A name that’s particular

January 29, 2013

Oxford University has 38 Colleges and 6 Permanent Private Halls. Don’t worry, I’m not going to rehash the various debates about the advantages and disadvantages of the collegiate system here (for one thing, I should finish reading David Palfreyman’s book on the subject first). I just want to point out that for anyone who’s interested in web information architecture or website design this organizational circumstance gives them a fascinating corpus (including a probably-fascinating Corpus) of 44 roughly equivalent websites to compare: sites situated in the same cultural context, which deal with a similar size and shape of institution, similar sets of target users, and so on… but which are sufficiently autonomous that they can make very different choices about how to organise and display their information.

Before we even get to the content of the websites, I’ve long been intrigued and/or frustrated (depending on my mood) by the fact that the Colleges’ domain names are inconsistent in the way they relate to their actual names. Basically, they’re all www dot [name of college] dot ox dot ac dot uk… except where they’re not. I’ve reproduced the full list here so you can see what I mean:

All Souls College
http://www.all-souls.ox.ac.uk/
Balliol College
http://www.balliol.ox.ac.uk/
Blackfriars
http://www.bfriars.ox.ac.uk/
Brasenose College
http://www.bnc.ox.ac.uk/
Campion Hall
http://www.campion.ox.ac.uk/
Christ Church
http://www.chch.ox.ac.uk/
Corpus Christi College
http://www.ccc.ox.ac.uk/
Exeter College
http://www.exeter.ox.ac.uk/
Green Templeton College
http://www.gtc.ox.ac.uk/
Harris Manchester College
http://www.hmc.ox.ac.uk/
Hertford College
http://www.hertford.ox.ac.uk/
Jesus College
http://www.jesus.ox.ac.uk/
Keble College
http://www.keble.ox.ac.uk/
Kellogg College
http://www.kellogg.ox.ac.uk/
Lady Margaret Hall
http://www.lmh.ox.ac.uk/
Linacre College
http://www.linacre.ox.ac.uk/
Lincoln College
http://www.lincoln.ox.ac.uk/
Magdalen College
http://www.magd.ox.ac.uk/
Mansfield College
http://www.mansfield.ox.ac.uk/
Merton College
http://www.merton.ox.ac.uk/
New College
http://www.new.ox.ac.uk/
Nuffield College
http://www.nuffield.ox.ac.uk/
Oriel College
http://www.oriel.ox.ac.uk/
Pembroke College
http://www.pmb.ox.ac.uk/
The Queen’s College
http://www.queens.ox.ac.uk/
Regent’s Park College
http://www.rpc.ox.ac.uk/
St Anne’s College
http://www.st-annes.ox.ac.uk/
St Antony’s College
http://www.sant.ox.ac.uk/
St Benet’s Hall
http://www.st-benets.ox.ac.uk/
St Catherine’s College
https://www.stcatz.ox.ac.uk/
St Cross College
http://www.stx.ox.ac.uk/
St Edmund Hall
http://www.seh.ox.ac.uk/
St Hilda’s College
http://www.st-hildas.ox.ac.uk/
St Hugh’s College
http://www.st-hughs.ox.ac.uk/
St John’s College
http://www.sjc.ox.ac.uk/
St Peter’s College
http://www.spc.ox.ac.uk/
St Stephen’s House
http://www.ssho.ox.ac.uk/
Somerville College
http://www.somerville.ox.ac.uk/
Trinity College
http://www.trinity.ox.ac.uk/
University College
http://www.univ.ox.ac.uk/
Wadham College
http://www.wadham.ox.ac.uk/
Wolfson College
http://www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/
Worcester College
http://www.worc.ox.ac.uk/
Wycliffe Hall
http://www.wycliffe.ox.ac.uk/

By my count, that’s 25 colleges whose domain names are as close as possible within the characters allowed in domain names (omitting apostrophes, replacing spaces with hyphens) to their real name; 10 whose domain names are their intials; and 9 whose domain names are an abbreviation other than their initials.

Even the initials aren’t consistent: it’s not clear why the ‘nose’ of ‘Brasenose’ deserves its own initial (so perhaps ‘bnc’ should strictly count as an ‘other abbreviation’ rather than initials…), or why ‘St Stephen’s House Oxford’ has to have ‘Oxford’ added to its name/initials when the ‘.ox.ac.uk’ domain should locate and disambiguate it. Others look like initials at first glance (‘pmb’, ‘stx’), but aren’t.

Of the nine ‘other abbreviation’ Colleges, four of them (magd, sant, univ, worc) use the first four letters of their name — this is their ‘OUCS code’, the unique identifier* assigned to them by Oxford University Computing Services (now IT Services). These identifiers are used, among other places, in the University’s single sign-on system usernames — e.g. I was at Pembroke, and my username was pemb0471.

The remaining few (bfriars, chch, pmb, stx) are completely anomalous, and fairly unguessable (OK, St Catherine’s College is colloquially known as ‘St Catz’, but they’ve omitted the hyphen that nearly all the other ‘saints’ have included).

And of course, the names of the colleges themselves are inconsistent; Christ Church does not have ‘College’ as part of its name; Lady Margaret Hall is a College, not a Hall, while Regent’s Park College is a Permanent Private Hall; some of the Saints are possessive (St Hilda’s, St Hugh’s, etc) and others aren’t (St Cross College, St Edmund Hall — which is also a College, not a Hall). In fact, in some cases, their true names are very different from the names by which we know them: either “The President and Fellows of the College of St Mary Magdalen in the University of Oxford” or “The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in the University of Oxford, of the foundation of Sir Thomas Pope (Knight)” (better known as, respectively, Magdalen College and Trinity College) would make a ridiculously long domain name (though not actually exceeding the technical limit); unsurprisingly, of course, that wasn’t a major concern in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Is any of this a problem? Not really; it makes the URLs hard to guess, but who guesses URLs these days? Typing any of the Colleges’ names into Google will take you to them in less time than it would have once taken you to dial up. However, it’s interesting to see that the same issues come up again and again in any attempt to derive a consistent naming scheme for computers from things that were named by and for human beings. I don’t want to fix it; I just find it fascinating.


* In fact, they’re just one of the many sets of unique identifiers used for departments and Colleges (and those sets are subject to change), but that’s probably a subject for another post.

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