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How to share knowledge

secret-agent

Writing this thesis, we’ve questioned some assumption that are not so common in the academic world, at least not in our department: how can we allow hassle-free consultation of our work? How can the connections between this wide range of topics be highlighted in an effective way? How should we overcome these limitation, on paper?

In fact, in some moments during our research, we’ve faced a problem that brought us 30 or 40 years back in time, if compared to the liquidness of today: thesis consultation.

It may seem banal, but our thesis archive – a small room of about 70 square meters within the Politechnic of Turin branch at C.so Settembrini – is open just one day a week, for three or four hours. Often, who’s responsible (a student) is absent, so you need to sign a log to get the keys. When entering the room, you’ll find a big paper register just in front of you (if someone else isn’t already searching for something on it). Here you can find all the position on the shelves for the last 5-year thesis. Once you got the books, you’re ready to start recording the documents with your preferred tool: a USB-powered scanner, or a camera (both to be brought from home!).

This is needed because the CD that most institutes asks together with the paper version is not needed by our department, so no PDF, and there is no copier in the thesis archive. In other words, we had to take a picture to all the pages we needed, because the archive must close, and it’s obviously impossible to read them all in 4 hours.

A 007-like adventure

The situation is even worst if you have to check a PhD thesis. The PhD thesis archive is placed in the headquarters of the Politechnic, and the thesis are released only in a digital format (read: PDF).

Isn’t it fantastic? No. It isn’t.

To consult a thesis at the Architecture library you need to retrieve Title, Author, Position and/or ID. They say this data have to be somewhere online. Anyway, even if you got it, the receptionist will always tell you that it’s impossible. Only after begging a bit she’ll ask for a document as security. Then, let’s go to another room, at the -1 floor.

Here a student will ask the same data, giving to you the CD and asking for your ID card. For security reasons. However, since you’ve left it to the receptionist before, he’ll look at you with a penetrating eyesight while telling: “Ok… but, be careful!”.

Now come back to the library. The receptionist asks for the CD, and she’ll give you the key of a storage deposit where you have to leave all your things. Only paper and pen are allowed in the consultation room.

There is another step before entering the consultation room: we need to fill in a paper form, while the receptionist is really overwhelmed by an incredible amount of data she has to record on her pc about this exchange.

At the end we’re in: the consultation room is in front of us. In fact, it is a small room that can be opened only by an operator (the receptionist) and if you’re in you can’t get out by yourself. It has two clean glass walls and two blank walls. At the center of the room there are six tables put one by another, as it was one big conference table. Near the modular table, as in 2001 Space Odissey, here it is: a big totem where the consultation PC sits.

Turn it on, log in and insert the CD: you’re in!

Now, you’re alredy thinking “What a lucky situation, I won’t need to take any picture this time!” while inserting your USB drive to copy the content of the CD. No way. You need the admin password to install new hardware.

But wait. Maybe, we can send the PDF by mail. What a nice idea! Let’s open the browser and… No. The PC is online, but no internet access.

So, here’s the only two possible solutions:

  1. Handcopy the paragraphs or the data you need from the PhD thesis, as it was cool during the Middle Ages
  2. Take pictures of the screen, a true piece of technology with 1280 x 1024 on 17 inches, with the phone that you forgot to put in the storage box

All this at your own risk. A printed thesis is much better.

Ours is not a PhD thesis, however we did not want all this to happen for several reasons. First, we’re in 2014, facing 2015, and paper does answer to the increasing complexity of the thesis only in part. Moreover, we believe it is useless to print again the same informations and thoughts for which there are plenty of articles, texts and opinions much more relevant that ours on the web.

Last, but not least, the paper and the thesis archive did not answer to one of our needs: the will to share our knowledge under an open license.