A world to win

Tim Sherratt, ‘A world to win: The WWW experience of a small organisation with big dreams’, Asia-Pacific WWW Conference, 1995.


What am I doing here? I work for a non-profit organisation attached to the University of Melbourne. What can I say about “Doing Business on the WWW”? You all know universities have it easy, large IT departments, huge bandwidth connections – it’s a different world!

But life’s not quite like that at ASAP. For a start, ASAP (the Australian Science Archives Project) is totally self-funded. Through consultancies and grants we support our activities, aimed at preserving and making accessible Australia’s scientific heritage. We’ve been doing it now for ten years.

I’m sure you’d be surprised at the richness of Australia’s scientific past. The problem is both to communicate that richness to a wide audience, and to provide specialist resources for researchers – all on a non-existent publishing budget. As you’ve probably guessed, we are increasingly using the WWW to achieve these ends. Along the way we have established one of the main sites in the world for information on the history of science, technology and medicine. On the WWW a small organisation can have a big impact. Our experience demonstrates that there is much to be gained when the information producers rise up and take over the means of distribution – there is a world to win and you have nothing to lose but your evenings!

Our quest for world domination began modestly in 1993 when we made a few plain text documents available through the gopher and ftp sites of the Coombs Computing Unit at ANU. A year later we published our first WWW page – again a fairly modest effort. Gradually we added resources: general information about who we are and what we do; copies of our newsletter; the text of some of our published guides to archival collections. These were all documents we had created for different purposes. They were just sitting around, feeling lonely and unwanted on the hard disk of my computer, until the WWW gave them the chance to be reborn. Text became hypertext.

With this new life came new meaning. Publishing on the WWW is not the same as running off a couple of thousand glossy leaflets. The sense of connection between publisher and the reader is more immediate, more direct. Once the leaflet has been taken, scrunched into pocket or bag, the connection is broken. On the WWW, your readers are your guests. They have come through your door, marched up to the reception desk and asked to be told all about you. They can question you, they can complain, they can make orders or leave their contact details. When you publish on the WWW you don’t just distribute information, you open a pathway for communication.

Recently we were visited by an archives student from the University of Washington. He came out to Australia specifically to do his practical work with us. Why? Because he had found us on the WWW. He read about us and the sorts of work we do and made contact. Would he have been as likely to follow up his interest if he had come across a copy of our newsletter in his university’s library? I don’t think so. The WWW provides a sense of community that overlays its informational content. There are people behind the documents.

The more you participate in this community the better. While I was putting together our first WWW documents I began to collect links to other history of science related resources on the Net. I thought I might as well make this list of links available to others, so on to the WWW it went. This has grown into the WWW Virtual Library for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, with links to over 150 sites and with around a thousand users per week. This is work we undertake for the good of the community, but the spin-offs are substantial. We now have a significant international presence. The Director of ASAP recently spent twelve months overseas visiting universities in Europe and the US. He was surprised to find how many people were aware of ASAP. How did they know us? Through the WWW of course. This sort of exposure in turn creates new opportunities for cooperation and development, opportunities that we could never have planned.

Too much WWW is never enough, after our initial foray we were quickly hooked. All of a sudden new possibilities began to emerge. We had for some time been discussing the possibility of developing a multimedia CD-ROM on the history of Australian science. We already had a database containing information on over 2,000 Australian scientists from the 18th century to the present. We knew that there was plenty of pictorial material and sound. What we didn’t have was money, and in the dark days before Creative Nation such ‘high-tech’ initiatives were viewed suspiciously by funding bodies.

Then came one of those moments of inspiration: “Why don’t we do it on the WWW?” It seems obvious in hindsight, but at the time it was pretty exciting. Once again it was a case of liberating our data – of taking material that we already had, equipping it for life on the WWW, and then sending it out into the world. I simply HTMLified reports from our database, ran the output through a few simple macros and ended up with thousands of little HTML files – kludgey but effective, it was on the WWW within a few weeks of the initial inspiration. Bright SPARCS (Scientists Present in Australia’s history Resource CD-ROM) had become Bright SPARCS (Scientists Present in Australia’s history Resource Collection Strategy).

Thanks to the WWW, a stalled project was given new life, a good idea became a useful resource. But the WWW incarnation of Bright SPARCS is quite different to the original proposal. It is a work-in-progress, rather than a finished product. It is the framework for an ongoing, collaborative endeavour, not just an electronic publication. By making what we have available, we are encouraging other people to do our work for us. Through their corrections and additions Bright SPARCS will grow and mature.

At the same time we are undertaking collaborative projects that link into Bright SPARCS, creating a detailed resource network. We recently produced a WWW version of Physics in Australia to 1945 a biographical and bibliographical register of Australian physicists. This is cross-linked with Bright SPARCS, so that a single click will switch you between resources. Similarly we are in the process of developing a WWW edition of the Australian Society of Archivist’s Directory of Archives in Australia. Once again this will be integrated with Bright SPARCS – a user will be able to follow his/her researches through to the point of finding the contact details of repositories holding archival materials relating to Australian scientists. In both cases the basic data was already in electronic form, it was just waiting to be liberated. Just think of the potential resources that you must have locked away in your computers. This cruel oppression must stop. Your data wants to be free!

But let’s not leave printed documents out of our revolution. The Australian Academy of Science recently provided us with funds to scan and process over 100 detailed biographical memoirs of Australian scientists, originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science. Freed from the printed page, these articles too have joined the Bright SPARCS movement.

Data gathers data. The WWW grows not by consuming resources, but by linking them. The document that you liberate from your hard disk may be the seed for something much larger, even unexpected.

The WWW now provides the focus for most of our outreach activities. It is also useful as an internal staff communication device. ASAP has offices in Melbourne and Canberra, as well as workers at a variety of sites throughout Victoria. All of our staff have access to the Internet, and email is our main form of communication. The WWW provides us with the equivalent of a staff noticeboard in the tea-room. This is the place where notices are posted, and where embarrassing photos are displayed. By using forms and cgi scripts all staff can contribute without having to know much about HTML. It’s a means of maintaining communication and building solidarity.

ASAP has achieved all that it has with minimal resources. Most of our WWW development has been done by our Canberra Office, which until early this year, meant me. Our only connection to the Internet, until a few months ago, was a dial-up line to the ANU. More recently we established our own server, and I had to learn the hard way about Unix system administration. Being in Canberra we receive little technical support from the University of Melbourne. We are pretty much left on our own, but I believe this is an advantage rather than a handicap. We have been forced to develop our own skills and ideas, we have seen the world rather than a single institution as our audience. Unfettered by bureaucracy, unable to avoid responsibility, small organisations are in an excellent position to harness and express the enthusiasm which drives all that is best in the WWW.

As I have said, the WWW is more than just a publishing medium, but how much more? Who knows? The WWW is a continuing experiment. New uses will be found, new types of resources will be developed. You cannot know how your organisation will use the WWW, until you start using it. Those organisations that will benefit the most will be the ones high on enthusiasm, who fling open the drawers of their filing cabinets and push the WWW to its limits. It’s a journey into unmapped territory, an adventure.

The development of WWW resources is not simply an investment in technology, it’s an investment in people and ideas. As our experience shows, the WWW can open up unexpected opportunities, but you have to set things going. This a not just a world of IT expertise, but of imagination and creativity. And no I don’t mean fantastic graphics that consume huge amounts of bandwidth. I mean finding new methods of communication, new uses for existing resources – taking that database that sits on your hard-disk and turning it into a innovative, accessible resource. I’m sorry, but you’re not going to be able to hire somebody to have your ideas for you. You know your organisation, you know your subject. You have to make the connections. Say goodbye to your evenings, say hello to obsession, the WWW has arrived to take over your life.

If the WWW is to be more than just a second-rate marketing tool we have to pay more attention to the important issue of bandwidth – intellectual bandwidth. There has to be space for innovation. Lack of imagination and the heavy hand of managers will do more to restrict our use of the Internet than any technical bottlenecks. Within our organisations we have to use the WWW not just as a tool, but as an incubator of new ideas, as the canvas upon which our grandest dreams are sketched out.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Tim Sherratt Written by:

I'm a historian and hacker who researches the possibilities and politics of digital cultural collections.

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