Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Martin Lewis on University Libraries and data curation

Martin Lewis opened the second day of the International Digital Curation Conference with a provocative and amusing keynote on the possible roles of libraries in curating data. It was very early, with his presentation [large PPT] starting at 8:40 am, and the audience after the conference dinner in the splendid environs of Edinburgh Castle was unsurprisingly thin. However, absentees missed an entertaining and thought-provoking start to the day. Martin is great at the provocative remark, usually tongue in cheek; perhaps not all our visitors caught the ironic tone, a peril of speaking thus to an international audience (eg “this slide shows a spectrum of the disciplines, from the arts and humanities on this side, to the subjects with intellectual rigour over here”!).

He mentioned some common keywords when people think of libraries: conservation, preservation, permanent, but perhaps seen as intimidating, risk-averse, conservative. What can libraries do in relation to data? He promised us 8 things, but then came up with a 9th:
  1. Raise awareness of data issues,
  2. lead policy on data management,
  3. provide advice to researchers about their data management early in life cycle,
  4. work with IT colleagues to develop appropriate local data management capacity,
  5. collectively influence UK policy on research data management,
  6. teach data literacy to research students,
  7. develop KB of existing staff,
  8. work with LIS educators to identify required workforce skills (see Swan report), and
  9. enrich UG learning experience through access to research data.
Note, this list does not (currently) include much direct, practical support for data curation or preservation: no value-added data repositories, etc. Although a few libraries are venturing gently into this area, without extra support he believes that libraries are too stretched to be able to take on such a challenge. The library sector is stretched very thin, bearing in mind the major changes to accommodate the change to digital publishing, and large investments in improving support for the teaching and learning side of things, including his own libraries new building (which is leading to increasing library footfall, and increasing loans of non-digital materials, which must still be managed).

(It struck me later, by the way that this presentation was in a way quintessentially British, or at least non-American, in the extent of its attention to these non-research elements; American chief librarian colleagues have seemed to be focused on the research library and less interested in the under-graduate library.)

So bearing the resource problems in mind, Lewis took us through the Library/IT response to the English Funding Council’s Shared Services programme: the UKRDS feasibility study. He noted the scale of the data challenge, still poorly served in policy & infrastructure, the major gaps in current data services provision. University Library and IT Services in several institutions are coming under pressure to provide data-oriented services, mainly just now for storage (necessary but not sufficient for curation). He reminded us that the UK eScience core programme was a world leader; we had many reports to refer to, especially including Liz Lyon’s “Dealing with Data” report, but we are getting to the point where we need services not projects.

The feasibility study surprisingly shows low levels of use of national facilities; most data curation and sharing happens within the institution. The feasibility study identified 3 options:
  • do nothing,
  • massive central service, or
  • coordinated national service.
Despite an amusing side excursion exploring the imagined SWAT teams of a massive central service, swarming in from their attack helicopters to gather up neglected data, the last alternative is a clear winner for the study.

There was strong evidence base of gaps in data curation service provision in UK. Cost savings were hard to calculate in a new area, but were compared with the potential alternative of ubiquitous provision in universities for their own data. UKRDS would seek to embrace rather than replace existing services, but might provide them with additional opportunities. Next steps were to publish their report, which would recommend (and he hopes extract the funds to enable) a Pathfinder phase (operational, not pilot).

During questions, the inevitable from a representative of a discipline area with already well-established support (and I paraphrase): “how can you do the real business of curation, namely adding value to collected datasets, when you are at best generalists without real contact with the domain scientists necessary for curation?” To which, my response is “the only possible way: in partnership”!

1 comment:

  1. It's probably a tribute to Martin Lewis's presentation that you and I picked up such different highlights from his talk. Not contradictory ones, just different, which reflects how many ideas he got into it without the talk seeming crowded with them.

    Certainly the scale of the disciplines got the biggest shared, horrified intake of breath I've ever witnessed at a conference. Worth it for that moment alone!


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