Review of a digital tool

Institutional Repository

Many digital tools are cross-disciplinary and can be successfully used in different ways by different research communities.  The Institutional Repository (IR) is one such tool.  This review outlines the main features of an IR and examines its usefulness for historical research in particular.  The aim is to assess the impact of an IR on the scholarly process in the historical community.

What is an IR?

Every IR varies in purpose and scope so there is no definition to suit all cases but the primary purpose of this digital tool is to collect, preserve and make accessible the intellectual output of an institution.  This is achieved using a fully-searchable database of digital scholarly works that is based on the fundamental principles of interoperability, open access and digital preservation. The first IR was established at MIT in 2002 (DSpace@MIT ) and there are currently over 2,600 in operation globally (OpenDOAR).  Some examples include eScholarship at the University of California, the UNESP IR at São Paulo State University and Prodinra at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research.

Features of particular interest to historians

The majority of IRs are built using open-source software (OpenDOAR).  Since 2002 IR platforms such as DSpace, ePrints, Fedora, Islandora and Digital Commons have developed significantly so that each now has a substantial set of technical specifications. Bankier and Gleason identify twelve features of an IR (Bankier and Gleason).  Three of these are discussed in some detail below and brief reference is made to the other features of an IR that may be of particular interest to historians.

Content discovery

Research into how historians use digital tools has demonstrated that technology is used primarily to speed up traditional research practice; “ease of access” and “visibility of source material” are the two main reasons why historians turn to digital tools (Gibbs and Owens, par. 5).Content discovery features such as advanced and faceted search tools, full-text indexing, graphical navigation, customisable browse options and geolocation allows historians to easily browse and search for content in an IR (Bankier and Gleason 6). The optimisation of IRs across major search engines, and specialised search engines like Google Scholar, means that the discovery of content is greatly improved through the use of an IR.


Interoperability is the ability of systems to communicate with each other and transfer information back and forth in a usable format (“Current state” 5). Gibbs and Owen found that humanists need interoperable digital tools, noting “No tool is an island; tools must support combinatorial approaches to data” (30). Each IR is of limited value for research unless it connects with a network of repositories so the IR community follows the Open Access Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) to guarantee integration with other discovery services.  The interoperability of an IR presents a uniform system for disseminating information and enables historians to use this digital tool to engage with global networks of knowledge and conduct cross-disciplinary research.


While preservation is not necessarily a primary goal of every IR, built-in preservation services such as content back-up, XML-based copy of content and format migration tools means that an IR can play an important role in digital preservation.  There are different approaches to implementing preservation strategies in IRs and these are discussed in detail by Ball (16). Regardless of the method used, the value of an IR as a preservation tool for historians is that it guarantees long-term access to source material and offers a locus where historians can preserve their own research output.

Other features

There are various others features of IRs that may be of interest to historians. “Front-end design” features of an IR affect how historians interact with the tool and many IRs have implemented mobile-optimised designs and HTML5 web pages, which can help the growing number of historian who access material in this way. The “Publication Tools” allows the integration of a peer-review process and editorial workflows into the IR infrastructure. Historians can see the impact and usage statistics of their work in the IR through the “Reporting” feature. The “Multimedia” capabilities of an IR appeal to historians who are interested in using or producing non-document-like objects such as audio-visual files or images. The “Social Features and Notifications” allow historians to collaborate and network by bookmarking, establishing groups and sharing content.  The “Authentication” features of an IR guarantees that content is sanctioned to some degree by the institution.  The “Accessibility” features of an IR might also be of interest to a historian who is mindful of providing quality access to those with visual, auditory or cognitive disabilities (Bankier and Gleason 13).

Technological knowledge needed

Very little technological knowledge is needed to use an IR, either to search or to self-archive a scholarly work.  Basic search techniques and functionality will enable the historian to use an IR to find documents.  Uploading documents to the IR is very straight-forward; an understanding of metadata could be helpful but is by no means necessary since the front-end design is customised to look like a simple web form, where the historian can simply input basic bibliographic information. Technology is not a major to barrier to engagement with IRs. More significant is the cultural change needed for a shift in traditional practice. In a 2006 study on the behaviours, attitudes and concerns of academics with regard to the IR at Cranfield University, Watson noted that respondents were reluctant to self-archive their own material. She writes “76 per cent said that they would prefer the library staff to do it and 24 per cent stated as part of their answer that they would not want to do it themselves” (Watson 228).

Evidence of impact

Are historians engaging with this digital tool?  Is the IR having an impact on the historical community? After over a decade of work on IRs there is now a significant body of knowledge surrounding this digital tool and some research has been undertaken to evaluate impact on the research community.  In 2008, a special issue of Library Trends looked specifically at IRs in an attempt to gauge current practice. Contributors to that volume noted that the future role of IRs was unclear. Shreeves and Cragin argued “Institutional Repositories currently exist in a rapidly shifting landscape, and there appears to be no definite consensus on what their role might be in the future” (96). Also in 2008, Thomas investigated the impact of IRs, noting that the lack of an agreed set of “performance indicators” for IRs made it difficult to establish clear evidence about the impact and value of these tools (140).

Despite these concerns, it is clear that the number of IRs in operation globally is steadily increasing.  According to OpenDOAR, there were 128 open access repositories in 2006. This figure has increased to over 2,600 in 2014 (OpenDOAR). While hard evidence about the performance or impact of an IR is still quite difficult to establish, the ever-increasing number of these tools is surely indicative of a very receptive market. The tools are clearly being used but are they being used by historians?

OpenDOAR provides statistics on the disciplines covered by IRs worldwide. The vast majority fall under the “Multidisciplinary” category and it is likely that history and related disciplines are included in this umbrella term.  More significantly, out of the 2,728 repositories surveyed, 225 collect “History and Archaeology” solely. This subject-specific figure is second only to the “Health and Medicine” repositories, which number 267 (OpenDOAR). While these figures would benefit from more detailed breakdown of “History” in IRs, they still tell us that the historical community is engaging with IRs to a significant degree.

While it is difficult to establish the exact level of impact that IRs are having on the historical research community, it is useful to hypothesise why historical research seems to be prevalent content in IRs and why historians might be drawn to using these digital tools. The most obvious impact of an IR is the challenge it poses to the traditional academic publishing model.  The current system of scholarly communication limits, rather than expands, access to research. Crow refers to the IR community as a “new disaggregated model of scholarly publishing” (Crow).  It enables institutions and researchers (including historians) to reclaim ownership of their intellectual output. Doing this could have a profound impact on the practice of history by changing the writing and publishing models that have for centuries influenced the way in which history is written and disseminated.

Extending from this shift in the practice of writing and publishing, is a shift in the access levels to research, which is potentially another reason why the historical community are engaging with IRs.  Wider dissemination of scholarly works, as provided by an IR, means a higher research profile and greater visibility for professional historians.  It also impacts on the development of the ‘historical community’ by providing access to historians and scholars who are working outside academia. Local historians, secondary and primary-level teachers, amateurs and hobbyists or other interested parties who for geographical or financial reasons were previously excluded from the historical research community can now use an IR to access high-quality, peer-reviewed research across multiple disciplines.

Another possible reason for the level of engagement between historians and IRs is the guarantee of preservation and continuous access.  While researchers can raise their profile and reach out to networks and groups through the use of social media, personal websites and blogs, the IR offers digital preservation as an added “extra”. Benefiting from the aggregation of institutional resources and the expertise of specialist administrators, the IR offers a relatively hassle-free way to ensure long-term preservation of your scholarly works.


While there is little concrete evidence about the impact that IRs have on the historical community, it is clear that IRs are widely used globally and that the historical community are engaging with this movement.  Built on the principle of open-access, the technical features of an IR can assist historical research and practice in a variety of different ways; greater visibility, the preservation of intellectual output, and most significantly, a new approach to the traditional publishing paradigm.  While an IR is not a particularly high-tech digital tool, research has demonstrated that this suits historians, who are generally more transitory than revolutionary in their engagement with digital tools (Gibbs and Owens, par. 35). The most attractive feature of an IR for digital humanists might be the potential for harnessing this digital tool as a means to ‘democratise’ scholarly research.

Works cited

Antelman, Kristin. “Do Open-Access Articles Have a Greater Research Impact?” College & Research Libraries 65.5 (2004): 372–382. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

Bailey Jr, Charles W. “Institutional Repositories, Tout de Suite.” (2008): n. pag. Google Scholar. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

Ball, Alex. Preservation and Curation in Institutional Repositories. Bath: Digital Curation Centre, UKOLN, University of Bath, 2010. Web. DCC State of the Art Report.

Bankier, Jean-Gabriel, and Kenneth Gleason. “Institutional Repository Software Comparison.” (2014): n. pag. Google Scholar. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Crow, Raym. “The Case for Institutional Repositories: A SPARC Position Paper.” ARL Bimonthly Report 223 (2002): n. pag. Google Scholar. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

The Current State of Open Access Repository Interoperability (2012). Goettingen: Confederation of Open Access Repositories, 2012. Web.

Gibbs, Fred, and Trevor Owens. “Building Better Digital Humanities Tools: Toward Broader Audiences and User-Centered Designs.” 6.2 (2012): n. pag. Digital Humanities Quarterly. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Johnson, Richard K. “Institutional Repositories Partnering with Faculty to Enhance Scholarly Communication.” D-Lib Magazine 8.11 n. pag. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

OpenDOAR – Home Page – Directory of Open Access Repositories.” N.p., 6 Sept. 2006. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

Shreeves, Sarah L., and Melissa H. Cragin. “Introduction: Institutional Repositories: Current State and Future.” Library Trends 57.2 (2008): 89–97. Project MUSE. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Thomas, Gwenda. “Evaluating the Impact of the Institutional Repository, or Positioning Innovation between a Rock and a Hard Place.” New Review of Information Networking 13.2 (2007): 133–146. CrossRef. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

Watson, Sarah. “Authors’ Attitudes To, and Awareness and Use Of, a University Institutional Repository.” Serials: The Journal for the Serials Community 20.3 (2007): 225–230. MetaPress. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Zuber, Peter A. “A Study of Institutional Repository Holdings by Academic Discipline.” 14.11/12 (2008): n. pag. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

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