Skip to main content

You are here

Stephen Chapman - Learning Resources

Steve Chapman
Manager of Open Collections Program at Harvard University Library
Interviewed 5/25/2010

Steve Chapman, who has been at Harvard since 1996, discusses the importance of infrastructure in supporting the long-term lifecycle of collections. More importantly, Chapman urges libraries to take the risks now and aggressively identify materials of value, especially materials in the 20th and 21st centuries that are truly at risk of being lost, and assert our role by making copies or changing the system so that we can assert the right to make copies. “Because to do nothing is to make the stuff obsolete.”

“I think that the measure of our success ten years from now will largely map to how open we are. Not how much content we’ve made, not the quality of that content, how good it is, but how open it is.”

The process of developing best practices
Do, practice, distribute and engage
- “Cornell’s posture then and for a long time thereafter was to—learn by doing and then as practitioners, to then distribute guidelines and try to engage others.”
- “So you can engage other people formally by hosting workshops or you can engage other people, you know, just through the professional literature.”
- “So putting out guidelines and practices as Cornell was doing them, you know, created a vetting opportunity and others modified those kinds of things. And other—you know, future standards and best practices emerged. But certainly Cornell was interested in putting their practices out there.”

Infrastructure: vision and knowledge-building
When sharing an infrastructure, for example in a training workshop where you are sharing best practices, you are providing a framework for the audience to bring back to their own institutions.
- “And the knowledge building is just a huge piece of infrastructure, you know, just figuring—all the policies, the procedures, direction setting.”
- “It’s not just the vision thing, it’s really—just at the operational level, what is it we’re trying to do, how do we organize ourselves to do that.”
- “So I think the Cornell workshop was a good catalyst for people to go back to their home institutions with some questions and some organizing framework, particularly in the narrow realm of preservation copying of brittle materials.”

Infrastructure: staff, space and equipment
Staffing is key. You won’t know how to do everything. Know what you do not know and find a way to get those who do know to be part of your team.
- “The key piece of infrastructure that made all of this happen in imaging services was staffing…staffing, space, equipment.”
- “Everything had to be developed and I knew what I didn’t know so that’s why I got support to bring in a consultant. And that—that helped a lot. That helped a lot, to have somebody come in and help us do our needs assessment and fit out space.”

Siloed projects and the lack of infrastructure
Two major issues that the senior leadership in the Harvard libraries recognized in 1995-96 that were happening at Harvard and beyone were siloed projects and the lack of infrastructure: knowledge, systems, and services. Firstly, institutions were creating very locally-focused digital collections with their own custom metadata that were eventually not interoperable with other collections. Secondly, there was a lack of infrastructure to support the long-term lifecycle of the collections.
- “The first was that silos were emerging in the libraries and the academic departments. So you had libraries making websites, you had different people in the libraries making small exhibits and probably more importantly, on the cataloging front, you had people using different vocabularies to make different kinds of databases that were searchable to patrons. And they weren’t talking to each other.”
- “And so if we did nothing, the one thing that they observed that was going to keep happening is, of course, libraries were going to continue to embrace the internet. And they were going to continue to kind of work narrowly and locally to develop the kinds of protocols for metadata—even though we weren’t using that term then, but you know, for metadata and for digital objects. And there was going to be a problem because these things weren’t going to talk to each other.”
- “So if we give ourselves the ability to make digital things, we also needed and lacked the infrastructure of—of knowledge, systems, and services. I think of those as sort of the three legs of the stool.”
- “Sort of looking at this broadly, if we create things in digital form, do we have the means to manage, preserve, describe, permit discovery, delivery, and use. And the answer to almost all of those questions was either no or not enough.”

Access to resources from anywhere in the world
The library’s role is “to mediate between producers of information and users” and to satisfy the faculty’s and students’ need for access to resources from anywhere in the world.
- “A big mandate that—that has been there for the research library was—was always there, and I think it’s shaped the evolution of technology and infrastructure of the campus, and this was to mediate between producers of information and users. And it’s not simple.”
- “So our faculty as the top—always at the top of the food chain in universities, of course, you know, our faculty as huge consumers with huge appetites where the proverbial reader in the small—demanded quickly to—have access to resources regardless of where they were located.”
- “And so—so now as a research library’s role, our role wasn’t simply limited anymore to providing services between the content that we physically had at this institution and their needs.”
- “If we have faculty that are interested in biodiversity or religious studies or fine arts, we don’t have all of the materials that they need at this institution, and it—a lot of pressure that’s been there from our key constituents in universities -- faculty, students, independent scholars -- a huge mandate that’s been placed upon us ever since the internet has been to facilitate the discovery and distribution and acquisition of content and services from anywhere in the world.”

“Moving from a local mindset to a collaborative and global mindset”
So many initiatives and stand-alone projects have a local focus and are not collaborative. We need to move to a more collaborative and global mindset and have a portal that provides access to the very best materials from a wide variety of institutions and collections.
- “I think that it’s been a very, very long path to moving from a local mindset to a collaborative and global mindset.”
- “So if we want to develop a portal, and have sort of a best of breed experience, that the best publicly domain materials—historic materials that are available in this field, are distributed widely, let’s acknowledge that and from a collection development perspective, work collaboratively so that the user has the convenience of a portal.”

Three successful parts of a collaborative digital project
Collaborative funding
Collaboratively use technology to produce content
A distributed architecture for discovery
- “So we had the collaborative nature of the funding, the—and technology development—the collaborative nature of producing content, but the third thing that they didn’t try to do was have a distributed architecture of discovery.”
- “What was available at that time were repositories of metadata, the protocols that we are using today to create persistent links, and persistent naming and name resolution have been around for a long time, number two. So one can populate these catalog records with persistent links.”
- “And number three, we have had local—and we should, continue to have local servers, even if they weren’t called repositories, we had locally managed servers and storehouses for digital objects and to federate access and delivery of content, one does not need to have all data objects in a single repository, you just need to have links.”
- “And then you need to have policies at institutions that would say, regardless of where our catalog records end up—this is really important to me—regardless of where they end up, and in particular, when they end up outside of our own domains, for example, when we—load our content to WorldCat, we do not block access between that link and the digital object.”
- “If we—if we are truly open as organizations, our links travel with our records, and that link resolves to an object where nobody needs to be authenticated or authorized to use it.”

The next big challenge
How do we deliver content for multiple equations?
- “There are two present and future challenges. It’s the policy first and the technology -- the technology/implementation second.”

“It’s a question of openness”
Being open means not claiming rights, open APIs between repositories and not having to be authenticated or authorized to access records.
- “If we—if we are truly open as organizations, our links travel with our records, and that link resolves to an object where nobody needs to be authenticated or authorized to use it.”
- “I think that we really need to be better educated about what the rights are to this material, and I think that our behavior should reflect that.”
- “So if we cannot claim any right to our objects, then I think our behavior should be as transparent and as open as possible.”
- “So if there are things that we’ve created and acquired that truly are open for anybody to use, I don’t think that we should have any limitations to the way that they use those.
- “And the logical technical implementation that would follow from that is that we would have open APIs between our repositories and all application developers to say, you know, here are the technical means by which you can get to our objects, they’ll do whatever applications you wish because these data are completely open. We’re not claiming the rights for this kind of stuff.”

Libraries should be focused on open distribution and not on developing their own apps
- “Now, we might want acknowledgement, but if we’re not trying to control access, if we’re truly open about this, evidence of that would manifest itself in policies, in APIs, and a proliferation of technologies and tools largely—I hope, that the majority of those in the future will be ones that we don’t make.”
- “That, with all of the people who are writing—I mean, who’s writing all of the apps? For mobile phones and for Apple? I mean, there’s so many people who are writing the apps, we shouldn’t be developing apps for our content in libraries—we don’t need to. I mean we can follow.”
- “Be in the content management business and be in the open distribution business and be in the business of continuing to respect the privacy and the rights of users.”

The library’s position on open access
Libraries have a stake in creating and protecting the information commons and materials in the public domain.
- “So our position on open access in both independent and collaborative ways really, really needs to be defined.”
- “I think that the measure of our success ten years from now will largely map to how open we are. Not how much content we’ve made, not the quality of that content, how good it is, but how open it is.”
- “I really think that that—in all domains, in the legal, the financial, and the—technical domains, universities in particular with other affiliates really need to be talking much, much more about open access and what that means. And not just access to journals. Not just access to scholarly publications. Not just access to the things that we’ve digitized, but all the material that’s being created today.”
- “In the for profit realm, as big aggregators put more pay walls up, it’s going to—that that behavior of pay walls and subscriptions to things that are ostensibly free today, I think will really heighten user’s awareness—scholars and the general public—I think it will really heighten their awareness of the value and fragility of having things in an information commons.”
- “And things that are really in a public domain, that are commonly held, and we have a stake in creating that and protecting that realm.”

Deconstruction and reuse
When libraries make materials openly accessible, then we facilitate the re-use of materials in new and creative ways.
- “On the technology front I think it will be exciting to see our created material be packaged in tons of new ways. I’m really excited by deconstruction and reuse.”
- “It’s great that we’ve made collection websites, it’s great that we have digital objects, but I’m really excited about better object characterization and people just taking things apart and using components of what we’ve made in creative ways that satisfy their needs. And more power to them.”

Have a long-term and global view
Libraries need to see beyond the short-term thinking of their own institutions and view things in the long-term and collaborate with others.
- “If you have people looking at the long term, then I think trying to retain control over the commons is a more powerful mandate and open access is more powerful when you look at things in the long term rather than the short term.”
- “I think the collection development issues are very profound, that we have a collective challenge in partnering with organizations to try to have enough material that’s available openly, that can be packaged and aggregated and distributed to meet research and teaching needs into the future.”
- “No single library is going to go it alone to do that anymore. So how can we collaborate to really not only meet the needs of today’s teachers and students but also have some policies and programs in place so that when—not if—when this content is distributed electronically all over the place, that libraries will be key players in identifying, federating, packaging, aggregating these kinds of things in a way to meet the teaching function.”
- “And there’s a lot of challenges of us to do that. But I think you need long-term thinking. I think you need a global thinking now to do that, I don’t think you can look specifically to the needs of your own institution and try to build all of these services just locally. So this collaboration is important.”

Preserving 20th and 21st century materials
We must preserve more of the 20th and 21st century materials.
- “This is [the] time—that this is a good opportunity to put the challenge of triage out into the public record…and triage is the means to the end. So our end goal, of course, is to continue to sustain access literally to the historic artifacts or when that’s not possible, to good representations of those things.”
- “And so the means to facilitate continued usability of cultural heritage material—is what’s all about.”
- “Whatever financial and technical and legal and—means we can use to meet that preservation function is critical.”
- “That’s our ongoing role, to—to make sure that historic materials are appropriately described, discoverable, and either those materials or adequate representations thereof are made available to people.”

Act and make copies now
Libraries need to take the risk and aggressively assert our rights in action to identify materials of value and make copies of these materials. “Because to do nothing is to make the stuff obsolete.”
- “Too much of our attention has been focused on things that are unambiguously in the public domain where we can assert the right to copy.”
- “The University of Michigan, in partnership with Google—but they were doing this long before Google came along…I believe that they have asserted a right in action.”
- “They’re not asserting this legally, they’re not asserting this legislatively, just in their action, they are asserting a right to make copies of material.”
- “Because to do nothing is—is to make the stuff obsolete.”
- “I really think that we have to sustain all of the attention that we have been paying to our heritage, pre-1900.”
- “But we—in every institution I think we have to just really move much more aggressively—aggressively and in a much more risk-embracing sort of mindset, rather than a risk-averse mindset to—to identify material that’s of value, that’s truly at risk to being lost, and assert our role either to begin making copies or to change the apparatus around us so that we can assert—assert the right to do that.”
- “Even if we don’t permit ourselves right now to copy it, to provide any discovery services from it, just to capture this and park the data and—figure out what to do with it.”
- “And to figure out what to do with it in highly collaborative ways where you have people who are really passionate about it and have things at stake really working on—on solutions around the content to promote more discovery.”

Reasserting the library’s role in information management
We can reassert our role in information management by collaborating internationally.
- “But we are in a world of silos today, and it’s not good enough. And I don’t think—I don’t think that silos alone—merit huge public support.”
- “But the portal, the sort of central point of service to—to get people to those places, it has to be something other than one just controlled by the commercial world.”
- “So, we have Google, we have Bing, we have these different kinds of things, and the commercial realm is moving into the space that’s always been ours.”
- “And if we want to reassert our role and our credibility to work in that space of information management, organization and use, I think that we have to find the means to collaborate internationally.”

Ask the “why” question
There are people who ask “why” and there are those who just want to be told what to do. Be one of the ones that ask “Why”?
- “I think that as a manager, I try to impart rationales with procedures and some people take them up and some people don’t. And I think that people who are interested in rationale and are interested in the “why” question, I think those are the people in our organizations—whether it’s in universities or in our field as practitioners—I think those people self-identify themselves.”
- “They’re people who just kind of step up and they self-identify themselves and I think all of the people that you talked to, I hope that what we all have in common, through this self-identification, is a curiosity to look behind the what and to ask why.”
- “And you need a certain number of people to do that, and those people then depend on all of the “just tell me what to do” folks to implement it. And—and seeing all of us as being in one community where we value each other, not to get too touchy-feely about it all, I think is a positive step forward.”