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Digital Libraries of Alexandria

Written by: Bill Sherman on Tuesday, 7 July 2009, 10:11 AM

This week, Ars Technica reports that the American Chemical Society will shift from printing physical journals to digital-only publishing–so that scholars, pratitioners, and students can find the information they need online easily.

Eventually, we’re heading to a world where bound-journals sitting on musty library shelves will become an experience of the past. After all, you can access (and use) information more easily when it’s in a digital medium.

However, there’s a preservation of knowledge issue that remains unexplored. The Libary of Alexandria provided a wonderful concentration of knowledge–collected from across the Mediterranean world and beyond. However, concentration of knowledge (in any repository) makes it vulnerable. At some point in the ancient world, the Library of Alexandria was burnt down–perhaps more than once. So, we don’t even know what books were there. There’s not even a surviving catalog or index. We have lost access to the human knowledge once accreted in the library.

If all academic articles (and new research) moves online, then we run a similar accretion risk. Databases can become corrupt and replicate an error over and over again–such as a missing negative sign in a correlation matrix. But more importantly, a computer virus, hardware/software failures, or even an electro-magnetic pulse can erase data (and knowledge). We run risk of piling tinder around our own digital Libraries of Alexandria.

While I’m a huge fan of digital archives, I’m reminded of the comments that literary scholars have made about contemporary authors. Previously, it was possible to collect an major authors letters (sent and received) to put them in a library’s special collection. Now, many authors (like most people) write e-mails instead of sending physical letters. People routinely discard and delete these e-mails, without thought.

While we’re making data more accessible, we’re also changing the risk factors when there aren’t musty tomes and physical letter sitting somewhere.

I’m not a Luddite. I revel in the digital world, but I’m also not Miranda crying “O Brave New World!” Whenever we put information solely online, we should presume that at some point, much of that information will become lost.

Sic transit gloria mundi

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