Climate Science Data and Digital Collections: Issues and Responsibilities

Computers, Information Access

By: Robert Fernandez

Last month, scientists and volunteers began scrambling to preserve scientific information from the U.S. government, wary about its fate under the incoming Trump administration. Targeting climate science data from throughout the U.S. government — especially NASA, NOAA, the EPA, and the Department of Energy — they spontaneously engaged in efforts to preserve it, including a “guerrilla archiving” hackathon in Toronto. It was heartening to see so many man the barricades to preserve information and insure that it remains accessible to those who need it, but it was also depressing that times make such measures necessary.

Meteorologist Eric Holthaus, one of the catalysts for the effort, described some of the information perceived at risk in an interview with NPR :

There are climate data sets that are scattered all throughout the federal government. The ones that come to mind are those at NASA and NOAA that take the temperature of the planet from weather stations, from satellites, from ocean buoys. There are satellites that take an assessment periodically of forest fires. There are assessments of Arctic sea ice.

Hockey Stick Graph
The famous “hockey stick” graph (in blue) illustrates the mean temperature change for the Northern Hemisphere over the last millennium. Image by Klaus Bittermann [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Their fears are not unfounded; the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has already scrubbed accurate information about climate science from its webpages, replacing it with false claims that settled science is “being debated.” Given that many in the incoming Trump administration have expressed hostility to the scientific consensus on climate change and Trump has embraced conspiracy theories about it being a Chinese hoax, there is cause for concern about the fate of climate science data.

Purposeful deletion of climate science data due to this hostility is possible, but it’s the least likely scenario. More likely is that the data will disappear through neglect, the victim of budget cuts or agency eliminations. One can acknowledge the prerogative of a presidential administration to set the agenda of the agencies it oversees while still being concerned about the preservation of the work of those agencies under previous administrations. The preservation of information should be, in theory, an apolitical concern, especially when we’re talking about data, since you can look at data and reach whatever conclusion you want — just as climate science skeptics have (presumably) looked at this data and reached a different conclusion from 97 percent of climate scientists. To put it another way, we should fight to keep Huckleberry Finn on the shelf so it is available for everyone to read, but we’re not going to insist that they enjoy it if they have the poor taste not to like it.

Most of us don’t have the resources or expertise to participate in efforts like these to preserve information, but efforts like these can prompt us to think about how these issues affect our own libraries and responsibilities regarding intellectual freedom. When the mob comes with torches and pitchforks to take Huckleberry Finn off the shelf, we stand at the library door to prevent that from happening.  Fighting to keep materials from being removed from your shelves is important, brave, and straightforward. What our obligations are when the material exists in digital form outside the library is a more complicated issue.

Due the widespread adoption of digital materials, dwindling budgets, and economies of scale, larger and larger percentages of library collections aren’t under the control of librarians, who in many cases have essentially ceded control and collection development to outside vendors. Most of the time, the system works well and offers a wealth of material and information that librarians might otherwise not be able to provide their patrons, but it has troubling implications for intellectual freedom.

In response to a lawsuit, Cambridge University Press destroyed copies of its book Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World in 2007 and contacted libraries asking them to do the same with the physical copies on their shelves. At the urging of the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom, libraries simply refused. Were these digital copies controlled by vendors, libraries might not have the option of refusing to withdraw those books, or even know when copies of those e-books quietly disappeared from their collections. In an ironic cautionary tale from 2009, Amazon remotely deleted e-books belonging to a number of Kindle users, including George Orwell’s 1984. Widespread outrage prompted the restoration of the e-books, but there’s little to prevent this happening again to books in private or library collections. As Farhad Manjoo put it at the time, Amazon “paves the way for book banning’s digital future.”

One way around this danger is diversification. Obviously your library is not going to ditch Overdrive, but you can make sure that Overdrive isn’t the only vendor to provide your patrons with e-books. You’re not going to compete with the Internet Archive, but there’s plenty of user friendly, easy-to-install software that will let you engage in small-scale web archiving efforts to target pages of interest to your community or relevant to your collections. Participate in efforts to create and maintain open access repositories and add material from your own collections if you can.

A commitment to intellectual freedom includes a commitment to the access of information and to the ability of everyone to access it in some fashion. While we can’t resolve all of these challenges to intellectual freedom individually, we can make local decisions with those principles in mind and participate in these collective efforts to preserve information and our commitment to its access.

Robert FernandezRobert Fernandez is a faculty librarian at Hillsborough Community College and is a member of the Florida Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. A member of the Board of Directors of Wikimedia District of Columbia, he has been active on Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects since 2004 and is part of efforts to get more librarians to participate on Wikipedia. Find him on Twitter @wikigamaliel.

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