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Avoiding the new dark ages.

I found Richard Poynder's article "Elephants and Dung Trucks" in the Sept. 2003 issue of Information Today [p. 33] quite interesting--especially in the third paragraph, when he states: "Why? Because preserving digital materials is far more difficult than dealing with brittle paper. Moreover, no one knows how to do it effectively." If I may tease a bit, I can tell you who knows how to do it effectively: Gale and its imprint Primary Source Microfilm!

In fact, Primary Source Microfilm's (PSM) publisher, Mark Holland, is located in London. Since you are both in that same corner of the world, please feel free to contact Mark about digital preservation. He's certainly an expert on it since PSM owns one of the world's largest vaults of historical information in the world: 1.5 billion pages. This vault of information is greater than the public Web, which is estimated at 1.4 billion pages by OCLC.

As the corporate communications manager for Gale, I'm quite interested in digitization since I've been writing about our own Eighteenth Century Collections Online, the largest digitization project ever undertaken.

Though I work with digital archives on a daily basis, I'm still amazed by the collection's wealth of information and its impact on future scholarly research. In fact, at a recent conference of scholars who study the 18th century, one openly weeped at the content and the impact it will have on research.

Kim Ward Gabbert

Corporate Communications Manager, Gale

Richard Poynder responds:

While feedback is always welcome, I suspect that--in her eagerness to publicize Gale's products--Kim has conflated two different topics: digitization and digital preservation. My article dealt with the latter. While it is tempting to lump them together, there are good reasons for treating them as two separate although obviously related--activities.

Firstly, digitizing content, although clearly a specialized and costly activity, is no longer rocket science. The long-term preservation of that data once it has been digitized, in contrast, remains a huge challenge; one moreover, for which everyone I have spoken to agrees that there currently exists no reliable solution. If Gale can truly guarantee that its digital products will still be easily accessible in, say, 500 years, I would indeed be keen to talk to Mark Holland. I doubt, however, that the company can give such an assurance.

Secondly, as wonderful as many of the new digital products produced by companies like Gale no doubt are, we need to be wary of the growing trend for, effectively, outsourcing the preservation of our cultural heritage to commercial enterprises. As Stewart Brand argued back in 1999, responsibility for that preservation work rightly belongs to "long-Jived nonprofit organizations such as libraries, universities, and government agencies," not to commercial organizations whose primary responsibility is to their shareholders, rather than to society at large.

It is for this reason the article suggested that libraries need to engage more with the public, and with governments (and indeed other funding agencies), if they want to ensure that they have access to the necessary resources to do the vital work required to avoid the new Dark Ages currently threatening us all.

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Author:Gabbert, Kim Ward; Poynder, Richard
Publication:Information Today
Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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