August 27, 2007

HP, MIT, and DSpace Foundation

HP and the MIT Libraries recently announced the DSpace Foundation, a non-profit organization that will provide support to institutions that use DSpace, an open source software solution for accessing, managing, and preserving scholarly works in a digital archive. There are more than 200 DSpace projects worldwide that are digitally capturing, preserving and sharing artifacts, documents, collections and research data. Some notable new projects include 2008 Virtual Olympic Museum that will archive the 2008 China Summer Olympics; Texas Digital Library that will provide a digital infrastructure for open access journals, electronic theses and dissertations, faculty datasets, departmental databases, digital archives, course management and learning materials, digital media and special collections from Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, The University of Houston and The University of Texas; as well as the China Digital Museum that will include 18 campus museums, each with 20,000 - 50,000 objects covering geosciences, biology, anthropology, science and technology.

While one considers the potential for DSpace just to catalog scholastic and public museum undertakings, the sheer magnitude can be overwhelming. Toss in other privately controlled content, and suddenly the few million entries in Wikipedia seem to pale by comparison. However, if there were ever an application that could showcase the reach and depth of the Internet, this would certainly be one, and perhaps very fitting given the humble research and scholastic endeavors of the Internet and its predecessors. Nevertheless, the likely number of items to be placed into DSpace repositories, especially in developing regions such as China, will be enormous.

Although I would suspect that cultural artifacts and items that are in the public domain would remain easily accessible through the various independent repositories, it does raise the issue of how far the various organizations would go in depositing and making available the scholastic research that might have commercial or competitive value. Of course, this is no different than current restrictions on such material but a DSpace, much like early Internet endeavors, could create an environment where the law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head.

Which scholastic endeavors would be shared and under what conditions? How would institutions of higher learning, which offer court the financial assistance of commercial entities and non-profits, change their behavior in a DSpace enabled universe? Could DSpace inadvertently cause some types of information that might be freely shared in an environment where it is incumbent upon the user to make greater effort to find and assess the information to be withheld given the greater ease of access that DSpace would afford?

In the case of digital media, such as images, animations, etc., the potential for a greater enhanced repository of public domain, or royalty free content is enormous especially if library developers take serious the federated capabilities of DSpace. The indexing and archiving abilities of DSpace could translate into a very rich user experience, and assemble some truly breathtaking archives of humanity’s achievements on earth. The potential vastness of DSpace repositories could become a mind numbing thought it and of itself.

When I think about the impact that the incredibly basic tools of email, FTP, Gopher, and the early Web had on research and development, the contrast with DSpace and the Internet technologies of today is striking. If DSpace has even a fraction of the impact on research that the early Internet tools did, we are in store for real intellectual treat. It will be interesting to see what these early DSpace initiatives morph into and how they will alter the expectations of the research and academic communities. It could be pretty darn cool.

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