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Tracing 350 years of discovery.

If we look back on scientific and technological development, it is easy to forget the controversies that enveloped each major advance; we simply view progress as a steady growth in human knowledge.

But the discoveries and technologies so neatly summarized in the new Royal Society timeline were just as often debated by competing scientists or subject to national rivalries as are today's developments. Presently, passions are running high in Germany, France, and Australia. In Germany and France, politicians are defending a nation's culture from Anglo-Saxon-oriented digital libraries; in Australia, they are protecting internet users from pornography. Or is that censorship?

Trailblazing: A New Scientific Timeline

The U.K.'s Royal Society launched an online, interactive timeline that runs from the 17th century to the present. Links are provided to 60 full-text articles published during the past 350 years in Philosophical Transactions, the world's oldest continuously published scientific journal.


For the timeline, the first article, "Transfusion of Blood From One Dog to Another" by Robert Boyle, dates from 1666, the year after the journal was first published. The article, and each subsequent paper, is accompanied by a brief commentary by a modern-day expert and relevant images. For the Boyle article, Daniel Glaser, M.D., of the Wellcome Trust, provides the commentary. The images include an engraving that shows a blood transfusion from a lamb to a man and a portrait painting of Boyle. Many famous scientific greats are also featured including Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Young, and Stephen Hawking.

As the timeline progresses, the scientific discoveries are put into historical context next to key significant events: the Great Fire of London, the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the Battle of Waterloo, the Wall Street crash, and so on. In fact, the most recent article from 2008, called "AGeophysiologist's Thoughts on Geoengineering" by James Lovelock, deals with climate change.

According to Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, "As it begins its 350th anniversary year, the Royal Society will not only be celebrating its proud history but looking to the future of science in the UK and in the rest of the world, as the great scientific questions that tested our predecessors are rapidly replaced by new and urgent scientific challenges. Throughout the year, the Royal Society will be running an exciting nationwide programme of events and activities, many in conjunction with other scientific and cultural institutions, to inspire scientists, families, young people and interested members of the public alike to see further into science."

The daunting task of selecting the 60 Trailblazing papers was the work of a small group of scientists, communicators, and historians, chaired by Michael Thompson, a professor who edited Philosophical Transactions for many years. Thompson says, "It was a great thrill for all of us selecting articles for their novelty, pivotal science and often just plain fun. In doing so we had to maintain a balance between the disciplines (astronomy, biology, chemistry, Earth science, mathematics, physics and engineering), while stirring in a peppering of iconic names (Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking, etc.). The aim was to make an inspiring and tasty dish for today's scientists, for the public at large, and of course for the youngsters who will be the scientists of tomorrow."

Germany and France Respond to Google

In my previous columns, I have noted many of the German and French objections to proposals for the Google Books settlement. Now, the German government has announced plans to fund a digital library of German cultural and scientific works to be called the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (DDB), the German Digital Library. In December 2009, German culture minister Bernd Neumann announced a plan to digitize 30,000 works from a variety of media, with a pilot project to be launched in mid-2011. An estimated 5 million [euro] (about $7.19 million) will be provided for startup costs and 2.6 million [euro] (about $3.74 million) annually will be provided for ongoing maintenance.


Neumann pointed out that the DDB will provide an alternative to Google Books for German authors. Author permissions will be sought before digitization; links to DDB articles will be permitted from Europeana, the larger European collection.

The French government plans something similar. In somewhat less diplomatic language than Neumann's, President Nicolas Sarkozy reported in a public meeting in Alsace last December, "We are not going to be stripped of our heritage for the benefit of a big company, no matter how friendly, big or American it is." A few days later, he announced plans to spend 750 million [euro] (about $1.08 billion) to digitize French books and multimedia content. The funds are part of a large stimulus package for the French economy.

Meanwhile in the U.K., The British Library (BL) continues to build its own Digital Library System. In November 2009, it added the 500,000th item to its digital collection: a copy of a newspaper first published in 1864, which was added to the BL's 19th-century British Library Newspapers project.

The digitized newspaper joins hundreds of thousands of other items including ejournals, digital sound recordings, and born-digital material received through voluntary deposit arrangements with publishers and more than 65,000 19th-century digitized books. The Digital Library System, where these items are now stored, was developed by the BL to enable longterm storage of the digital material that forms an increasing proportion of the nation's intellectual output.

Conventional printed matter is receiving no less attention at the BL with the opening of a new 26 million [pounds sterling] (about $41.59 million) storage facility at the Boston Spa site in West Yorkshire. The Additional Storage Building (ASB) offers 262 km of temperature and humidity-controlled storage space for up to 7 million items from the U.K. national collection. The material will comprise low-use items that are currently stored across London. Highly automated facilities will enable researchers at the St. Pancras, London, headquarters to obtain requested items within 48 hours.

"Although the majority of the Library's collections are held at St. Pancras, we are continuing to develop Boston Spa as a longterm storage facility and recently secured funding for a planned Newspaper Storage Building at the site," reports Steve Morris, director of finance and corporate services. "We await a planning decision from Leeds City Council later this month, but hope to be able to construct a facility that will provide a permanent home for the national newspaper collection--probably the world's finest collection of its kind."

BBC and BL Collaborate

In other news concerning the BL announced in December, the BL and the BBC will work together to develop new ways of integrating access to the BL collection and BBC TV and radio content to benefit researchers and the public. BL's CEO Lynne Brindley and BBC director-general Mark Thompson signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in December.

Apart from working to make the content and assets of both organizations more widely available, the MOU also proposes that the BBC and the BL collaborate to develop viable approaches on important issues, such as rights management, distribution of archive content, digitization, and storage.

"The BBC and the British Library share many of the same purposes--to guarantee public access to content in an open realm, creating a space where people can debate and exchange ideas and experiences," according to Thompson.

"Through this MOU we aim to create a model of best practice which will allow the Library to develop similar opportunities with other public institutions," says Brindley. "Providing unparalleled access to joint information services and world-class digital archival content will truly enable the business, academic, scientific, research and creative communities to flourish."

Australia to Censor the Internet

In a move more reminiscent of activities in China, the Australian government has caused a stir by proposing to filter sites on the internet. Stephen Conroy, the communications minister, plans to introduce new laws that would ban access to "refused classification" sites such as those featuring criminal content. The proposals follow a trial of internet filtering and extensive industry feedback about the most appropriate way to improve safety online.

"The Government has always maintained there is no silver bullet solution to cyber-safety," says Conroy. "That is why we have established a comprehensive range of cyber-safety measures, including funding for 91 additional online Australian Federal Police officers and education." He added, "Through a combination of additional resources for education and awareness, mandatory internet filtering of RC-rated content, and optional ISP-level filtering, we have a package that balances safety for families and the benefits of the digital revolution."

The move is opposed by companies, lobby groups, and various politicians who question the value of the trial pilot that was managed by Enex Testlab, an independent testing laboratory. Critics from both sides of the argument claim that filtering could result in overblocking (rejecting acceptable sites) or underblocking (circumvention of the filter by the technically savvy causing a failure to filter out unacceptable sites). Conroy intends to work on the legislation before the next Australian election that must be held on or before mid-April 2011.


Trailblazing DDB announcement 2009-12-02-bkm-deutsche-digitalebibliothek.html

Australian government--Filtering proposals and links to Enex Testlab Report

Jim Ashling runs Ashling Consulting, an independent consultancy for the information industry. His email address is Send your comments about this article to
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Title Annotation:Royal Society; British Library
Author:Ashling, Jim
Publication:Information Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2010
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