It has long been recognized that a fundamental role of the university library is the provision of safe custody and the assurance of measured access to the wealth of published scholarship. Traditionally, the library has been synonymous with a collection of books, although an effective 21st-century library service is more likely to be defined by the extent to which it enables access to information in non-print formats, particularly that which is accessible by electronic means. Yet, while the utility of the university library has extended conspicuously to the provision, and interpretation, of digital resources, including most recently the installation of repositories for the preservation and dissemination of research papers, its principal focus has remained upon items or objects that one may consider in some way to have been published, whether in printed or electronic form.
The persistence of such a limited account of library business is perhaps surprising, given the importance vested by universities in their conduct of research and the kudos they perceive it to bestow upon them, since the research output that is visible from published scholarly and scientific articles represents only a fraction of any institution's research undertakings. It is important to ask, therefore, whether libraries might be expected to display a natural interest in the stewardship of all or any of the larger set of ‘unpublished’ research data that is produced.
While research publications are, for the moment at least, the commodity upon which research performance is assessed, they each serve a resolutely narrow purpose: to present a case and persuade the reader to a particular point of view. As such, they will generally comprise a finely tuned orchestration of theses, arguments and opinions, developed from a tiny sub-set of data that has been carefully selected and filtered from the much larger accumulation generated. Paradoxically, this larger and predominantly digital collection of research data, from which scholarly articles are eventually derived, constitutes an indisputably valuable asset in its own right, not simply because it is the product of considerable financial and intellectual investment, but for the reason that it has within it the potential for accruing value from further manipulation, analysis and re-use.