Islandora at IDCC 2015

I rounded off my time at the 2015 International Digital Curation Conference this week with a workshop on Islandora. The Digital Humanities site, through which items from the University’s Special Collections are made available online, uses Islandora 6, and we have plans to upgrade it to Islandora 7, the current version.

The open-source Islandora framework is based principally on three widely-used and well established open-source applications:

The Islandora extensions to Drupal make it much easier to interact with the rock-solid, secure but somewhat user-unfriendly Fedora software and make use of Solr to ease the discovery of information. A range of “solution packs” allow users to work effectively with a range of data types, both when ingesting them into the repository (e.g. capture of metadata, creation of derivatives) and when viewing them. For example, when a TIFF image is imported via the Image Solution Pack, copies in other formats, such as JPEG, are stored alongside the original TIFF. This is because TIFFs are excellent for archival purposes but not as well suited for display on the web as JPEGs. The Image Solution Pack also allows users to do things like annotate the image and interact with it in a zoomable image viewer.

The Islandora framework is managed by the Islandora Foundation, but much of the work, particularly on the core components, is carried out by Discovery Garden, who provide commercial services around Islandora. Alan Stanley of Discovery Garden was one of the original developers of Islandora and he led the workshop after giving an introductory demonstration on the first day of the conference. Alan will, I believe, be making his slides available through the conference web pages but they are not there for me to link to at the time of writing.

Working with an Islandora instance which was in place when I came into my position here, and not having worked with Islandora before, the overview and the explanation of the architecture was very useful. With my work on Islandora having been focused on certain key areas, principally ensuring that content will display correctly following an upgrade, coverage of other features such as the Form Builder and the way in which roles can be used within the system were particularly useful.

Unfortunately, upgrading from 6 to 7 has thus far proved more difficult than I anticipated. I have previously forced content to work in the new version using techniques that I wasn’t entirely happy with (e.g. directly editing XML in the repository) and sought some further guidance here. (The documentation can sometimes be less than helpful – see the rather unhelpful comment at the end of the Overview of the Book Solution Pack. Some detail on the migration script would be useful.) While I now have some understanding of the (admittedly good) reasons why the upgrade is tricky, there was not adequate time to get into any detail on it. Alan has agreed to help me out if I get in touch with him, however, and I will be taking him up on that offer.

We have some other projects in the pipeline that would seem to be a good fit for Islandora, so we are considering moving to a multi-site setup, with several Drupal instances drawing on a single Fedora Commons instance, as described by a poster from the University of Toronto Libraries at the conference. The workshop included some useful tips on how to go about doing that and it continues to look like a good way forward.

IDCC 2015

I’m spending most of this week at the DCC’s 10th International Digital Curation Conference in London. Research data management (RDM) is a key subject throughout the conference, but I have a particular interest in the Islandora software, covered by a poster, demonstration and finally a workshop on Thursday. The Digital Humanities site at St Andrews is an Islandora site, and I’ll come back to it in another post following the workshop.

On the wider subject of RDM (or Digital Curation, if you prefer), a number of key themes kept cropping up. There has been a lot of talk about carrots vs. sticks (and, at one point, carrot sticks) – having funders require researchers to undertake data management tasks and make certain commitments is effective in getting things moving in the right direction, but there is a real need for a change of culture so that good data management practices are embedded within research processes because they deliver real benefits to researchers. Part of achieving this is providing suitably usable services that a cost/benefit analysis makes good practices attractive and change behaviours and attitudes. However, sustained funding is required to provide those services, whether at institutional or cross-institutional levels. Meanwhile, project funding needs to allow for data management costs.

While it would be wonderful if providing suitable incentives were sufficient in engendering good practices, a particular example emerged in discussions around funder requirements for data management plans. The EPSRC is unusual in the UK in not requiring researchers to submit a DMP (funders may use other terminology, e.g. technical plan) with their bids. They do expect a DMP to exist, but do not ask to see it and it is incumbent on the institution to make sure that it is in place. The upshot is that it can be difficult to get researchers applying to the EPSRC to write DMPs – it doesn’t affect whether or not their bid will succeed, so why bother? While having researchers do this as a box-ticking exercise to ensure compliance with funder requirements is less than ideal, it is better than it not being done at all and can help to create good habits.

The sessions have ranged widely, and presentations are available from the programme page. The posters are also available online. Watch out for papers in the next edition of the International Journal of Digital Curation.

A couple of positive observations – they may seem faint, but are worth bearing in mind for those of us trying to move things forward:

  • Slow progress is still progress
  • Poor metadata is better than no metadata

Finally, I’d like to give a plug to DMPonline partly because I was a developer working on it before coming to St Andrews but mainly because it is the best way to draft a DMP (even if you’re EPSRC-funded!), with templates based on funder requirements and guidance from both the University and the funder.