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Finding Current, but not original, documents on the web

An interesting perspective on the limitations a simple web search comes today from an Emeritus Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He notes that “The contested history of Executive Order 11246 is an important aspect of the history of the modern women’s rights movement and of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson,” but that a simple search for it yields the revised, not the original, version of the order:

  • The Perils of Internet Research: The Case of LBJ and Affirmative Action, By Samuel Walker, History News Network (5-28-12).

    A standard Google search for “Executive Order 11246” yields multiple web sites, including those of the U.S. Department of Labor (which enforces the federal contractor provision), the National Archives, and Wikipedia. These sites post the current revised version of E. O. 11246. While it duly notes the many revisions over the years, only historians who are specialists on the subject and some employment law attorneys (but only those interested in history), will realize that it is not the original. Consequently, they will gain no hint of the contested initial history of affirmative action regarding sex discrimination or of LBJ’s record on women’s rights.

    This is not an insignificant issue. Wikipedia is widely used by average Americans as a research tool. College undergraduates use it routinely, as do many graduate students. Only PhD or some MA students who are closely supervised by their faculty are likely to know they are missing some important history. Few people, moreover, are likely to question the National Archives as an authoritative source on American history. Executive Order 11246, finally, is hardly the only document where the original does not immediately appear through a Google search. Try finding the original text of the 1966 Freedom of Information Act, for example.

Experienced government information specialists will not be surprised by this and will recognize the need for sophisticated searching (and careful interpretation of search results) in general.

But this is also an example of the importance of our historical collections. Because government information is a record of the activities and attitudes and knowledge of a government at particular points in time, it retains historical value even when it is “out of date” — as in the above example. Different versions of laws, old censuses, series of annual reports, early maps, photographs: all these are important historical records which require the same attention and care we devote to the most current information.

Too often, however, I hear librarians focus on “currency” as a value to such an extent that they seem to deprecate the value of historical records. I feel this is the case when library administrators refer to our historical paper collections as “legacy” collections.

The word “legacy,” when used as an adjective, comes from computing and means superseded, no longer useful, difficult to use, and in need of replacement. In this way the use of “legacy” as an adjective as a description of our historical collections is both incorrect and demeaning. Those who call our historical collections “legacy collections” are diminishing the value of those collections. I don’t know if they do this intentionally or not, but I do know that this use carries an implication that cheapens the value of these collections. That can lead to bad decisions.

If we must use the term “legacy” to describe our historical collections, we should use it as a noun. The noun “legacy” means bequest, heritage, endowment, gift, and birthright. Our historical collections are a legacy from the past to us and to our children and must be treated with respect.

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