An honorable dilemma

I’ve got an interesting dilemma on my hands, but I think it’s the right kind of dilemma to have.

Here’s the story:

Two seniors in the theatre department were both awarded honors this spring for projects they completed using WordPress blogs. They used the blogs as a substitute for the old-school journal they used to keep while tracking their work in a production. Kudos to the department chair, Gregg Stull, for being completely open to the potential of a blog environment for capturing and presenting this kind of activity. And, of course, congratulations to both Jenna and Peter for achieving honors.

Now, here’s the dilemma. Students who are awarded honors are asked to submit a bound copy of their work to the library by the end of the semester for placement in special collections. Hmmm. . . can you see where we’re going?

Luckily, I’ve got a fantastic group of librarians at UMW who are ready and eager to have a conversation about how to approach this challenge. But, before I got much furhter in the conversation, I thought I’d throw this out to my VAST readership and ask for some feedback.

Here are some possible solutions I can come up with:

  • Have the students print out every page from the blog and bind it. One word: YUCK
  • Find some way to back-up the blog in it’s current entire form to digital media (CD) and deliver that to the library. Eh, this one isn’t doing much for me either
  • Backup just the raw “data” of the blog and deliver that to the library. That’s kind of a dumb suggestion, so I’m not sure why I’m throwing it in there. It would serve almost no purpose to someone coming along to the library later to do research, but it does get at the heart of the question about what it is we’re trying to archive: data?, an online experience?, an ephemeral work-in-progress?
  • Work with the library to come up with a solution that allows an item to be archived by it’s URL and then hope that we can maintain that address. One problem with this approach is that it’s possible that a student might want to keep working in the blog space (although I’m not sure that’s likely in these two cases), and then as time progresses we lose the sense of the “object” in it’s current form, representing the work they’ve completed up to this point

So this is the part of the post where I remind everyone that I’m not a librarian, so I’m probably missing all sorts of nuances to this question. That’s why I’m looking forward to hearing your feedback and talking at greater length with actual librarians about this.

8 thoughts on “An honorable dilemma”

  1. I’ve got at least a temporary solution! Install WP-o-Matic on the umwlibraries blog. Then have the students put their projects in a specific category on their blog (say “Final Honors Project.” After that we take their category feeds and put it in the wp-o-matic field on the umwlibraries blog and the projects will go directly into a Student Honors category on This way they instantly have copies of the honors projects archived on their blog. Then, come up with a more extensive system whereby we create a digital repository via WordPress, Drupal, or some other tool they are working with to house such projects.

    I know at the next library meeting they will be talking about the public face of this blog, and WordPress is currently being developed as by some folks -so it might give us some ideas.

    It is far from perfect, but may be a start.

  2. Okay, I know that Jim (and others) knows lots more about this than I do, but this kind of dilemma actually why I’ve been pushing for some kind of academic server with fixed URL address and (semi)permanent storage for the (at minimum) the best student projects.

    Still, I’m mindful of the difference between an Honors paper that will be in the library (more or less permanently) and an online site, based on a server that we’d have to continue to support with resources and people over a long-term. To that end, what if DTLT did two things with these projects?

    1) Provide a space for these Honors projects to continue to exist on UMW servers (or UMW managed bluehost accounts).

    2) Back up everything to CD/DVD (using HTTrack or some other mirror software). That way, regardless of what happens with the site/hosting, people in the future will be able to access the materials created by these students (although maybe not in exactly the form they imagined). [I agree that this is not a good solution by itself, but it offers some traditional stability of access.]

    Another potential advantage of the second part is that it fixes the material at a particular moment in time (the point at which they were awarded Honors). Then, hopefully, they would be able to continue adding to their blog if they wanted to.

    Like Martha, I’m not a librarian, so I may be missing some really obvious problems (or solutions) here. Still, it seems to me that this question gets at the heart of some key issues we’ve talked about, but are going to be facing more and more: What happens when we’re successful at getting students to embrace (with great skill) the electronic spaces we’ve encouraged them to create in? How do we show them that their electronic work matters to the institution? How do we preserve information in a moving online world? And how can we showcase the best work our students are doing without overburdening our infrastructure? [And do e-portfolios fit into this discussion?]

  3. I see two things at work–preserving the artifact in its present form, and making that artifact accessible later. And that’s before we even get into what, exactly, the “artifact in its present form” means (does it include the entire visual context of the blog, with headers and footers and tags, oh my!? or just the text?).

    For preserving the artifact, a locally-stored copy of the page right now, including all the images etc., seems like what you have in mind. Doing that to CD doesn’t do much for me, either, but something more along Jeff’s lines using a repository system that allows this might be where we need to look. That’d be a solution that also takes care of making it accessible. It’s also a solution that doesn’t exist for us right now. Alas!

    The thing is that archiving by URL is probably a contradiction. “Archive” suggests preservation in present form, and URLs, at least URLs to blogs, point to content that we expect to change.

    The icky solution we have now might be to save it all to a CD, catalog the CD, and someday when we have a repository to move it there.

  4. Thanks to everyone for their feedback.

    Jim, as we’ve discussed, I think the WP-o-matic approach has a lot of potential. The main concern I have is that there are aspects of Jenna and Peter’s blogs that wouldn’t be captured in a category feed but that are still essential elements of the work that they were awarded honors for. The static pages are one example, but, in addition, there’s the visual elements of the sites. Again, I think this raises the question of what we’re actually archiving — simply text in posts? or some other kind of less-tangible online experience?

    Jeff & Patrick, I think for right now, your idea may be the way to go. The fixed version of the site on some kind of “permanent,” tangible media that can be stored in the library, itself. At the same time, as you point out, we need a plan for sustaining the actual blog on the BH server.

    Patrick, I do understand the complication of using a URL as a source of archiving — with all the talk of persistent URLs, we know the reality.

    Upon further conversation with others and thinking a bit more about this, I think the solution *might* be some kind of opt-in version of the Internet Archive that would allow an institution like UMW to have a static (but accecssible online) version of a site captured and stored — with a permanent (in the sense that anything can be permanent), static URL. That URL could then be used to generate a Library record.

    I would think that a resource like this could be used to “capture” and archive all kinds of ephemeral, non-tangible online experiences in which student work is reflected.

    It would be great if this could be some kind of service that an organization like the Internet Archive could offer. . .which makes me ask — can you “opt in” to the Internet Archive now? I’m off to find out. . .

  5. Late to the party.

    Ourmedia (I haven’t looked in a long while) is a university-ish front end to the IA. Could be the opt-in intermediary.

    Also, it seems to me that whatever the IA is doing in its “way back” machine might well be adapted for local archives. Could be studied, reverse-engineered, flattered in the sincerest form (i.e., imitated). And it would also be possible, perhaps desirable, to have the material duplicated on the IA/Ourmedia site as well. I think the IA has at least three or four mirrors, if I recall correctly. One of them is in Alexandria, Egypt–the symbolism is obvious, and I believe the room is fireproof as well. 🙂

    Ultimately, I think there are two directions to pursue. One is a local archive a la the Internet Archive. The other is more radical, and more interesting to me in the long run. We don’t archive the material; the students do that. What we do is advise on archival standards and house some kind of link-and-description front end. I’m really thinking aloud here, but what we’d end up with is a “proprietary” database that links out to materials the students maintain. I don’t think we’ll all have personal helicopters or even jet packs, but I do think that in the not-too-distant future, students will bring to school not only their preferred email addresses but their preferred “clouds”–i.e., their own hosted web presence.

    I can hear Jeff all the way through the wires about the flaws in that scheme. It’s full of flaws, sure. But I’m interested in a library that coordinates access to online resources as a kind of “branding” and more importantly a filtering/presentation service, while the resources themselves live on and by means of the open web.

    There’s a squib for the meeting, anyhow.

  6. I’m an attorney – with a background first in law enforcement, and then in large-scale investigative and discovery work. If my intention were to prove what was written and when – I’d have the person who would testify to it print it out – yes, on paper – place it in a sealed envelope, sign the seal, etc., and keep that in a safe place – but first making multiple photocopies so we’d have them to work with.

    This only makes sense if one’s purpose is to demonstrate that something WAS written, and WHEN it was written. Not useful for display.

    So either I’ve contributed a subtle nuance to the discussion – or gone tearing off on a tangent. Interesting problem. Librarian – or archivist/curator would be best.

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