Digital Libraries

Today’s New York Times has a very interesting article, entitled “History, Digitized (and Abridged)” about pretty much what the title suggests. Casual searchers, novice, and sometimes even advanced, researchers, are increasingly turning to online-only sources for their information.

 However, though the article does touch on issues of funding (there isn’t a lot of it) and copyright (good luck digitizing anything that’s not in the public domain), it does skim over (or omit altogether) several issues that I believe are important:

  •  Digitization only preserves non-digital works indirectly, and there is currently no viable method for digitally preserving either non-digital or born-digital objects.

If you happen to have an especially fragile “cultural heritage object,” making a digital copy of that object is not a viable preservation method at this time. There are many organizations in the information profession that are working to make this a reality (especially the preservation of born-digital objects), but it’s not a reality now, and it’s troubling that it’s mentioned several times in the article as if it were a currently feasible option.

  • Google’s motivation to digitize “the world’s knowledge” is far from clear.

Google’s great for a lot of things, don’t get me wrong. I have a Gmail account, I use Google’s aggregator for my RSS feeds, etc. etc. However, the idea of a private enterprise wooing non-profit institutions into mass digitizations of their collections, with the condition that no other search engine can index the results, makes me a bit uneasy, and I’m not the only one. Brewster Kahle of the non-profit Internet Archive and the related Open Content Alliance, which is currently undertaking an open-content project similar to Google’s, feels the same way. (Shocking that a potential “rival” would disagree with Google’s motivations, I know. :))

  • Google is currently being sued for copyright infringement by the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild.

I’m not sure how, despite constant mentions of both the Google Book Search Project and the hurdles copyright creates for anyone undertaking a project like this, the author failed to mention the copyright infringement lawsuits that Google’s currently in the middle of. Seems like a fairly egregious oversight to me.

Now that I’m done kvetching about the important points that I think the article missed, I want to make myself clear:

 I am not saying that I think libraries should clutch their print-based resources to their bosoms for dear life and run screaming from “teh intarweb.” Far from it. Also, despite my misgivings about Google’s motivations, they, unlike most libraries, have the deep pockets to withstand lawsuits that, with the current copyright laws, were practically inevitable.

 This brings me to my last point: the chronic under-funding of cultural heritage institutions. I’m a bit out of steam by now, so I don’t have a lot of my own thoughts to add…other than to say that it’s a bit depressing since I’ll be out on the job market in a few months and have already seen multiple archival jobs that require a graduate degree and pay less than what I know I could make in a clerical job that requires no post-secondary degree. Disheartening, to say the least.

I was browsing the nonist this morning and came across a very interesting image of a vintage poster, bearing the words: You may think she’s just your ‘gal,’ but she may be everyone’s pal: Prophylaxis Prevents Venereal Disease”.

Needless to say (well, if you know me, it’s needless to say), I was curious to find out more about the site, so I did some browsing and found that this poster is part of the Social Hygiene Posters database (c. 1910-1970), which is one of many in the University of Minnesota IMAGES repository. A lot of the really interesting ones are from two parallel poster presentations from the U.S. Public Health Service in the 1920s, and they (literally and figuratively) provide vivid historical slices of life that (I believe) just aren’t possible with purely text-based sources.

There are a lot of other very interesting posters in there…another one of my favorites is Beware of chance acquaintances. That’s right, ladies. Don’t ever let a strange man take you auto-riding or to a cafè, because he might attempt to entice you into sex relations and then you’ll get the clap or syphilis, get pregnant, and your child will die or be born blind.

In other words, it’s a vintage episode of House, M.D..