SUSAN CALCARI AND THE SCOUT REPORT
by Marylaine Block
Susan Calcari died on July 8. What a loss to us all. She wasn't a librarian, but as founder and director of the Internet Scout Project (http://scout.cs.wisc.edu/index.html), she provided an enormous service to librarians, as well as to teachers and scholars.
I don't know how many of you remember the earliest days of the worldwide web, but when I began exploring it in 1994, it was the wild west, vast, uncharted, and lawless. So much so, in fact, that many librarians were intimidated by it; there was just too much there, and too much of it was not worth the time we spent clicking through it.
Scout Project was a good name for what Susan and her team did, because they went ahead of us, scouted the territory, and guided us through it. Their stated mission was to "filter hundreds of announcements looking for the most valuable and authoritative resources available online," and to summarize it, organize it, and make it available to the Internet community. These thorough, solid reviews were among the earliest maps of the territory, that gave us reason to persevere in our own explorations.
The signal-to-noise ratio is even worse now, as more and more sites have sprung to life. The Scout Project adapted to this by offering specialized Scout Reports for Science, Business, and the Social Sciences. If you didn't want to risk forgetting to check out the Reports each week, you could subscribe to them by e-mail. If you forgot the name and URL for an important web site, you could look for it in the Scout Report Archive (http://scout.cs.wisc.edu/archives/index.html), where past reviews are not just stored, but fully subject cataloged and keyword searchable. This made the Scout Report more than just a current awareness service; it became a basic starting point for anybody looking for an organized collection of reviewed key resources within a subject area.
What we're talking about is intelligent design. The Scout Project began with an understanding of what good information looks like, which is rare enough. But Susan and her team continually modified it to take advantage of new software, search tools, and research about how people look for and use information.
It's unfortunate that in the last year, while Susan was fighting the disease that eventually took her life, she also had to fight for the life of her Scout Project. Originally funded by the National Science Foundation, it needed to find new funding sources when that grant expired. And while Susan found enough money to keep the basic service alive, she wasn't able to rustle up enough to keep the specialized Scout Reports going.
That demonstrates a remarkable short-sightedness in the academic and library communities that have benefited the most from her work. Too many of us take the bounty of the net for granted, assume that of course information is free.
Free to users does not mean free of costs to providers. A project like the Scout Report requires enormous storage space on a server. It requires technical support and occasional redesign. It requires a staff of librarians, scholars and subject specialists to look for and analyze new sites and changes in old ones. All of those cost money, buckets of it.
I think the best possible memorial to Susan would be for those of us who have benefited from her work to pledge to support it financially. I would start with the American Library Association. We have a Freedom to Read Foundation, which I contribute to cheerfully. Shouldn't we also have a foundation to support information service projects like the Scout Report, and major digitizing projects like Bartleby (http://www.bartleby.com/) and the Making of America collaboration (http://moa.umdl.umich.edu/ and http://moa.cit.cornell.edu/moa/)?
Similarly, scholarly organizations -- the Modern Language Association, the American Chemical Society, the American Historical Association, etc. -- could and should contribute to the continued existence of valuable "free" services. If they did, the specialized topical Scout Reports perhaps could come back to life, and maybe new ones could blossom (there never was a specialized Scout Report for the arts, for instance).
Susan died way too young, but accomplished more in the small piece of time allotted her than most people can in twice as many years. I hope she took comfort in knowing that her contribution to knowledge and learning has been important and longlasting. It will continue, because it was never a one-pony show. She chose outstanding people to work with her, and gave them a direction that will continue to guide the project. Let's pay her tribute with wallets as well as words, shall we?
For more about Susan's life, see http://scout.cs.wisc.edu/about/susan.html
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These are truly wondrous times, but the eternal struggle between private greed and social need continues unabated. The commodification of information is the contested terrain that we face in this new millennium. Almost all of the stock photographs in the world are now owned by two companies, Corbis and Getty One. Consumer data is routinely bought and sold with little regard for personal privacy. Even genetic codes, the mother of all life data, are now corporate currency. These are but a few examples of the ethical challenges we will have to deal with in the years to come. Whose information? Managed for what purpose? These are the questions we must not be afraid to ask. Information management can be an honorable and proud profession. It is up to all of us here to make it so.
Lincoln Cushing, graduation speech, School of Information Management and Systems, University of California at Berkeley, May 12,2001 (downloadable in pdf from http://www.sims.berkeley.edu/~lcush/personal.htm)
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.
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