An open source library?

Posted in: A Summary View

Say we're a library.  Specifically, a library attached to a world famous (indeed, a U.N. World Heritage-designated) historic site.  We have an incredible array of information about the founding father for whom we work: scholarly monographs, popular books, documentaries, journal and magazine articles, primary sources, secondary sources--heck, we'd even have quaternary and quinary sources if such exist.

As a library, our basic mission is to illuminate this information and make it available to as wide an audience as possible.  Long gone are the days when libraries and archives existed as virtual information islands in which the only people who understood the treasures found therein were members of the staff and the occasional bent, ink-encrusted, subject-obsessed scholar who traveled from isolated island to isolated island in search of the obscurest reference.

Today, the Internet changes all of that.  Libaries, archives, museums, universities, and other information institutions are increasingly interconnected.  Scholars can search millions of pages of documents from thousands of free and fee-based databases and digital collections.  Librarians increasingly find themselves confronted with a different kind of problem now: there's so much information out there, how do we help our patrons find it?

At the Jefferson Library, we're faced with an interesting challenge along these lines.  Thomas Jefferson was an incredibly prolific record-keeper and correspondent--he wrote between eighteen and nineteen thousand letters over his lifetime--and we want to make all that material available to scholars and interested laypeople.  His letters, his weather records, his financial records, his garden records, and more.  And not just put it up, but make sure people can find what they want and link one item to the entire constellation of material related to it.  There are plenty of tools available to help institutions share these kinds of primary source materials.  There are open source collection publishing platforms like Omeka.  Various XML schemas make it possible to share information within and between systems.  MySQL databases can hold and distribute all this information.

So we're not lacking for technical means at our disposal.  The challenge that we--and many institutions like us--face is one of time and expertise.  While we do some basic (and not-so-basic) information retrieval system development, most museum libraries don't have programmers on staff who can do the kind of in-depth system development that would best realize our dreams.  So we're faced with choosing from among hiring outside consultants with their attendant expense, spending the time and opportunity cost required to train current staff (removing them from other duties), or keeping our systems (and aspirations) simpler than we'd like.

We would love being early adopters of new and useful plug-ins, systems, and standards.  But we have often found that a library like ours really has to wait until those things get tested by others before we can really successfully adopt them--so often, the early versions are raw and require an understanding of the underlying system architecture that we don't have.  We have to wait until the kinks are worked out and some better instructions are available.  The mind is absolutely willing, but the flesh is weak.

Is there another way?  Can a library with amazing primary source content find another way to develop the means to deliver it to the world?

How about if we became an "open source library"?

I'm still trying to figure out what exactly this would look like, or even if it would work, but this is my basic thought: could we concentrate our efforts solely on digitizing, transcribing, and/or marking up our content using the best agreed-upon standards and then just put it out there for the rest of the world to use as they will?  We provide the expertise on the content side of the equation and let others provide the mad programming skillz.

Digital humanists grab our content and put it into their own systems for use in their classes (and we hope give us access to their labors).  Software developers use our content as a testbed for new product development (and we hope give us access to their labors).  Students of the various digital arts take our content and feed it into their class projects (and we hope give us access to their labors).  And so on.

In the best of all worlds, we're in the thick of the development of the best tools for digital scholars while concentrating on the area of our expertise: Jefferson-related content.  We benefit from the software development efforts of others and they benefit from the value of our content.  Successful tools are developed and get shared with the greater scholarly world.  The cause of collaboration is advanced.  A rising tide lifts all boats.

Is it worth considering, has it been done, would it be useful (the real question)--or is it just wishful thinking?  Time to do some poking around.

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