The digital life cycle as research tool: a work in progress

The challenge of managing digital life cycles will be ongoing and a focus on built-in discovery is crucial.


It is impossible for me to think about the digital life cycle (DLC) without first recalling two 'A-ha!' moments, both hailing from the exciting days when digital artifacts were emerging as alternatives to print collections. The life cycle of print resources was well understood (with all its foibles) but the DLC has produced new challenges. Both stories remain instructive to this day. 

From proprietary to interoperability 

The first is about infrastructure. The state of California is the most populous region of the US and gathers massive amounts of information. At the turn of the century the agency that collects employment data experienced a hardware failure, combined with a vendor shutdown. The agency lost access to much of its own data. 

The 'fix' was expensive, and also put state government on notice that balkanised, proprietary IT management was no longer viable. The disaster triggered a broad search for new best practices. State IT managers began talking to academic technologists and database administrators, and adopted the principles of 'persistence,' interoperability, and tighter control of vendor relationships.

Collaborative planning that addressed the DLC holistically ultimately led to a better outcome for all. The event and its aftermath make explicit that data oversight depends not only on the reliability of technology platforms, but also on long-term relationships, partnership, and planning.

The shorter 'reach' of canonical literature searches

The second is about teaching. Senior professors often prefer to stick with well-honed teaching styles, particularly when they introduce new students to the canonical literature of their discipline. As online searching became the norm, such professors were not the least bit shy in sounding off about its downsides as a comprehensive discovery tool.

I recall a lunch meeting I had with the Chair of Psychology at UC – Berkeley in 2002, during which we discussed library space and other hot topics. He also voiced his dismay at how online searching focused mainly was on the most recent five and 10 years of literature—and could miss the full history of psychology. "Sure, they’ve heard of Freud, Piaget and James, but ask them if they are familiar with G. Stanley Hall and they look at you blankly", he said. "How can we retain mastery of the field if we overlook its roots and leading figures?"

The digital life cycle in broad context

You might ask what these tales of outmoded tech management and traditional teaching have to do with DLC. But in my view, they have everything to do with digital futures in general. With respect to technology, it is all too easy to find ourselves (or our partners) correcting access issues that might have been fixed up front. And when it comes to teaching, technology is most effective when it supports the creative—even wildly offbeat—manners in which people conduct research. The good news is that both technologists and teachers realise that we need a persistent digital infrastructure, and that skillful research requires far more than reviewing the first page of a Google search on the open Web. Indeed, the DLC itself offers an opportunity to combine infrastructure and discovery tools in new ways to support our user communities. 

Rebooting life cycle plans

Universities are leading the debate on how to build finding aids into the DLC. At the University of California, ongoing plans for shared print collections have triggered innovative DLC planning. The latest plan seeks to "…create and preserve digital collections that expand the use of our historical and current materials through widespread digitization and new access services."

The University Library's plan would coordinate shared print collections with the HathiTrust Digital Library, permitting duplicated paper monographs to remain accessible for 25 years. Preliminary data suggest that 2.5 million volumes fall in this category, enabling library leaders to plan with a longer view. Second, HathiTrust's vast holdings move into closer alignment with e-journals and databases, locating historical literature alongside heavily used e-resources. Finally, a plan that links print and digital collections with outreach confirms that user training is utterly crucial for effective digital library development.

The search habits of our users are also much more visible. Strategic Library recently published a report on information seeking behaviours that suggests a growing need for digital lifecycle awareness (strategiclibrary.com - subscription required). The report analyses the behaviours of researchers, faculty, graduates and undergraduates (and is a 'must-read' for anyone interested in this topic). In my view, its key takeaways are threefold. First, library-hosted e-resources are recognised by all groups as the best place to start a search (though Google Scholar ranks high with graduates). Second, although STEM specialists, social scientists and humanists approach the search process in unique ways, all groups share challenges in maintaining awareness of the literature as it continues to grow. Finally tips from colleagues still rank highly with the faculty, but fall in the mid-range for graduate and undergraduates. This last point implies that my friend the Chair of Psychology might still be railing a bit at how much student rely upon online research. It also reveals the growing need for embedded discovery tools.   

What's needed: digital lifecycle design for people

Designers of the digital lifecycle have an opportunity to build discovery tools, annotated timelines, and other user-focused metadata into the infrastructure of digital libraries, and have shown a willingness to do so. However, it may be up to librarians who are in daily contact with researchers to ensure that the finding aids align effectively with our user communities. As front-line service providers, we possess deep awareness not only of what search aids work, but of which tools work the best. The challenge of managing digital life cycles will be ongoing, and a focus on built-in discovery is crucial not only in the near term but also as technology embraces the cloud—and what lies beyond.


Terence Huwe is Emeritus Director of Library and Information Resources at Institute for Research on Labor & Employment, University of California, USA.  He is a member of the conference advisory board for Internet Librarian International.


 Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash