Sunday, 13 April 2008

What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been

The University's Easter Vacation is just coming to an end, and things are returning to normal after the week-long international festival of repository vitality that was OR2008. I've still got to sort out the financials and finalise the web site, but I've been spending most of time on the conference repository ( in the last week.

The thing that no-one tells you about repositories is that they are a lot like children. They end up being wonderfully satisfying, but they take an awful lot out of you and they go through phases of being messy and uncontrollable. This has dawned on me over the last few weeks in dealing with the OR08 repository, which is just emerging into the phase where I'm feeling really proud of it. It started off only a few days before the conference, when I realised that it was going to be easier to put all the presentations into a repository than manage them all on a website. The last conference I ran (WWW2006) we put all the presentations in a directory on a webserver and generated all the pages and links from a flatfile database using php. I didn't seriously consider using a repository for this conference for a couple of reasons (a) politics - choosing a specific repository platform (like EPrints) didn't seem very much in keeping with the non-partisan nature of the conference series and (b) policy - I have no perpetual mandate for launching a repository for the conference series, and making one for the single event seems a bit profligate given the rhetoric of persistence that repositories are couched in. In the end practicality won out over politics and policy, because repositories have moved on so much in the last couple of years that they have become genuinely useful tools for large-scale information acquisition, processing and dissemination for the web. Sure, if you have a small workshop with a dozen papers to publicise just bung up a website, but with 30 papers+presentations and 50 posters+artwork and user groups providing another 40 presentations (plus a couple of BOFs), a repository becomes an invaluable infrastructure for collecting and displaying material.

I touch on this dichotomy in my own paper at the conference (End-of-Life Scenarios for Virtual Organisation's Repositories) which is all about balancing the immediate usefulness of a repository with the responsibility for sustaining it into the future. In some ways it's an argument not about repositories in particular, but about web resources in general. And perhaps the analogy with children is apt once more - there's a certain excitement in making them, but then someone has to stick around and pay the bills.

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