LTER Databits celebrates 25th Anniversary

Network News Summer 2014, Vol. 27 No. 2

Databits, a newsletter dedicated to Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Information Management, is celebrating its 25th year. Launched in 1989 with the goal of improving communication between LTER site information managers, the newsletter has gone through several iterations, starting with the paper version  that was mailed out to subscribers (1989), followed by an online newsletter using Gopher (1993) and web-based (1999), and finally a content-management system (2009).  Both new and old issues are available on the Databits website (

The original goal of Databits was to encourage communication among LTER data managers in between their annual meetings and to communicate time-sensitive information that might not be suitable for journal publications. Highlights of early issues of Databits were “Site Bytes” wherein sites reported on activities (such as getting their first Internet connection, or Geographic Information Systems (GIS) workstations), technical notes, and reports on meetings, both within and outside LTER.

Old Databits issues still make some interesting reading, detailing plans to start a cross-site climate database (which eventually became ClimDB and HydroDB) and new electronic mail lists (Spring 1991); getting email connected to PCs that were then running MSDOS 5.0 (Summer 1991); surveys of data access at sites (only 5 of 18 supported access directly by researchers); the establishment of the first generation of “Gopher” Internet information servers (Fall 1992); and starting the all-site bibliography (1993).   Databits then took a hiatus between 1995 and 1998, when its editor left for a stint at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and information managers were busy with establishing websites and beginning the process of making data accessible via the World Wide Web.

Thanks to the efforts of Karen Baker, Databits returned in 1999 as a Web-based publication with a rotating editorial board. Each issue now has an Editor-in-Chief and an Associate Editor. After the issue is published, the Associate Editor becomes the new Editor-in-Chief and a new Associate Editor is selected.  With the new editorial structure, Databits became more topical; it was less centered on reports from sites, but instead focused more on network initiatives and meetings, with a healthy dose of technology discussions thrown in. It developed sections for featured stories, news items, reviews of articles and software, and a calendar of upcoming events. A look back reveals some good retrospective stories, such as then newly appointed Information Manager Wade Sheldon’s (GCE) article from 2000 discussing the challenges he faced. Wade is now a hardened LTER veteran, but he is still a frequent contributor to Databits.  

The new format also bought in a wider range of contributors, with guest articles from outside LTER or from international LTER sites, and the ability of the Web to provide graphics allowed authors to enhance articles with figures.

Other interesting issues include the 2002 edition, which was an important conduit of information about the new “Ecological Markup Language” (EML) that now serves as the basis for LTER cross-site information sharing efforts, and spread-spectrum wireless networking.  Grid computing and GIS dominated the 2003 issues, while EML returned strongly in 2005 to 2006 as an increasing number of LTER sites were able to publish EML metadata documents.

In 2008 the mode of publishing Databits changed again. That year, the Drupal Content Management System was used to set up an end-to-end publication system that allows authors to directly edit their contributions on the web site.  This greatly improved the editorial process because editors no longer needed to cut-and-paste articles into a single issue. Similarly, consistency and searchability were enhanced. 

Despite  monthly video teleconferences among LTER information managers, Databits continues to play an important role in sharing information on meetings, technical enhancements, reviews of articles, and commentaries.  Some issues have had over 20 individual contributors (although 10-15 is more typical), indicating that there is still plenty to communicate. Indeed, with the burst of activity throughout the LTER Network, its role as a communication tool is more critical than ever.

For those who love trivia, here is one:  Since its second issue, the heading on almost all Databits issues have featured the binary digits 01001100 01010100 01000101 01010010 which, when converted to ASCII text, spell out “LTER.” As the joke goes, there are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who don’t.