The serial place collector

This is not even half of it honestly you should see my book pile

For this month’s GLAM Blog Club theme of ‘collect’, I glanced over at my tottering ‘to-read pile that was sitting on a table but is now a table itself’. It’s perhaps an unusual pile. For one thing, I seldom read novels. Instead I’m drawn to narrative non-fiction, short stories and poetry. Stories about natural history, eco-friendly travel, walking, ecology, place, psychogeography, re-knowing our planet and watching helplessly as it changes. Stories that feel real.

Interestingly, that to-read pile has quite a number of print serials on place and nature writing. (Developing a magazine habit is a bit of a family tradition.) Currently I’m absorbed in volume 4 of Elementum, which arrived last week (don’t ask me how much the postage was!), as well as back issues of Elsewhere, which I hope to write for one day.

I did a brief analysis of my print serial collection in Libraries Australia and found only one title held in any Australian library: the Melbourne-based Lindsay, who have fulfilled their legal deposit obligations with the NLA. Considering the vast majority of these journals are published abroad I’m not terribly surprised. Perhaps when I die, some nature-inclined library here will take an interest in the rest of my collection. Perhaps not.

Then again, it’s not like online nature and place journals are well-represented in libraries either. There are lots of excellent blogs, often written and maintained by one person, as well as lush online magazines that make the most of the browser and create an immersive reading experience. Yet the long-term survival of many is largely dependent on the Internet Archive, which doesn’t quite feel like enough. My current personal favourite online journal is Emergence Magazine, ‘a journal of ecology, culture and spirituality’ with some seriously impressive writing, visuals and web design.

You know you want to read it, like, right now.

I’ve also been enjoying Plumwood Mountain, ‘an Australian journal of ecopoetry and ecopoetics’. Australian publications of this type seem to be harder to find. I hope that doesn’t mean they’re thin on the ground; perhaps I’m just looking in the wrong places.

Naturally, I’d like to collect Plumwood Mountain, or hope that a library could do so for me. I have a few options: I can manually save every page to the Internet Archive (highly time-consuming); I can manually save every page locally using Webrecorder (also highly time-consuming); or I can submit the site to Pandora and hope the author acquiesces. If she doesn’t, well, I tried. (Did you know anyone can suggest sites to Pandora for collection? Be aware that if you put someone’s email address in the form, it’ll send them an email.)

How can libraries collect emailed serials? In my past life as a local history librarian we dealt with this mostly by printing them out, which is obviously not ideal. To the best of my knowledge, newsletters hosted on platforms like MailChimp and Constant Contact aren’t harvestable by web archiving crawlers. Collection of these emails by libraries would therefore depend on either the publisher depositing a clean HTML or PDF version, or preserving the email files as part of an archive of someone’s inbox (which is very difficult, highly labour-intensive and not ideal for everyday access). We can’t rely on online platforms being available forever. We need to figure out a way to collect and preserve this content from the browser.

I desperately want someone to archive the full run of In Wild Air, a weekly emailed serial from 2016 to 2018 by Blue Mountains-based creative Heath Killen, each week featuring six things that made a guest tick. I loved this newsletter. Every Monday I took a leisurely walk through someone’s psyche. It was brilliant. I love basically everything Heath does. But if I were to ask Pandora to crawl that website, all it would collect is the index of names. The content itself is hosted on MailChimp—beyond the crawler’s reach.

I wonder if this proliferation of Anglophone ecoliterature is decidedly English in origin—the place, as well as the language. Settlers in Australia brought English concepts of geography with them (as explored in J.M. Arthur’s 2003 book The default country) and tried, unsuccessfully, to apply them to the Australian landscape. How else could you justify calling Weereewa / Lake George a ‘lake’ or Lhere Mparntwe / Todd River a ‘river’?

A collection selection

These are a few of my favourite journals. Please be aware that this list, though reasonably culturally competent, is white as hell. I’d really like to address that. A lot of these are based in Britain, where the nature writing crowd is overwhelmingly white, but I’m very keen to expand my collection to include more Indigenous perspectives. I’d also like to highlight the upcoming Willowherb Review, an online journal for nature writers of colour, which promises to be very good.

Print journals

Online journals and blogs

Using web archives for document supply: a case study

Today I was asked to help with a curly document supply request. A distance student was looking for a particular article, which my colleagues had been unable to locate. Usually we think of document supply as resource sharing, but today was really more about resource finding. It’s also similar to reference queries about how to find journal articles, which we get all the time.

It wound up being so difficult—and interesting!—that I thought others might like to know how it was done. This is also partly so that if my colleagues decide they want me to present a training session on this, I’ve already got the notes written up… teehee.

The request

The details I received looked like this:

Journal Title Risk & Regulation
Publisher CARR LSE
Volume / Issue Issue 3
Part Date Spring 2002
Call Number

Title Japan: Land of the Rising Audit?
Article Author Michael Power
Pages 10 ff

My colleagues initially thought this was a book chapter request, but the book they’d found didn’t quite match these details, at which point they roped me into the search.

Catalogue search

Step 1: Search our local catalogue. This is standard for all document supply requests—you’d be surprised how often people ask for things we already have. I consider it a learning and teaching opportunity (and sometimes also a reminder that print books and serials still exist). In this instance, we didn’t have anything with this title in our catalogue.

Step 2: Search Libraries Australia, the national union catalogue. If another Australian library held this serial, we would request it on the patron’s behalf through the Libraries Australia Document Delivery (LADD) system, of which most Australian libraries are a member. I didn’t have an ISSN, so I had to go on title alone.

Good news: there is a record in LA for this serial, so I could confirm it exists. Bad news: no library in Australia holds it. (Records without holdings are common in LA, as many libraries use it as an acquisitions tool.)

Step 3: Search SUNCAT, the British serials union catalogue. I realised later that I didn’t really need to do this step, because the only extra info that LA didn’t have was a list of UK institutions that held copies. (Which I obviously couldn’t get at.) However, it wasn’t until this point that I noticed the note stating ‘Also available via the internet.’ Which got me thinking—is this an OA online journal? It would explain the lack of local holdings if it was just on the internet…

Web archive search

Step 4: Google the journal title. Yes, Google, like a real librarian.

There is a distinct possiblity that I own this particular shirt

Turns out the journal Risk & regulation is indeed published free and online by the London School of Economics, AND they have back issues online! … going back to 2003. The one I need is from 2002, because of course it is.

Step 5: Search the UK Web Archive. Knowing the journal was a) a UK title and b) online at some point, I then turned to web archives to find a copy. I searched on the article title, it being more distinctive than the journal title, and also because a more specific search would get me results faster. This brought me to an archived LSE news page from 2002.

The LSE news page provided a link to the journal page—but the UK Web Archive hadn’t preserved it! Argh!

Step 6: Search the Wayback Machine. All was not lost, however. Because I was now armed with a dead URL that had once linked to the journal page I needed, I could go straight to the Wayback Machine, part of the Internet Archive, and simply plug in the URL to find archived copies of that page. The Wayback Machine recently launched a keyword search functionality, but it’s still a work in progress. My experience suggests this site functions best when you know exactly where to look.

I had to fiddle around with the URL slightly, but I eventually got to the journal landing page. Remembering that I needed issue 3 from Spring 2002, I clicked on the link to the relevant PDF—also archived!—and quickly located the article.

Step 7: Email article to student and give them the the good news. They thanked me and asked how I found it, so I gave them a shorter version of the above in the hope they might find it useful in future. I made sure to reassure them that this kind of thing is quite difficult and there’s often not necessarily a single place to search (they had wondered what search terms they ought to have used) and if they were stuck in future, just ask a librarian—it’s what we’re for. 🙂

Conclusions

Web archives aren’t usually the search target of choice for reference and document supply staff, but they are an absolute goldmine of public information, particularly for older online serials that may have vanished from the live web. Many researchers (and librarians, for that matter) don’t know much about web archives, if anything, so cases like this are a great way to introduce people to these incredible resources.

This was also a bit of a proud moment for me, I won’t lie. It’s so good to have moments like this every now and again—it helps me demonstrate there’s still a place for professional document hunters.