Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Following the Yellow Brick Road to the Ephemeral City....

The Ephemeral City and Modern (Digital) Libraries

As we move toward an all born-digital information future feel like I’m wandering a yellow brick road that leads inevitably to the Ephemeral City. A city governed by illusion and impermanence. We need to be careful, lest we all end up with libraries filled with copies of 1984 to our suppliers’ Amazon.....

I’m not sure of the exact reasons, but it seems that law, especially legal academia creates more than it’s fair share of ephemera. Much of it developed by the sources of the law itself: courts, agencies and legislatures. Slip laws, slip opinions, advance sheets, letter rulings from nearly every agency, position papers, reports, speeches, lectures, etc., all material that can/may/should/could have very important effect legally or historically.

Over the years, libraries have handled ephmera many different ways: tossed them, added them to a vertical file, bound the items that seemed important, saved them in princeton boxes and waited for enough to accumulate for binding by year, volume or some other cycle. It also depended on whether the material was regularly published or was subject to editing and re-compiling prior to an official compilation/printing/publishing cycle. This is material that is important, but was not published in a format typical of important material: durable bindings, paper, organizational finding aids, etc. It was relatively easy for librarians to collect ephemera, (it often came unsolicited in the mail, from faculty who had attended conferences, or came as part of a larger subscription arrangement such as from the FDLP, or a looseleaf subscription, etc.) but not easy to catalog, organize and preserve.

I’m very concerned that all material that is “born digital” is, by definition, ephemeral. The recent Amazon/1984 fiasco demonstrated to us that nothing digital is permanent - even if you “bought it” from a reputable dealer. Another example: I was recently referred to Lawrence Lessig’s presentation, “Free Culture,” presented at the 2002 Open Source Conference, as being one of the best presentations, ever. I followed the links to watch the presentation. It’s not available online any more! Not even at Lessig’s own, lessig.org website. I’ve no doubt that this may be a temporary situation and that the presentation can be put back online as easily as it was taken away. The point is, the digital content can be changed - no matter what - with the click of a mouse. No mater what. No matter what! (I’m repeating myself on purpose to challenge those objections in your head.) No matter what....

When I raise the issue of digital information’s archival value, publishers look at me with a look of understanding and empathy, then say, “There are ways to make it permanent. That’s not a problem any more.” I’m sorry, it’s still is a problem. People with links to Lessig’s Free Culture presentation thought that the link they used was permanent. People who bought 1984 from Amazon thought their copy was permanent. Duh. As far as I can tell at this point, the only way to make the material absolutely permanent is to commit it to some format that IS permanent. Etch it in stone, if you like. But a hard disk, e-book reader - even a very expensive one is simply not permanent. No way. No how.

And it’s something that we have to start worrying about or we’re going to be responsible for a catastrophe of remarkable scope. Ask Carl Malamud about going back and “digitizing” Betamax tapes of federal hearings and programs. How easy was it to find betamax players to use to get the material off the tapes? How long will it take before the data on our present servers needs to moved to the next generation of servers. Will we (or whoever the custodians are) move all the data? Or only the data that’s used most often? Most recently? Perhaps only the “good” stuff. The “important” stuff.” Who decides?

If all legal information is “born digital,” a la The Durham Statement, various digital commons, etc., it is my opinion that all of it becomes ephemeral, and this means fluid, quick moving and able to adapt and recombine like a virus. When the law (primary, secondary and everything in between) is published ephemerally like this, how can it possibly be stored, organized and preserved for posterity, scholarship or practice with the level of consistency and authority that users of legal information have taken for granted in the past?

In today’s information economy, when someone wants to see, for example, the first (English) edition of Burlamaqui’s Principles of Natural Law, it’s piece of cake. Once you locate a copy, or a reprint, there it is. The person can hold it, scan it and quickly satisfy him/herself that the copy is authentic. Unless it’s a counterfeit, just holding the book satisfies the user.

What is the equivalent for an article or a book that your find online? Whether it’s in a BePress Digital Commons, a blog, Intelliconnect, Lexis or Westlaw, we’ve not yet developed a technology that can communicate a document’s veracity and authority beyond a doubt.

In my book, it’s all becoming ephemeral....

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