Tag Archives: digitizing content

Does digitizing material mean it’s safe? A tale of Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans scientific libraries

As has been noted elsewhere the federal government of Canada has shut down a number of Fisheries and Oceans Canada libraries in a cost-saving exercise. The government is hoping to save some $440,000 in the 2014-15 fiscal year by digitizing, consolidating, and discarding the libraries and their holdings.

One would imagine that this is being done in a measured, thoughtful fashion but one would be wrong.

Andrew Nikiforuk in a December 23, 2013 article for The Tyee wrote one of the first articles about the closure of the fisheries libraries,

Scientists say the closure of some of the world’s finest fishery, ocean and environmental libraries by the Harper government has been so chaotic that irreplaceable collections of intellectual capital built by Canadian taxpayers for future generations has been lost forever.

Glyn Moody in a Jan. 7, 2014 post on Techdirt noted this,

What’s strange is that even though the rationale for this mass destruction is apparently in order to reduce costs, opportunities to sell off more valuable items have been ignored. A scientist is quoted as follows:

“Hundreds of bound journals, technical reports and texts still on the shelves, presumably meant for the garbage or shredding. I saw one famous monograph on zooplankton, which would probably fetch a pretty penny at a used science bookstore… anybody could go in and help themselves, with no record kept of who got what.”

Gloria Galloway in a Jan. 7, 2014 article for the Globe and Mail adds more details about what has been lost,

Peter Wells, an adjunct professor and senior research fellow at the International Ocean Institute at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said it is not surprising few members of the public used the libraries. But “the public benefits by the researchers and the different research labs being able to access the information,” he said.

Scientists say it is true that most modern research is done online.

But much of the material in the DFO libraries was not available digitally, Dr. Wells said, adding that some of it had great historical value. And some was data from decades ago that researchers use to determine how lakes and rivers have changed.

“I see this situation as a national tragedy, done under the pretext of cost savings, which, when examined closely, will prove to be a false motive,” Dr. Wells said. “A modern democratic society should value its information resources, not reduce, or worse, trash them.”

Dr. Ayles [Burton Ayles, a former DFO regional director and the former director of science for the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg] said the Freshwater Institute had reports from the 1880s and some that were available nowhere else. “There was a whole core people who used that library on a regular basis,” he said.

Dr. Ayles pointed to a collection of three-ringed binders, occupying seven metres of shelf space, that contained the data collected during a study in the 1960s and 1970s of the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline. For a similar study in the early years of this century, he said, “scientists could go back to that information and say, ‘What was the baseline 30 years ago? What was there then and what is there now?’ ”

When asked how much of the discarded information has been digitized, the government did not provide an answer, but said the process continues.

Today, Margo McDiarmid’s Jan. 30, 2014 article for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) news online further explores digitization of the holdings,

Fisheries and Oceans is closing seven of its 11 libraries by 2015. It’s hoping to save more than $443,000 in 2014-15 by consolidating its collections into four remaining libraries.

Shea [Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea] told CBC News in a statement Jan. 6 that all copyrighted material has been digitized and the rest of the collection will be soon. The government says that putting material online is a more efficient way of handling it.

But documents from her office show there’s no way of really knowing that is happening.

“The Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ systems do not enable us to determine the number of items digitized by location and collection,” says the response by the minister’s office to MacAulay’s inquiry. [emphasis mine]

The documents also that show the department had to figure out what to do with 242,207 books and research documents from the libraries being closed. It kept 158,140 items and offered the remaining 84,067 to libraries outside the federal government.

Shea’s office told CBC that the books were also “offered to the general public and recycled in a ‘green fashion’ if there were no takers.”

The fate of thousands of books appears to be “unknown,” although the documents’ numbers show 160 items from the Maurice Lamontagne Library in Mont Jolie, Que., were “discarded.”  A Radio-Canada story in June about the library showed piles of volumes in dumpsters.

And the numbers prove a lot more material was tossed out. The bill to discard material from four of the seven libraries totals $22,816.76

Leaving aside the issue of whether or not rare books were given away or put in dumpsters, It’s not confidence-building when the government minister can’t offer information about which books have been digitized and where they might located online.

Interestingly,  Fisheries and Oceans is not the only department/ministry shutting down libraries (from McDiarmid’s CBC article),

Fisheries and Oceans is just one of the 14 federal departments, including Health Canada and Environment Canada, that have been shutting physical libraries and digitizing or consolidating the material into closed central book vaults.

I was unaware of the problems with Health Canada’s libraries but Laura Payton’s and Max Paris’ Jan. 20, 2014 article for CBC news online certainly raised my eyebrows,

Health Canada scientists are so concerned about losing access to their research library that they’re finding workarounds, with one squirrelling away journals and books in his basement for colleagues to consult, says a report obtained by CBC News.

The draft report from a consultant hired by the department warned it not to close its library, but the report was rejected as flawed and the advice went unheeded.

Before the main library closed, the inter-library loan functions were outsourced to a private company called Infotrieve, the consultant wrote in a report ordered by the department. The library’s physical collection was moved to the National Science Library on the Ottawa campus of the National Research Council last year.

“Staff requests have dropped 90 per cent over in-house service levels prior to the outsource. This statistic has been heralded as a cost savings by senior HC [Health Canada] management,” the report said.

“However, HC scientists have repeatedly said during the interview process that the decrease is because the information has become inaccessible — either it cannot arrive in due time, or it is unaffordable due to the fee structure in place.”

….

The report noted the workarounds scientists used to overcome their access problems.

Mueller [Dr. Rudi Mueller, who left the department in 2012] used his contacts in industry for scientific literature. He also went to university libraries where he had a faculty connection.

The report said Health Canada scientists sometimes use the library cards of university students in co-operative programs at the department.

Unsanctioned libraries have been created by science staff.

“One group moved its 250 feet of published materials to an employee’s basement. When you need a book, you email ‘Fred,’ and ‘Fred’ brings the book in with him the next day,” the consultant wrote in his report.

“I think it’s part of being a scientist. You find a way around the problems,” Mueller told CBC News.

Unsanctioned, underground libraries aside, the assumption that digitizing documents and books ensures access is false.  Glyn Moody in a Nov. 12, 2013 article for Techdirt gives a chastening example of how vulnerable our digital memories are,

The Internet Archive is the world’s online memory, holding the only copies of many historic (and not-so-historic) Web pages that have long disappeared from the Web itself.

Bad news:

This morning at about 3:30 a.m. a fire started at the Internet Archive’s San Francisco scanning center.

Good news:

no one was hurt and no data was lost. Our main building was not affected except for damage to one electrical run. This power issue caused us to lose power to some servers for a while.

Bad news:

Some physical materials were in the scanning center because they were being digitized, but most were in a separate locked room or in our physical archive and were not lost. Of those materials we did unfortunately lose, about half had already been digitized. We are working with our library partners now to assess.

That loss is unfortunate, but imagine if the fire had been in the main server room holding the Internet Archive’s 2 petabytes of data. Wisely, the project has placed copies at other locations …

That’s good to know, but it seems rather foolish for the world to depend on the Internet Archive always being able to keep all its copies up to date, especially as the quantity of data that it stores continues to rise. This digital library is so important in historical and cultural terms: surely it’s time to start mirroring the Internet Archive around the world in many locations, with direct and sustained support from multiple governments.

In addition to the issue of vulnerability, there’s also the issue of authenticity, from my June 5, 2013 posting about science, archives and memories,

… Luciana Duranti [Professor and Chair, MAS {Master of Archival Studies}Program at the University of British Columbia and Director, InterPARES] and her talk titled, Trust and Authenticity in the Digital Environment: An Increasingly Cloudy Issue, which took place in Vancouver (Canada) last year (mentioned in my May 18, 2012 posting).

Duranti raised many, many issues that most of us don’t consider when we blithely store information in the ‘cloud’ or create blogs that turn out to be repositories of a sort (and then don’t know what to do with them; ça c’est moi). She also previewed a Sept. 26 – 28, 2013 conference to be hosted in Vancouver by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), “Memory of the World in the Digital Age: Digitization and Preservation.” (UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme hosts a number of these themed conferences and workshops.)

The Sept. 2013 UNESCO ‘memory of the world’ conference in Vancouver seems rather timely in retrospect. The Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) announced that Dr. Doug Owram would be chairing their Memory Institutions and the Digital Revolution assessment (mentioned in my Feb. 22, 2013 posting; scroll down 80% of the way) and, after checking recently, I noticed that the Expert Panel has been assembled and it includes Duranti. Here’s the assessment description from the CCA’s ‘memory institutions’ webpage,

Library and Archives Canada has asked the Council of Canadian Academies to assess how memory institutions, which include archives, libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions, can embrace the opportunities and challenges of the changing ways in which Canadians are communicating and working in the digital age.

Background

Over the past three decades, Canadians have seen a dramatic transformation in both personal and professional forms of communication due to new technologies. Where the early personal computer and word-processing systems were largely used and understood as extensions of the typewriter, advances in technology since the 1980s have enabled people to adopt different approaches to communicating and documenting their lives, culture, and work. Increased computing power, inexpensive electronic storage, and the widespread adoption of broadband computer networks have thrust methods of communication far ahead of our ability to grasp the implications of these advances.

These trends present both significant challenges and opportunities for traditional memory institutions as they work towards ensuring that valuable information is safeguarded and maintained for the long term and for the benefit of future generations. It requires that they keep track of new types of records that may be of future cultural significance, and of any changes in how decisions are being documented. As part of this assessment, the Council’s expert panel will examine the evidence as it relates to emerging trends, international best practices in archiving, and strengths and weaknesses in how Canada’s memory institutions are responding to these opportunities and challenges. Once complete, this assessment will provide an in-depth and balanced report that will support Library and Archives Canada and other memory institutions as they consider how best to manage and preserve the mass quantity of communications records generated as a result of new and emerging technologies.

The Council’s assessment is running concurrently with the Royal Society of Canada’s expert panel assessment on Libraries and Archives in 21st century Canada. Though similar in subject matter, these assessments have a different focus and follow a different process. The Council’s assessment is concerned foremost with opportunities and challenges for memory institutions as they adapt to a rapidly changing digital environment. In navigating these issues, the Council will draw on a highly qualified and multidisciplinary expert panel to undertake a rigorous assessment of the evidence and of significant international trends in policy and technology now underway. The final report will provide Canadians, policy-makers, and decision-makers with the evidence and information needed to consider policy directions. In contrast, the RSC panel focuses on the status and future of libraries and archives, and will draw upon a public engagement process.

So, the government is shutting down libraries in order to save money and they’re praying (?) that the materials have been digitized and adequate care has been taken to ensure that they will not be lost in some disaster or other. Meanwhile the Council of Canadian Academies is conducting an assessment of memory institutions in the digital age. The approach seems to backwards.

On a more amusing note, Rick Mercer parodies at lease one way scientists are finding to circumvent the cost-cutting exercise in an excerpt (approximately 1 min.)  from his Jan. 29, 2014 Rick Mercer Report telecast (thanks Roz),

Mercer’s comment about sports and Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper’s preferences is a reference to Harper’s expressed desire to write a book about hockey and possibly a veiled reference to Harper’s successful move to prorogue parliament during the 2010 Winter Olympic games in Vancouver in what many observers suggested was a strategy allowing Harper to attend the games at his leisure.

Whether or not you agree with the decision to shutdown some libraries, the implementation seems to have been a remarkably sloppy affair.

British Library’s new iPad app

How do I love thee, British Library? Let me count the ways. (I know it’s a cheap move paraphrasing these lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning but it’s a compromise since it can take me years to come up with the perfect poetic line by which time this news will be ancient history.)

The British Library has announced an iPad application (app) which will make over 60,000 19th century titles from their collection available through Apple’s iTunes store later this summer. At this point, there are approximately 1000 titles available in the app they are calling the 19th Century Historical Collection. Neal Ungerleider on the Fast Company website writes in his June 15, 2011 article,

The British Library is launching a new library-in-an-iPad application that gives tablet users access to tens of thousands of 19th-century books in their original form. The app, called the 19th Century Historical Collection, is taking a notably different tack to putting classic literature online than rivals such as the Kindle platform: Antiquarian books viewed through the British Library application will come in their original form–complete with illustrations, typefaces, pull-out maps and even the occasional paper wear.

This project follows from the British Library’s previous mobile app project, Treasures. Here’s a video about that one,

Getting back to the most recent project the 19th Century Historical Collection (from the British Library June 7, 2011 news release),

The British Library 19th Century Historical Collection App forms a treasure trove of classics and lesser known titles in fields ranging from travel writing and natural history to fiction and philosophy. The app represents the latest landmark in the British Library’s progress towards its long-term vision of making more of its historic collections available to many more users through innovative technology. [emphasis mine]

I’m happy to see that the staff at the British Library remain open to ideas and experimentation. As I noted in my July 29, 2010 posting (Love letter to the British Library) about copyright, I’ve been having an affair with the British Library since 2000. Here’s an excerpt from that posting which relates directly to these latest initiatives,

Dame Lynne Brindley, the Chief Executive Officer for the British Library had this to say in her introduction to the [British Library's] paper [Driving UK Research — Is copyright a help or a hindrance?],

There is a supreme irony that just as technology is allowing greater access to books and other creative works than ever before for education and research, new restrictions threaten to lock away digital content in a way we would never countenance for printed material.

Let’s not wake up in five years’ time and realise we have unwittingly lost a fundamental building block for innovation, education and research in the UK. Who is protecting the public interest in the digital world? We need to redefine copyright in the digital age and find a balance to benefit creators, educators, researchers, the creative industries – and the knowledge economy. (p. 3)

In this case, the action matches what’s been said. Bravo!

ETA June 21, 2011: The British Library has recently made a deal with Google to digitize 250,000 texts. All of the books are in the public domain. You can read more about the project/deal in Kit Eaton’s June 20, 2011 article for Fast Company, Pulp, Non-Fiction: On The British Library’s Book-Digitizing Deal With Google. From the article,

Google’s got several other high-profile deals with other libraries, but the British Library deal is significant because the BL is the second biggest library in the world, after the Library of Congress (if you’re counting books, rather than periodicals). There are 14 million books among 150 million texts in a variety of formats and three million are added every year–because the BL is a legal deposit library, so it gets a copy of all books produced in the U.K. and Ireland, including many books from overseas that are published in Britain.

The Library’s chief executive Dame Lynne Brindley has commented on the new deal, highlighting the original mission of the Library to make knowledge accessible to everyone–the Google deal is “building on this proud tradition.” Since anyone with a browser can now access the material for free from anywhere in the world, the deal sets an important precedent that may be expanded in the future.

Making 60,000 texts immediately readable on your iPad is one thing, and adding another 250,000 is another. The British Library is sending a big signal out about historic texts, and it could subtly change how you think about books. For one thing, student’s essays are going to be peppered with even more esoteric quotes from obscure publications as they ill-advisedly Google their way through writing term papers. It also boosts Google’s standing in the “free” books stakes compared to competitors like Amazon, and it does imply that in the future even more of the 150 million texts in the British Library may make it online.

Interesting development!