Expanding and Sustaining the Supply Chain for International and Area Studies Documentation

“La politica porfirista según Pineda,” from Hijo del Ahuizote [Mexico, Agosto 3 de 1902], [Año XVII, Tomo XVII, Num. 822, pp. 1418–1419] CRL collections

In the last twenty years the documentation “supply chain”—the provisioning system that research libraries traditionally have relied upon for gathering and maintaining information—has changed radically, particularly for source materials produced outside of the developed world. Changes have been brought about by economic factors, the emergence of new digital production and distribution channels, and changes in user practices and expectations.

In the paper era, libraries occupied an important place in this supply chain. The provisioning system for libraries consisted of:

  • Travel and purchase of local materials by acquisitions staff of major research libraries;
  • In-region purchase by agents and vendors according to institutional “profles”;
  • Direct print subscriptions to newspapers and journals from in-region publishers;
  • Supply of material through overseas offices of the Library of Congress;
  • Microform publication of resources with limited print availability, through commercial producers (ProQuest, Brill, East View, etc.) and cooperative library microfilming (such as CRL’s Foreign Newspaper Microfilm Project);
  • Deposit arrangements by inter-governmental organizations like the United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund.

These mechanisms were augmented by sharing collections through interlibrary loan and scholarly residencies. The system, broadly speaking, suited the needs and practices of researchers in area studies and related humanities and social sciences fields in the 20th century. But in the global information environment, these traditional provisioning activities are rapidly becoming obsolete.

21st Century Realities

New Users

Traditional region-based area and language studies no longer circumscribe the realm of area and international studies (AIS). To a large extent the globalization of university curriculum and research agendas is particularly evident in the professional schools: Law (trade and Intellectual property); Medicine (epidemiology and public health); Business (international/multinational trade and finance); Engineering (civil infrastructure and computer science); and Communications (broadcast and journalism).

New User Practices and Expectations

Researchers increasingly turn first (if not exclusively) to resources available in electronic form, in databases that are managed and maintained by publishers, aggregators, and other providers. Researchers expect that information and documentation should be available 24/7, often delivered in real time, and be easily navigable and highly functional. Many researchers use sophisticated computer programs and software to sift through, analyze, and visualize digital source materials, such as large bodies of text and large data sets.

New Economic Realities

Financial resources available to support collections for area studies and other specialized fields of research are dwindling, even as demand for international sources diversifies. Federal funding for international studies from the Department of Education has drastically declined, as has funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities for preservation of collections. Increasingly, library acquisitions are driven by the immediate needs of researchers and scholars, affecting the ability of libraries—individually and collectively—to build and curate collections with an eye towards future needs.

New Production and Market Practices

Publishing output continues to increase across the globe. Vast troves of content are widely available on the web, even as much information is still disseminated only in print (thus still requiring “traditional” library solutions for acquisition). National and state governments routinely post data directly to the web, but often lack the capacity and/or incentives to maintain such data for the long-term. At the same time, public domain content is being “productized” by commercial producers who offer highly functional platforms and analytical tools. News media have shifted toward web-first (or web-only) dissemination, enabling almost real time access to world events, but often “paywalls” restrict such accessibility.

The Global Collections Initiative

Given these developments, what does cooperative collection development look like in the 21st century? And how can CRL promote such cooperation? In 2016 CRL was awarded funding by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to lay the groundwork for a scalable, ongoing program that can support access to source materials for research on regions outside North America, the United Kingdom, and Europe. The goals of the Global Collections Initiative (GCI) are to:

  • Dramatically expand conversion of paper-based resources from those regions to digital format;
  • Forge an international partnership at the national level to develop, license, and acquire new digital resources for AIS research in North America, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
Detail of issue cover. Bohemia (Havana, 2 de Julio 1961). CRL collections

The geographic focus of the development phase of the program is Latin America and the Caribbean, and the diaspora communities emanating from those regions. Partners will identify and ensure the survival of endangered source materials, combining the preservation of primary evidence and data in digital and physical form with its exposure and delivery to research communities. These activities will produce a framework of cooperation and practice that can be applied to other world regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia.

CRL is working with an international set of partners in the United States, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Latin America. This effort will expand the existing CRL network of libraries and consortia into a more agile, global community that cooperatively mines and exploits the vast legacy holdings of research libraries, while capturing and developing new digital resources for scholars.

The development phase of the GCI involves three separate but related streams of activity that run in parallel for the duration of the grant period.

1. Digitization of existing library collections

Primary source materials, i.e., newspapers, non-academic journals, government publications, statistical data, central bank reports, etc., are of central importance for international studies. An enormous latent body of such materials, much of it neither cataloged nor digitized, is held by libraries in North America, Europe, and in the regions of study (Latin America).

Unlocking those materials should have a positive impact on scholarship. Yet, much of the most valuable primary source materials for AIS were produced within the last seventy-five years. These have potential copyright restrictions that put them outside the scope of many programs like HathiTrust and the World Digital Library that focus on public domain materials.

Latin American materials to be digitized under the GCI include materials requested by scholars for interlibrary loan from CRL, as well as materials identified by CRL-affliated groups: LAMP and LARRP, and GCI partner libraries. Special priority will be given to materials of value for multi-regional research and the study of timely topics such as migration, environment, security and conflict, governance and civil society, international relations, economic development, and other “overarching” themes. Priority also will be assigned to “at-risk” material endangered by political suppression or other external factors.

Finally, CRL will explore partnerships with commercial publishers (along the model of the World Newspaper Archive) to expose historical content currently “locked” in print and microform vaults of commercial providers including Brill, ProQuest, and East View.

2) Licensing of global datasets and collective dealings with publishers

CRL has begun to assemble an international working group to undertake collective negotiations with publishers and other aggregators of key databases for international studies. A particularly problematic category of research resources is produced by commercial organizations for which libraries are not the principal market. Such resources include news, financial and economic data, demographic and public opinion information, and government information.

Priorities will be guided by the interests of participating institutions and will depend upon the willingness of providers to consider transparent baseline terms and pricing for multi-national licenses. Multidisciplinary interests will receive special consideration, in addition to databases and related content deemed at risk due to technical obsolescence or unstable platforms. CRL is also exploring potential partnerships with university-based non-profit efforts that aggregate and make available census and opinion data, news broadcast content, and health and agricultural data.

3) Evaluation of web harvesting and alternatives

Finally, CRL has begun an independent assessment of current strategies for capturing born-digital materials relevant to AIS. This will determine how well selected web archiving initiatives currently serve the needs and practices of researchers in the area and international studies fields. It will assess the intrinsic suitability of the archived data/content to the specific needs and practices of those researchers.

The study will examine alternative approaches to preserving web-based materials, such as the use of LOCKSS to mirror and capture websites like the Museum of Dissidence in Cuba, created by Luis Manuel Otero and Yanelis Nunez Leyva but now imperiled. It will also consider more systematic harvesters of web information like the BBC Monitoring Service.

Sponsoring organizations during the development phase of the GCI project are CRL, the Canadian Research Knowledge Network (CRKN), and the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft or DFG). Participating institutions include CRL member libraries as well as universities and research institutes in Germany, the United Kingdom, and Latin America.

Fundamentally altering the way libraries provision and preserve resources for AIS research is a formidable task. To accomplish it CRL will draw upon the long and distinguished legacy of cooperative area studies preservation projects. Those projects served the humanities and social sciences well for five decades, and have prepared the groundwork for collective action to provide for future scholars.