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December 22, 2008

Web, scissors, stone

It strikes me that we continue to do a lot of stuff as though we lived in a paper-only world...

The whole scholarly communication cycle is a great example. Yes stuff surfaces on the Web - but only as PDF, a digital representation of traditional paper, and the way we cite and link between academic papers still happens as though we lived in a paper-based world by and large.

The JISC-funded Preservation of Web Resources Handbook [PDF], made available a few weeks back, is another nice example.  I have no idea whether it's any good or not! At over 100 A4 pages, it's impractical to read on screen and I don't really want to print out 50-odd sheets of paper just to read it either.

As funders ourselves, Eduserv is just as guilty as the JISC of funding people to produce long reports that it is difficult to do anything with other than convert to PDF and slap up on the Web as a single file.  I hate PDF! We need to get more imaginitive in the way we surface stuff. And we desperately need to get out of the mindset that more equals better.

We now regularly ask our projects to blog throughout the life of their work, with the expectation that doing so is good for engagement and results in something incremental and part of the fabric of the social Web. I'm sure the JISC do this as well. But even where we do that, we still often end up with a final deliverable that is the complete antithesis of what the Web is about - i.e. a long PDF file. See our series of snapshots of the use of Second Life in UK HE for an example (though we are currently in discussion about how we improve things going forward).  Is there any reason why a handbook isn't delivered as a proper Web document (and, no, I don't mean one of those horrible automated conversions) for example?

And more generally... what about funding documents tailored for use on a mobile device like an iPhone? What about CommonCraft-style videos? What about ongoing Twitter streams? And if the format really does demand a traditional 'book' (as might well be the case here) why not optimise it for one of the print on demand services so that people can end up with a nicely bound volume rather than some scrappily printed, stapled together collection of A4 pages?

And please don't give me that crap about PDF being the best preservation format. Sheesh!


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Sigh. With funders like these, who needs enemies :-)

The VWW snapshots (or their length) are a victim of two things:

1. More instances of virtual world use popping up in HE/FE. I (and probably EF) never thought it would take up this quickly. So, more content.

2. Academic VW developers being very (and sometimes strangely) happy to talk in great length about what they do. And much of it is interesting and/or useful to other people.

Problem is 1 + 2 = bloat-report, as you've linked to.

I've got 23 days to go until delivering the next "report" and am inclined to fragment it according to audience:

1. Presentation (with notes) on Slideshare.

2. Two or more *small* reports, more targetted at an audience.

3. An Excel spreadsheet of VW use in the UK, which is *partially* publicly available, or used to seed something else.

One thing that's for sure is that there isn't going to be another 70+ page PDF document with 444 footnotes, like the last snapshot.

In fact the survey for this one is deliberately rigged so that is impossible to recur. I can think of about a dozen people who would have read that whole document, but a lot more to whom some elements would have been highly relevant, and the rest not that important.

"The JISC-funded Preservation of Web Resources Handbook [PDF], made available a few weeks back, is another nice example. I have no idea whether it's any good or not!"

Well, Andy, let's just hope you can file that report away somewhere handy so's you can find it again. There's absolutely no descriptive metadata in that file. Something that we as an STM publisher are trying to address now [1] for all our titles since PDF, like it or loathe it, is the de facto publishing standard. At least these Web-delivered objects should be made to display some degree of intelligence.

[1] http://blogs.nature.com/wp/nascent/2008/12/xmp_labelling_for_nature.html

Hi Andy - thanks for making your readers aware of the Preservation of Web Resources Handbook. As you imply there was a contractual requirement to provide a handbook in the format which was delivered by the project team (UKOLN and ULCC). However you seems to have missed the fact that the handbook brings together many of the issues related to Web site preservation which were initially discussed on the JISC PoWR blog. The blog provided - and continues to provide access to more bite-sized snippets of information, as well as providing an opportunity to discuss and comment on the snippets (the blog continues to be open to comments).

And we have recently announced on the blog that we will be continuing to make use of the blog to continue this discussion on best practices for the preservation of Web resources.

@Tony Hammond - oops, we'll add relevant metadata to the PDF. And thanks for the link to your recent blog post.

@brian - sorry, I did know about the blog and should have mentioned it. But as I said, using a blog as part of the process of producing a handbook doesn't reduce the need the think about the form of the end result.

So, for example, I don't think I'd consult the blog in the way that I'd expect to consult a handbook, defined by Wikipedia as follows:

A book of reference, mostly to be carried in the hand.

The point is that we need to redefine what we mean by handbook in the context of the Web, just as we need to redefine just about everything else? The real point is that I don't think that "PDF file of ~100 A4 pages" comes anywhere close to either the currently accepted understanding of "handbook" or to whatever we might understand that term to mean in the future!

Hi Andy. As a contributor to the JISC-PoWR Handbook, I concur with all your points. I also dislike PDF for anything except print-ready copy. For online study, research and information management it's simply horrible. I wrote somewhere else that I look forward to the day when we look at PDF with the same kind of bemusement as Etch-A-Sketch.

I'd like to see the Handbook available in a native web format - e.g. a MediaWiki - and even evolve and grow as a dynamic resource. I'd equally like to see some A5 printed copies (after some further editing/distillation) available, perhaps thru a print-on-demand service - then it would indeed be more of a handbook. I'm less troubled by the embedded metadata issue than the fact that it's not been made available via deposit in some reputable IR! Unfortunately the project funding and direction doesn't seem to have led to this outcome, at least not yet.

I believe there's valuable content in the Handbook, filling a needed gap for those who need to deal with these issues practically, day-to-day - many of whom came to our workshops - but I agree that its present format is really not doing that information, or its target audience, any favours.

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