Mr. Serials is dead. Long live Mr. Serials

This posting describes the current state of the Mr. Serials Process.

Background

Round about 1994 when I was employed by the North Carolina State University Libraries, Susan Nutter, the Director, asked me to participate in an ARL Collection Analysis Project (CAP). The goal of the Project was to articulate a mission/vision statement for the Libraries fledgling Collection Development Department. “It will be a professional development opportunity”, she told me. I don’t think she knows how much of an opportunity it really was.

Through the CAP I, along with a number of others (Margaret Hunt, John Abbott, Caroline Argentati, and Orion Pozo) became acutely aware of the “serials pricing crisis”. Academic writes article. Article gets peer-reviewed. Publisher agrees to distribute article in exchange for copyright. Article gets published in journal. Library subscribes to journal at an ever-increasing price. Academic reads journal. Repeat.

The whole “crisis” made me frustrated (angry), and others were frustrated too. Why did prices need to be increasing so dramatically? Why couldn’t the Academe coordinate peer-review? Why couldn’t the Internet be used a distribution medium? Some people tried to answer some of these questions differently than the norm, and the result was the creation of electronic journals distributed via email such as the venerable Bryn Mawr Classical Review, Psycoloquy, Postmodern Culture, and PACS Review.

Given this environment, I sought to be a part of the solution instead of perpetuating the problem. I created the Mr. Serials Process — a set of applications/scripts that collected, archived, indexed, and re-distributed sets of electronic journals. I figured I could demonstrate to the library and academic communities that if everybody does their part, then there would less of need for commercial publishers — entities who were exploiting the system and more interested in profit than the advancement of knowledge. Mr. Serials was “born” around 1994 and documented in an article from Serials Review. Mr. Serial, now 14-years old, would be considered a child by most people’s standards. Yet, fourteen years is a long time in Internet years.

Mr. Serials is dead

For all intents and purposes, Mr. Serials is dead because his process was based on the distribution of electronic serials via email. His death was long and drawn out. The final nail driven into his coffin came when ACQNET, one of the original “journals” he collected, moved from Appalachian State University to iBiblio a few months ago. After the move Mr. Serials was no longer considered the official archivist of the content, and his era had passed.

This is not a big deal. Change happens. Processes evolve. Besides, Mr. Serials created a legacy for himself, a set of early electronic serial literature exemplifying the beginnings of networked scholarly communication which includes more than thirty titles archived at serials.infomotions.com.

Long live Mr. Serials

At the same time, Mr. Serials is alive and well. Maybe, like many people his age, he is going through an adolescence.

In the middle 1990s electronic journals were distributed via email. As such the Mr. Serials Process used procmail to filter incoming mail. He then used a Hypercard program to create configuration files denoting the locations of bibliographic data in journal titles. He then used a Perl program reading the configuration files, automatically extracting the bibliographic information from each issue, removing the email header, and saving the resulting journal article in a specified location. Initially, the whole collection was made available via a Gopher server and indexed with WAIS. Later, the collection was made available via an HTTP server and other indexing technologies were used but many of them are broken.

Somewhere along the line, some of the “journals” became mailing lists, and the Process was modified to take advantage of an archiving program called Hypermail. Like the original Process, the archived materials are accessible via a Web server and indexed with some sort of search engine technology. (There have been so many.) With the movement of ACQNET, the original “journals” have all gone away, but Mr. Serials has picked up a few mailing lists along the way, notably colldv-l, Code4LIb, and NGC4Lib. Consequently, Mr. Serials is not really dead, just transformed.

A lot of the credit goes to procmail, Hypermail, Web servers, and indexers. Procmail reads incoming mail and processes it accordingly. File it here. File it there. Delete it. Send it off to another process. Hypermail makes pretty email archives which are more or less configurable. It allows one to keep email messages in their original RFC 822 (mbox) format and reuse them for many purposes. We all know what HTTP servers do. Indexers complement the Hypermail process by providing searchable interfaces to the collection. The indexer used against colldv-l, Code4Lib, and NGC4Lib is called KinoSearch and is implemented through an SRU interface.

Mr. Serials is a modern day library process. It has a set of collection development goals. It acquires content. It organizes content. It archives and preserves content. It redisseminates content. The content it currently collects may not be extraordinarily scholarly, but someday somebody is going to want it. It is a special collection. Much if its success is a testiment to open source software. All the tools it uses are open source. In fact most of them were distributed as open source even before the phrase was coined.

Long live Mr. Serials.

Published by

Eric Lease Morgan

Artist- and Librarian-At-Large