University of Rochester

Habits of Researchers Reveal Clues for Getting Academics Onboard the Latest in Secure Digital Archive

August 12, 2004

The results from an unusual work-practice study of University of Rochester faculty members show why not enough academics are using DSpace, an open source electronic archive of scholarship that was intended for people like themselves.

"Faculty members want to do their work. They want to think about it, read about it, write about it, get it out there," said anthropologist Nancy Fried Foster. "If we can help them do that with digital tools, most of them really don't care how those tools work."

Foster and a team of librarians, graphic designers, and computer scientists set out to learn how faculty in different disciplines locate, store, and use archives right now. She was keen to identify the tools her subjects used, a hunt that took her to the core of how anthropologists learn about other cultures.

"Our approach was not to think we knew what the faculty needs," Foster pointed out. "Our approach was to see what we will learn about what the faculty needs. That's why it's useful to have someone with my background on this project."

A $100,000 grant from the Institution of Museums and Library Services allowed the team to evaluate how users can best access DSpace and all of "grey literature," the trove of e-theses, conference proceedings, datasets, audio files, technical reports, and other documents. Though DSpace or "digital space" was launched worldwide in 2002—with Rochester among the research universities assisting in its development—it has failed to attract the volume of documents organizers know are out there.

Foster, digital initiatives manager David Lindahl, and their team from the University of Rochester's River Campus Libraries have developed the prototype for an enhanced My DSpace page that they believe will attract more faculty to DSpace. At a recent conference in Toronto, they previewed how faculty members can use simple electronic tools to personalize a Web page for their own work.

"These professors are authors of academic research—not librarians or programmers building an institutional repository, which is what DSpace is meant to be," said Foster. "In Rochester, as in other places, faculty members were enormously uninterested in DSpace. It was meeting the goals of institutions, not users."

Foster's six months of interviews began at the place where each of her 30 subjects from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities start their day. "This paper that you wrote, where did your central question come from?" she asked as she sat in their offices. "How did you start the paper?"

A survey of faculty couldn't have produced such in-depth results. "That's why work-practice studies will help us invent and build something," Foster explained. "It gave us a radical perspective that we couldn't have gotten any other way."

At the Participatory Design Conference 2004 at the University of Toronto in late July, Foster and Lindahl gave a partial list of Web-based services that faculty members want: "access to their own work from different computers; a truly safe place for their data and documents; more order and less chaos in their personal cyberspace; easy online access to dissertations; the ability to share their own work in progress; support for writing with other authors; and an easy way to share finished work."

Foster's firsthand accounts and videotapes illustrate how professors search and survive in a digital world. "As we reviewed tapes, we found something to build on for our own library archives," she said. Like other users, professors are concerned and frustrated when they lose documents, experience glitches when they share materials, and mix up documents when they look for the latest edited version. When refined, My DSpace will speak directly to faculty, in their language, and to their preferences. (Any products or programs that the digital initiatives team at River Campus Libraries develops will be open source and free for the taking, just like other content in DSpace.)

Her skill as an interviewer elicited important insights from her subjects. Foster learned of their intellectual passions for neutrinos, film, semantics, political participation, and quantum computing. She also provided them confidentiality, just as any researcher guarantees in a study. During each interview, Foster had a list of fixed questions and also allowed time for spontaneity as she looked closely at the office environment.

From the start, Foster structured her research as a very open inquiry that she called "extremely fine-grained, but not meant to be comprehensive or statistically significant." Because her project crossed the disciplines from visual and cultural studies to political science and linguistics, she spotted significant differences in how faculty members deal with Web-based information and e-documents.

The ways of the academy are well-known to Foster. She received a diploma in social anthropology from Oxford University and a doctorate in applied anthropology from Columbia University. As an applied anthropologist, she has conducted research on social identity among Guianan Amerindians, spending by Oxford undergraduates, attitudes toward schooling in the Tanga Islands of Papua New Guinea, and numerous projects on contemporary culture and organizations in the United States. Her lifelong interest in art—as a painter and a maker of constructions—was an asset for the videotaping, still photography, and creative sessions among team members.

As for anecdotes from the study, there are dozens. One professor sends copies of his databases to his sister in Cedar Rapids as a backup. Others worry about the maintenance of Web sites and their content when funding for a project expires.

Researchers are hard pressed to cope with all the paper in their offices, to say nothing of their digital clutter. One researcher spent part of the interview searching her office for a runaway dissertation. "She never found it, but she did show us a clever workaround, using her computer, for finding the reference she needed," said Foster.

Responding to users' habits and needs is critical for drawing people to a library service or a site. "We're really aiming for the 85 percent of faculty who don't have other resources available and who don't want to know more than they have to" about the intricacies of Web design and the challenges of storing work indefinitely, she said.

Ultimately, faculty members at every institution will want to be part of a big scholarly conversation. "If people put things into DSpace and others find and use their work and then cite them, we will have succeeded," she said.