IS/IT Project Description & Review

This is a project I completed for my Information Technology class, in which we were required to review a particular digital repository. I reviewed a product called Fedora, which you can check out at: http://www.fedora-commons.org/
My favorite fedora-based project is the Encyclopedia of Chicago, which is beautiful, accessible and an excellent example of a digital archive: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/
 (Note that the scenario is fictitious, though an awesome idea!… In my opinion.)

 

The UTE Project: The University of Toronto Libraries have launched an ambitious project: In collaboration with the University of Toronto Archives and the federated colleges, plans are underway for the launch of the University of Toronto Encyclopedia (UTE) – a comprehensive, multimedia compendium of photographic, sound, audiovisual and text entries related to the history and academic achievements of the University of Toronto. The UTE will exist entirely online in electronic form and once the Collections Team has created archival fonds, written entries, and amassed audiovisual materials, the Systems Team will begin the process of uploading the collection to the the information management system.

It is not certain, however, which information management product is best for its purposes and goals. The UTE has a mandate that places the user at its centre; that acts as a preservation tool for archival materials; and that has a spirit of continual growth – that is, the collection is constantly expanding as U of T’s history is constantly evolving. A Task Force of programmers, user services librarians and archivists has been assigned to review a host of digital repository systems to determine which is best for the UTE’s needs. The project’s modest budget has precipitated the decision to investigate open source digital repositories as a means to easing the costs a proprietary software package would present. Fedora Commons is one open source digital repository which has shown great potential for the UTE project.

Problems with Open Source: There are, however, some significant disadvantages to open source software that the Task Force must consider. Open source software systems do not benefit from the same level of responsiveness and accountability that proprietary software companies provide, should there be problems (Poynder, 2001). The Systems Team will be responsible for ensuring that staff training in the implementation and maintenance of the system becomes an on-going priority. Fedora has several support tools including a wiki and discussion boards, and has partnered with a corporate information services company called Visionary Technology in Library Solutions, to offer training and support services (VTLS 2007). By subscribing to VTLS frugally, UTE can continue to enjoy the cost advantage of open source, while still reaping the benefits of a formal Fedora support contract.

Another criticism of open source technologies is that it is accompanied by weak documentation. Because there is no contractual obligation on the part of the developers to provide an explicit manual for use, open source documentation often acts more as a general guide that lacks concise instruction (Levesque, 2005). Fedora documentation is further testament to this, with some areas lacking the specificity the Systems Team may need for complex deployments (Moynes, 2007). Consultation with the Team will determine whether training can offset this weakness.

Open Source projects are further criticized because their interface designs are created by programmers who do not consider the use patterns and knowledge of the general public. The UTE audience is comprised largely of non-technical users – the public, students and researchers – who will depend on a clear interface to effectively access information. Proprietary software companies that have both capital and a vested interest in maintaining a large user-base, will ensure that a product interface is user-friendly for the general public (Levesque, 2005). Fedora has largely overcome this challenge in an evaluative setting, and as is illustrated with projects like the Encyclopedia of Chicago and The National Science Digital Library (Encyclopedia of Chicago, 2007; NSDL, 2007; Dion et al., 2006).

Fedora and the UTE: The aim of the University of Toronto Encyclopedia is to act as an educational tool as well as an archive. Its digital format allows for expression of information in a context-rich, relational environment that understands the research patterns and knowledge of its users (Dion et al., 2006). As well, UTE will ensure that the preservation of materials into a digital format will not dramatically compromise context, but will significantly increase accessibility and preservation (ODLIS, 2006). In order to decide which digital repository system is best suited to this mandate, the Task Force will assess three key aspects of design: Usability, preservability and expandability.

The UTE is dedicated to placing the user at the centre of its mandate. This project will only prove its value if individuals can exploit its digital format to create a rich educational experience that will perpetuate a community of use, learning and participation. In measuring usability, researchers point to Fedora’s flexibility in customizing the system’s interface to suit the needs of different digital projects. As well, Fedora supports multilingual access, which is important particularly in the Canadian context (between English and French), and with regard to the increasingly multicultural make-up of the U of T community (Dion et al., 2006).

Fedora is notable for its ability to create relationships between entries, so that users can contextualize their research within a larger collection of information (Fedora Website, 2007; Dion et al., 2006). Using the Encyclopedia of Chicago website as a model, one can see the complex relationships Fedora supports between entries of varying media: A map of a Chicago neighborhood links to census information for that district, to press articles related to the district, to photographs depicting that area, and to other related maps (Encyclopedia of Chicago, 2007). This feature is an exciting prospect for the UTE Team, because of the creative possibilities it affords information management and accessibility.

Another characteristic of the UTE will be the ability to support the needs of archival materials (Dion et al., 2006). Among the literature, Fedora is acknowledged for its sophisticated approach to preservation, and has features that are unique among open source digital repositories. It allows multiple versions for a digital object. For example, maps of the U of T campus will change dramatically over time. Buildings are torn down and built, and the UTE entry for “Map of the University of Toronto” will constantly have to be updated. With Fedora’s versioning feature, however, a user can see previous versions for the same entry; that is, maps from 2005, 2002 and so forth. Another important element of preservation is the issue of technological migration. By supporting several metadata standards, including emerging schema that is normally neglected by open source digital repositories, Fedora has made significant efforts to ensure quality control through the provision of a holistic digital preservation strategy – unique among comparable products (ODLIS, 2007; Han 2004).

As the collection grows, UTE’s technological architecture must have the features to support this expansion. Once the UTE project is deployed though, the formal Systems Team will disband, and entries will be entered by a variety of faculty and library volunteers. They will not be technically proficient, so ease of expandability is paramount to the sustained success of the project. Evaluations show that Fedora does not allow for easy addition of data objects – this procedure requires knowledge of code and an ability to clearly define input parameters. Automation of such processes are minimal, and this will undoubtedly cause problems once the Systems Team is no longer available for assistance (Arms, 2000). Fedora has great flexibility in terms of the possibilities it has as an information management application, which works well for a team with in-depth knowledge of its architecture (Staples, 2007). Once again, if UTE can secure a member of the U of T community to become proficient in this program, this may not be a significant issue, and could even be beneficial as entries diversity.

Conclusions: There are many open source information management systems that have differing strengths and weaknesses depending on the mandate of those that help to create them. With a limited budget, UTE would benefit greatly from the cost-effectiveness of an open source program. Fedora is certainly a quality product that has much to offer in terms of a user-friendly front end and key technological features for digital preservation. The deciding factor in whether UTE choses this package will be the availability of technically proficient programmers who can become well-trained in Fedora and who can offer sustained support beyond production. Should the UTE Team agree to this support however, there is significant opportunity due to the creativity afforded by Fedora’s flexible foundation.

 

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