Self-hosted websites are doomed to die

I keep wanting to be able to recommend the ‘best’ way for people (who don’t like command lines) to get research stuff online. Is it Flickr, Zenodo, Internet Archive, Wikimedia, and Github? Or is it a shared hosting account on Dreamhost, running MediaWiki, WordPress, and Piwigo? I’d rather the latter! Is it really that hard to set up your own website? (I don’t think so, but I probably can’t see what I can’t see.)

Anyway, even if running your own website, one should still be putting stuff on Wikimedia projects. And even if not using it for everything, Flickr is a good place for photos (in Australia) because you can add them to the Australia in Pictures group and they’ll turn up in searches on Trove. The Internet Archive, even if not a primary and cited place for research materials, is a great place to upload wikis’ public page dumps. So it really seems that the remaining trouble with self-hosting websites is that they’re fragile and subject to complete loss if you abandon them (i.e. stop paying the bills).

My current mitigation to my own sites’ reliance on me is to create annual dumps in multiple formats, including uploading public stuff to IA, and printing some things, and burning all to Blu-ray discs that get stored in polypropylene sleeves in the dark in places I can forget to throw them out. (Of course, I deal in tiny amounts of data, and no video.)

What was it Robert Graves said in I, Claudius about the best way to ensure the survival of a document being to just leave it sitting on ones desk and not try at all to do anything special — because it’s all perfectly random anyway as to what persists, and we can not influence the universe in any meaningful way?

Don’t Write Code (write descriptions of things)

I wish I didn’t know how to code.

For a programmer, the solution to every problem is to write more code.

But sometimes, all that is needed is to write proper words. To explain things and explore them through prose.

Not to remove oneself to the meta-realm of trying to understand the general structure of the problem and model it accordingly. (And then build something that resembles that model, and hope that the people using it see through the layers back to what the buggery’s trying to be done!)

Just write some nice, verbose, rambling blather about what it is and how it works and where we’re trying to go from here. Nothing too technical, and hopefully actually interesting to read. At least, linear, in that old-fashioned way of real writing. Interesting is probably too much to aim for… just words, then.

I was reading Phoebe Ayers recent post about the task of archiving the Wikimedia Foundation’s material. My first thought was “what sort of database/catalogue would be useful for this sort of thing?” Which is quite the wrong question, of course. There’s a whole world of wikis (both instances and engines) out there, perfect for this sort of variably-structured data. (If there’s one thing that constantly amazes me about Wikipedia it’s the fact that so much structure and repeated data is contained in what is basically an immense flat list of lone text files, and that it does rather work! The database geek in me shudders.)

I think a basic tennent for archiving physical and digital resources is that each object, and each grouping of objects, needs to have its own web page. In most cases, I use this both as a catalogue entry for the object or group, and as a printable coversheet to store along with the physical objects (or, in the case of digital-only objects, to be a physical placeholder or archive copy, if they warrant it).

The other thing I try to stick to is that a fonds and its catalogue (i.e. a pile of folders/boxes and the website that indexes them and adds whatever other digital material to the mix) should be able to be shifted off to someone else to maintain! That not everything should live in the same system, nor require particularly technical skills to maintain.

I know that there’s a dozen formalised ways of doing this stuff, and I wish I knew the details of them more thoroughly! For now, I’ll hope that a non-structured catalogue can work, and continue to write little printable English-language wiki pages to collate in amongst my folders of polypropylene document sleeves. And I’ll keep checking back to en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Subject:Library_and_Information_Science for instructions on how to do it better…