Self-Preservation of Your Work

Self-Preservation of Your Work

For decades I have been concerned over the fragility of information and whether ephemerality or the transitory nature of information and communication is just an inevitable feature of the digital age. I therefore frequently look back at a talk I gave on the Internet to a conference of historians held in Oxford in the early 2000s. Given that I was speaking to historians, at a time when I was the founding director of the Oxford Internet Institute, one key theme of my talk concerned the major ways in which content on the Web was unlikely to be preserved. The Internet community did not have adequate plans and strategies for preserving the Internet, Web and related online content. I thought they would be engaged – if not frightened – by a shift of content to online media when it might mean losing much of our history with respect to data, documents, letters, and more. 

My audience seemed interested but unmoved. A historian from the audience chatted with me after the talk to explain that this is not new. Historians have always worked in piecing together history from letters found in a shoebox stored in an attic, tomb stones, and so on – not from systematically recorded archives, even though fragments of such records exist in many libraries, museums, and archives. This is nothing new to efforts aimed at writing or reconstructing history. 

This attitude frightened me even more. From my perspective, perhaps the historians had not seen anything yet. And I am continually reminded of this problem. Of course, there have been brilliant efforts to preserve online, digital content, such as the ‘Way Back Machine’, an initiative of the Internet Archive,[i] which indicates it has saved over 446 billion web pages. Yet the archive and its Way Back Machine have become a subscription service and have dropped out of the limelight they shared in the early days of the Web. The archive is also being limited by concerns over copyright that are leading them to reduce valuable services, such as their digital library.[ii]

But a recent and more personal experience brought all of this to the forefront of my thinking. I always print to save a hard copy of anything of significance (to me) that I write. That may seem quaint, but time and again, it has saved me from losing work that was stored on out of date media, such as floppy discs, or failing journals. I recently wanted to share a copy of a piece I did for a journal of the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), written in 1994, when I was director of an ESRC programme. This time my system failed me and I could not find it in my files. 

This was a short piece that the ESRC published in one of its journals called Social Sciences. Being a social scientist, my article focused on the problematic mindset of social scientists regarding outreach (Dutton 1994). Too often, I argued, a (social) scientist thought they were through with outreach once they published an article. The way I put it was that many social scientists believed in sort of a ‘trickle-down’ theory of outreach. Once their work was published, the findings and their implications will eventually trickle down to those who might benefit from their insights.

Today, all disciplines of the sciences are far more focused on outreach and the impact of research. Many research assessment exercises require evidence of the impact of research as a basis for assessment. And individual academics, research units, departments and universities are becoming almost too focused on getting the word out to the world about their research and related achievements. Outreach has become a major aspect of contemporary academic and not-for-profit research enterprises. There is even an Association for Academic Outreach.[iii] One only needs to reflect on the innovative and competitive race to a vaccine for COVID-19, where at least 75 candidate vaccines are in preclinical or clinical evaluation[iv], to see how robust and important outreach has become. Nevertheless, outreach does not necessarily translate into preservation of academic work.

So – lo and behold – I could not find a copy of my piece on ‘Trickle-Down Social Science’. I recall seeing it in my files, but given moves back and forth across the Atlantic, it had vanished without a trace. I searched online for it, and found my books and articles that referenced it, but no copy of the article. I tried the Way Back Machine, but it was not on the Web, as the journal Social Sciences in those days did not put its publication online. I wrote the ESRC, as they might have an archive of their journal. They kindly replied that they not only did not have a copy of the article (from that far back), but, more surprisingly, they did not even have a copy of Social Sciences in their archives. So, 1994 is such ancient history that even revered institutions like the ESRC do not keep copies of their publications. 

Well, this little personal experience reminded me of my practice of keeping copies and reinforced the obvious conclusion that I need to preserve my own work, as I had tried to do, and do a more consistent job of it in the process! The toppling of real, analogue statues across the world selfishly reminded me of the need to preserve my own far less significant – if not insignificant – historical record and not to count on anyone else doing this for me. 

So, preserve your own work and don’t rely on the Internet, Web, big data, or any other person to save your work. Take it from C. Wright Mills (1952), any academic should devote considerable time to their files. While Mills argued that maintaining one’s files was a central aspect of ‘intellectual craftsmanship’, even he did not focus on their preservation.

That said, if anyone has a copy of ‘Trickle-Down Social Science’, name your price. 😉

Reference

Dutton, W. (1994), ‘Trickle-Down Social Science: A Personal Perspective,’ Social Sciences, 22, 2.

Wright Mills, C. (1980), ‘On Intellectual Craftsmanship (1952)’, Society, Jan/Feb: 63-70.https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/BF02700062.pdf


[i] http://web.archive.org

[ii] https://www.inputmag.com/culture/internet-archive-kills-its-free-digital-library-over-copyright-concerns

[iii] https://www.afao.ac.uk

[iv] https://www.who.int/blueprint/priority-diseases/key-action/novel-coronavirus-landscape-ncov.pdf?ua=

Who Named MSU Spartans? Stephen George Scofes

Mystery Solved: The Spartan Who Named Michigan State University’s Spartans: Stephen George Scofes

After the second world war, Stephen George Scofes ran a restaurant in Lansing, Michigan, called ‘The Famous Grill’, where he became friends with coaches and athletes at Michigan State University. He came up with the nickname for MSU – the Spartans. Here is the story, as told to me.

Originally, MSU was established as Michigan Agricultural College, and then Michigan State College, before becoming MSU. With its tradition in agriculture, the College originally had a common nickname – the ‘Aggies’. But as the college transitioned to a more general-purpose university and became more serious about college sports, its promoters in the athletic department and the city began searching for a more promising nickname and mascot to represent the university.

George Stephen Scofes from Quello Center on Vimeo.

George S. Alderton, the Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal, sponsored a contest to find a name to replace the Aggies. In today’s terminology, he crowd sourced a solution. It remains unclear who picked the winner of the contest, but the contest led to MSU ever so briefly being called the Michigan ‘Staters’. The name did not resonate well with many fans, including George Alderton. A local restauranteur, Stephen George Scofes, asked Alderton if he had seen his letter – his submission to the contest, which suggested the name ‘Spartans’. Alderton did not remember the letter, but thought it had promise and researched it with his colleagues.

Screen Shot 2018-01-15 at 22.38.02
Stephen George Scofes and son, George Scofes, at the cash register of The Famous Grill circa 1950

Initially, in his columns, Alderton misspelled Spartans, using an ‘o’ for ‘Sportans’. Stephen Scofes corrected his spelling, and Alderton started to routinely use ‘Spartans’ in his columns. The name caught on, and the rest is history – or it should have been history but was, in fact, totally forgotten and clouded over time. Much later, neither Alderton or anyone else could remember the name of the person who came up with the Spartan name, which we now know was Stephen Scofes.*

Stephen’s son, George Stephen Scofes, himself of a serious age – 89 – today, told me the story of his father coming up with the Spartan name. This came up when I was driving him and our mutual friend, who introduced us, Dimitri Stathopoulos, to an MSU basketball game. Stephen came to the United States from an area near the town of Sparta, Greece. His son George, was born in the USA, but lived in Sparta from the age of two until the end of the second world war, when he moved back to the US at the age of seventeen. His friend Dimitri was also from Sparta. So the Spartan name did not pop out of thin air or the classics, but from real life.

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Dimitri Stathopoulos (left) and George Stephen Scofes

Because Mr. Scofes had a restaurant, The Famous Grill, George’s father knew all the coaches and many of the athletes and sports writers that covered MSU. One of the great coaches, Biggie Munn, liked to bring his players in his restaurant, The Famous Grill and sit in The Big Ten Room. Munn became athletic director at MSU from 1953-71 and invited Stephen Scofes to award the annual ‘sportsmanship’ trophy to the football team.

The Scofes family remain closely attached to MSU, such as through the basketball trophy under the Scofes name, for example. And later, in the 1990s, when Nick Saban was the football coach at MSU, the coach argued that there were many awards for sportsmanship, so why not give an award to an academic who helps the players academically. Since then, Stephen’s son, George, and George’s son Stephen Scofes (that’s the traditional way Greek families recognize their family heritage) give an award to an MSU academic who helps the players, titled ‘The George Stephen Scofes Outstanding Faculty Award’ at MSU. There were twelve recipients in 2017.

For decades, the person who came up with the name that is central to MSU’s identity was forgotten in the folklore of the university. But the mystery is solved: He was Stephen George Scofes, arguably, the first Spartan.

Coda

Months after this blog, Judy Putnam of the Lansing State Journal covered the story of the Spartan name, with the title, “How Sparty Got His Name’.** She came to the same conclusion as I did, but added a number of interesting aspects to the story. Wonderful to have this story covered in the local paper.

Notes

*A published narrative of the naming of the Spartans is provided in Constantine S. Demos and Steven S. Demos, M.D. ((2008), The Tradition Continues: Spartan Football. East Lansing: Michigan State University Football Players Association, pages 56-57. Their version differs in important ways from my narrative, such as only alluding to the friendship of the Scofes brothers and Alderton, but with no acknowledgement of Stephen Scofes’ role. You will have to reach your own conclusion about who named the Spartans, but I find my interview with George Scofes, his son, to be most credible.

**Judy Putnam, ‘How Sparty Got His Name‘, Lansing State Journal, May 6, 2018, 13A, 15A.

The Famous Grill Lansing
The Famous Grill: Where the ‘Spartan’ Name was Cooked Up

Joining Editorial Board of Internet Histories

Delighted to be joining the editorial board of an exciting new journal, Internet Histories: Digital Technology, Culture & Society.

You may have seen a special issue of Information & Culture that I helped edit and contributed to: Guest Editor: Haigh, T., Russell, A. and Dutton, W. H. (2015) (eds), ‘Histories of the Internet’, special issue for the journal Information & Culture, 50(2), May-June: 143-283. We were calling for more focus on exactly this area.

The editors note that “Internet Histories is an international, interdisciplinary peer-reviewed journal concerned with research on the cultural, social, political and technological histories of the internet and associated digital cultures.

The journal embraces empirical as well as theoretical and methodological studies within the field of the history of the internet broadly conceived — from early computer networks, Usenet and Bulletin Board Systems, to everyday Internet with the web through the emergence of new forms of internet with mobile phones and tablet computers, social media, and the internet of things.

The journal will also provide the premier outlet for cutting-edge research in the closely related area of histories of digital techologies, cultures, and societies.

A hallmark of the journal is its desire to publish and catalyse research and scholarly debate on the development, forms, and histories of the internet internationally, across the full global range of countries, regions, cultures, and communities. You can read more about the journal here http://explore.tandfonline.com/page/ah/internet-histories.

Internet Histories will be published by Taylor & Francis 4 times per year (four digital issues, compiled in two print issues) commencing in early 2017.”

The editors of this new journal are: Professor Niels Brügger, School of Communication and Culture, Aarhus University; Assistant Professor Megan Sapnar Ankerson, Department of Communication Studies, University of Michigan; Professor Gerard Goggin, Department of Media and Communications, University of Sydney; and Dr Valérie Schafer, Institute for Communication Sciences, CNRS/Paris-Sorbonne/UPMC.

I hope you will consider submitting your best work around this topic to the journal.