DSpace – The Future of Online Archives?

Last week the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Hewlett-Packard announced the launch of the DSpace Foundation, endowed with a half-million dollar grant to support the increasingly numerous and diverse web of users adopting DSpace—an open source software program used to publish, organize, and store digitized archival collections, scholarship, and research. Preserving history is a common theme of DSpace’s work; the software platform can support a breadth of artifacts, including 3D scans, images, video, and other multimedia. As of July 16th, 255 academic and cultural institutions from 42 countries have archived more than 900,000 documents through DSpace software.

The foundation plans to expand use of the software by providing an infrastructure to help organizations manipulate DSpace for their needs. A list of current institutions using DSpace software can be found on the foundation’s “Wikipage.” Some prominent examples of DSpace’s capacity for historical preservation and exhibition can be found at links below:

  • Sea Your History
    This site of the Royal Navy shows how an institution can shape DSpace software into a polished, museum-type digital exhibition and archives.
  • DSpace at Rice University
    This archive has a simpler design than the Royal Navy site, though with valuable scans of journals, images, maps, and ancient music manuscripts in the Americas Archive, TIMEA (Travelers in the Middle East Archive), and Woodson Research Center.
  • Wheeling Collection of Mexican Revolution Photographs
    Texas A&M Cushing Memorial Library

Although these collections demonstrate the remarkable possibilities for the digital archives, it is important to note that they and many of their counterpart institutions have yet to utilize the full range of opportunities DSpace can offer for storing masses of information and designing unique repositories. DSpace has many uses, for instance some universities are using it as a repository for faculty research, setting up digital file folders for faculty to input their own scholarship and/or documents.

There are some who resist the expansion of the Dspace project, maintaining that institutions and scholars sustain their livelihood through exclusive rights to their information and work. This issue is currently in flux within the DSpace user community, where although many institutions provide open access to the public, others choose to limit at-large use of their resources. These discussions echo questions that prompted then AHA vice president Roy Rosenzweig to write an article for Perspectives titled “Should Historical Scholarship be Free?”  Rosenzweig observed the movements for and against making published scholarship freely accessible to the public on the web, concluding that “the benefits of broad and democratic access to scholarship—benefits that are within our grasp in a digital era—are much too great to simply continue business as usual.”

Rosenzweig may find satisfaction in the newly endowed DSpace, although many in the business of historical research are still at a crossroads between open or limited access to information and scholarship. Though the future of the DSpace software and Foundation are uncertain at this point, there is an air of excitement in the tremendous possibilities for a worldwide, collaborative effort to digitize and link such valuable and potentially endangered information. If the DSpace Foundation achieves its goals, the software may become an indispensable tool for archival institutions.

Institutions interested in using the software program to digitize their collections can find more information at DSpace.org.

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