Shades of Similarity at Open Repositories

I attended my first Open Repositories conference in Brisbane, Australia two weeks ago. And while the RAC is still fairly new to the repository world and ecosystem, I picked up on a few trends that I think span across systems, institutions, and disciplines. Most of the attendees at the conference were coming from university library settings, but those institutions seemed to struggle with the same things we, as archivists, do: managing and maintaining a large infrastructure made of many systems, eliminating silos of information, and how to adapt to changing researcher or user needs. Sound familiar? If you said the above concerns made you think about what we’re trying to solve here with Project Electron, kudos to you. The entire conference I kept thinking about how it felt like almost everyone was trying to deal with the same issues we were, and in largely the same manners.

Fedora had a large presence at the conference, and their focus seemed concentrated on talking about the improvements introduced in Fedora 4, particularly the RESTful API, and how institutions could use it to up their repository game. The Fedora team are already working on an API specification and test suite for next year, in efforts to better document the API work that they’ve done. IIIF also touted their Search API, and took the opportunity to push their other APIs and how they’re currently being used, like the work that the Yale British Art Museum has done with the image API on thousands of digital images. Why do I keep talking about APIs? I keep harping on APIs because we feel that they’re vital in easing the pains of systems integrations, and they really unlock data potential. For instance, the IIIF Image API provides a standardized way to display image data online that facilitates reuse of images across different repositories or services. With these changes, libraries, archivists, and developers came out in force to talk about how they’re leveraging new technologies to make new tools to help their workflows.

The very first session block that I attended was “Integrations and APIs,” and focused on the challenge of workflows with the use of systems integrations and APIs. The University of Technology Sydney developed Snek: a lightweight and open source Django frontend to Fedora Commons 4 that uses fcrepo4py, a Python interface to the Fedora Commons 4 API. Many different institutions were working with the ORCiD API to pull data directly into their systems and eliminating unnecessary record duplications without manual work.

However, refreshingly, the conference didn’t focus solely on the technical aspects of trying to implement a repository or setting up systems integrations. A session on “Developing and Training Staff” on the third day tackled the difficult topic on how to actually position your team and organization for success with having the right people. “PEOPLE: Building and Sustaining a Digital Repository Team” was a great discussion led by four managers talking about how to recruit, train, and retain people who tech team goals to the next level. The panelists highlighted the mistakes they’ve made in the past in order to help others think about their future projects. For instance, just like with systems, there’s no single “unicorn” Librarian or Archivist that can come in, shake up an entire organization, get their work done, and do everything you want. There needs to be strong institutional adoption, and we can’t be territorial about our work; a music librarian can be just as helpful than a developer if you’re working on building a repository for music. Collaboration and openness are key to this type of work. Involving stakeholders from other departments can help break down the barriers between “old” and “new” work, while also helping you meet your goals and bolstering your human resources. It was extremely refreshing to hear the human side of repository work. It’s our opinion that values are transferrable to any type of work we do, and I saw a lot of what I liked in the panel: openness, collaboration, valuing domain knowledge, and breaking down silos.

Open Repositories may seem like a conference with a narrow scope, but the discussions and themes are relatable to the larger cultural heritage enterprise. It seems like university libraries are just as concerned with data mobility and reuse through systems integrations as we are with Project Electron. It was heartening to see that sentiment being heard by systems designers and developers as well. I think we’re in the middle of seeing a shift in cultural heritage technology to even greater interoperability!

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