Monday, June 6, 2011

Book People Take Notice: The Internet Archive Gets "Physical"

The term “digital preservation” gets bandied about quite a bit these days by genealogists. 

We get all warm and fuzzy thinking that we're both high-tech gadget freaks and preservation goodie-goodies, all rolled into one.  We digitize stuff, ergo we preserve stuff.  

As a modern-day Descartes might say, "Digito, ergo sum."

Genealogists love their digitized images of newspapers, censuses and original documents.  Lots of folks even talk about busily digitizing their personal photographs and paper documents as a means of reducing clutter and performing what they like to call “digital preservation.”  

After all, who needs the original when you can have a perfectly serviceable digital copy that can be sent around the world as a pdf file and takes up virtually no space on your hard drive? Or, better yet, stored offsite in the “cloud”?

If you think that digitization of books, manuscripts, photographs and documents is in any way part of the “preservation” process, you have been woefully misinformed.  Digitization of things already printed on paper “preserves” nothing – absolutely nothing at all; it simply makes a digital (and highly alterable) copy and provides another means of distribution so that the original is not subject to more wear and tear.  

That’s a good thing, of course, but it’s not preservation, even if it makes you feel good to call it that.  The “preservation” aspect of paper artifacts and other rare originals concerns the long-term storage, care  and access of exceedingly rare original copies.

Since a magazine photo of the “Mona Lisa” doesn’t do much to preserve the painting in the Louvre, why would anyone think that a digital scan of a photo of great-grandfather Hezekiah chopping wood is doing anything to “preserve” the actual photo?  Moreover, think what could easily happen to that digital image at some point in the future.

Consider, for example, the ease with which the Brooklyn-based ultra-orthodox Hasidic newspaper Der Tzitung removed the image of Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton and another woman from the photograph that appeared in their newspaper in early May 2011 because their editorial policy does not permit printing women’s images because they might be considered sexually suggestive.   Imagine if, a century from now, a digital file of that newspaper was all that remained to document the participants of the White House Situation Room on the day Seal Team 6 stormed Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. 

Digitized newspaper history is not without pitfalls.

So it was with some sense of relief that I read today that Brewster Kahle, the mastermind behind the Internet Archive, was taking this whole “preservation of the original copy” stuff very seriously. He observed that once books were available digitally after being scanned, more than a few libraries were moving their hard copies to virtually irretrievable offsite storage or were de-accessioning them completely.

“Deaccessioning”, by the way, is polite librarian-speak for “tossing out.”

Librarians follow the market (hi there, Kindle and Nook fans!) and the market wants more digital media and more coffee shops and more meeting spaces and more computer terminals in libraries.  Stuff needs to be cheap, if not free.  Books are so “yesterday” and Kindle is the new “Black”. 

Brewster Kahle has taken note of the problem and has developed a solution.

The Internet Archive – that high-tech bastion of digital technology – is creating an honest-to-God physical archive of the books they digitize - if and when the owners of said books (i.e., libraries) don’t want their physical copies back.  That’s because Brewster Kahle gets it, and understands the key difference between digital distribution and preservation.  His goal is to become the book’s “seed bank” – preserving one physical copy of every published book.  He’s designed a system that will accommodate ten million books.  

 That’s 10,000,000 real paper and glue books.  That’s a lotta books!

In a sense, Kahle realizes the dangers of relying on digitization as a “preservation” technology and is laying in plans for what some sophisticated researchers in the field are already referring to as the coming “Digital Dark Ages”, when stuff is lost because either the will, the determination or the funds are not available in libraries and archives to upgrade stored data files to the next new technology.

As you may have noticed, libraries fare really, really well in tight economic times.  Fiscally conservative politicians LOVE to fund libraries, right?  They fall all over themselves to increase their funding.

Archives are already feeling the pinch, with new academic collections that come to them on 5.25 inch floppy drives crying out to be re-copied onto current technologies before it’s too late.  Some stuff arrives as “unknown” and remains “unknown” because the archives does not own the proper hardware to access the storage media from, say, 1975.

Here’s the story about the Internet Archive’s physical archives for books, direct from “Mr. Internet Archives” himself.  Read it and understand why he’s doing it.

Remember to please keep a warm spot in your heart for the visionary Brewster Kahle. 

As a point of purely personal interest, I searched the catalog of our large local library system today in search of a book I needed for some family research.  The book – “Mrs. Jack – A Biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner” by Louise Hall Tharp - was published in 1965 and, until a few years ago, was pretty easy to find.  In fact, I’ve sold several copies for under ten bucks in the past, since it was anything but a rare book.  I never kept a copy for myself, though, since nearly every library everywhere had a copy.  It’s an important piece of art collecting history.  

Apparently things have changed. Today, in our very large local library system of 29 public libraries that serve two populous upstate New York counties, only a single library has a copy. Worldcat shows a few copies in some university libraries nearby.

I guess I’d better check that public library copy out, before they decide to de-accession it to make space for more video games.

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