Thursday 20 November 2008

Repository Rats and Other Wildlife

Dorothea (cavlec) is well-known for coining the term "repository rat", and documenting the frustrations that go with that role. Kudos to her for identifying and speaking out about the experiences of the role, and for further characterising the activities and limitations of a repository manager in her blog piece Meet Ulysses Acqua.

I don't think that Dorothea's intention was to impose a one-size-fits-all characterization of all repository-workers - rather to see a fair representation of her own experience when others seemed to be ignoring it. I don't feel as if I am a repository rat exactly because my activities seem to have few rat-like characteristics, and many of my repository colleagues don't seem to be rats either. But my colleagues aren't exactly like me either. I seem to occupy a particular niche in the repository ecology, and they too are adapted to their own environments. So on the plane back from SPARC DR2008 I started to wonder about the different characteristics of that ecology, and the kinds of animals - rat and non-rat - that had evolved within it.

Solitary or socialSome animals hunt in packs, co-ordinating their activities (lions, raptors), where others operate by themselves (rats, squirrels).Do you work with a teams of subject librarians, or are you left to work by yourself?
Wild or domesticatedSome animals fit into and contribute to human organisations (dogs, horses), whereas others operate on the edge (cats) or totally outside the structure (foxes, wolves).Are you involved in institutional committees, consulted by management and is your repository a core service?
Hunter or scavengerSome animals actively search out sources of food for the kill, whereas others eat whatever is left around, or whatever is offered to them.Do you search out material that is suitable for deposit by looking through Web of Science or by interviewing faculty?
Preener or sloven?Some animals preen themselves (birds) or others (chimpanzees) obsessively.Do you have strict QA standards that you apply to depositors' material?
Valued or verminMany animals are known as hoarders or collectors of food. Some are pampered (hamster), persecuted (rat) or tolerated (squirrel).How do you feel about your role? This is more about professional esteem, than observable traits.

(I don't claim that this is a comprehensive view of the repository world - to be more general I could have started out with the essential question "Do you have a backbone?" )

How do I fit in this taxonomy? I operate alone with no assistance in managing the repository content or policies. Thanks to our de facto mandate I don't need to actively chase material, I just wait for it to be deposited into the repository. Up to this point I haven't done much QA, I have let our library colleagues do this for the important records. I am involved in the departmental infrastructure. So that makes me solitary/scavenger/domesticated/sloven. My colleagues in the library who run the institutional repository are social/hunter/domesticated/preeners - perhaps? And Dorothea - well, I think that she is social (she works with a team of librarians on different campuses) / hunter / preener / wild*. Expressed in tabular form, this looks as follows (I have thrown arXiv in for good measure):


I will leave others to come up with animals with the appropriate characteristics. The lesson that I want to draw out is that there is variety in the repository kingdom. Even in the four repositories above we have all possible combinations of solitary/wild. The hunter vs preener columns look more correlated - perhaps you don't go to the effort of hunting for material and then not bother doing QA on it. And conversely, if you wait for material to drop into your lap you are less likely to care about its condition. (arxiv scores a 'half' on the preener scale because SPIRES provides a feed of "corrected" references for published material.)

So in conferences and community activities, messages that go down well with repository managers who have ticked the 'domesticated' box are going to irritate the 'wild' ones and vice versa. Those giving authoritative conference messages need to realise that they aren't speaking to a monoculture! That may be a lot to ask at the moment - they are still coming to terms with the existence and possibilities of repositories and the role of repository managers. A finely nuanced appreciation of the variation of the species is some way off yet.

So I hope Dorothea will forgive me for avoiding the "rat" identity - it is not out of a lack of solidarity with her difficult position or an appreciation of the hard work that she does. I'm just a manager in a different set of circumstances. 

And the real reason that I avoided matching animals to the different repository roles? The only domesticated, non-social, non-hunting, non-preening animal I could think of while on the plane was a rabbit. And I just can't abide the thought of being known as a "repository bunny".

1 comment:

  1. Pika! Repository pika!

    Seriously, this is great and I like it a lot.