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Addendum:  Conservation OnLine (CoOL)

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 CoOL was not a focus of this project, but the future of CoOL was a topic that arose in all project conversations. Its outdated interface and high maintenance costs puts this resource at risk, and project participants spoke often about ways it might become a revitalized, sustainable resource. These discussions, filtered through the lens of the project team and advisory committee, offer useful insights into how CoOL might be restructured for the future. A possible pathway forward is addressed in this addendum.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 CoOL has long been the premier resource for online access to the literature of the field and an important communication channel for conservation professionals. It is, as one conservator noted, “the place you go to first for quick answers.” Begun in 1987 by Walter Henry, then Lead Analyst in the Preservation Department at Stanford University Libraries, the resource consists of two related but distinct components: a listserv (“ConsDistList”) and a portal of historic resources/publications that cover a variety of conservation and preservation issues.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 CoOL has grown exponentially since its inception, and continues to be heavily used. In 2014, the resource had more than one million page views and 500,000 users. Given its longevity and heavy usage, it is not surprising that CoOL is showing its age. The interface and underlying code are outdated, and hosting and maintenance are costly.[1] Its search results are inconsistent and its embedded links are often broken. It cannot integrate the media-rich formats that have become a ubiquitous component of online resources. Some of CoOL’s problems (e.g., broken links) have been addressed with individual fixes, but these have built up over time and make CoOL unwieldy to administer. Its value is diminishing, and it risks obsolescence without significant improvements in functionality.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 Conservation professionals have tolerated CoOL’s problems because it remains a vital resource for the field. Its extensive content is vetted and edited by those in the profession, lending it an imprimatur that is valued in the community. CoOL also serves a little-acknowledged but highly important preservation function: by keeping resources in the portal for the long-term, CoOL ensures that they stay online even if their source sites should disappear. For these reasons, CoOL continues to be cited as the model of a trusted online resource in the profession. Indeed, when conservation professionals were asked about online resources over the course of this project, their response was often “we need something like CoOL, but better.”

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 The thousands of valuable, curated resources in CoOL argue for its redesign rather than the creation of a new resource. But any redesign that takes place must address CoOL’s listserv and portal components independently. Each of these components has separate purposes, issues and needs.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Conservation DistList (“ConsDistList”)[2]
The listserv has approximately 10,000 subscribers from more than 90 countries. Information distributed via the list includes job and event postings, and inquiries about topics important to the field that range from the durability of archival boxes to environmental monitoring techniques. Messages sent to the list are vetted by a moderator and emailed to subscribers in the form of a weekly digest.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The listserv provides a low barrier to entry for its subscribers, but it does not scale well when message throughput is high. The weekly digest message makes for an awkward reading format. Responses and discussion threads are not possible. Unlike most listservs, the administrative overhead for the ConsDistList is high because of its curated nature. There is a searchable archive of messages going back to the listserv’s beginnings, but the search capability is not reliable, and searching is not optimized for broader discoverability on the open Web with search engines such as Google or Bing.[3]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The limitations of the listserv format are particularly apparent when compared with newer, alternative forms of online communication such as forums or “groups.” These platforms are easy to organize and search, can be accessed on the Web, allow threaded conversations that can be grouped by topic, and give users a choice about what they want to see and how they might wish to respond. For some organizations, discussion forums have superseded listservs as a community communication vehicle because of these more advanced features.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Other organizations are using popular social media platforms, such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, in lieu of listservs. However, a more “ideal” platform for the conservation community might be one that offers the interactivity and topical organization of forums, coupled with capabilities that link topic threads to relevant resources on the Web. This functionality can now be found in popular commercial products,[4] and might filter down into more open products over time.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 There is a growing consensus that the ConsDistList needs to migrate to a more feature-rich platform for communication and archiving of the list’s content. Newer and better alternatives to listservs are freely available, and moving to one of these platforms will facilitate timely discourse among colleagues and help build a knowledge base from the collective input of conservation professionals.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The CoOL Portal
The CoOL portal contains a wealth of information resources, including the listservs of more than 30 allied organizations and groups; a directory of conservation professionals; publications, professional papers, documents and links to online resources on 21 conservation topics; and the websites of allied organizations and specialty groups (as well as mirrored sites of several other organizations.) Most of the resources are formatted in HTML files that are pulled together, organized, and delivered by means of a complicated backend process that includes programming scripts and other specialized coding. This process, which has become unwieldy to administer, requires a new approach if CoOL is to become a more functional and sustainable resource.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Deciding on this approach has been the subject of many discussions. While conservation professionals would like an overhaul that fixes all of CoOL’s problems, this approach would be premature. There is uncertainty about how CoOL is used and what additional functionality is needed. Rather than pursue a “big fix,” a more judicious approach would be to identify incremental improvements that would improve CoOL and yield information useful to building the resource in a more strategic manner.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 For example, converting CoOL’s HTML-formatted resources into a wiki format would be a marginal improvement that yields substantial results. Each HTML page in CoOL would be standardized and properly indexed, so searching would improve. FAIC would be able to identify successful and unsuccessful queries, and could use its page analytics to see what is being searched. Both users and FAIC would see immediate returns, with FAIC gaining the information it needs to make informed decisions about further improvements.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 Before this approach can get underway, the number of HTML pages in CoOL needs to be determined, and a decision must be made about what portion of these pages should be targeted in an initial conversion. FAIC then could solicit bids to identify estimated conversion costs, and seek one-time funding to implement the conversion. While the conversion is taking place, FAIC could set up a workflow for capturing and reviewing search query successes and examining other information derived from page analytics. After a set amount of time, this information could be analyzed to determine how to move CoOL forward in a step-wise progression.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The test-bed conversion of HTML records outlined above is one possible project that FAIC might pursue as it moves the portal portion of CoOL toward greater functionality. Other discrete elements in CoOL’s dataset might prove equally feasible as test-bed projects. The CoOL Working Group, which sits within FAIC’s administrative umbrella, is the logical entity to make these determinations and oversee work in this area. But before it can do so, the Working Group needs to expand its membership to include outside experts who can bring more technical knowledge to the process, and knowledge about business models for online resource (see below).

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 A New Business Model
Incremental projects such as the one proposed above will improve CoOL’s functionality but they will not ensure its sustainability. A new business plan is needed to keep the resource alive into the future. At the moment CoOL is freely available, but it is not without cost. Since 2008 FAIC has assumed the burden of this cost, bolstered in part with modest individual donations. FAIC’s backing keeps CoOL online and available, but cannot support anything other than minor improvements. Without a new business model, CoOL will continue to be at risk, even if new features and functionality improve the resource.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Resource support comes in the following guises: subscription-based, member-based, and institutional sponsor-based models, or some combination thereof. Going forward, FAIC faces a quandary as it migrates CoOL from its current sponsor-based model: any new model that is fee-based will not succeed until improvements in CoOL are substantial enough to warrant such a fee.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 There are ways to implement a new model while improvements in CoOL are underway. For example, FAIC could ask for volunteers to help edit CoOL in return for free access to the resource if it became fee-based. Bridge funding might be available to cover costs associated with incremental and well-defined improvements (such as the wiki conversion project noted above), if a long-term support model can be convincingly articulated to a funder. In the end, FAIC in conjunction with the CoOL Working Group, needs to explore all funding models and move forward on a plan to implement a new business model in tandem with the development of CoOL.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 1 What is this resource really worth to you? There are costs in bringing these resources together. Community tools have to be supported by the community. If we don’t pay, it goes away.
-David Bloom, VertNet Coordinator, University of California, Berkeley
Speaker, Digital Landscape Forum #1, San Francisco, 2014

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Summary of Recommendations for CoOL:

  1. 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0
  2. Identify and migrate the ConsDistList portion of CoOL to a more user friendly, functional communication platform.
  3. Conduct an assessment of CoOL’s format and content, with an eye toward identifying and implementing a small project that will yield maximum impact on use of the resource, and give FAIC insights into the use of CoOL.
  4. Use this first project’s results to identify and define the next logical project, and develop subsequent projects that build on each other in the same iterative manner.
  5. Identify a new business model that will help sustain CoOL in the future. FAIC must take the lead in making this decision, as it is CoOL’s sponsor and administrative home.
  6. Expand the CoOL Working Group to include outside experts who can advise on technical aspects of conversion, agile project development, and business models for community-based resources.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 1 [1] In 2015, CoOL’s costs will total approximately $80,000.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 [2] See Conservation DistList Archives. http://cool.conservation-us.org/byform/mailing-lists/cdl/.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 [3] This situation is even more problematic for the AIC Specialty Group discussion lists. These online lists use the same listserv software (Mailman) as the ConsDistList and are archived within CoOL, but they are closed lists that can be searched only by date and author.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 [4] Sinkov, Andrew. “Context: Your Work Enriched by the Smartest Minds”. Evernote News. October 2, 2014. https://blog.evernote.com/blog/2014/10/02/context-work-enriched-smartest-minds/.

Source: http://resources.culturalheritage.org/comment/charting-the-digital-landscape-of-the-conservation-profession/addendum-conservation-online-cool/