Tuesday, August 20, 2019

A Tribute To Don Waters

Michael Keller has written, in Exploiting the opportunities of the maturing digital age: the first twenty years of the Scholarly Communications Program of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, what is effectively a richly deserved tribute to Don Waters as his retirement looms. Below the fold, some commentary and my two cents worth.

Keller summarizes the program and its results thus:
For the past 20 years, the Andrew W. Mellon’s Scholarly Communications Program has seized the advantage of on-rushing developments to significantly structure, manage, and sustain innovation in arts and humanities research and teaching. In this time, the Scholarly Communications Program, under the leadership of a single director, has supported and stimulated projects exploiting digital technologies and network effects in the areas of academic publishing, preservation of resources for scholarly practices, and library services. Many of these projects continue to benefit scholars and students, many have been superseded or suspended, and some have been bell-weathers for new pathways for research and teaching in the humanities.
The program has funded:
hundreds of projects ... amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars
Keller illustrates the impressive range of projects with selected examples, including an overview of the program's efforts in preservation featuring:
Complementary investments by the Program in Portico (see https://www.portico.org ) and LOCKSS (see https://www.lockss.org/ ) could address the single point of failure possibility, but also serve important access functions for legions of scholars and students. In addition, the CLOCKSS (see https://clockss.org ) alliance of libraries and publishers that makes possible both digital preservation in original forms and formats of scholarly publications and access to those publications in the event of disruptions due to economic, environmental, political, and technological failures through a network of 12 CLOCKSS servers around the world.
The LOCKSS Program got started in 1998 shortly before the Mellon program did. Although the two small grants that were the initial funding for the LOCKSS Program came from Michael Lesk, then at the NSF, the Mellon program under Don Waters provided grants at several critical points in the evolution of LOCKSS:
  1. The LOCKSS Program was one of six exploratory projects addressing the preservation of the academic record, primarily e-journals, that the Mellon program funded early in its history. The LOCKSS Program differed from the others in that it already had working prototype software, and that it was aimed at enabling libraries to preserve materials for themselves. The other five were all aimed at establishing a central repository to which other libraries would outsource preservation. None succeeded, but they became the inspiration for Portico.
  2. The development of the production version of the LOCKSS system was mostly funded by a significant grant from the NSF, and by Sun Microsystems. But once in production it was the Mellon program that enabled the LOCKSS Program to attain financial sustainability via the "Red Hat" model of free software and paid support. The Mellon awarded a grant that had to be matched dollar for dollar from non-grant funds with the goal, which LOCKSS achieved in 2007, of being completely off grant funding by its end.
  3. After 5 years running the "Red Hat" model in the black without grants, one of its limitations became apparent:
    The demands of the "Red Hat" model make it hard to devote development resources to enhancements that don't address immediate user demands but are targeted at longer-term issues. After discussing this issue with the Mellon Foundation, the LOCKSS Program was awarded a grant to cover a specific set of infrastructure enhancements. It made significant functional and performance improvements to the LOCKSS software in the areas of ingest, preservation and dissemination. The LOCKSS Program's experience shows that the "Red Hat" model is a viable basis for long-term digital preservation, but that it may need to be supplemented by occasional small grants targeted at longer-term issues.
    This was not a large grant; it enabled LOCKSS to increase expenditure by about 10%/year for three years.
  4. As that grant ended in 2015, the LOCKSS Program started work prototyping a completely new system architecture to replace the then 17-year-old monolithic architecture that had served well but was becoming dated. The Mellon program part-funded the effort to go from a crude prototype to the revised architecture now being rolled out.
The LOCKSS Program's work has been greatly aided by grants from the Mellon program but, as they intended, never dependent upon them. It is a tribute to all the early funders but especially the Mellon that, as far as I know uniquely for an arts and humanities funding program, it spawned computer science research good enough for an SOSP "best paper" award.

I wrote the bulk of all four of the grant proposals that the Mellon program funded, so I am well acquainted with the process that Keller describes thus:
Among the sterling qualities exhibited consistently over these years is the acumen, patience, and creativity of the leadership of the Program. Since 1999, informal conversations, small and large, well-focused conferences convened by the Program’s leadership, preliminary prospectuses submitted by hopeful principal investigators, and thoughtful appreciation of the connections among seemingly disparate developments have resulted in remarkable, if varied, progress. Some proposers have spoken so appreciatively of the chance to have a proposal, an idea even, considered by the Program that the resulting refinement of proposals, described by some as “Waters torture” or “whack-a-mole” or “surgery without anesthesia” have been experienced perhaps not joyfully, but certainly with equanimity.
My view of the process is a lot more positive than "equanimity". Compared to the often sketchy reviews of academic papers, the detailed, thorough and constructive feedback proposers received from the Mellon program at multiple stages in the development of a proposal was extremely valuable and helpful.

It has been a pleasure and a privilege to work with Don Waters and his program at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. I hope he enjoys his well-earned retirement as much as I'm enjoying mine.


Thomas Lindgren said...

Here is an important related field that looks like it needs contributions: http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/metascience/data-access/supplementary-data-loss-2019.html

David. said...

The Mellon Foundation under its new President Elizabeth Alexander has announced its new focus in a blog post entitled The Mellon Foundation Announces Transformation of its Strategic Direction and New Focus on Social Justice. The new structure is four-fold:

- Higher Learning
- Arts and Culture
- Humanities in Place
- Public Knowledge

The last of these is the evolution of Don Waters program:

"Public Knowledge supports the creation and preservation of our cultural record—the vast and ever-growing historical archive that helps us explore and better understand our intertwined humanity. The goal of Public Knowledge is to increase equitable access to deep knowledge— from scholarly texts to community collections—that helps build an informed, culturally diverse, and civically engaged society."