Wednesday 27 May 2009

Don't ever stop adding to your body of work

I've just returned from the high octane, tech-frenzied social whirl that is Open Repositories 2009 (or #or09 to its delegates). It's a week full of diverse and diverging agendas (cloud this, desktop that, policy the-other) that make your head spin. There are new product announcements (EPrints 3.2 / DSpace 1.5 / Zentity) and new initiatives being explained (DuraSpace). And new demos of new features. It's normal to go to conferences to show off products that you've only just finished, hoping that the demos hang together. Now the Developer Challenge means that we're all there showing off things that we hadn't even started! It's mad, completely mad, and I wouldn't miss it for the world.

So I came back with a kind of tech-hangover - and spent a couple of days feeling the backlash response of "what does it all mean?" and "what is the point?" It's all very exciting, but are we actually going anywhere that we all want to be?

Surprisingly, the cure came in the form of a Presidential address reported in the Washington Post. Under the headline "Don't ever stop adding to your body of work" Barack Obama talked about the need to keep on contributing to a lifetime of achievement. I'm a sucker for a good metaphor, and I read this as a message to institutions and faculty about using a repository to reify their contribution to science and scholarship, to manifest their body of work. 
That is what building a body of work is all about - it's about the daily labor, the many individual acts, the choices large and small that add up to a lasting legacy. It's about not being satisfied with the latest achievement, the latest gold star - because one thing I know about a body of work is that it's never finished. It's cumulative; it deepens and expands with each day that you give your best, and give back, and contribute to the life of this nation. (Barack Obama delivering the commencement address at Arizona State University.)
This is what repositories are really about: making the abstract concrete and fleshing out CVs. Collecting evidence of intellectual creativity, supporting research activities and profiling the emergence of innovative individuals, collaborations and communities. Evidence that spans whole careers and beyond. 

This was also the message of David Schulenberger's closing keynote at the SPARC Digital Repositories meeting in November 2008: the job of the institutional repository is to tell the story of "what we've achieved" to its faculty and its institution's funders and supporters.

Back at home, this is why we keep doing what we doing. Not just so that we can play with new development features, but so we can get a job done. So that we can build the infrastructure of our institutional memory, we can tell our institutional story and we can provide a platform for our future institutional success.

That's me done. I'm back to hacking shell scripts and XML.

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