Friday, December 5, 2008

Reflection on preservation

Editor's note: I found the assembly's four presentations and the afternoon's discussion to be a completely fascinating session about issues related to preservation and collections, and from a perspective that I rarely encounter or deal with as a science reference librarian who is more focused on immediate reference transactions, instruction, and providing highly-used digital and print materials. I'm pretty new at working on collections, but as these different talks were given I found myself thinking about the small weeding project I've been doing lately, pulling material from the computer science stacks at Davis to send to NRLF. Some questions I've faced on a detailed, immediate scale as I get my hands dusty -- is a book about a little-used database program from 1986 worth saving in storage; if I send a rare tech report to storage will that make it more likely to be digitized and thus more accessible, rather than less; can I toss this programming book if we also have it online -- were faced on a university, consortial and global scale by the presenters. What are the implications for our collections -- print, digital and everything in between -- when we practice shared collection development, are busy putting as much as we can online, but when no one philosophically or practically can "go it alone"? What is our goal for preserving the world's knowledge, and are we doing enough to get there?

This summer I was lucky enough to visit the Library of Alexandria, as part of another project I work on as a volunteer. The new library, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, or "BibAlex" as it is informally known there, is of course historically famous as a repository of the world's knowledge, a place where everything that was written in the known world was at one point or another copied or plundered to find a home in the library. That was long ago, and there is nothing left now of the historical library, except many stories and a vague idea of where on the Egyptian coastline it may have been. The new library is designed on different lines; it is more of a conference and educational center than anything, complete with a children's library, planetarium and coffeshop. The new librarians of Alexandria work mostly on outreach, and though they do work with their print collections (which to me were surprisingly small and impoverished, built mainly on donations, though housed in an absolutely beautiful reading room) they are most excited about digitizing materials, especially out of copyright Arabic books and manuscripts. Written Arabic, as you might imagine, is a tricky language to digitize and OCR scan -- so much so that the programmers of BibAlex had to write their own OCR software, apparently the first for digitizing Arabic. We got a special tour of their digitizing room, and it reminded me entirely of the scanning operation in the NRLF that the Internet Archive operated -- rows of cameras and scanners, and young men and women silently turning pages.

Is this the future of plundering and copying the world's knowledge -- only this time not just for one building, but for the world at large? The librarians of BibAlex -- there are nearly a thousand staff there, though they don't have many resources for materials -- were absolutely eager to collaborate with libraries in the United States and elsewhere to get their new digital resources cataloged, distributed, put online in local systems around the world. They are proud of their work, enthusiastic about collaborating and expanding their operations, and they recognize the uniqueness of the collections that they do have. As I was listening to the LAUC presentations this afternoon, I was thinking about the BibAlex folks and their work, and thinking: we should be that eager too, to build a new Library of Alexandria for all of us.

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