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Descriptive Minimalism's Impact on the Digital Repository
Posted On July 31, 2018
The digital repository has positioned itself as the parent to digital surrogates, the caretaker of preservation, and a poster child for the promotion of resource longevity, discoverability, and accessibility. A most noble goal, but is it sustainable—or even happening?

A Resource-Driven World

It should come as no surprise that as digital repositories gain a stronghold in our resource-driven world, something must give—a noticeable downturn in a human-centric curation processes, perhaps. With organizations (academic and other) feeling the pinch of diminishing budgets, reduced staffing, and looming deadlines, the push for a quantifiable amount of resources to be added to a repository in a mandated time frame cannot be overlooked—and, unfortunately, is not a new trial or tribulation. The concern here is that the rush to fill repositories is harming the integrity of digital objects through the resulting degradation of rich, meaningful metadata and bibliographic descriptors.

To help alleviate these problems (and for reasons that would be specific to your organization), there is now an unrelenting trend toward what we may refer to as “descriptive minimalism.” So, what, exactly, is that? Descriptive minimalism can be explained as the imposition of increasingly skeletal metadata standards and a de-emphasis on human involvement in the actual creation of the descriptions accompanying digital objects.

We have progressively been turning the corner in bibliographic practice from richly researched, human-curated digital objects to a stripped-down-out-of-necessity metadata model. Rest assured, in some cases, this is absolutely adequate. In others, however, the informational richness of a digital object can be lost, just like a digital orphan, and it will remain forever unexplored by those who would benefit most from it. Enter digital resource integrity.

Upholding Resource Integrity

We understand the urgency of the preservation of resources, the need for space-saving measures (for example, when there is too much paper to deal with), and the optimization of time management. This being said, no amount of understanding absolves us from the duty of addressing the importance placed on resource integrity when hardships dictate the course of action.

Can a resource, even one born digital, be considered “meaningful” when meaningful description is lacking? When we knowingly make the decision to lessen the emphasis on research and human curatorial measures, proceeding to turn a blind eye to the resource’s depth of information, consequences are certain to arise.

Having been positioned on each side of the digital repository fence (labor-intensive bibliographic research for optimal metadata and retrieval versus an acceptable amount of metadata for findability and usefulness), it has become clear that integrity is measured by the object or collection. Unsurprisingly, objects and collections are not created equal. They do not all require the same level of attention to minute details, but all resources benefit from a base level of evaluation.

When we come across multifaceted collections or those that contain diverse subject matter, it would be a disservice to the envisioned target audience to overlook potential key terms. These omissions may impact search results or lead users to believe that what they’re looking for is not within the resource or collection. When we consolidate metadata or unintentionally bypass key information altogether, we risk losing the audience that would benefit most (often, this is also the intended audience).

If an object or collection cannot be used to its full potential—whatever the reason—we have compromised resource integrity.

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

Can we (or should we) be held accountable for descriptive minimalism because we didn’t do the research to find the details? While repository-specific, to be unwittingly uninformed about the depth of your own collection’s resources could pose a detriment to the repository’s owner.

Traditional bibliographic practices—in which a human hand-curates each resource—are expensive and time-consuming given that object care and detailed analysis vary with each resource. However, are meaningful discoverability and potential accessibility limited in the absence of human curation efforts? What we don’t know may actually harm our insight into the intrinsic and extrinsic resource or collection’s value.

Trying to Remain Rational

It is not rational to propose that all objects must be thoroughly researched and documented before being deposited into a digital repository. Research, documentation, and the resulting translation into robust metadata are time-consuming and mentally taxing actions. They are not often viable options.

Rationally speaking, forsaking some descriptive richness for necessity’s sake does not automatically lead us down a path of restricted resource usability. Repository users may still locate their resource of choice and confidently navigate the digital repository landscape.

Full-text searching and algorithmic tools have come a long way (if the repository platform is capable of such searches), and thankfully, both have their places in discoverability. Repository users also shoulder some responsibility in locating their resource through search savvy and sleuthing abilities. While we cannot presume user fluency in search savvy and cannot guarantee that descriptive minimalism hasn’t had a resounding impact, perhaps hope is embedded in alternate solutions.

Final Thoughts

As discussed, descriptive minimalism is often a necessity—although not always ideal. Mass digitization is an answer to pressing preservation needs as well as time and resource constraints. And yet, we know that robust metadata enriches discoverability, accessibility, and digital object longevity.

When budgets and time constraints dictate the quantity of resources that can be added to a digital repository, the overarching impact to their quality is a loss of knowledge. Modifications to object integrity have residual impacts on the curation strategy for the repository. This may ultimately result in a loss in the usability and discoverability of resources.

The digital repository is here to stay—at least for the foreseeable future. All we can ask is to evaluate objects and collections to the best of our abilities, or we risk the potential impact derived from catering to the trend of descriptive minimalism.

Kelly LeBlanc is a knowledge management specialist at FireOak Strategies, where she specializes in OA, open data, data management, geographic information systems (GIS), and data/information governance issues. Prior to joining FireOak, LeBlanc was with the Digital Initiatives Unit at the University of Alberta, where she worked with GISs, metadata, spatial, and research data. She served in various municipal planning and development capacities working with GISs, municipal law, planning/zoning regulations, and resource management. LeBlanc holds an M.L.I.S. from the University of Alberta and a master of letters from the University of Glasgow.

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