Friday, 13 February 2015

Ariadne: fancy running a 19 year old library webzine?

Ariadne is a long-established web-based journal or magazine for the wider library, electronic and digital library, and information science communities. It's been at the same place since the first issue in 1996:


For people in the UK, that issue (and several more) came out when John Major was Prime Minister. For people in the US, during Bill Clinton's first term as POTUS. It's been a while.

Issue 73 has just gone live. Within the editorial of that edition you'll find:

This is the final issue to be produced by the University of Bath Library. That is not to say this is necessarily the final issue completely - should the resources and effort to continue production be available elsewhere (please do get in touch) then you'll see her again. Ariadne has a very passionate and active community who would be happy to see her re-awakened from her rest.

Hence this post (tl;dr - go to section 3).

1: Diversion: a personal potted history...

Twenty years ago now, Lorcan Dempsey and John MacColl were successful in getting monies for Ariadne under the Jisc-funded eLib (Electronic Libraries) programme. And yes, it was a small e and a capital L in the acronym. The print version ran out of Abertay University with Alison Kilgour as the super-efficient editor. The web version, containing all of the content of the print version and other stuff, ran out of UKOLN at the University of Bath.

I was the web editor for the first 10 editions. My focus was tilted towards building an audience through whatever means and getting Ariadne everywhere, especially to academics and librarians who weren't using the web - which, at that time, was most of them. This pleased the eLib and Jisc people (bigger audiences, and a vehicle for dissemination for their projects) though it created hassle for my boss due to various tabloidesque controversies e.g [BUBL] [War]. My summer of '91 intern job, on The Sun newspaper, may have influenced this approach.

Initially, there was one issue every two months. You can see what the early issues, such as the launch edition with 17 articles, issue 5 (50 articles), and my personal favorite from early times, issue 9 (36 articles) looked like visually through the Internet Archive.

In some respects it wasn't easy; everything was from scratch. This was also 'back in the day' before web CMSs and the like. At best, I used a Word-to-HTML converter that didn't always work (the faults still show in some articles) and hand-coded the rest. Occasionally I'd have to type in pieces which were faxed or posted which, yeah, sigh, it was the mid-90s. Getting one article on a BBC Micro 5 1/4 inch floppy disc was probably the worst hassle. And the photo scanner quality was utterly awful, as is painfully still obvious. I've never hated a piece of hardware as much as that scanner.

But my job was made easier by some people being willing regular contributers. Their pieces stood as academic publications, so they were happy. And I could phone up some of the many eLib project managers and tell them "Chris from eLib" had not yet seen any dissemination activity from your project oh and by the way have you started to think about post-project funding yet?

Also, fellow UKOLN people were great at writing content and doing various things; it was, to be honest, a UKOLN team effort with a lot of uncredited people. And I had significant ongoing help and plotting from Alison in Dundee, and Amy Friedlander, editor at the time of D-Lib magazine.


Anyway. I headed west (ongoing) after ten issues. Ariadne  - the web version - received a funding extension from Jisc; the print edition didn't carry on for much longer simply because of the cost of print production.

UKOLN kept the web version going, tweaked and improved it. The years rolled past. When other digital library projects, services, even centers, ceased or were shuttered, UKOLNers kept putting out issues, making Ariadne the Duracell bunny of informatics dissemination.

Over those years many UKOLN people, such as Philip in the editorial role for a while and Emma doing all things technical, did a hell of a lot of excellent and time-consuming work on Ariadne. The format and style changed over time. Eventually, Ariadne was edited through a Drupal CMS, undoubtedly an improvement on the 1996 set-up of Notepad in Windows 95.

2. Recent times

In the summer of 2013, funding for most of UKOLN ceased. UKOLN put out the last UKOLN-edited  issue, number 71(!). My personal favorite is issue 57, for the range, depth, quality and balance of content.

By then, the magazine had published 1,735 articles written by over 600 authors from various countries. The reviews section, in particular, gained a big international reputation, and UKOLNers ensured that, even in difficult times, Ariadne was always open and free to read and submit to.

And more than a few of those articles were heavily cited. For example, from 2000:

...by Rachel Heery and Manjula Patel has notched up nearly 300 citations to date on Google Scholar alone. Not bad for an online magazine or webzine. If you go 'a searching in Google Scholar, you'll discover that more than a few Ariadne articles have racked up lots of citations.

Though a small part of UKOLN stayed functioning (and still functions), they did not have the resource or scope for Ariadne. Instead, the University of Bath library - which was home to UKOLN over several decades - agreed to take it on, maintain, and produce new issues.

This hasn't really worked out for whatever internal reasons, as they've been the first to admit. In the 18 months of their tenure as editors and maintainers, two issues have appeared: issue 72 (7 articles) and issue 73 (9 articles). However, the library have said they don't want to keep Ariadne but want it to move elsewhere. They, and several UKOLN alumni, have been scouting around for a possible new 'owner'. No definite luck so far, mainly as it does not come with a bag of funding.

Which is the point of this rambling post. Cutting finally to the chase:

3. Do you fancy taking Ariadne?

You don't need to be a library. You don't need to be in the UK (and there's an argument that Ariadne would flourish with a greater proportion of non-UK content). You just need to want to do it.

Advantages:
  • There's a mass of archived content there, so lots of traffic to your new website should happen from day one.
  • Because you aren't in anyone's pocket, you get to run it as you see fit e.g. changing the scope, deciding who has pieces in it, the style, the approach, what CMS - if any - you use to edit it, always having a place for your own writing.
  • Comes with an ISSN (1361-3200).
  • There's 19 years of content there; it's the most detailed source of UK academic digital library developments from the mid-90s onwards online. You are hosting legacy.
  • Articles in Ariadne count towards your h-index and that kind of stuff.
  • Therefore, it affects "impact" and all that REF stuff. Could be useful in the run-up to the 2020 REF exercise, if you figure out how and like the idea of running "a means of dissemination".
  • It's a higher profile for you folk if you are canny in how you promote it and embed it in your department. ariadne.ac.uk is a domain name with a history in the information science sector.
  • It's actually easy to get sufficient people writing for it; happy to chat about this to seriously interested parties.
Disadvantages:
  • Bottom line; it needs someone to sit down, edit, commission articles for new editions, put it together. There's no avoiding that, as has recently been proven.
  • It needs hosting, and someone to do the necessary technical whatever, such as rebooting it when it falls over, dealing with upgrades and the like. No avoiding that, either.
  • Again, this does not come with a bag (read: any) of money.
If you want to take it on, then yay! But do make sure you have the resource. And not that it counts for much, but if you take on Ariadne then I'll commit to writing a few relevant articles for your first few issues if you want, as well as giving pointers and nudges to a bunch of other potential contributers.

If interested, then contact the University Librarian Kate Robinson, or use the contact webform link near the bottom of the issue 73 editorial. If there's no reply then come back to me (john at silversprite dot com) and I'll try and answer or pass on your query to other UKOLN alumni.


Update

Answering some recent questions here.

You may find it best to go for a "lean team" approach - that's your call. Minimise f2f meetings, committees, people who don't actually add or edit content - basically everything that doesn't involve people doing something useful at the keyboard - as these will suck up (your) resource and slow down getting content out. Your audience only cares about, and will only see, the public content.

How much resource you will need depends on what you want to do, and again that's your call. The frequency of issues, articles per issue, editorial process, amount of publicity and lots of other factors will affect this.

In terms of personnel for the following criteria (yours may differ, possibly by a lot):
  • 4 issues per year
  • 25-30 articles/reviews per issue
  • a reasonable amount of publicity and dissemination
  • content maintained through a robust CMS such as Drupal or Wordpress
  • a lightweight approach to editorial input
...I estimate from experience that you roughly need:
  • 0.3 FTE (1.5 days a week average) editorial, article author contact, answering emails and doing PR things e.g. tweeting and mailing list posts.
  • 0.1 FTE (0.5 day a week average) technical personnel to do server, hosting, CMS and any other technical things. Will probably be needed a lot during the transfer and set-up of data, then hardly at all afterwards.
Both figures are, I stress, averaged out over a year, as there's obvious peaks and troughs in required effort, such as in the run-up to an issue (when the editor will probably be working full time on it for a short period), or if there's a technical problem. A lot of the time, there is very little to do and there will be whole weeks, and longer, where nothing happens. That's my estimate; others will have different figures.

Your dissemination and PR costs should be zero; that's what social media and the like are for. Your only costs should be for the aforementioned two roles, their kit, and your server/hosting costs.

On the 'lightweight' point: most authors are fine to write their thing, have written much before, and require little editorial involvement. Building a collection of trusted (repeat) authors is the key to getting significant content 'out there' on a regular basis. Perhaps look through previous issues and find repeat authors who keep writing the kind of content you want.

Two pieces of advice:
  1. Editing and running a webzine has little in common with the extravagance editing a peer-reviewed print journal for a publisher. Don't confuse the two; the resources required are not of the same magnitude.
  2. From the time you inherit the back content, give yourselves several months before your first scheduled issue goes live. It may take time to figure out your processes and get the (substantial) legacy, and new, content into a format you prefer, both technically and visibly. Several ex-Ariadne people from UKOLN will probably be happy to answer questions if needed.
Oh, one other thing. The 20th anniversary of the first issue of Ariadne will be on January 17th 2016. If you want to have a big relaunch party, possibly combined with an anniversary edition, then that could be a good time :)