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Struggling to Build a Digital Repository for Community Engagement

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In “A university library creates a digital repository for documenting and disseminating community engagement,” William A. Miller and Marilyn Billings describe an effort to use the institutional repository in a win-win for community engagement (CE) initiatives and for university libraries (JHEOE 2012;16(2):109-21). The equation was meant to be: universities want to measure community engagement + faculty want to get credit for engagement activities -> the repository becomes a record of both. Thus, differing but aligned incentives from two key stakeholders would provide sufficient support for sustaining the project. The authors do not say so outright, but it seems that the project died: “Staffing for the initiative was redirected … when the Outreach Division at UMass Amherst was eliminated in 2010. It is clear that the community engagement section of the repository will be very difficult to maintain and impossible to expand without the benefit of dedicated staffing” (117). That’s right: “impossible to expand.” Today, it looks like portions of the CE section are an empty shell; see, for example, Photovoice.

What happened? Well, the university ditched a CE program. Why? I’m certain U. Mass Amherst would insist that its commitment to CE is unwavering, but walk-the-walk, people. More specifically, the project likely hoped to benefit from a number assumptions about the academic culture: 1) that the university values CE, 2) that promotion and tenure (P&T) committees at the university would value CE activities, 3) that P&T committees would value self-archived gray literature as a record of these activities, and 4) that faculty would seize the opportunity and spend a significant amount of energy to develop and then submit materials. (In my experience, even if 1-3 are proven, faculty are shy about submitting–partly, I think, in fear of embarrassing themselves or of overexposing their community partners, while also hoping to save their best work for peer-reviewed publication.) Although a university may value CE in its mission and even in its funding of programs (1), changing the culture of P&T (2-3) is another matter; thus, the faculty (4) are slow, very slow, to follow.

Nonetheless, I read Miller and Billings with great personal interest. I am currently involved in developing a similar open-access repository, and, truth be told, would have preferred to use an implementation of DSpace, as did the authors with ScholarWorks@UMass Amherst. My team, however, opted to use a software that was not developed with digital libraries in mind. The CE side of the team wanted something with data fields to capture key tasks and activities in CE programs. They also wanted something that would look-and-feel “community friendly.” Now we are laboring with a system that is easier to customize, but less stable, less interoperable, beyond the reach of OAIster, and difficult for new contributors and administrators. On the other hand, we still have staffing and, for a little while, funding too!

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Written by Jere

May 30, 2012 at 4:58 pm

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