When Information Disappears


“Are academic libraries being stamped out?” asks a recent headline addressing (again) the future of libraries in a digital society. This one, probably because it’s in an education-related publication, actually talks to an academic librarian—Gary Marchionini—and allegedly says “nope,” academic libraries are not being ‘stamped out’. The article is a mixed bag, though, arguing for a continued role for libraries while also emphasizing the role of digital materials and physical spaces devoted to study areas. 

Students engaged in group study
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

The article author, Cris Warren, describes academic libraries as “the heart and soul of the campus” and discusses the way digital collections and physical locations can “complement” one another. He quotes Marchionini as saying “the role of the library as a storage space for materials will become decreasingly important; and the role of the library as a space for users, for individual and collaborative work, and as a space for social activity, will become increasingly important” in the Journal of Documentation. He also describes physical academic libraries as “in rude health,” although he says “doomsayers” overlook libraries’ ability to adapt, pointing to study spaces and makerspaces and the like, with an emphasis on the importance of collaboration.  

Warren also quotes Marchionini as making a great point in saying “In the first instance, some colleagues will say to me, ‘Well, I haven’t set foot in a library in a decade,’ to which I respond, 

‘Well you’re still accessing them, because more than half of the academic library budget is going to electronic resources like data and ebooks and the like.'” 

I ve definitely observed this in practice myself; often users, especially if they go through an external source like Google Scholar, don’t even realize they’re accessing resources through the library and the library’s services. This is problematic in our efforts to emphasize our continued role and our services—it’s frustrating to know some users don’t even realize they’re using our services. 

It’s hard to argue with any of this, looking at the reality of today’s libraries, but it also seems to overlook the issues with digital preservation – as so much discussion of today’s libraries does. The Atlantic recently (on almost the same day as the Ed Tech article, in fact) posted an article arguing that “the internet is rotting” and “the glue that holds humanity’s knowledge together is coming undone.” It’s a really solid, in depth look at all the problems with the focus on digital from link rot on the open web, to paywalls, to issues of perpetual access—many of the issues we in academic libraries are thinking about today. 

Access to materials, even quality reliable materials, can and does disappear on the web – the article author Jonathan Zittrain uses a great example by pointing out the websites that ceased to function during a recent government shutdown. Apparently a recent study found that 50% of links embedded in court opinions since 1996 “no longer worked” and 75% of the links in The Harvard Law Review “no longer worked.” This also proved true in a study of The New York Times, which found that going back to 1998 showed that 72% of the “deep links” were rotted. Another study showed that 75% of references in scholarly articles on science, tech and medicine had “drifted.”

I would be remiss not to point out that this doesn’t address the fact that not everyone has access to these materials to begin with. Prisoners are a good case in point, and academic material is often behind paywalls, as are many prominent news sources like The New York Times. The rotted links are a bit of a moot point for those that don’t have access to begin with. 

Returning to the issue of libraries, we do help people get access—through subscriptions and interlibrary loan and other services we do our best to address the access issues. However, I think this issue of link “rot” and “drift” is a jarring reminder of another major role libraries have traditionally played—preservation. 

Along with other cultural centers like museums, libraries are traditionally involved in preserving knowledge. When materials were in print, the methods were generally obvious—storage and physical preservation of physical materials. But what role do we play in a more digital world? We often don’t have perpetual access to our materials these days, with access disappearing as soon as a subscription ends. Our ability to “back up” copies of material may be limited by copyright law and/or licensing agreements. And we have little (if any) control over things like link “rot” and “drift,” especially on the open web or in collections hosted externally like The New York Times archives. 

The Atlantic article really highlights the problems this poses for the historic record and for society more generally. Who is ensuring these materials are not lost? How do we (and by we I mean both society generally and perhaps libraries specifically) begin to catalog and preserve so much of the ephemeral material on the web that can appear and disappear in an instant? 

So much of the discussion of the future of libraries focuses on how users will use our spaces and our subscriptions; I don’t see nearly as much discussion of the issue of preservation and knowledge stewardship in the future. 

Is there a role for libraries to play in the preservation of all of this digital material? If not, whose role is it? And how do we accomplish it? 

Jonathan Zittrain and some like-minded partners at Harvard started Perma to begin to address these issues on a small scale, but we (as a society) need to think about how to do this large scale. 

The list of things that need to be addressed to tackle this issue is daunting, but it’s an important problem. We need to address which digital materials can/should/must be preserved and how we make that preservation happen. This isn’t something individual libraries, or even groups of libraries, can address alone—we need to address it as a big picture issue, with the help and interest of society as a whole. And, it seems to me, the longer we wait the harder it will be—and the more will be lost. 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.