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Policies on Unused JISCMail Lists

Posted by Brian Kelly on 17 August 2011

Last week I received an email from JISCMail which invited me to state whether an unused mailing list should be retained or deleted:

Lists: LIS-ELIB-MANAGERS

Your JISCMail list(s) have not been used for over 3 years. Please email to helpline@jiscmail.ac.uk to confirm whether the list should now be deleted or retained. If you choose deletion, let us know if you would like a zipped copy of the archives for your records.

Back in January 2010 I wrote a post on Decommissioning / Mothballing Mailing Lists in which I discussed policies and processes for decommissioning and mothballing lists:

How should a list owner go about deleting unused lists? And aren’t there dangers that deleting the contents of lists which may have been used to influence the research process or provide possibly valuable historical insights on the content area covered by the list would be regarded as a mistake by future generations?

Following the subsequent discussions I decided on the policy for unused lists which I owned: I disabled postings to the lists and updated the list description accordingly. For example the DNER-TECH list now states:

List to discuss technical issues relating to the establishment of the Distributed National Electronic Resource. These issues should particularly relate to inter-operability matters. Other topics may be introduced later. THIS LIST IS NOW CLOSED.

I have decided not to delete the unused lists as the lists I own tend to have been used to discuss various aspects of early developments of digital library initiatives in the sector and I feel that the issues which were discussed could provide information which may have some value from an historical perspective.  For example ten years ago on the DNER-TECH list there were discussions of “issues related to deploying the Bath Profile, the emerging proposals for ‘Z39.50 Next Generation’ (ZNG), and presentations by a number of UK-based projects with significant experience of deploying Z39.50 applications in a number of domains“. This message can therefore provide evidence of the interest in Z39.50 at that time.

You could, of course, manage the content by requesting a zipped copy of the archive (although note that the Web page on deleting a list, somewhat confusing called Deleting a Group, does not provide any further information, including details of the contents held in a zipped archive – will, for example, this include details of the members of the list?). But this would mean that the original location of the resource being deleted and will make it more difficult for other interested parties to find this information. To be honest I can’t see the point of requesting a zipped copy for most open lists, especially since the existing JISCMail archive provides a rich archive which may be of value and provides an interface (using JISCMail commands) which potentially could support data mining of these resources.  However for closed lists, such as the LIS-ELIB-MANAGERS list which I own, since it would probably be inappropriate to retrospectively provide open access to such archives (will there be a 30 year limit, I wonder, before the general public can see what Chris Rusbridge, Lorcan Dempsey and eLib project managers were discussing on this list?!)

On further reflection it does seem to me that JISC-funded projects should probably have a policy on the management of legacy lists related to the project work.  There is, for example, a requirement for Web sites to be maintained for at least three years after the funding has ceased.   What should the policy be on mailing lists? And what should practices should be implemented once a list archive is felt to be no longer of interest?  I would welcome comments from other list owners on how they are managing any unused lists they own.

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9 Responses to “Policies on Unused JISCMail Lists”

  1. Chris Rusbridge said

    My first reaction is that lists should rarely be deleted. They take up barely any space at all, and potentially have great value. Many will be discovered accidentally through Google searches, etc. A posting I made to the RISKS list in the 1980s, for example, turned up in response to a search made by Hugh Glazer of Southampton. So I feel the default response for public lists should be to keep them available. And they are much better on the existing server than in a zip file somewhere.

    Closed lists, as you point out, are slightly more troubling. I searched with Spotlight on my Mac and found several messages from the lis-elib-managers list. I personally think they would have value to anyone studying that turbulent but formative period of digital library development. I searched for one of those messages with Google, and it did not emerge, so they have been properly closed. I also tried to look at the list archives myself, but the list is invisible even to me; I guess I am not a member of it! This is a little strange, as I thought I had asked JISCmail from time to time to update my email address for all lists. But maybe I removed myself from it at some point.

    My personal preference would be for the list to be made open. However, like you I have no idea how this might properly and ethically be achieved. I would be very happy to review its contents and pass an opinion on whether there is anything dangerous there, but I’m not sure if that would be enough.

    I think you are right that a list should establish policy on this, and perhaps JISC should establish a joint policy. In my view both such policies should favour openness even for closed lists, after a decent period of time (perhaps 10 years?). Maybe an option to redact certain messages would be appropriate.

    It’s interesting and good timing: you have raised a sustainability question that personally affects me, just when I’m working on that very issue!

  2. Thanks for the comment. I agree with you about the potential value of email list archives. I have always felt that it was unfortunate that the JISCMail archives blocked access to search engines until recently. BTW are you aware of the Markmail service which provides a search interface across 8,369 lists and 59,156,245 messages, with the first list started in November 1992? I search for “elib jisc” finds one message, form John Paschoud posted in 1999. Note that a search for JISCMail does not seem to provide any useful posting on JISCMail lists and a search for the currently active JISC-repositories finds only three messages posted to other listservs. It seems that JISCMail is still a closed silo, even for the open lists :-(

    However addressing the issue of policies for providing access to unused closed lists I have added you as a member of the LIS-ELIB-MANAGERS list (there are 28 members still on this list, although many of them no longer have a valid email address. I agree that it would be useful to develop an ethical policy for opening up access to such lists. My thoughts are that this should include consideration of the original purpose of the list; auditing the content; identifying possible content which may cause problems if published openly and seeking to contact list members. I think this could be done (for this list, at least) in a lightweight fashion and taking a risk assessment approach rather than having to get formal agreement from all list members (past and present).

  3. Chris Rusbridge said

    It seems to me scandalous if JISCmail really does block search engines! Expecting useful content to be found only by targeted searches or browsing on the JISCmail web site is nonsense.

    Section 7 of the JISCmail Acceptable Use Policy says: “Messages sent to a JISCMail list will normally be archived, and these archives can then be retrieved by any member of that same list. These archives may also (at the discretion of the listowner) be made publicly available on the web, and thus be available to anyone.

    When using JISCMail, you accept that any message you post to a JISCMail list may be archived in this manner, and that other users of the service may download and print these messages for their own use.

    Archives or collections of the messages sent to a JISCMail list may not be made publicly available at another site unless the listowner has granted explicit permission, and the list members have been informed.”

    To me this implies that the listowner may choose to open previously closed archives. It is only when the archive is made available on another site that list members need be informed. I suggest however that you send a message to the list to say that you propose to make the list open in (say) 30 days time, unless there are significant objections. That will also tell you how many email addresses are out of date!

  4. In response to your comment about search engine access to JISCMail archives, this was blocked, for performance reasons, apparently, until last year. However, as can be seen from the robots.txt file the archive can now be indexed. Where this is being done, and how highly Google will rank the pages, is uncertain.

    Thanks for alerting me to Section 7 of the JISCMail Acceptable Use Policy. It is useful to know what JISCMail policy permits list owners to do. There is also the question of what list owner *should* do. In this case I will spend a little time looking at the contents of the archives to see if I feel there may be reasons for not opening up access prior to contacting list members.

    I’ll report back.

  5. Chris Rusbridge said

    I had a brief look myself, but I must say the structure of JISCmail doesn’t really make list browsing easy! I couldn’t see any particular reason for continued closure; I think it was closed because we were addressing a particular audience and wanted no distractions, not that we were saying anything particularly confidential or embarrassing or legally dangerous (we weren’t allowed to do that, anyway).

  6. Catherine Jones, JISCMail Director said

    We agree it is important to preserve the record of communication. JISCMail inactive/closed lists remain available in the service as long as the listowner wishes them to be kept.

    Contents of public lists have been available for indexing by search engines since last summer (2010). We looked at a number of ways to make JISCMail content discoverable from other services (opening the doors to the silo) and this was the best (both technically and size of potential user audience) way of achieving it. MarkMail eiher charge for the service or you have to hand over the content to them to use the free service. The first was expensive and the second would break our T&Cs! Searches for JISCMail lists are near the top of result sets in Google.

    The issues involved in opening up closed lists is interesting, a bit like documents deposited under the 30 year rule. Whilst the list owner is responsible for managing the access to the lists, the copyright of each message resides with the creator of the email. For lists that started off as private lists, I agree with you that there should be some type of review (and potential redaction) to ensure everyone is happy with this information being public.

  7. Hi Catherine
    Thanks for the comment.

    Note that I was on the JISCMail Advisry Group when the service was launched and I argued that the proposed terms and conditions were too restrictive as they could be interpretted as not allowing the content to be reused by other services which could add value to the archive. I’m pleased that the content is now made available to search engines such as Google. As this is the case, why shouldn’t the content also be surfaced in Markmail? Note that this would support JISC’s interest in promoting open access to scholarly and research content.

    I agree that the issue of closed lists raises interesting challenges. I am exploring ways in which a closed list can be opened in an ethical way. This work includes auiting the lost so I have information on the numbers of messages posted and the number of people who have posted. Neither set of figures seem to be easy to obtain and so I have sent an email to the JISCMail Helpline for advice on how to do this. Once I have this data I will be able to see how feasible it would be to make contact with the posters to the list (which should be smaller than the numbers of subscribers). It would be interesting to know if there can be bulk processes for deleting content from individuals who do not want their content to be made available. Is this possible, do you know?

  8. Catherine Jones, JISCMail Director said

    Hi Brian,

    The difference between MarkMail and Google for us here at JISCMail, is that to be in the free version of Markmail we have to give them the content for them to index whereas Google, and other search engines, come and index us. This difference gives rise to issues around ownership & management of live lists which is why we are not in MarkMail.

    We would be interesting in discussing & exploring issues around opening closed lists with you – I’ll contact you offline about this. Detailed technical questions are best directed to the JISCMail helpline…. however whilst it is possible to remove all postings or single postings easily from a list, I don’t believe it is possible to easily remove postings from one particular person on one particular list in a single bulk action.

  9. [...] recent post on Policies on Unused JISCMail Lists highlighted the potential value of JISCMail lists which are no longer active but which host content [...]

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