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On a quiet Sunday, here are two quotes that I find both memorable and inspiring when I think of the role and future of libraries. These days we see so much emphasis placed on fast access to current, popular, “must see” information. Although libraries have a role to play in that as well, few if any institutions have the long-term role that libraries have.
We mustn’t model the digital library on the day-to-day operation of a single human brain, which quite properly uses-or-loses, keeps uppermost in mind what it needs most often, and does not refresh, and eventually forgets, what it very infrequently considers — after all, the principal reason groups of rememberers invented writing and printing was to record accurately what they sensed was otherwise likely to be forgotten.
— Nicholson Baker. Double Fold. NY: Random House, 2001. p245.
Libraries exist to preserve the thoughts and deeds that no one else has time for anymore, to collect items that might not be used for another ten, fifty, one hundred years — if ever. It is this last uncertainty that makes libraries the most heroic of human creations.
— Paul Collins. Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World. New York: Picador, 2001. p.285-286.
Digital Library of the Week: Homeland Security Digital Library, American Library Association (October 7th, 2010).
For the first time in its seven-year history, the Homeland Security Digital Library has opened a portion of its unique and unrivaled collection to the public. The HSDL is the nation’s premier collection of documents related to homeland security policy, strategy, and organizational management. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s National Preparedness Directorate (under FEMA) and the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security, the HSDL is composed of homeland security–related documents collected from a wide variety of sources. These include federal, state, tribal, and local government agencies, professional organizations, think tanks, academic institutions, and international governing bodies. . Although largely comprised of reports, this specialized library also provides homeland security subject matter in other formats including videos, slide presentations, maps, databases, and statistics….
Last month, David Rosenthal, chief scientist on the LOCKSS Project, gave the keynote address entitled Stepping Twice Into The Same River to the ACM/IEEE Joint Conference on Digital Libraries (JCDL) and the annual International Conference on Asia-Pacific Digital Libraries (ICADL) (or just ICDL/ICADL!) in Queensland, Australia. It was wide-ranging, thoughtful and provocative — in short everything you’d want in a keynote to a major international digital library conference.
David hit on publishers and the publishing industry and practices, scholarly communication, digital preservation, the intersection between technology and economics and the current state and future of libraries. He makes a great argument that the upheaval and disruption currently affecting the 3 parallel fields of publishing, libraries, and archives (what he terms “technological and economic discontinuity”) creates the perfect opportunity for radical technological change toward a collaborative archival academic cloud in order to define the future of information access and preservation (at least in terms of universities and scholarly communication) in beneficial and long-term sustainable ways.
Here are some main points that I gleaned from David’s presentation:
- publishers are in a similar boat to news organizations and have sacrificed long-term viability for short term economic gain — and that’s going to ultimately destroy them;
- libraries and archives need to focus their preservation goals on dynamic services rather than the static content:
“…it’s less about what we are preserving and more about how preserved information is accessed. Less about HTML and other formats, and more about HTTP and other protocols. The reason is that static information is a degenerate case of dynamic information; a system designed for dynamic information can easily handle static information. The converse isn’t true.”
- distributed digital preservation and archives offer the more economically and technologically sound opportunities in the long run;
- data preservation will take steady long-term funding;
- since ingest is a major cost for any digital preservation system, universities need to start seeing their Web space/infrastructure in terms of academic clouds rather than leasing from commercial cloud companies like Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2):
“Unless something dramatic happens, scholars who want to publish services wrapped around their, or other people’s, data will take the path of least resistance and use Amazon’s services. Miss a credit card payment, your data and service are history. Worse, do we really want to end up with Amazon owning the world’s science and culture?”…
…What Universities get for the extra cost is the permanence they need. The permanence comes from the fact that the University already has its hands on the data and the services in which it is wrapped, instantiated in highly robust and preservable hardware. Thus, no ingest costs and very low preservation costs. With the model of Amazon and a separate archiving service, as well as paying Amazon, Universities have to pay the archiving service, and pay the ingest costs. When these extra costs are taken in to account, because the ingest costs dominate, it is likely that Amazon would be more expensive.
I highly recommend that folks read David’s keynote at least twice. there are a lot of pearls of wisdom in there. I think he makes a compelling case for a viable digital future for scholarly communication, one in which libraries and archives can play a vital role.
I’m in 2 minds about this as well as similar digitization plans. On the one hand, the digitization of Smithsonian collections — books, research reports, data, music, film and other sounds (like frog vocalizations!) — will mean potentially a boon to online access to some really amazing materials.
On the other hand, this quote from the executive summary worries me:
To preserve our collections, the Smithsonian constantly battles the destructive forces of time and environment. Despite our best efforts, plastics discolor, wax cylinder recordings distort, and botanical specimens become brittle. Digitization offers a way to make objects — and the valuable information they contain — available without jeopardizing their integrity by handling or by exposure to the elements.
While they mention a “life cycle-management approach to digitization,” there doesn’t seem to be a serious amount of thought given to the fact that digital objects degrade faster than physical objects, and that digital preservation is an ongoing and potentially more expensive effort. I worry that SI.edu will broker the same kind of disastrous deal that GAO did with Thomson-West whereby a whole swath of public domain information was privatized.
I would call on SI.edu and ALL .gov agencies to insert a clause into ANY digitization contract that ALL digital files and metadata will be accessible via free and open sites. That means where applicable, copies of all digital content would be ingested into GPO’s FDsys, Library of Congress, NARA and/or publicly accessible non-profit sites (eg. UNT digital library or Internet Archive). Please help us get this message across to your friends in the .gov sector. Public information should remain public!