Newsmaker: Paul Jones

“Lunar librarian” and professor on open source, being first, and misplacing an archive on the moon

July 16, 2019

Paul Jones
Photo: Phil Daquila

Libraries across the country are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing this July with a variety of programs, but how many library professionals can say they’ve worked on the first archive that was sent to the moon?

Paul Jones, professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s (UNC) School of Information and Library Science, is one of a few who worked on the Lunar Library, a 30-million-page archive in the size and shape of a DVD.

The archive—which includes the English-language Wikipedia among nearly 200 gigabytes of content with 1.5 billion translations—launched on SpaceIL’s moon lander Beresheet in February. In April, the library crash-landed on the moon—and hasn’t yet been recovered.

Jones, who will be retiring from UNC next year, spoke with American Libraries on his contribution to the Lunar Library and his 40 years of work in information science and journalism instruction, from directing the digital archive ibiblio to teaching generations of students.

The Arch Mission Foundation (AMF) recently sent the Lunar Library to the moon to be discovered by those who might come after us. What was your role in that project?

I advised Nova Spivack [CEO of AMF], who was really the organizer and brains behind the context, about what kind of things are available. One thing he thought of [adding] was Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg. Then I said, this can’t all be English. The object there was to provide a robust version of a Rosetta Stone so that if any of those languages in some way can be cracked, then you can get to the contents.

What was the priority for collecting massive amounts of information?

We were very broad. General stuff before deeper, transient scholarly papers. That work speaks a lot to how humans organize themselves in a certain period of time.

For example, David Copperfield has been a silent advisor [to the project], so his contribution is his notes on all of his tricks. So, if you want to know how David Copperfield does his tricks, all you have to do is go to the moon. And find it, because we don’t exactly know where it is—just where it crashed.

How do you feel now that the Lunar Library is lost? Do you believe there’s life on other planets or elsewhere in the universe?

It’s not exactly lost. We know where it is, within a hundred miles, even a little closer. Our guess is that it probably landed in a hole. Even if it’s found by future inhabitants of earth, that would be fine—but yes, there may be something else out there.

As director of ibiblio, you focus on providing reliable, open source material. Are there any challenges to keeping it copyright-free?

Nothing is copyright-free. You can’t easily declare things public domain anymore, so the best thing to do is to use Creative Commons. The real problem is, what happens if someone takes something that is copyrighted and presents it? We just take it down or we renegotiate between the people who put it online and the people who claim they created it. A lot of times, the people who claim they created it actually either don’t have standing or there’s just a misunderstanding because it’s free in one country and not copyright-free in another.

But we’re not involved in trying to avoid the copyright thing. Our case is, how can we—within the balance of law—make things work for people? There’s a lot of stuff we like, or that readers and publishers might want to contribute, but there’s a lot of complicated laws.

How do you manage all of your projects on top of teaching and mentoring LIS students?

I’ve accumulated a lot over time. I would rather start something than be way down the line fine-tuning it. With ibiblio, I’ve been putting more and more of the authority on my staff, which can be up to a dozen students at a time.

I figured out how to leave [things] behind for someone else to do. It’s a part of self-understanding where you go, “This looks like it’s going really good, but the next thing that’s going to happen needs a skill that I don’t have. I should go do the next thing that does need my skill.”

One of the delightful things about being [at UNC] this long is we have a faculty member that really presses on open access, another that really presses on peer production, and another that really presses on the social implications of technology.

At UNC, you’ve had many firstsamong the first to create a website and install email programs, and you helped WXYC-FM, the university’s radio station, to become the first radio station to broadcast on the internet. How did those accomplishments feel and how have they shaped your work?

Now that I look back, most of those things weren’t very good. But they existed, which was good. You have to be better than the first if you’re the second, and you have to be really good if you’re the 10th. But if you’re the first at doing something, it just has to work.

At WXYC, we took a regular radio receiver and wired it out through the basement window so that we could digitize it. Then we advertised it using CU-SeeMe and we had people listening to it in Switzerland and Germany. There was a big debate about whether we were using up bandwidth and if streaming media was going to destroy the internet as we know it. But the philosophy of it was, how do we open up opportunities for other people? Which is really the library question. Public libraries are based on that ideal.

I love the Lunar Library project because it’s about tremendous long shots. And they don’t have to work out—it’s not like polar exploration. You get that feeling you don’t have to be a nation-state to put something on the moon.

From your experience, how do journalism and information science intersect?

I worked a lot on how digital technology is changing journalism. At the beginning, it was, “How do I make a webpage for my newspaper?” Now [digital technology] is changing libraries. A lot of people thought libraries were going to be big losers, and they aren’t. They quickly adapted and it got them where they needed to be. They realized their core resource wasn’t necessarily a tower of books but the services and location around those books. If the books went away, you’d still have the public needs, the services, information support, and the notion of outreach that libraries provide. Journalists have had a harder time, and that has to do with advertising and its relationship to the internet.

You’ve been off email since 2011. What motivated that purge?

I’ve had the same email address from the early 1980s. The nice part about email is that it’s open to everybody, and the bad part about email is that it’s open to everybody. You’re at war with robots. The amount of spam I was getting was completely ridiculous. [Social media] has been better than email for communication. You can decide who you’ll accept a message from. The further you get from sitting down at a keyboard and the closer you get to working in motion, the less you’re likely to use email.

You have an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College. What inspires you?

[As Charles Baudelaire] said, people who are drunk with words rather than drunk with emotions are probably better poets. If you love reading poetry, then you’re constantly inspired in conversation—across time—with a lot of smart people who are also drunk with words. In that drunkenness, they’re also trying to understand their state in the world. So, why would you not write?


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