Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Butterflies, Publishers and Librarians - final UKSG plenary session


We started out with 'free-range archivist' Jason Scott of the Archive Team and the Internet Archive (home of the Wayback Machine).  His talk, "The twenty-year butterflies: which web cookies have stuck to the internet's pan?", can be watched on YouTube - and I'd highly recommend watching it, as it made me laugh at the same time it really made me think about the ephemeral quality of digital data.  As Jason said, he deals in emotions rather than academia and citations!

Jason started off with the 'Bang with Friends' Facebook app - surely the first time this has ever been discussed at UKSG! - and how it uses the full infrastructure of Facebook to facilitate hookups.  He went on to a discussion of the evolution of internet access - the 1983 Compuserve ad touting electronic mail by saying 'we call it email' made me laugh!  Then he showed us a montage of 'bad idea' ads and promises across the years; think babies 'preserved' in cellophane, children's wallpaper impregnated with DDT, floppy disks guaranteed for 100 years from 1983, text messages sent from 30 years in the future - you name it! 

He used all of these topics to illustrate how so much of the world is now ephemeral machine/person interfaces.  In effect we are cyborgs - and our recovery from that starts with admitting it to ourselves.  And as in collecting rarity is confused with 'expensive', in the world there is no gone, there is only forgotten. The Archive Team was started by people who were bemoaning online losses of wholesale site closure - their philosophy is to grab everything from sites closing down as fast as they can, so that nothing will be lost to the whims of corporate hosts.  Their 3 virtues are rage, paranoia and kleptomania and they have downloaded 500 terabytes of information since they started!

It was frustrating to see his list of sites that had closed down with so much personal information and data deleted.  He focused on the Geocities 2009 shutdown (artists are now studying these sites via the Archive Team's copies, though curators bemoan the lack of metadata), as well as the Tabblo photo site, where people thank the Team for saving their only copies of family photographs. (I loved his idea to replace 'cloud' in any statement with 'clown' - 'saving to the clown' - it may be about as darkly comical someday when sites close down.)  Also, when Twitter decided to delete Posterous, the Archive Team downloaded all the data so fast that Posterous asked them to stop!  They do not make friends with sites, but they don't feel that's important if data is being saved.  It is worth considering Jason's issues with URL shorteners and how he feels they are the worst recent internet idea - what happens if the link to the link doesn't work?  The Archive Team is saving as many of the original links and their shorteners as they can to keep this information from being lost - though I hav eno idea how this would be implemented, I appreciate their effort. 

It's worth checking out Jason's collection of website 'under construction' GIFs at http://textfiles.com/underconstruction - which was later made into an exhibit in the Museum of the Moving Image! 

In conclusion he showed us his 20-year butterfly - a smudged, pixillated image created on an emulator of how an old Macintosh paint program looked on a crap monitor!  Like someone would still think this is worth celebrating, there is always going to be someone that will thank the Archive Team for what they have done and will do.  We also need to remember that human beings are the best and most destructive force on the earth - if anything exists, it's because humans decided to do nothing.  We should encourage inactivity - we don't know what these sites that were deleted would have become in 50 years.  And Jason celebrated his friend Aaron Schwartz - like the Archive Team, he dealt with quasi-legal areas to do what he thought was right in preserving data. 

T. Scott Plutchak of the University of Alabama at Birmingham then gave his talk 'Publishers and librarians: we share the same values, why are we fighting?'.  Those of us (at UKSG) are some of the luckiest people alive - we are living in an era with innovation and we are part of it (this is our Gutenberg moment!).  We are constantly reinventing the way research is done and how it is documented - there are myriad capabilities and opportunities in front of us.  However, there are many challenges too, including technological, cultural and social ones. In this era, publishers and librarians look at each other through caricatures; they are so intimately connected but yet separated by the caricatures and lack of communication between them.  He said that libraries are advocates of social media [though I'm not sure if this is true across the board], where publishing is the antithesis of social media networking - they ensure they get things 'right', it doesn't have to be quick.  Also, publishers tend to hoard their information where librarians of course want to circulate it - they are devoted to the exchange of information, without the barriers of market forces, where publishers see market forces as a mean to exhanging information.  C.P.Snow's 'The Two Cultures' elaborates on a similar 'parallel worlds' split between the science and humanities disciplines. 

We are missing the chance to create new scholarly communication due to ignorance and lack of trusted spaces.  However, when you push the buyer-seller relationship out of the way, there is so much in common between publishers & librarians.  Knowledge will make us better negotiators, partners and collaborators - this doesn't mean we always have to agree, because we won't!  He gave advice to librarians: cool it with the emotions, attend some publisher conferences, be educated by your knowledgeable faculty - and buy a publisher a drink!  He then said to publishers: you are lousy at telling your own story, be more transparent, be more open about your mission/decision making, and it's worth sitting in on some library conference sessions to hear what librarians are really talking about (when they're not discussing pricing with you!).  Willingness and openness are needed to realise that we are all good-hearted people who can work better together!  This talk can be watched on YouTube and the slides are on the UKSG Slideshare page here.

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