In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, “Publishing: The Revolutionary Future,” Jason Epstein deployed a nice turn of phrase in discussing the promise and problem of digital libraries.
That the contents of the world’s libraries will eventually be accessed practically anywhere at the click of a mouse is not an unmixed blessing. Another click might obliterate these same contents and bring civilization to an end: an overwhelming argument, if one is needed, for physical books in the digital age.
There’s a little hyperbole at the end there, but when I first encountered the piece, I thought I should rein in my preservation pedantry and just read on. However, I’ve seen his sentiment quoted several places in the last week, so perhaps it bears a little commentary.
The facts are that, as usual, librarians have already taken steps to avert cultural end-times. In this case, everything that the Google Books partner libraries digitize is stored by the HathiTrust so that we have an organizational and technological center for our preservation and service efforts. Likewise, efforts such as the LOCKSS project and Portico have good track records of caring for electronic resources after the original providers cease to be.
Mr. Epstein can also take heart that, as of this posting, there is an overwhelming amount of printed material in the world and libraries remain active in collecting and preserving it. At UCLA Library we’ve spent the last century or so accumulating over 9 million examples, and we’ve spent the last few months digging deeply into the issue of trustworthy print preservation as part of the Western Regional Storage Trust (WEST) project, “an initiative to organize a distributed print repository service among research libraries in the western region of the United States.”
Don’t read what I’m not writing — we’re still in the early stages of learning about the mix of preservation methods that are needed to keep digital collections available and useful. There are going to be some frustrating days as we figure this out, but you can rest assured that civilization will still be here after you click this link.