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November 27, 2006

Reflections on 10 years of the institutional Web

Nisqually

I began writing this post when we first started the blog back in September - but then it got lost somehow and I never finished it off or published it.  More recently I was interviewed by phone as part of a study evaluating the UK eLib Programme (and in particular the impact of the MODELS project) and it reminded me about the conclusions I draw below.

I was asked earlier in the year to give the closing talk at the UK Institutional Web Managers Workshop, looking back over the past 10 years of the institutional Web.

I have to confess that I felt pretty intimidated by the scope of the talk, though I hope that the result was at least a little interesting.  I certainly found it useful to spend some time thinking about what had been happening over that kind of timeframe.

I suppose I reached two broad conclusions...

My first point was that there hasn't been enough engagement during that time between the UK digital library community (i.e. the community that grew out of the e-Lib Programme, the UK's first significant suite of digital library projects) and the UK Web manager community.  I don't mean that in a "they've been ignoring us" kind of way.  What I mean is that we need to continually remind ourselves that digital library activities (at least in the context of UK higher and further education) need to be firmly grounded in the realities of education service delivery - not least so that they remain relevant and practical.  A good example is metadata development and research (a topic close to my heart) which one could argue has had very limited impact on the issues that institutional Web manages care about.  As the provision of an institution's Web site became an increasingly marketing kind of activity, I think we lost a lot of the links between the webmaster, library and elearning communities that would otherwise have been very beneficial.  Having listened to a lot of very interesting debates on the UK webmaster forums over the years, it has always frustrated me that there seems to have been very little engagement by that community in elearning or eresearch issues as such - and the community is poorer for it.

My second point was that we are in danger of losing our own digital history - or at least that associated with the development of institutional Web sites in the UK.  For a community that generally accepts the importance of digital preservation, it seems to me that we are more talk than action!?  Looking back to the early days of institutional Web site, seeing what those sites looked like and what kinds of discussions went on at that time is surprisingly difficult.  Early mailing list archives got lost in the transition from mailbase.ac.uk to jiscmail.ac.uk, the Internat Archive didn't start until too late to capture some of the stuff, and so on.  Don't get me wrong, there is some interesting stuff still around - I showed some of Brian Kelly's early Web evangelism slides that he was using in 1995 during my talk and noted that they could more or less still be used today.  I also had some stuff in my personal email archives, but to my shame, even some of that got lost when I moved from UKOLN to the Eduserv Foundation :-(

So my major recommendation from the talk was that someone needs to capture some of this stuff as soon as possible, because, if we don't, then a significant part of the history of how university Web sites in the UK grew up and the outcomes of the eLib programme will be lost forever.

It used to be said that eLib took a "let a 1000 flowers bloom" kind of approach.  Undoubtedly true.  Yet somewhere along the line we may not have cultivated those flowers properly and, even if we did, we are in danger of losing our record of how pretty they looked.

Image: Cloud reflections at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Washington, US. [May 2006]

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Isn't there a more general issue about the web and its selective management as part of the record, whether of institutions, initiatives, or whole communities like ac.uk?

What about course catalogues, for example, which are an important part of the institutional record? These may now have a web manifestation which changes over time and which is not periodically captured. The same may be true of other institutional records which have migrated to the web.

Or in a different context, think about, for example, how public libraries have historically collected the published local history record. Now that much of this is on the web, how many are capturing snapshots of newsletters, local organization websites, and so on?

And there appears to be growing interest in periodically capturing and managing parts of the web in association with teaching and scholarly activity. This is very visible in the case of elections but is a more general issue.

I guess this is an area where routinizable out-of-the-box technical and policy solutions have not kept pace with requirements?

"Routinizable"! With a "z"!! Lorcan... it's time you came home :-)

Preservation of eLib: I second Andy's call.

eLib still gets discussed amongst a lot of the project workers, especially when reminiscing about what we did in the 90's (most of us are knocking on middle-age, mid-way through mortgages, and breeding like mad).

I still had my email archive from my time at UKOLN, doing Ariadne and eLib stuff, and flicked through them a few years ago. Apart from wondering how I ever got any work done (and how gobby I was in my youth), what comes out is how much of the debate/arguments are relevant today - like Brian's slides.

There are various bits and pieces around the web; a workshop mailing list here [1], an archived project website there [2]. But there's a lot less than there was 3 years ago, unsurprisingly, as old academic websites and archives go offline or are wiped.

There is a case for preserving (in a way that makes it comparable to today) much of the eLib "stuff", be it websites, deliverables, debate, issues, memories, controversies. Many of those who worked on projects are easily contactable (as most are still in some kind of LIS loop and quite a few blog e.g. [3][4][5][6]). However, the case is made stronger by the number of people who worked on eLib projects who have died in the decade since the programme (sadly, not all of them old people), and this "stuff" is irreversibly getting lost over time.

[1] http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/mailing-lists/ukoln-external-open/imesh-workshop/
[2] http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/metadata/roads/what/
[3] http://ias.livejournal.com/
[4] http://ruthj.livejournal.com/
[5] http://www.ian-upton.com/
[6] http://danbri.org/words/

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