Marydee Ojala
Editor, ONLINE Magazine
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Preservation, Conservation, and Copyright

ONLINE, September 2001
Copyright © 2001 Information Today, Inc.


We use technology to preserve the past. We access the technologically preserved past to help us predict the future.
Digitizing information has considerable consequences. Besides popularizing my favorite word, "online," digitization of print materials raises the question of whether digitization occurs to benefit preservation or facilitate access. Originally, it was seen as an adjunct to the reference process. Computerized indexes in the 1970s simplified information access. Once online full text emerged in the 1980s, research became even easier. People could create specialized bodies of knowledge out of an amorphous mass of articles, reports, documents, and statistical data.

Librarians' brief flirtation with CD-ROM as a substitute for online moved the argument to the preservation side. CD-ROM, as it turns out, is a good storage medium, but brings with it its own limitations for access. The Web holds out the promise of satisfying both preservation and access considerations. But technology cannot always prevail over legal considerations. Fallout from the Tasini versus New York Times decision in favor of the freelancers will result in the removal of full-text articles from newspaper and magazine databases. Although it is theoretically feasible to mix thoroughly indexed, abstract versions of the purged articles with the full-text publications, my guess is that a hybrid product will not be widely adopted.

The notions of preservation and conservation have considerable resonance in the Western United States. While California struggles with rolling electricity blackouts (even Dialog was running on generators), the rest of the West worries about water shortages. The cry is for conserving energy and water. Yet no one calls for conserving information. We don't have to because digitization allows us to use it without using it up.

At the center of online is paradox. We use technology to preserve the past. We access the technologically preserved past to help us predict the future. On occasion, we inadvertently destroy our technologically preserved past because the technology becomes outdated and we no longer have the means to access the information we've carefully preserved. Worse, due to legal restrictions, we can't preserve all our past, only that to which we have the rights. Subjectivity also plays a role–we make judgment calls. We try to digitize because we should–not because we can. One implication is that we must guard against letting the digitized version totally supplant the original. Another is that we shouldn't save everything.

Paradox may be too strong a word. Perhaps it's irony at work here. Novelist and polemicist, Nicholson Baker, who in Double Fold bemoans the disappearance of archival newspapers and blames librarians for their demise, is a proponent of the National Writers Union stance. He wants royalties paid to him by librarians when they access his articles castigating them. Library associations are already paying him to preach about librarian deficiencies, an irony in and of itself. If his articles are removed from databases as a result of the Tasini decision, should I mourn? Is it a digitization failure? Or is it just another consequence of the online process, a process that has some flaws, but which is vastly superior to warehouses of paper dotting the globe.

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