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Archival Imperative

June 9, 2008 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 86, ISSUE 23

"Vanishing Books," by Rick Mullin, was an informative discussion of one of the primary change agents in the information industry today, increasing digitization of resources (C&EN, April 28, page 30). As an information professional myself, I enjoyed reading how the librarians were able to move to new roles in their organizations that utilized their research and analysis skills when their physical libraries closed.

Your readers should be aware, however, that completely digital libraries are not as universal as Mullin suggests. For one, the companies covered in the article are all multi-billion-dollar enterprises with global operations. Such companies can achieve the economies of scale necessary to make electronic resources cost-effective. For the majority of companies, however—those whose revenues are stated in millions rather than billions—shifting to electronic resources can still be an expensive proposition.

Clearly, the information professionals interviewed for the article were able to shift their libraries from physical facilities to virtual through careful planning and implementation. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency's national library system recently survived attempts to shut many of its branches even though large portions of their collections are not available electronically and digitizing them would take several years.

I think Cara Battaglini Schatz sums it up best when she says that "hard copy versus digital is not the point." The point is to provide information resources, regardless of format, that best meet the organization's budget and needs.

Cynthia Eastman
San Francisco

Having entered "geezerhood" a few years ago when I retired, I probably have a different outlook on life than some younger people. The article on the replacement of books in libraries with online storage troubles me. Nothing is more permanent than a written document. About 60 years ago, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and scholars have been able to decipher them. What if instead of Dead Sea Scrolls they were "Dead Sea Floppies"? What format would they be in?

If they were not 2,000 years old then but brand new and placed on electronic media, could we read them now? In my career I have seen 8-, 5.25-, and 3.5-inch floppies, and I did a lot of my work on an old Finnigan INCOS data system that used 15-inch removable platters that held a whopping 5 megabytes each. After switching from one format to another, we did keep one old nine-track tape machine so we could read our old data. I retired before I could find out what would happen when that one tape reader finally died.

Furthermore, there is the advantage of partially deciphering written/printed media. Again using the example of the Dead Sea Scrolls, after two millennia there was much damage, especially at the edges, but they could still be deciphered. How much can you decipher from a floppy or a flash drive if its edges are mutilated?

I agree that some things do not need archival storage, and there probably is not much that needs to be stored as long as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Can current magazines and journals be replaced by PDFs? Probably so, but let's keep some archival copies somewhere.

Barry Austern



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