Back in 2005 I presented a paper entitled “Let’s Free IT Support Materials!” at the EUNIS 2005 conference, an annual conference aimed at IT support departments throughout Europe. In the paper I argued that IT Service departments should be making their documentation and other support materials available under a Creative Commons licence for reuse by the wider community. I pointed out that the UK had a well-established tradition of collaboration, through organisations such as UCISA, and, in the area of document sharing, had already set up a national archive of Computing Service documentation.

This was initially established in the late 1980s/early 1990s based on a centralised repository of documentation on the HENSA/Micros service at the University of Lancaster. However floundered due to the complexities of network access in pre-Web days and the effort it took to transfer resources to a centralised location. A renewed effort in the mid 1990s provided a Web-based interface to a distributed archive known as the UCISA TLIG Document Sharing Archive. Although this required little effort from participating institutions, the service failed to be sustainable due to the technical expertise require to provide and maintain the indexing across the distributed archives. And since the search interface points to a script on Mailbase, despite the message saying “Unfortunately the search facility is currently unavailable. We hope to rectify this shortly” I suspect this hasn’t worked since Mailbase was replaced by JISCMail in November 2000.

But now the indexing capabilities can be provided easily, using third party services such as the Google Custom Search Engine (GCSE). Is it really easy, you may wonder? Well the interface is shown below. and, as can be seen, setting up the search engine requires little more than entering the URLs to be indexing and then copying the code to be embedded on a Web page.  Easy 🙂  And the search engine is easy to use from a user perspective. Why not give it a try.  You might even wish to embed the search interface into your own page.

Google Custom Search Engine

Now you might be suspicious: it’s too easy; there’s no metadata; it’s not open source; etc. My response – am I bovvered? Computing should be easy – I remember the excitement I felt when I discovered the Apple Macintosh in the 1980s and Paul Walk has been making similar comments about his iPhone.   Ease-of-use and simplicity are to be applauded, I would argue.

And, as I discovered from my Twitter friends recently, a number of colleagues have been using the Google Custom Search Engine for some time: Pete Johnston for searching music sites he frequents, Mile Ellis for his search across museum collections and Phil Bradley for searching across 35 Web 2.0 sites. And thanks to Matt Jukes for pointing out the use of this approach on the JISC Web site and the How Do I? example from the Open University, which is described in a blog post by Tony Hirst. And edubloggers may find Stephen Downes Edublogs search of interest: this searches across no fewer than 456 blog sites! 

But how might my experiment be scaled up to a service, in order to deliver the original aims of this service, only about 15 years late 🙂

Perhaps the UCISA TLIG group could take responsibility for developing this prototype and seeing if there are are barriers to it being deployed into service. But there might also be an interest from a institution which could see benefits of such a search facility across a region (Scotland, perhaps?).

Or maybe individuals would be motivated to do this.  And as it is possible for me to open up the management interface to pothers, I would be happy to respond with anyone who may be interested.

And as I’ll be giving a talk at the UCISA Management Conference on 13th March 2008, that would be an opportunity for me to name-check anyone who would be willing to investigate further 🙂