5 suggestions for the Open Folklore project

Open FolkloreThe American Folklore Society (AFS) and the Indiana University Bloomington Libraries have embarked on an exciting new project called Open Folklore.  According to the project website, the vision is to create an online portal that will “make a greater number and variety of useful resources, both published and unpublished, available for the field of folklore studies and the communities with which folklore scholars partner.”  The project partners “intend for Open Folklore to be a multi-faceted project that combines digitization and digital preservation of data, publications, educational materials, and scholarship in folklore; promotes open access to these materials; and provides an online search tool to enhance discoverability of relevant, reliable resources for folklore studies.”  Jason Baird Jackson says that “another way to think about it is to see it as a branding effort or as a unified (unifying) label for a mixed collection of projects, efforts and services being pursued by the Indiana University Bloomington Libraries and the American Folklore Society aimed at making more of the scholarly literature and a greater range of scholarly resources in folklore studies openly available for those who need them.”

This is an exciting and much needed development for folklore studies.  As Tim Lloyd, Executive Director of AFS told the Indiana Daily Student, “there is not a clearinghouse for information about or access to information on what public folklorists do…there is an awful lot of literature in our field that is hard to get a hold of and use unless you have it in your hand.”

Some big steps have already been taken and if the project succeeds, it will be a one-stop-shop for access to a vast amount of full-text materials to support folklore studies.  I’ll be looking forward to seeing how it unfolds.  There are at least two areas I’ll be especially interested in: archival folklore materials and the nuts and bolts of whatever federated search engine the project develops.

With that, I have a few humble suggestions for the project:

1. Incorporate archival folklore material

The project states that it will be including unpublished “gray literature,” bulletins, syllabi and teaching materials, newsletters, websites, and other items published by the folklore community, but it does not specifically mention archival collections.  Many of the unpublished items Open Folklore is going after could easily end up in an archive, but it doesn’t appear that Open Folklore is viewing them in an archival sense.

American Folklife Center Logo
Incorporating archival materials from organizations like the American Folklife Center would make Open Folklore a truly unique resource

This is an important distinction.  Digitizing some materials that may be considered “archival” is completely different than digitizing an archival collection and presenting it as a complete body.  The former approach loses all of the context and associated meaning that would be retained in the latter approach.

It would be great to see the project help steer efforts to digitize folklore collections and make them available online, in addition to the ephemeral and unpublished materials that are equally difficult to get your hands on.  Having access to the archival materials referenced in major folklore texts, for example, would add a whole new dimension to the portal.  Imagine a portal where you could view a complete published book of songs, for example, and also access the archival materials from which the book was developed: sound recordings, transcriptions, correspondence, informant profiles, etc.  It would be an amazing – and unprecedented – resource that I’m sure other disciplines would want to emulate.

For various reasons, archival folklore collections aren’t a big target for digitization though.  Many archives are sensitive about personal information and permissions, perhaps overly so, and general issues surrounding the copyright of sound recordings and other multimedia folklore materials is something many people seem unwilling to address.  If you have limited resources and you could chose between digitizing a collection where copyright and permissions weren’t an issue and one where they were, the choice is fairly obvious.

This is where something like the Open Folklore project can step in.  Open Folklore is already working with rights holders to make journals, books, and unpublished scholarly materials freely available online, so extending this work to archival collections would be a natural fit for the project.  And because Open Folklore has an open mandate and because it appears to have broad support, it is in a great position to work with archives that have major folklore collections like the American Folklife Center, the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music, and the Indiana University Folklore Archives.   Many folklore materials in archives aren’t available online because of copyright or permissions, they aren’t available because of a lack of resources and/or stewardship.  Open Folklore can help develop the kind of partnerships needed to overcome these obstacles the same way it is developing publishing partnerships.

It’s a lot to ask, but full-text archival materials would be the icing on the Open Folklore cake.

2. Establish digital preservation strategies and policies in coordination with the archival community

An area where the Open Folklore project already overlaps with archiving is digital preservation.  In a nutshell, digital preservation is the management of digital media over time.   It is an important and evolving hybrid of traditional archival principles and information technologies.  It is also commonly confused with digital libraries and repositories.  Repository systems like the Open Journal Systems and DSpace have done a great service for open access and online publishing, but they don’t address the digital objects from a preservation perspective.  Digital preservation is largely concerned with making sure the digital object can be accessed even when the original file format, software, or hardware becomes obsolete.  This typically means migrating between formats in a way that eliminates or minimizes loss of data, or emulating a software and hardware environment that makes accessing the obsolete file possible.

Anyway, the Open Folklore website states that it plans to “digitize educational material and gray literature in folklore, and to provide digital preservation for other “born digital” resources and publications.”  This is fantastic.  Digital preservation is quickly becoming a central issue for archives working with “born digital” materials, and what’s really needed is input from records producers, like the folklore community.

But from what I can tell so far, what the Open Folklore project is doing is creating or contributing to digital libraries and repositories, not providing digital preservation services.  In the bullet point where Open Folklore lists digital preservation as a key project goal, the example used is how the IU Bloomington Libraries have already digitized and made freely available all of the white papers and other public policy documents created by the Fund for Folk Culture.   The materials were included in IU ScholarWorks, the Indiana University’s digital repository, which is great, but ScholarWorks does not have a mandate for digital preservation.   The Submissions FAQ only says that “Indiana University will work to preserve as many of these file formats as possible.”   It even warns that “the service is not equipped to support the archiving and/or accessibility of dynamic resources like open web sites, interactive applications, files with complex metadata requirements, streaming audio or video, authoring tools, or dynamic learning objects.”  But these are precisely the kinds of problems digital preservation tries to address.

To really get a grasp of what’s involved with digital preservation, the Open Folklore project should start working with archivists, software developers, and other groups actively involved in digital preservation.  Archivists and information technology specialists have been actively developing standards and protocols like the Open Archival Information System, an ISO standard for digital preservation.  This could be an exciting area for Open Folklore to become involved in.  Developing digital preservation guidelines for the folklore community, for example, would be a huge resource for folklorists interested in self-archiving or depositing their research materials in an archives.

3. Provide good search functions – and results

A key goal of the Open Folklore project is to provide an online search tool that will allow users to search the full-text of all the materials pulled together.  It’s really nice to see that Open Folklore is clearly thinking about search and navigation because in the world of online search, providing good search results is of the utmost importance.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but bad search results can be really frustrating and they can all but kill any enthusiasm about a new tool or service.  In a post about Open Folklore by Alex Golub, he and many of his commenters expressed their disappointment with AthroSource, an anthropology portal created by the American Anthropology Society (AAA) and Wiley-Blackwell.  A reoccurring point was the poor quality of the search results.  Former Cultural Anthropology co-editor Kim Fortun summed up her experiences with AnthroSource in a memo on AAA publishing, writing that “I now frankly find the AnthroSource search function useless… I have gone to AnthroSource and put in the search field a word that I KNOW appears in a wide range of articles – yet the search returns with no matches… I do not know what is the cause of it going from a great resource with yet untapped potential to a useless piece of junk.”

Ouch.  Hopefully the Open Folklore project can avoid these pitfalls!

Hathi Trust logoFor now, the project is including full text, of out-of-copyright books from the Indiana University Libraries Folklore Collection in the Hathi Trust Digital Library.  This was a smart move.  The Hathi Trust has a fantastic interface for its catalog, provides good relevant results, and provides some nice extra features, like citations, links to WorldCat searches, and permanent links.  The search results are easy to read and save, and they just look nice.  Right now, the IU Folklore collection in the Hathi Trust catalog has over 21,000 catalog records and almost 1,000 full-text items.  Putting the digitized books here allowed Open Folklore to make a large amount of folklore materials available quickly, while also fitting the project into broader digitization activities of Indiana University.

Hathi Trust is one thing though.  The real test will happen if the project team builds a federated search for all the materials it pulls together.  This could be a real feat of encoding standards, software, and web design – something like GovPulse.us – or it could leave us wishing for more.

4. Develop lasting partnerships and stick to the purpose

Big projects with lofty goals require collaboration on all fronts.  The Open Folklore project is a partnership between AFS and IU Bloomington Libraries, and it has been working with other groups, like Google Books and the Hathi Trust.  But to really address issues in folklore communications, the project team should try to forge new and lasting partnerships with institutions and organizations from across the field.

There are many reasons why collaboration should be a central theme to something like Open Folklore.   In times of funding cutbacks and increased competition, collaborative projects are especially attractive for funding bodies and donors.  And folklore itself is a collaborative process, so it makes sense to improve its profile collaboratively.  Perhaps most important though is that all of the persistent problems identified by Open Folklore stem in some way from existing institutional relationships, or the lack thereof.

Educational materials created by academic and public folklore programs are difficult to find because there is no bottom-up mechanism to collect these materials and store them in a central repository of some sort.   There are also no consistent guidelines for describing these materials.  If gray literature is deposited somewhere, it typically happens on a institution by institution basis because there are no partnerships between universities and public organizations to deal with these materials together.

There are a number of ways Open Folklore could begin to address these problems, but for the result to be a truly inclusive repository of folklore materials, the project will have to be truly inclusive and democratic.   This could be done by:

  • Allowing organizations and institutions from across the field to become voting members, for free.
  • Creating working groups to address specific issues, like gray literature.
  • Soliciting the involvement of groups and organizations with various perspectives on and relationships to folklore – tradition bearers, folklorists, public folklore programs, academic departments, libraries and archives, publishers, authors, copyright advocates, open access advocates, information technology specialists, government, etc.
  • Working with folklore funding bodies and advocacy groups to strengthen the profile of folklore in the public education system.

I realize Open Folklore is not attempting to establish itself as an association or organization, but it has a central purpose that involves many different groups, some of which have contrasting agendas, so on some level it will have to collaborate to get things done.  This is especially true with regard to copyright.

It will also be important to stick to the stated purpose, and see the project through to whatever the next phase might be.  With such an important and broad purpose, Open Folklore has the potential to really push the envelope of folklore communications.   But with such a variety of activities and initiatives on the plate – digitization and digital preservation, open access advocacy, and the creation of discovery tools – Open Folklore will need to unify these activities in a way that actually simplifies folklore studies.  Especially if the project continues to rely on existing repositories like the Hathi Trust and IU ScholarWorks.

My concern about viewing the project as a “branding effort or unified (unifying) label for a mixed collection of projects, efforts and services,” as Jason Baird Jackson puts it, is that it distributes all the activities that relate to the project’s central purpose: to make folklore materials more centralized and accessible.  Hopefully, the project team can work with multiple partners to push these different projects forward while making full use of the openfolklore.org domain.

5. Transparency

It’s good to know that Open Folklore is a joint-project between AFS and IU Bloomington Libraries, but how is the project being governed?  Who is involved?  Are there policies or guiding documents?  And where is the money coming from?

It would be nice to see a way to access information about the general governance and management of the project.  Mostly because an “open” project should be, well, open.  If the project is going to affect a large community and require a long-term investment of resources, which Open Folklore undoubtedly will, it should be as transparent as possible.  But it should also be transparent because interest in the project will only grow over time and people will eventually want to know how certain decisions were made, how resources are being allocated, etc.

I realize this might make it more difficult for things to happen organically, but if the project is going end up being an umbrella for various projects and initiatives, it would be very useful to know how everything interconnects.   This is especially true if more organizations and programs become involved in Open Folklore.  Being intentionally transparent would also help inform other open access initiatives.

Anyway, it is very exciting to see the folklore community take a leading role in communications and access to information.   I’m confident that the project will result in unprecedented access to folklore materials and scholarship, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the project solicits feedback from the various communities involved.  A collaborative open access project is not the easiest thing to get off the ground, so kudos to all the staff at AFS and Indiana University for getting this project started!

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5 Responses to 5 suggestions for the Open Folklore project

  1. Thank you very much for your thoughtful discussion of, and recommendations for, the future of the Open Folklore effort. Your comments are already serving as food for though for our discussions and we will be giving them continued attention going forward. Some of your suggestions track with discussions for the future that were already underway but others touch on untouched items on the to do list. I hope that you will continue to give thought to the effort and share your ideas.

    • Creighton says:

      Thank you Jason! I’m glad to hear my comments have been of some use. The project is very exciting from both, a researcher’s perspective and an information systems perspective, so I am really looking forward to seeing how the project unfolds.

  2. Pingback: On “Five Suggestions for the Open Folklore Project” « Jason Baird Jackson

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