Monday, October 14, 2013

The Major Threat is Economic

Annalee Newitz at reviews an essay by Heather Phillips entitled "The Great Library at Alexandria?". She makes two points about an institution often cited in discussions of digital preservation that have particular  resonance at a time when the US government is mostly shut down, and may be forced into default.

First, contrary to popular myth, it appears the library was not destroyed overnight by fire, but decayed slowly over a long period of time as its initially lavish budget was repeatedly cut. Phillips writes:
Though it seems fitting that the destruction of so mythic an institution as the Great Library of Alexandria must have required some cataclysmic event . . . in reality, the fortunes of the Great Library waxed and waned with those of Alexandria itself. Much of its downfall was gradual, often bureaucratic, and by comparison to our cultural imaginings, somewhat petty.
As I've frequently said, the biggest threat to the long-term survival of digital materials is economic. This isn't something new.

Second, the importance of the library was not its collection, but the synergy between its collection and the scholars it attracted. Newitz writes:
What made the Museum and its daughter branch great were its scholars. And when the Emperor abolished their stipends, and forbade foreign scholars from coming to the library, he effectively shut down operations. Those scrolls and books were nothing without people to care for them, study them, and share what they learned far and wide.
What matters isn't the perfection of a collection, but the usefulness of a collection.  Digital preservation purists may scorn the Internet Archive, but as I write this post Alexa ranks the 167th most used site on the Internet. For comparison, the Library of Congress is currently the 4,212st ranked site (and is up despite the shutdown), the Bibliothèque Nationale de France is ranked 16,274 and the British Library is ranked 29.498. Little-used collections, such as dark archives, post-cancellation only archives, and access-restricted copyright deposit collections are all at much greater economic risk in the long term than widely used sites such as the Internet Archive.

Of course, many of the important (and thus well-used) works from the Library of Alexandria survived because their importance meant that there were lots of copies. Newitz writes:
Even this account of the burning has to be taken with a grain of salt. The first stories of it appear hundreds of years after the events that took place, and historians aren't sure whether it's accurate. Canfora also notes that by the time this alleged destruction took place, the men who cared for the library were aware that many of its important works were in circulation elsewhere in the world. Major centers of learning had been established in India and Central Asia, along the great Silk Road, where nomadic scholars wandered between temples that were stocked with books.

1 comment:

Ben said...

Fantastic post. I am just starting out in digital preservation but it does strike me that fundamentally it all comes down to access - and ultimately promoting and proving the worth of what we are attempting to maintain access to - to both the financiers and the designated community.