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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies


Disappearing Data
November/December 2014 Issue

We information professionals pride ourselves on being able to find anything. We’ll search databases, access social media, scour the dark corners of the internet, consult reference materials, quiz friends and family, dive into archives, research the researchers, read books, and phone experts to uncover answers and provide requested information. We love the thrill of the chase. Even more, we love wrestling that tough question, that difficult research project, to the ground. We love winning and we hate to admit defeat.

Occasionally, however, defeat is inevitable. Sometimes the information doesn’t exist. Sometimes the request is unreasonable, illegal, or unethical. No, we can’t find a photograph taken in the 1600s. No, we won’t tap into an individual’s personal bank account. No, we can’t locate scientific information that proves space travel never happened. No, we won’t make 500 copies of a copyrighted article. No, we can’t get an original public document that was never digitized and stored in paper form in a building that burned to the ground.

What is more problematic is when information professionals know the information exists but are prohibited from finding it by the very technology we depend on for enlightenment. A Google algorithm—or one from Bing, Facebook, or another system—could stand in the way. Just because I searched an energy topic in the morning doesn’t mean that my search on a humanities topic this afternoon should be biased towards energy.

Information professionals can also be thwarted by legacy data. What to do if you’re confronted with a 5-1/2 inch floppy disk, a Betamax videotape, or a document created with an old, now unsupported, word processing program? Deteriorating data is another concern. You have an original but it’s damaged and unreadable.

Then there’s stupidity. The U.S. Administrative Office of the Courts decided to remove 10 years of online public records—court cases—from PACER in August 2014. Not just delete the index pointing to them, as is the case with Google’s response to the European “Right to be forgotten” dictum or OCLC’s treatment of holdings records for non-WorldCat Discovery product subscribers. No, for PACER, the records completely disappeared. According to the Office, the problem was technical incompatibility when the system was upgraded.

Government data has disappeared in the past. The Statistical Abstract is but one case in point. It was “rescued” by ProQuest. The World News Connection database, a compilation of current international news published by the U.S. National Technical Information Service, found no white knight and bit the dust in December 2013.

Luckily, the PACER data didn’t disappear. Legislators, whose grasp of the importance of legal cases is probably better than their understanding of statistics or foreign news sources, protested this erasure of history. The result: A technical fix was miraculously found and the documents restored to PACER in late October.

I’d love to report that information professionals’ outrage caused the restoration. Yes, we were outraged, but the power to force restoration lies with our legislators. They prevailed and we are the beneficiaries.

Marydee Ojala is Editor-in-Chief of Online Searcher (the successor journal to ONLINE) and writes its business research column ("The Dollar Sign"). She has contributed feature articles and news stories to Information TodayEContentComputers in LibrariesIntranetsCyberSkeptic's Guide to the InternetBusiness Information Review, and Information Today's NewsBreaks. A long-time observer of the information industry, she speaks frequently at conferences, such as WebSearch University, Internet Librarian, Internet Librarian International, Computers in Libraries, and national library meetings worldwide. She has adjunct faculty status at the School of Library and Information Science at IUPUI (Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis). Her professional career began at BankAmerica Corporation, San Francisco, directing a worldwide program of research and information services. She established her independent information research business in 1987. Her undergraduate degree is from Brown University and her MLS was earned at the University of Pittsburgh.


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