In Focus
Apr 13, 2017

Opening Trinity’s Knowledge Bank to the World

Making thousands of PhD theses available online, Trinity's library is pioneering in making knowledge open access.

Amanda HarveyContributing Writer
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Andrew Murphy for The University Times

The Berkeley-Lecky-Ussher (BLU) library, a cataclysmic space reflecting the dynamic students and staff at Trinity, has recently implemented a new digital avenue to the library collections. On March 22nd, library staff, in conjunction with the host space of the Science Gallery, held a panel discussion in recognition of what Helen Shenton, Librarian and College Archivist, stated on the night as a “celebration of postgraduates”. The panel commemorated the first instalment of the development, which consisted of publishing 2,000 theses online out of the 6,500 available in the library. As well as putting all past theses online, Trinity is changing how theses are submitted, so that from April 7th of this year, all PhD theses are submitted electronically. As Shenton explained, they are now “all available” through open access.

Prof Neville Cox, Trinity’s Dean of Graduate Studies, contextualised this undertaking within Trinity’s recent inclusion in the prestigious and exclusive League of European Research Universities (LERU). This league includes 23 universities in total. Each of these universities, on further exploration, have online databases for open access to theses and dissertations. It would seem logical, therefore, that the inclusion of Trinity in this league would naturally lead to the development of an online platform for e-theses.

It is easy to see how passionate Shenton is not only about the advantages the online accessibility offers to the students, but how the open access approach allows people in other academic universities and people outside of academia to have an equal opportunity to Trinity’s knowledge bank. Speaking to The University Times, Shenton states that “the vast majority” of students said “‘fantastic I am delighted’, or even, ‘I have a PDF of the theses already’”. She describes the students’ feedback as “very thoughtful”. She declares that the process for e-theses was as “open as possible and as closed as necessary”. This means that the authors of the theses were consulted with regards to the publishing of their work, and, where necessary, precautions were taken to ensure their content was protected.

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The present and future publication of all 6,500 theses shows Trinity’s enthusiasm and collaborative approach for the digitisation as it expands into the online-focused academia world

She further mentions the EU policy of Horizon 2020, stated on the European Commissions website as “measures [aiming] at breaking down barriers to create a genuine single market for knowledge, research and innovation”, as defining the collaborative environment represented by the online publishing of the e-theses. The present and future publication of all 6,500 theses shows Trinity’s enthusiasm and collaborative approach for the digitisation as it expands into the online-focused academia world.

The task of digitising 2,000 theses was a collaboration between several bodies in the College. The collaborative effort stretches from the library to the three main faculties on campus – Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences; Engineering, Mathematics, and Science; and Health Sciences – with parts being outsourced to ensure the best quality digitisation. The library staff who worked directly on the project were essential to its creation. Margaret Flood, Keeper of Collection Management, “drove” the project, while Sub-Librarian, Dr Christoph Schmidt-Supprian, was one of the co-ordinators. The Accessions Librarian, Trish Quigley, acted as the main liaison between the library staff and the alumni. The theses are held on the TARA system, which was handled by Niamh Brennan and Ashling Hayes, who were “instrumental in agreeing to host the collection”, according to Shenton.

Glenbeigh Records Management (GRM), an Irish-owned company which specialises in the provision of a comprehensive range of records management services, worked with Trinity to scan all of the theses with the Austrian-made Treventus ScanRobot 2.0. This mass digitisation system is designed to digitise large volumes of any bound material. The system can scan up to 2,500 pages in an hour and can output images in several different formats. It caters for various different types of scanning including fragile books and the manual scanning of book covers, spines and fold outs. The scanner is so precise, in fact, that the few theses that were water damaged, due to a flood in the library a few years ago, can still be viewed in digital copies. Speaking to The University Times, Schmidt-Supprian states that Trinity went for the highest-quality option to act as a “digital surrogate” to the paper copies – meaning they would be exact digital replicas of the original paper thesis. The staff also took the time to include Optical Character Recognition. This gives the reader of the theses the advantage of searching the entire script for keywords, phrases and sentences. Schmidt-Supprian notes that “the one drawback of the high resolution of the e-theses is the big file size”, which, “under bad network connections”, will take a while to download. In light of this flaw, however, once all 6,500 theses are online, it will be possible to reformat the quality of the document.

The size of the project was put into perspective not only through the range of interactions through College channels and the required outsourcing to complete the project, but also in the detailed work before and after the scanning.

The first step in the process was to establish whether the author of the thesis gave permission to the university to allow the digitisation of their work. Trinity chose an opt-out basis for their graduates, meaning that unless specifically told not to digitally publish the article, Trinity has the right to publish the thesis. Schmidt-Supprian estimates that about 50 postgrads had to opt-out for various different reasons. “The main reason that postgraduates opted out was if they had a possible contract with a publisher that stated they would only get published if they were not published anywhere else”, he explains. Next, 2,000 emails were sent, in addition to a notice in Trinity’s alumni magazine, Trinity Today. A notice was also sent out to each of the different faculties asking which theses should be prioritised. In addition to reaching out to the faculties, the library itself has a record of the most requested theses that they consulted in order to dwindle the original 6,500 into a more manageable 2,000.

Shenton states that on the Irish scale, it is the biggest project of this type

After deciding which theses were to scan first, the library staff created quality reports which stated the condition of the theses before they were sent off in four batches in May. In addition to the quality report, however, some other criteria needed to be completed as well, the first being the creation of an abstract, which consists of a brief summary of the research. The second vital action for the library staff, according to Shenton, was to make sure that the supervisor’s name “is displayed on the records in TARA”, an institutional repository, alongside the thesis. The process of finding the supervisor for each thesis was sometimes challenging due to the fact that they were not always mentioned directly, and thus had to “read inbetween the lines” in order to find the name. In addition, the cataloguing of the e-theses was difficult, as, according to Schmidt-Surrpain, some of the departmental structures within Trinity had changed. Though the theses were previously labelled as belonging to one department, it actually now belonged to another. The main subdivision of the theses was attributed to the efforts of Assistant Librarian, Niamh Harte, by Schmidt-Surrpain, who stated that “all channels were flowing through her”. After the scanning took place, each thesis was quality checked and then put back in place in the library.

Another interesting use of the system that the library staff had to consider was when students requested a thesis. The library arranged to give students access to the theses within a certain number of working business days, depending on the demand. Schmidt-Supprain stresses that “the most recent theses and the most requested based on the library catalogue” were the first ones to be considered for the process, thus “while they were being scanned, we had a system in place that in the meantime if someone was requesting it we could still accommodate that request”. The attention to detail and consideration of all eventualities shows how much the staff kept students in mind when carrying out this task.

The e-theses project distinguishes Trinity from other Irish universities. Shenton states that “on the Irish scale, we are the biggest” project of this type. The progression of Trinity into a university which uses electronic resources such as this takes the College from the national stage and propels it into the global sphere.

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