Disappearances and Discoveries
by Marydee Ojala
The disappearance of information is an ongoing worry for information professionals.
We want to guarantee comprehensive results, but can’t if relevant data
has been removed from a Web site or a premium content database. Data can disappear
for perfectly innocuous reasons—it doesn’t always require a conspiracy
theory as explanation. Sometimes technology is to blame. The data is stored
in an older media for which no reader still exists. Think floppy disks when
they really were floppy. A directory database is updated and the obsolete,
3-year old data deleted. If you want to know the state of affairs 3 years ago,
you’re out of luck unless you can find a backup somewhere.
It could be a policy decision. The U.S. government removed sensitive documents
following 9/11. Australian researchers are concerned about digital government
publications that have disappeared from the Internet or for which the links
no longer work. The PANDORA digital archive [http://pan
dora.nla.gov.au] is investigating these disappearances. It could be vanity.
Corporate press releases declaring an imminent acquisition of or by another
company vanish from the corporate Web site when the acquisition doesn’t
happen. Legal is another reason. The Tasini decision resulted in freelancer-written
articles evaporating from online renditions of newspapers.
Some recent developments in the natural world are hopeful. The ivory billed
woodpecker [www.birds.cornell.edu/ivory], once thought extinct, was allegedly
seen in Arkansas a few months ago; the Mt. Diablo buckwheat with its pink flowers
[www.mdia.org/buckwheat.htm], thought to be a vanished plant, was spotted by
a University of California, Berkeley, graduate student; and a new dolphin species,
the snubfin dolphin, was discovered off the coast of Australia. Closer to our
library world, an unknown Bach aria, handwritten by Johann Sebastian himself
in 1713, was discovered at the bottom of a box housed in the Anna Amalia Library
in Weimar, Germany.
Heartening news indeed from the natural and the library world. Should we expect
anything similar in the online world? The news is mixed. Canadian pre-SEDAR
documents, previously available from Micromedia Demand Document Services, became
unavailable when Micromedia ceased operations. Luckily, the Toronto Public
Library has some, as does Thomson
Research. What about old phone books? If you want to know who lived at a particular
address in the past, the current online version won’t help. Local public
libraries might store archival phone books. However, if the books go to electronic-only
publication, there is little reason to believe older data will survive. What
about corporate press releases? Premium content on Dialog, Factiva, and LexisNexis
almost always come through on this.
For historical documents, digitization holds great promise. Creating a digital
analog of the printed work helps ensure it won’t become irretrievably
damaged, rendering it, for all practical purposes, extinct. Information professionals
need to consider the pros and cons of preservation technology. I shudder whenever
I hear of fires or floods destroying a library collection. I hope there’s
a digital equivalent, but usually, there isn’t. Even the digital version
can be “lost,” if it’s not properly described, using appropriate
metadata or taxonomies. In that case, it’s just like the bird, flower,
dolphin, and aria—patiently waiting to be raised from the dead.
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