String ’em up! How middle managers destroy the value of institutional websites

Few things are quite as infuriating as an institutional website designed by somebody who will never ever have to use the service in question.  The designer is usually some group of bureaucrats, with a checklist of things that the service “must” contain.  Not infrequently a real user finds that the wasters have actually torpedoed any useful utility the site might have.

This reflection comes to me, courtesy of a site that shall be nameless, which has cost me the best part of two days useful work.  Around ten years ago, the institution discovered that it had access to a translation of a late Roman text in manuscript.  The translator was dead.  It decided – properly – to make this available online.

But you can see the fingers of the bureaucrats all over it.  Instead of creating a PDF with the book in it, they split it up into a PDF for every section.  It comes in 15 books.  Each book has around 60 or more sections.

This means that to consult the whole text involves opening NINE HUNDRED PDF files.  This in turn makes it impossible to use the translation, other than for odd references where you happen to know the exact reference.

No sane person would seek to make something accessible while making it inaccessible.  Only a committee could achieve this.  We can easily imagine how.

Chief Executive: “Do it!”

Sycophants: “Oh you are so forward-looking, Sir!”

(Later) Middle Manager: “Oh but what if people took copies and it appeared all over the web!!!!  Oh! Oh! Wouldn’t that be DREADFUL!!!!”

Junior sycophant: “How well you put that, ma’am!  So let’s make sure nobody can do that without spending a huge amount of effort.  We’ll divide it up into 900 pieces, accessible in a maze of menus.  That way it will inconvenience researchers, but not Chinese pirates with armies of cheap labour.”

And so it came to be, and the text remained online in theory but useless in practice.  Nobody ever cared about it much anyway; those who did were frustrated by the useless interface.

But that isn’t all.  Because a few years ago, another bureaucrat had his turn.  Someone revised the translation and produced a printed copy.

Another middle manager: “Now we’re selling a version of this, we might lose sales if we have the original online!!!  Woe!!  Woe!!”

Timid underling: “How much money are we talking about?”

All:  “THAT’S NOT THE POINT!!!”

Sycophant: “Clearly it must be taken offline to protect any profits.”

And it was so.

I have therefore wasted an enormous amount of time in locating an archived copy of the site, and downloading the files, with a great deal of manual intervention in order to circumvent the robots.txt file.  For I know better than to suppose that it will remain even at the archived site indefinitely.

Let’s keep our bureaucrats under control.  The best way to do so is to keep them as few as possible, and to watch the remainder like hawks.

Otherwise, one day, you too will have this experience!

2 thoughts on “String ’em up! How middle managers destroy the value of institutional websites

  1. Do what I do, Roger, it you can save the PDFlets: save each PDF to disk and combine them all in Acrobat (or an Acrobat substitute if you don’t have full Acrobat). Then you can (if you’re going to use it a lot) add a section index uaing the bookmark function. And delete it when you’ve finished with it to comply with the spirit of the licence.

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