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Posted
12 September 2006

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Citizen Librarian

There's a science fiction story I read as a kid, and I want to say that it's Phillip K. Dick's Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, but that may not be right. In this story, or one like it, I can remember being amused and confused at the decadent characters in the story who, as adults, would take a drug that would instantly transport them back to relive some of the more pleasant experiences from their early childhood. The obvious name "Wayback" comes to mind.

At the time I read about Wayback, I couldn't understand the appeal. Why would you want to revisit your childhood? It seemed pretty odd.

As an adult I now know the lure of the past all too well. (And no, I'm not talking about re-reading one's previous blog posts, though the principle is the same). The past can be quite addictive. We carry with us through life little souvenirs, which are very handy triggers to recall the past. Smells, music, clothes, movies, books; all are basically a more dilute form of Wayback. And using these to take the occasional stroll through the landscape of one's childhood memories can be quite pleasant.

Of these popular culture artifacts, some can be digitised and preserved forever. Or at least until those who care about them die off. And as we all know, bits are a lot easier to store long-term than atoms. It seems that music and movies are already well catered for; it's surprisingly easy to find some surprisingly obscure movies and music online (copyright notwithstanding, and I'll get to that).

I just found out that "artefact" is the British spelling of "artifact". Wondering which of the two is the definitive Australian English, I went to the Macquarie Dictionary, only to find out that it's now subscription based. It never used to be, did it? Anyway, this is yet another example of a great resource paid for by the Australian public and now sold back to us. So I'm left with no choice but assuming that the British spelling is definitive, and therefore using the American form as a form of very weak protest. Take that, Macquarie!

Books are, somewhat ironically, far more transient than movies. It's a lot harder to find an out-of-print book from the 1970s than a movie from the same period. I'm sure this has something to do with the sheer volume of printed material, as well as the relative difficulty of creating a digital archive of it. The problem is particularly acute for material that is not out of copyright, but predates the rise of the Internet.

Now I can apparently still buy a copy of Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. But what are my chances of finding a copy of 2000 A.D. where Judge Dredd battles the League of Fatties? OK, so it's not exactly Voltaire, and maybe in 50 years time noone will care. But hey, I'd like to read it again. And I'm probably not the only one.

Copyright laws quite rightly stop us just scanning any old thing and putting it online. But what if the book is out of print? Surely the collective publishing industry could just look the other way? OK maybe not.

For clearly important works like, I dunno, The O'Reilly Factor For Kids we can look to the major libraries to keep a copy and in however-many years after the death of the copyright holder's lawyer we can expect someone to dust it off and scan it for the benefit of all.

But at the lowbrow end of the literary scale I would argue that there is a very real chance that a significant proportion of printed material is just never going to survive to be made available online. Fifty years after the death of the Judge Dredd artists, are there going to be any 2000 A.D. progs even left any more? If so, what condition will they be in? If we even wanted to digitise this material after so much time sitting in someone's closet, what would be the result?

With the long tail effect, you can pretty much count on every published work being valuable to someone. Readers outnumber authors by a significant margin, so it's a reasonable first assumption that every published work is worth saving. And we shouldn't be relying on the libraries to save us (no disrespect intended). I say to hell with the copyright laws, if it's out of print and is not likely to earn the author any more sales, then get it online pronto! Or at least scan it in and keep it in escrow.

When traditional journalism reaches its limits, the citizen journalists step in. By extension, when traditional libraries reach their limits, the citizen librarians step in.

A published work which is out of print and which may perish unless someone save it. Like a literary Steve Irwin. I'd like to see other people do the same. There must be lots of boxes hidden in closets all over the world, filled with rare gems. Or lots of obscure trash which assorted random people all over the world may appreciate. In other words: stuff that needs to be on the Internet.

Obviously there are other challenges besides the copyright laws, there are the technical challenges of getting the best quality scan, performing OCR, storage, etc. But it seems like a worthwhile challenge.

So to kick off, I'll dig deep into the darkest corners of my library and find something that deserves to be preserved for posterity. I'll have a go at preserving it myself and report back.

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