Natalie Harrower

Natalie Harrower

Last updated on 14 May 2018

Dr. Natalie Harrower is the Director of the Digital Repository of Ireland

Major organisational transitions can be challenging, requiring clear goals, and genuine buy-in across the entire organisation. If you think about it, both of these aspects are dialectic and work in concert with each other -- goals can only be attained if they are supported, and support, or buy-in, requires … something clear to buy into.

And these challenges are precisely why transitions provide such a fertile opportunity for growth and renewal, mixed with a good dose of vision-setting and, dare I say -- passion for what your organisation is trying to accomplish.

Earlier this year at the Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI), we launched a new Membership Model. The model outlines the benefits and costs of joining the Digital Repository of Ireland and offers different tiers of membership for different sized institutions. This model was the culmination of a significant process of research, consultation, drafting and redrafting, and more consultation. It wasn’t just about articulating the structure and costs associated with membership -- which itself requires careful thought and balance --  but about interrogating DRI’s core values, and what we are best positioned to offer to our community. In other words, it was an intense process, but in the end, also an intensely rewarding one.

But before I get into the details of that process, I should back up a bit, and lay out the pathway that brought us to this point…

DRI was originally funded as a four-year project under the Ireland’s Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (“PRTLI” - an acronym known to anyone familiar with the higher education sector in Ireland). The goal of the project was to deliver a national trusted digital repository for Ireland’s social and cultural data - to create an infrastructure of software, servers, guidelines, policies, and most importantly -- people and expertise -- that could provide for the long-term stewardship of data from the arts, humanities and social sciences. From 2011 to 2015, a consortium of academic partners in Ireland was tasked with building the repository and its network of social and technical support. At the start, advisory bodies were set up to provide guidance and community input. From Ireland, DRI’s ‘Stakeholder Advisory Group’ was created from representatives of Irish institutions who had or would have a vested interest in forwarding Ireland’s capacity for long-term digital preservation at scale. And from outside Ireland, experts were asked to join DRI’s International Advisory Group, to provide guidance on international best practice and connect our work to innovations taking place across Europe and further afield. This group included experts from a number of organisations, including several current DPC members -- UKDA, DANS, University of Sussex -- as well as the DPC itself, via Executive Director William Kilbride. This was all back in 2011, when said Executive Director could still jokingly refer to the DPC as a ‘shadowy little organisation,’ reflecting its relatively small size but punchy agenda.

The process of building the DRI’s technical and social infrastructure consciously considered two significant aims: to create a digital preservation infrastructure to the highest international standards, and to create a digital preservation infrastructure that would best support the needs and practices of existing archives in Ireland. These two aspirations worked in dialogue with one another throughout the project phase, and continue to underpin DRI’s strategy. So with this in mind, one of the first tasks was to survey institutions across Ireland that held HSS data, to better understand what that data looked like, how it was structured, stored, and accessed. The Stakeholder Advisory Group was involved in this process, and the resulting research was published in a report titled Digital Archiving in Ireland: National Survey of the Humanities and Social Sciences. The survey, alongside continual consultations with advisory groups and project demonstrators, helped us to specify the requirements for the repository, and ultimately, to identify what services, support, training and guidance were required to provide the infrastructure that could support state-of-the art digital archiving, preservation, and access at a national level. So when I reflect back on the ‘process’ of building this membership model, it’s clear that from the beginning, our stakeholders helped us identify the gaps, build the scaffolding to support the infrastructure, and identify what eventual members would require. Of course, we still needed to structure this model in a way that clearly outlined the benefits of membership, and provided strong justification for joining DRI.

DRI blogDRI launched to the public in June 2015, a few months ahead of the original project schedule. A few days later, we were awarded the Data Seal of Approval, officially inserting ‘certified’ into the description of DRI as a trusted digital repository (TDR). At this point, a small team had been working with the Irish government for some time to secure a sustainable funding stream for core activities. An internal DRI task force had researched funding models for existing data repositories, analysed the variety of existing configurations, and published a report on the findings: Funding Models for Open Access Repositories. (The ‘open’ part of this study’s remit was key; as a publicly funded body, established as a public good for Ireland, data access charges were not considered a desirable or viable model). Once again, our stakeholders contributed to the discussion, calling strongly for the government to support this key element in the growing digital environment. Letters were written, meetings were held, plans were scoped, demonstrations were given, and over the period of about 18 months, kaboom! DRI transitioned from a time-limited research project to a sustainably funded national infrastructure.

Reading this back to myself, the idea of capturing this transition in one sentence is like saying that an egg turns into a butterfly, skipping that complex bit in the middle about growing an entire caterpillar that in turn sprouts wings. Of course, the transition wasn’t that simple -- it required new financial arrangements, agreements and memoranda, major internal re-organisation and downsizing, a new Board and governance structure, and a clear review and understanding of strategic priorities. The details of this process would make the topic of a different blog post, but they have been shared, in part, in different formats. For example, the transition to a mixed income stream with core government support informed my work on a recently concluded OECD expert group, which culminated in a policy paper titled Business Models for Sustainable Research Data Repositories. If you’re interested in sustainability, check it out. And if you’re going to the Open Repositories 2018 conference this June 2018, you could join us for a paper at the session on ‘Downsizing, organizing, and communities’.

But for now, back to the membership model.

As this transition was taking place, we started looking more closely at the elements that would constitute a membership model. We already had members that had joined and deposited digital collections during the project phase (pioneers, all of you!), but a membership income stream was a newly required component of our agreed income streams. So we had to ask ourselves more targeted questions, such as: What concrete benefits would potential members pay to access our services? What aspects were most central, and what would be considered ‘added benefits’ of membership? As it turns out, the weighting of these answers were different depending on which institution we consulted, which likely reflects the different remits and stages of digitisation of our stakeholders.

DRI’s core remit is preserving and making accessible Ireland’s social and cultural data (or HSS data), so naturally digital archiving and long-term digital preservation would be a central part of the membership benefits. But over the course of DRI’s development, we got … kinda excited about the other things required to achieve long-term preservation and access. We developed expertise in archiving and open source repository architectures, and a reputation for outreach and community education and training. We published a rigorous suite of guidelines and policies, worked to make data FAIR, and to enhance discovery across collections. We sought out or jumped on board for a lot of collaborative projects, and showed strong success in securing funding for leveraged projects. And we became advocates at national and European levels for issues of common concern to our stakeholders. As we consulted our stakeholders about the membership model, it became clear that these aspects of what we do were very important, and were seen as ‘services’ or ‘benefits’ alongside the core remit of long-term digital preservation, access, and discovery. In fact, for some stakeholders, deposit of digital collections in a TDR is still some ways in the future, and these other aspects of support are the very thing required to bring that future closer into view. Take the international best practice and advocacy aspects, for example; if we are to provide top notch stewardship of digital collections, then we need to stay on top of international best practice. That can be partly accomplished by bringing experts to Ireland, such as the times we’ve excitedly welcomed the DPC to run training sessions in Ireland, or at our recent workshop on IIIF, which was co-organised with UCD Library and DARIAH Ireland. But it also requires becoming a part of, and contributing to, various communities, such as Samvera (formerly Hydra), Fedora, PASIG and Open Repositories, relevant European ERICs such as DARIAH and E-RIHS, or EC projects, priorities and networks, such as open data, the EOSC, ALLEA, the Research Data Alliance, and FAIR data (apologies for the acronym soup).

Building DRI’s membership model gave us a very rich opportunity to review the current state of data and preservation in Ireland, and ask again: what does our community of stakeholders require from us? And what are we best positioned to offer? And importantly, how can we tailor this in a way that is both sustainable to us as an organisation, and accessible to a wide variety of institutions? If you research the ‘costs’ of data curation and preservation, you will find that they vary wildly, and the formulation of the cost models also vary significantly, which makes any systematic comparison near impossible. Some models look primarily at storage costs, and run anywhere from hundreds of euros per terabyte to thousands; other models charge for various components, from basic backup through to robust preservation and access. And some charge one-time fees for deposit, while others require annual maintenance fees. And this is just to name a few of the variations...

When setting membership fees for DRI, our goal was to balance the cost of digital stewardship with the desire to make the fees accessible and competitive. And this is more about generating enough income to manage the growth of institutions and data over time, than about finding a per-terabyte price point that competes with Amazon storage. Because commercial cloud services are not the same kind of infrastructure as a national trusted digital repository, and fundamentally, storage is not preservation. In the end we settled on two levels of membership: Full and Associate. The Associate level was developed to ensure that even the smallest archives could join and access the expertise and programmes required for stewardship of their digital data, while Full members play a more substantial role in DRI’s sustainability and direction. The breakdown of benefits reflects these differences, and, we hope, clearly reflects the extensive consultation that went into the process.

As we finalised the model, we needed to review all of our policies to ensure integration with the new model, and a Membership working group was struck to develop and implement the substantial new administration required. What remained was the question of how to best launch this new thing we had created … how to put this new baby into the world?

It’s funny how launching anything virtual or digital requires a little creativity. It’s not like launching a new ship, where you can whack a champagne bottle on the side and off it goes. Back when DRI went live in 2015 -- when we launched the repository -- we joked about tying a big red bow around a server and cutting it, to symbolise the launch. But really, you’d have to tie the bow around the people that prop up all the content and intelligence and skill behind that server, because that’s the total thing you have created. With this in mind, we realised that the best way to launch our new Membership model was to gather together the people who had contributed steadily to the development of DRI since its inception in 2011. On 23rd February 2018, with the Membership brochure hot off the press and new web pages ready to publish, we gathered DRI staff, management, and the Board, and invited the members of our Stakeholder Advisory Group to join us for an informal lunch at the Royal Irish Academy. At that lunch, we thanked our stakeholders for their intelligence, insight and support along the way, and officially launched the model over hot tea and triangle-shaped sandwiches.

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