets moves us forward to determining strategic directions.

There are the administrative challenges inherent in the TriCo arrangement to consider as well. Financial planning, strategic directions and organizational changes are some of these factors, not to mention managing the numerous working groups currently in place. It requires strong organizational and communicative abilities to keep track of who is involved in each group, what they do, what they should be doing and so on. We use collaborative tools such as Wikis, Trello and Google Apps to share and collaborate on materials relating to our work as a consortium. These tools allow for increased transparency and connections across the campuses.

Though there are struggles, the advantages are substantial. Staff, faculty and students all benefit from the expertise of library staff across all three campuses — accessing the many physical and digital materials from each of our collections — and the thoughtful use of financial resources that allows us to provide more services. A bonus perk for students is being able to take classes at any of these colleges, as well as the University of Pennsylvania.

As DAMPer! tests Hydra/Fedora and reviews storage options, and as the other TriCo projects progress, there will continue to be constructive conversations around how best to operate within the consortium while still meeting the needs of our respective communities. We are not bound as a consortium by law but by choice, and we reaffirm that choice each time we collaborate on these valuable projects.

It’s important to me and to our campuses that we not only make the most of our financial, technical and organizational resources but that we work towards creating welcoming and open spaces, physically and digitally, with shared values that contribute to our communities. This is the most significant impact of collaborating with our friends nearby.

That is, if we can ever schedule a meeting.

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