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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Do libraries need more shelving? Isn’t everything digital?

We here at FGI have been making the argument against the destruction of physical collections in connection with digitization efforts for a long time (see e.g., Wait! Don’t Digitize and Discard! A White Paper on ALA COL Discussion Issue #1a and What You Need to Know about the New Discard Policy). So it’s nice to hear the same argument from Jeff MacKie-Mason, recently hired University Librarian and Chief Digital Scholarship Officer at UC Berkeley on his blog madLibbing: Muddling Along in the Information Age. Mackie-Mason clearly and succinctly points out the reasons that libraries still need physical collections: many digitized works are still in copyright and their digital surrogates are therefore not shareable online, print copies are easier to read with higher comprehension rates, there is “little or no confidence that we can guarantee long-term digital preservation” (emphasis his!), and current digital surrogates from large digitization projects are less than complete (we’ve pointed this out repeatedly e.g., in “‘An alarmingly casual indifference to accuracy and authenticity.’ What we know about digital surrogates.”). So we hope the next time your library weeds a government document under the assumption that it’s online, you’ll check the digital surrogate for completeness and at least start the discussion with your administrators about the need for a local digital archive to assure the preservation of the digital surrogate that you’re about to weed. It could mean the difference between access and frustration for your user community.

One huge misconception we face is that digitizing our collections means we don’t need the print anymore. For example, we are participants in the Google Books / HathiTrust project, and most of our 11 million regular volumes have been digitized.  Why not burn our print copies?

  1. For starters, about half of the collection is still in copyright. The HathiTrust collection can be searched, full-text, to find the existence of books, but we are not allowed to let people use the digital copy (with limited exceptions, e.g., for the blind, who can listen to a text-to-voice conversion). Decades before this need for our print copies goes away.
  2. Second, we are here not to build collections for their own sake, but to serve our faculty and students. And many of them vastly prefer doing their work from print copies. Those who read long monographs find it easier and their comprehension higher. Those who need to study large images or maps, in high resolution, or who want to see side-by-side page comparisons, need the print. And for many rare and historical documents, the materiality of the original document itself is of enormous importance for scholarship, from the marginal annotations to the construction of the volume.
  3. Next, we can have little or no confidence that we can guarantee long-term digital preservation. Digital storage has been around a relatively short time  In that time, formats change frequently.  Hardware and software to render digital formats changes. Bits on storage media rot.  Keeping bits and being able to find and access them in the future requires large annual expenditures, and those expenditures are getting larger as the amount of content we want to preserve grows enormously fast. Further, much of scholarly content currently is held on servers of for-profit companies, and we have no guarantee those companies will survive, or that they will take care to ensure that their archives of scholarly publications survive.
  4. The Google project has been very good, but it is not complete.  It does not scan fold-out pages, for example, which are in many scholarly books (maps, charts, tables).  We have discovered that sometimes they miss pages, or the quality is not readable.

So, for now, there is pretty much consensus among research scholars and librarians that we must keep print copies for preservation in all cases, and for continuing use in many cases.

via Do libraries need more shelving? Isn’t everything digital? – madLibbing.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

1 Comment

  1. Wow, he really summed up the situation quite succinctly and right on target. 1, 2 and 4 could be remedied over time, but I don’t think 3 will ever cease to be an issue. Digital formats are ephemeral things. All of our digital preservation practices are essentially techniques for managing abiding impermanence. I appreciate that he brings up the expense of keeping a good preservation policy up and running. It’s institutionally difficult to keep shepherding bits from year to year, from one file format to the next, from old repository to the new. I don’t see how anyone working in digital preservation can be completely confident in the reliability of digital preservation.

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