Institutional Repositories: Make or Buy?

Institutional repositories—collections of documents produced by members of an academic institution—are one of the newest genres of information, and a number of platforms for creating and managing repositories are now available. Two alternate possibilities are buying a software package and hosting the repository in-house (the “make” path) or using a Web-based platform, with the data hosted remotely (the “buy” path). This panel described their experiences using the two paths.

(left to right) Jonathan Nabe, University of Connecticut (UConn); Susan Gibbons, University of Rochester, and Carolyn Mills, University of Connecticut (Moderator)

According to Jonathan Nabe, the DigitalCommons platform by ProQuest was chosen. (DigitalCommons is developed by Bepress, the same company that developed the software for the California Digital Library; ProQuest does the marketing and customer service.) Advantages of using a remotely hosted product are:
• There is no need to hire a programming staff, which saves on staffing costs,
• Because the platform is hosted remotely, the using institution does not need to buy and maintain any servers,
• The product is well known, and ProQuest has a long history of working with libraries, and
• There are few technical demands on users; success or failure depends on getting people to use the repository.

The UConn experience with DigitalCommons was very favorable. Setup was nearly instantaneous, and the system was up and running the day the license was signed, and all the local IT department had to do was to point to the DigitalCommons server, which took less than five minutes! (As Nabe said, “An institutional repository in a day—and it works!”) The front end was very customizable and has all of the typical features of repositories. Customer support and training by the vendor was excellent. One interesting enhancement recently added to DigitalCommons is “Claim Your Paper”, which automatically mines ProQuest’s databases and PubMed for papers authored by an institution’s staff and sends them an e-mail message asking them if they would like to add their works to the repository.

Nabe identified the following drawbacks to the DigitalCommons solution:
• Startup costs were high and confidential. (But they were less than the cost of a full time programmer.
• There are no support materials available, either in print or online. (But ProQuest is addressing this.)
• New features are added regularly but not on demand.
• The programming language for the system is proprietary and must be learned by users if they wish to customize the system.
• As with any external system, its long-term survival is vulnerable to any problems the supplier might have (which is a concern given ProQuest’s current financial difficulties).

In making the Make Or Buy decision, Nabe recommended asking two questions:
• Is your technology department underworked?
• Can your internal programming staff match what the vendor can provide? Issues to be considered include backups, archives, and failure protection.

Susan Gibbons, Associate Dean, River Campus Libraries, at the University of Rochester described their implementation of DSpace, an Open Source Software (OSS) system developed by HP and MIT libraries. DSpace was chosen because it was a robust system that was developed to support the work of an entire institution.

The library wanted to modify the system extensively, which was a main reason for choosing an OSS platform. They hired a full time Java programmer. Gibbons became the project manager who performed a liaison role with the university and coordinated the creation of policies and procedures. Creating a customized version of DSpace, obtaining the correct versions of the various components and installing the software took several weeks. Redesigning the user interface by a graphic designer took one week.

Pros of using an OSS platform for an institutional repository include:
• The ability to make significant alterations to the source code and user interface (Rochester’s system bears virtually no resemblance to the standard DSpace system)
Significant alterations to source code (can’t tell it’s a DSpace system!),
• Development priorities can be controlled in-house,
• There are few unexpected costs such as licensing fee increases, and there is no danger of the vendor going out of business, and
• Content remains on campus and can be restricted to in-house users if desired.

The disadvantages include:
• Significant technical expertise is needed to go beyond the standard system,
• The user must take responsibility for all development and troubleshooting,
• Documentation is limited, and
• It is difficult to know where the DSpace community is heading.

It was clear from these two presentations that, although the advantages of institutional repositories are significant, their installation and maintenance creates a number of issues that must be faced. As with most technological developments, there is more to the picture than first meets the eye!

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today

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