By Patricia Hswe

Pointing an OA lens on cultural heritage objects

Last fall at the Penn State University Libraries, one of the ways that we observed Open Access (OA) Week was to dedicate half a day to a series of presentations and discussions about the topic. Organized by the Libraries Open Educational Resources (OER) Task Force, the event was conducted also for internal outreach purposes, particularly since the previous semester the Library Faculty Organization, our governance body, passed an OA Policy. The talks included a “Scholarly Communications 101” presentation; a progress report by the chair of our Open Access Monographs Team; tips on how to be an OA ambassador; priorities for implementing the OA Policy; and a “technical update/year in review” that addressed federal funding agency requirements since the responses to the OSTP mandate began pouring in. It was a compilation of informative talks, put together by colleagues who have become, over the years, increasingly adept at addressing OA and schol comm issues.

A question-and-answer period followed the presentations, and one question in particular has stayed with me. Our Associate Dean for Technology and Digital Strategies, Karen Estlund, asked about the NEH, digitization, and cultural heritage objects (CHOs), since the “technical update/year in review” had been, not surprisingly, STEM-centric and IR-centric and thus emphasized research publications and research data as the main outputs. Karen, on the other hand, was encouraging attention, as well, to digitized CHOs as examples of OA content and thus not to omit them as such. The humanist in me appreciated Karen raising this angle. The concept isn’t unheard of, but CHOs can be neglected, or overlooked, in much of the OA outreach that we do.

As service manager for ScholarSphere, Penn State’s open access repository service, I often find myself laser-focused on the type of research that conventionally populates an IR. It’s par for the course when one is an OA evangelist, so to speak. Yet, since my department, Publishing and Curation Services (PCS), has oversight of our CHO collections, both digitized and born-digital, I have been keen, of late, to point an OA lens more purposefully at these materials, too, and raise their profile in the portfolio of scholarly content that PCS works with others to produce, describe, host, publish, and make openly discoverable and available. As I do so, the following ambitions especially resonate with me: to diversify what we make open and to be transparent about the “how” of open – all toward expanding what we call, and mean by, “open.” The timing could not be more ideal in our Libraries for such evolving and shifting of intent. Since the start of 2016 a number of us have engaged in two “digital retreats,” led by Karen and designed to revisit and refine processes as well as to plan for future improvements to our infrastructure, our worfklows supporting digital collection development, and our services around digital scholarship and research data management – to name a few priorities.

I’m taking the opportunity of this blog post to report briefly on ways we’re already making progress and to call out and define more specifically how I hope we continue to make progress.

Being transparent about the “how” of open

This aspiration relates to the growing importance of sharing how research and scholarship in digital humanities are done, in the spirit of building off of or extending the shared methods, opening up paths for new collaborations, and acknowledging the labor of everyone on a project team, for example, as well as the types of labor involved. The pedagogical potential inherent in such openness is equally promising. What does it take to apply a similar brand of transparency to the work of open access, particularly the content we are trying to free up for broad discovery and use? How attentive are we to documenting, sharing, and updating our processes for publishing digital collections? From the kernel of the idea, to consulting with the collection curator or other stakeholders, to the mammoth stage that is production, to mounting the realized and reformatted collection online and advocating for its usage?

One of the concrete outcomes from our first digital retreat in February was a prototype digital collections workflow that we have started to implement, expecting to iterate upon it as we apply it. Another outcome was an “intake” form, for documenting information about a collection, such as its physical or digital condition, rights status, and readiness for harvesting by external bodies such as the DPLA. Completion of this form, which we have also begun implementing, kicks off the workflow. It’s yet to be decided where this information will live so that it is easily retrievable, but the record-keeping is happening in earnest, and I’m confident our team will arrive at a solution soon. Such project-based efforts can be a boon for emerging instruction areas such as digital library pedagogy. One hope is that, in time, we will also learn how to integrate processes – and share such processes – for representing our digital collections as open humanities data sets, released with a readiness for working with them, in a variety of ways. Given their growing emphases in any number of domains, whether the humanities, the sciences, or the social sciences, open data is becoming the new people’s content.

Diversifying what we make open

At the second of the two digital retreats, we received an update on the implementation of our strategic plan. One of the action items is to develop a digital collection policy that will take advantage of collections little known and underused – and thus effectively hidden. The deliverables of creating scope and guidelines for developing digital collections offer our Libraries a chance to determine where the gaps are in representations of the cultural heritage of the Commonwealth. It’s an enormous opportunity to diversify what we digitize and could inform, in turn, how our collecting mission in the context of physical materials evolves. With our Special Collections Library under the new leadership of Athena Jackson, I’m eager to see how this unfolds – and to take part as I can and as makes sense.

It’s all about the people’s content

For colleagues in the University Libraries and in the Department of History at the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State, the first part of the title of this blog post will sound familiar. It is a play on another title – that of a digital project, “The People’s Contest,” which is capturing “the lived experiences of Pennsylvanians” of the Civil War Era through aggregation of archival content drawn from libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies throughout the state. The name of the project is inspired by words from Abraham Lincoln in a July 4, 1861, message to Congress:

This is essentially a people’s contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders — to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all — to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.

I’ve long admired how the People’s Contest project is clearing paths for scholarly content to be discovered and used, thereby unfettering it from the obscurity often besetting small, under-resourced archives. In processing and describing otherwise hidden primary sources, the project is conveying a more expansive narrative “of the war beyond the battlefield,” shedding light on issues surrounding politics, race, ethnicity, and gender. The People’s Contest is helping to extend what is taught, researched, and learned about the Civil War Era – no small affair these days, given how accuracy in the representation of history as it’s taught continues to be a troubling issue in U.S. education.

I’ve clearly riffed the project’s name, and the riff itself has resonance for what the People’s Contest is trying to accomplish. The content to which efforts like this project are dedicated is the people’s content – primary source materials deserving of broad public access and without which much scholarly communication, especially in the humanities and in history, could not take place. Digital collections capturing our cultural heritage in all its diversity give voice and representation to people and communities little heard from and known about. These are the people’s collections, too, and they should be accorded, if they aren’t already, as much attention in OA education and outreach as the content we recruit for our IRs.

Comments (1)

  1. As it happens, the Journal of Scholarly Publishing is planning a special issue about digital humanities, and I submitted a paper that directly addresses many of the issues raised in this post. My article is titled “A Vision for an Integrated System for Open-Access Regional Publishing.” Here is the abstract: “This essay explores the potential for building a system for open-access regional publishing from the ground level of local historical societies and public libraries working with citizens in their area, up through a state university library and press collaborating on publication of scholarly research in books and journals, onto the national level of the Digital Public Library of America, and eventually worldwide. The idea is based on experience in running the Office of Digital Scholarly Publishing at Penn State University.”

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