Jasmine Patel – All Things BITS: A Conversation with Sonia Virdi

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Programme of Study and Year: MA German 1st year

Intern Position: Digital Preservation Intern

Favourite song right now: Chance or Rhythmus by ENDA

The Bulletin of IT Services (BITS) was first established by the Edinburgh University Computing Service (EUCS) in around 1990. It was edited by Nick Stroud for the best part of 20 years. This first iteration of BITS was published monthly and circulated as a paper copy. It contained the latest news, events and developments in communications and information technology at the University.

In 2000, the BITS Learning Technology Supplement was created by the Media and Learning Technology Service (MALTS) and Learning Technology Section (LTS) within the Faculty of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine (MVM). The Supplement complimented the Bulletin, highlighting news and services available specifically in the area of learning technology.

With the growth of Information Services, BITS evolved into a longer, more inclusive and structured newsletter. The most recent iteration of BITS was the BITS Magazine, which commenced in 2011. The Magazine incorporated all aspects of Information Services, reflecting the diverse stories and people behind the services that were being delivered.

Sonia Virdi is the current Graphic Design Manager in the Learning, Teaching and Web directorate in ISG. In her time working for Information Services at the University of Edinburgh, she has witnessed the evolution of BITS over a span of more than 20 years.

I was keen to hear Sonia’s insights into the journey of BITS’ development from the Bulletin to the Magazine. And so we found ourselves one afternoon, chatting over teams about Nick Stroud, my internship, and generally all things BITS.

The conversation recorded below has been edited and condensed.

How did you first come across BITS, and its editor Nick Stroud?

Nick Stroud was responsible for communication within IS, and he came up with the idea for BITS.

I got to know Nick Stroud because he was in an office directly opposite mine. I was at Nick’s desk one day and he showed me the Bulletin. It was a black and white doubled sided sheet of A4, crammed with information. My first thought was how many more people might read it if the graphics and layout were improved, so I offered to redo it.

How was BITS put together and distributed?

At the beginning, Aileen Robertson and I were the main designers involved with BITS. I think it was Aileen who started the Learning Technology Supplement, because she designed the template for that whereas I designed the template for the newsletter and magazine iterations of BITS.

Once we had the templates, it was purely a matter of getting a copy of the contents from Nick and laying it all out. Sheila Cannell (former Director of the Library) helped direct the focus of the content. She brought in people from across IS to contribute articles, which enabled members of all the divisions to shape the story of IS that BITS was documenting. The templates that Aileen and I created also meant that other designers could get involved in the design of BITS and add their own design flair. This enabled us to present some inspiring cover designs.

By the time we got to the Magazine, the process of producing BITS became more standardised. The design team was sent a copy which was then approved by the editor and people within the different sections. We would make any necessary changes, submit the final design and then the copies would be posted out to all the schools, colleges and departments. I remember it always required some adrenaline to get BITS out the door on time!

Who brought in the stories and articles? Did you have to be selective at times about which you chose to include in BITS?

That was the editorial group’s responsibility. The editorial group was made up of people who each represented their different sections. We’d meet as a group, go through all the submitted articles and decide which ones we were going to include.

We would then get back to those people whose articles we wanted to put in the Magazine and ask them to finish writing, or if they were good enough, we would put them straight in.

One of the biggest challenges with BITS was making sure that the news we were putting out was newsworthy, in that it was delivered at the right time, and not six months later after everyone had already heard about it. It was important to make sure that you were flagging up the latest things coming up within IS. There was a theme for every BITS Magazine, so that also helped direct what would go in or not.

In what ways have you seen BITS change?

At first BITS was focussed on developments in information technology. When Aileen and I, Sheila Cannell and Jeff Haywood (former Vice Principal of Knowledge Management and Chief Information Officer) got involved, we decided to shift the focus towards services such as the Library, IT, Applications and User Services. In that way, the scope of BITS became a lot broader than it had been, simultaneously reflecting the increased remit of IS as an organisation.

The design of BITS has of course evolved over time, and similarly reflects the growth of IS. We began with Nick’s text-filled version and managed to turn it into a much more readable and user friendly eight-page newsletter which then evolved into the full-colour magazine.

The key purpose of BITS has always been to shine a light on the people, processes and services that make up IS. However, as things grow in size like the University has done, you start to lose track of what elements are part of what. BITS was able to connect people back up with the services the University provided, a connection that became less transparent and understood as the University expanded. I think it became harder for students to find out what Information Services was, or what it meant. That’s where the magazine came in. It made our organisation and our professions’ more tangible and more understandable.

There’s a section in the Magazine which describes a day in the life or sixty seconds with a member of IS staff. I remember the idea came from the metro, which did something similar.

Often when we talk about our services, we lose that connection between the service and the humans involved. I wanted BITS to put those names and faces back into people’s minds, so that people wouldn’t think that we were operatives. I felt very strongly that I wanted BITS to reinstate the human aspect of information technology.

Why do you think BITS is an important part of the University’s history that we need to preserve?

BITS tells the story of what we’ve been doing within information technology, as well as other areas, over a period of time. It’s unfortunate in some ways that we don’t have BITS anymore as we’re living through some massive technological turning points.

BITS allowed us to capture those changes, and share what we were doing to help serve the University community in different ways, whether that be through IT, learning technology or the library. We wanted to show the University community the tools and software we were developing to help the University run better.

It’s an important document from that perspective, I think, and also to have this kind of record of an organization is something you don’t see often.

Why did you decide that now was a good time to start the project of digitally preserving BITS?

When we moved to this new wing, I noticed all the blank walls and thought it would be really nice to decorate them with the covers of BITS. My manager Stratos Filalithis (Head of Website and Communications) thought it was a great idea.

I had been already thinking about digitising the copies of BITS and our Graphic Design work, because we kept getting asked for BITS articles and it was always a pain to go through everything and find them. I thought it would be useful in that regard too, if we could have the editions catalogued and made accessible.

After Sara Day Thomson (Digital Archivist) did a talk to our team I was more confident that we could make this happen. Luckily, Sara was up for it straight away!

Digitally preserving BITS would mean that we could share the history of our very own Information Services. Not everyone knows about BITS, and you never know, this project might convince people to start BITS up again!

Thank you to Sonia Virdi for letting me interview her. I hope you found this interesting and learnt something new!

Have a great day, Jasmine.


Below are various editions of BITS throughout the years. Click on the image below to open in a new tab and enlarge.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *