UW News

October 2, 2003

Digital dilemma: More questions than answers about new form of scholarship

News and Information

The field of digital scholarship is filled with more questions than answers when it comes to preservation of the information, a recent seminar hosted by University Libraries showed.

What is clear is that new forms of scholarship are emerging, with little resemblance to previous forms. And most scholars feel that the libraries will have a central role to play in supporting this scholarship, whatever form it may take.

“Digital scholarship commonly means at least one of four things,” says Joyce Ogburn, associate director of libraries. “It can mean electronic publishing, or the computer science research that is leading to new ways of managing large amounts of text and data. It also can refer to electronic text centers, which digitize older material. Or it can refer to the reformatting of entire collections.”

Whatever is meant by digital scholarship, it is clear that a growing number of faculty members are creating documents and other forms of scholarship digitally. Some are no longer formally publishing much of their work, at least as publishing has heretofore been understood.

“But libraries until recently have not collected this ‘unpublished’ work,” Ogburn pointed out.

That is certainly going to change. University Libraries considers its mission as connecting people with knowledge, as well as promoting and supporting scholarship. “It seems logical,” Ogburn said, “that this will put the libraries in the forefront of knitting together scholarly digital domains.”

Of course, dealing with digital media is not new to UW Libraries. Since 1997, it has had in place the highly collaborative Digital Initiatives, which has resulted in the conversion of more than 63,000 images from 47 collections to digital form, which can be searched together or in any combination of collections.

For the past two years, the Libraries has been exploring the requirements for an Institutional Repository, a place to archive UW-created digital assets. The purpose of this repository is to keep this material in the institution to facilitate the sharing of resources, and also to prevent the material from falling into the exclusive hands of publishers, who will then charge the institution for access to its own material.

Another Institutional Repository project in which the UW is a partner is DSpace, an open software platform that facilitates the preservation and distribution of digital works. Developed at MIT, its ultimate goal is to create a federation of systems that makes available the collective resources of the country’s foremost research institutions.

Given this background, the timing seemed right to gather a group of faculty to find out what UW scholars’ digital needs and desires are. With a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, 65 scholars met in March to share their ideas. Some of this information is available at http://www.lib.washington.edu/digitalscholar/.

What emerged from the discussions were two possible models for the UW to pursue. One, which University Libraries Director Betsy Wilson refers to as the “typical” approach, would be the creation of a Center for Digital Scholarship, which could be housed in the libraries and would facilitate communications and planning among those engaged in digital scholarship.

A far more ambitious proposal, designed to position the UW as a leader in the field, calls for the creation of an Institute for Digital Scholarship. This would encompass all of the center’s activities, but it also would create a home for research and teaching. It would become a degree-granting unit with its own dean.

While no conclusion has been reached about the UW’s digital future, both ideas will serve to stimulate further thought and discussion. Some of these notions will be pursued through a series of seminars for Libraries staff called Digital Dialogues, of which the discussion by Ogburn and Wilson was the first. These will be complemented by a Digital Scholarship Series, bringing distinguished scholars to campus to share new tools and ideas.