Opening Open Repositories

By Jon Dunn posted 06-26-2014 11:22


I recently returned from Helsinki, Finland, where I had the pleasure of attending the 9th annual International Conference on Open Repositories (OR2014). This year’s five-day conference, held June 9-13, attracted nearly 500 participants representing 38 countries—the largest attendance ever since the beginning of the Open Repositories conference series. OR conference participants represent a wide range of constituencies, including librarians, archivists, repository managers, data curators, software developers, researchers, IT professionals, and many others involved in some way with digital repositories.

I have been participating in OR since the second annual conference in San Antonio in 1997, and for me, the most striking feature of this year’s conference, besides the lovely setting provided by local organizers at the National Library of Finland and Helsinki University Library, was the evident growth of the community. And I don’t just mean growth in size, but also in maturity, in ability for self-reflection, and in consideration of digital repositories not as islands unto themselves but as components in a larger digital information landscape—a concept that was reflected in this year’s conference theme of  “Towards Repository Ecosystems.”

The word open in Open Repositories can mean different things to different people: open access, open standards, open systems, open data, open source. And the same is true for repositories: institutional repositories, disciplinary repositories, digital collection repositories, data repositories, code repositories, preservation repositories. These words were intentionally left undefined by the original organizers of OR, which has given the conference great flexibility to adapt and change over the past nine years as the work, interests, and contexts of its participants have evolved. However, it also has a downside: In its early years, I saw that these differences of interpretation sometimes led participants to talk past each other, with speakers assuming an audience shared their viewpoint. In recent years, though, and especially this year, it has become obvious to me that the community has developed a better understanding of its scope and has come to embrace an open view of digital repositories as serving many diverse communities, content formats, and user needs, and utilizing a wide range of technical tools and platforms.

This “big tent” view of repositories and the repository community was exemplified by the scope of discussions at this year’s conference, from the pre-conference workshops (which covered topics ranging from GIS to altmetrics to software development technologies) through the main conference and concluding sessions.

The conference was kicked off by neuroscientist Erin McKiernan, who in her keynote talk presented a forceful argument and call to action for Open Access as a means of advancing scientific research and discussed the culture changes necessary to achieve it. Her arguments were inspired in part by her own experience working at a national research institute in Mexico that does not have the resources to purchase access to necessary scientific literature.

Many sessions addressed how digital repositories can fit into a larger ecosystem of research and digital information. A panel on ORCID implementation experiences showed how this technology could be used to tie publications and data in repositories to institutional identity and access management systems, researcher profiles, current research information systems, and dissertation submission workflows; similar discussions took place around DOIs and other identifiers. Other sessions addressed the role of institutional repositories beyond traditional research outputs to address needs in teaching and learning and administrative settings and issues of interoperability and aggregation among content in multiple repositories and other systems.

Perhaps the best example of the maturity of the OR community was the well-attended, and generally well-received, Repository Rants plenary session on the morning of day two. This track, new to this year’s conference, invited participants to propose short 10-minute talks that “challenge the conventional wisdom or practice, and highlight what the repository community is doing that is misguided, or perhaps just missing altogether.” Two presenters, in separate rants, asked the community to abandon the assumption that digital repositories equal digital preservation and to clearly communicate this to our peers and stakeholders. A librarian offered a success story from an institutional repository not reliant on an open source platform. And two more speakers, in separate but complementary rants, challenged the audience to be more inclusive of the needs of small and medium-sized institutions that could benefit from and contribute to the repository community but often do not individually have the resources to implement or actively participate in open source projects.

The final day of OR2015 was devoted to “interest group” sessions focused on users and developers of the Fedora, DSpace, and EPrints software platforms, which have long been a part of OR, as well as newcomer (to OR) Invenio, originally developed by CERN and used by a growing number of other institutions. I participated primarily in the Fedora sessions, where it was exciting to see demonstrations of the new Fedora 4 beta release and to see the growth of the Hydra and Islandora communities working to develop applications that utilize the Fedora platform.

I am confident that the spirit of growth and openness I observed in Helsinki will continue at next year’s Open Repositories conference in Indianapolis on June 8-11, 2015.

For more information on this year’s conference, including online recordings of many of the sessions, please visit


Jon Dunn is director and interim assistant dean for library technologies at Indiana University Bloomington. He is a member of the Open Repositories steering committee and served as program co-chair for OR2013 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada.