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Old 05-01-2007, 08:38 AM   #1
Steven Lyle Jordan
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Could DC Library fire serve as a wake-up call for e-books?

Washington, DC suffered two devastating 3-alarm fires on Monday, to two historic landmarks on opposite sides of town. One of them was the Georgetown Library, renowned not just for its prominent location in Georgetown, but for its many original pictures and documents of Washington and American history (read the Examiner article). Many of those documents and paintings were damaged beyond repair, and there is no present guess on how much was permanently lost.

Some of the people aware of the things that have been lost or damaged, have commented that there are no copies of most of them... not even in the Library of Congress, another single source of original, unarchived historic material. It has been mentioned that there were no scans of images, and no e-text copies of the books. That means those items have been lost to time, and won't be recoverable. And it surely won't be the last time a fire takes out an old building full of historic, unarchived materials.

Could this event serve as a wake-up call for archiving documents and images as electronic files? After losing irreplaceable artifacts, the idea of storing electronic copies of them, in multiple archive locations for protection, seems to make sense. It would also be a monumental task, but one that would be worthy of government backing and concerted effort, a national mission to preserve our past.

It is often true that new technology is developed or implemented not because of desire, but out of need... witness the many technologies that have developed during the desperate needs of wartime, or after the devastating effects of a natural disaster, disease or famine. Could e-books, long a niche market, become a hot market item thanks to a disasterous loss of our history, and a desperate desire to preserve that history at any cost?
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Old 05-01-2007, 12:31 PM   #2
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Guys, thanks for putting this on the main page. I am submitting copies of this to the Washington Post and Gazette newspapers, with the following addition:

"It is often true that new technology is developed or implemented not because of desire, but out of need... witness the many technologies that have developed during the desperate needs of wartime, or after the devastating effects of a natural disaster, disease or famine. Think of all the treasures lost in New Orleans thanks to Katrina, and to the countless fires, tornadoes, and other ravages that slowly erode our history, brick by brick and page by page.

"E-books, long a niche market, should be embraced by historians, publishers, and the public, as a way to store documents long after the paper has crumbled or burned away. Electronic scans of paintings, sculptures and other images should also be undertaken, to preserve our heritage beyond the next fire or flood.

"We should act now, before another precious piece of our history is lost."

I urge everyone else out there to spread this around, either in editorials to your local papers, letters to your Congresspersons, or links sent to anyone who might have a voice that will be heard.
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Old 05-01-2007, 01:12 PM   #3
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I wonder if Google's scanning efforts for books in general might not be able to cut a deal with such repositories to help scan their material. Google would get ready access and the museums would have backup copies of their documents.
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Old 05-01-2007, 01:13 PM   #4
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Let us know if you get any interesting feedback!
I think that this is a real need, that might even have the potential of gaining widespread support. Hopefully, this perspective moves e-books out of the realm of geek and into the mainstream.

Of course, there will probably be the standard copyright issues and DRM on such e-versions of literary holdings, etc.
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Old 05-01-2007, 01:32 PM   #5
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Teleread has some good coverage also...
http://www.teleread.org/blog/?p=6510
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Old 05-01-2007, 04:01 PM   #6
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Yup... clearly one of us was reading the others' mind! And hopefully we're not alone.
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Old 05-01-2007, 04:45 PM   #7
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But yet this is not the first fire of this sort. People forget quickly and go back to their lives. It may impact a few scholars, some nearby residents, and a couple of college kids that would wander in by mistake. They are more likely to remember the road being narrowed when the library is rebuilt than they are to remember that priceless treasures were burned so as to never be seen again.

There is always plenty of money for new "pork" to win voters in the next election, never enough money for preservation of our heritage.
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Old 05-02-2007, 06:34 PM   #8
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Hell will freeze over long before the distribution of hard taxed dollars for pinko projects like the presertation and free distribution of knowledge no longer bound by copyrights. Which makes you wonder at the amount of political pull and/or work of men of good faith to impose a deadline on copyrighted material rendered useless by mass culture, mass media and mass manufacturing. Imagine if people start trading the imediate like newspapers, magazines, self help books, Dan Brown for the non-taxable persistant like real literature, poetry, philosophical treaties and within the next 50 years a whole century of music, tv programming, and cinema. We of the geekdom see technology as the means to so much, or at least that which doesn't prejudice others, but we forget it's not about improving, but about profit. "What does it profit a men not to profit?"
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Old 05-03-2007, 09:48 AM   #9
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Could we organize teams of volunteers to go in and at least take digital camera pix of some of these documents? I don't live in that area, but I have a friend who used to work at the National Archives and he might know some folks to organize such an initiative....
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Old 05-03-2007, 05:05 PM   #10
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It is truely tragic that these texts have been lost to history ... but we need to be really careful before thinking simply digitizing stores things forever - it doesn't ... yet. Who owns it/the hardware it is sotred on? who is worrying about filtering our data corruption over time? How public is the storage?

The life of disk storage is relatively short - the amount of data corruption with data transfer is relatively high - distributed systems are still very new ... paper is still a far more effective storage medium than digital ... ther are lots of outstanding questions --- digitization is not yet a panacea ...
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Old 05-03-2007, 10:51 PM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by pdam
digitization is not yet a panacea ...
True, digital storage may not be perfect... however, digital files are more easily copied, backed up, duplicated, transmitted to other locations, stored in compact spaces, and transferred to other media over time. That, to me, is more than enough reason to apply it to archiving right now.
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Old 05-04-2007, 08:55 AM   #12
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If you look at it through a time scale, digital archiving is relatively new. There is no specific format favored either. Is some kind of bitmap WYSIWYG the perfect storage, or do we OCR? The technology evolves so rapidly that as soon as you've made a choice, ordered it, had it built up, set up and trained personnel on its use, the system has been made obsolete.

But as Neko points, something has to be done now. On the other side, we should trust the conservators entrusted with this repository. Every library has contingency plans.

No one today dealing with books is totally computer illiterate, libraries use digital indexes and subscriptions. A digitizing plan is usually not far in the works.

Something similar happened in Montréal about 10 years ago. Fire broke out in an important historical library. It was quickly put out but the water sprayed by the sprinklers leaked down to the basement's more priceless documents. The most important damage was noticed much later as the paper started to rot and decay. An alarm was sounded by the curators much too late, the damage was irreparable. Companies specailized in recovery of civil property were hired, but they lacked the technical expertise necessary for ancient artefacts and submitted the documents to more harm. There was a popular movement set up and some duplicate documents were donated to the library. An amazing number of works were retrieved this way and others the library did not have, but manuscripts, the more precious, were totally lost, and the ones that can be restored will not for a long time due to a lack of funds. Now what's left is in a brand new library that was built with the aid of emergency governmental funds.

There was a beautiful documentary on PBS this week about the library of Herculanum destroyed in 79AD by the erruption of mount Vesuvius. The reason for my mentionning this is for the digital technology shown throughout the program, meant to decrypt totally unreadable charred texts. It was possible through distribution of digital reproductions, like Steve pointed out, for scholars across the world to study the documents without traveling to physically study them. In this light, some restoration of the most precious documents, in the fire that we've just witnessed, will be possible .

Luckily this fire was not as bad as the one that destroyed the Library of Alexandria...
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Old 05-06-2007, 08:19 AM   #13
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No, it wasn't... but the nature of fires is that it easily could have been, given the right (or wrong) circumstances.

Clearly what you are storing (images, text) merits consideration of the archiving techniques used. Honestly, I believe that if it is a text document, even written in longhand, ASCII is fine, HTML is probably better. OCR with manual checking behind it is optimum. 2-D high-quality scans of images and paintings, and 3-D laser scans of objects. All of this is do-able today.

But what's important is that it makes more sense to do this now, then to wait until documents are damaged and try to apply the extensive, expensive, painfully difficult mechanations and digital manipulation needed to recover them.
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