Text of Digital Library Futures keynote (Cambridge, 21st May 2019) | Martin Paul Eve | Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing
peter.suber's bookmarks 2019-05-23
"There is a short story by the famous Argentine author, Jorge Luis Borges, of a civilization possessed of a holy book. The book must, at all costs, be protected and preserved for the future. It is encased within a dark and mighty sarcophagus to ensure its safety from quote “humidity, heat, damp, cold, ice, fire, wind, rain, snow, sleet, prying fingers, hard stares, the gnawing of rats, sonic disintegration, the dribbling of infants, and the population at large” end quote. The special caste of custodians in the story – a kind of priesthood of knowledge – are confident that they can protect the book; especially from this last and most damaging group, the population at large. Indeed, as time goes by and greater swathes of this growingly democratic population request access to the book, the priesthood formulate ever-more contrived rationales for the protection of the artefact. The intrinsic value of the book, to use a term from the report that forms the basis of today’s symposium, seems, in the story, to be increased by its scarcity of access, even as its instrumental value to society grows lesser by the day. For even the priesthood do not really know or understand the contents of the book that they guard. They have only the peripheral metadata context within which to work: the sacredness of the artefact, but also the sacredness of the notion of preservation. As preservation becomes an end in itself for the priesthood, the barbarian populace eventually overwhelm the fortification and prise open the sacred sarcophagus. The story draws to a close as the lay tribes examine the holy book, over the corpses of the priesthood, to find that it is written in a language and script that is completely indecipherable and that has been lost to time; as meaning has eroded over the span of artefactual preservation.
Borges, of course, never actually wrote such a story. But he could have and it did sound vaguely plausible as a transparent allegory of the phenomenon under discussion today. Namely: what is the tension between, and the resolution of, preservation and access for non-print legal deposit? How is it that we have come to a situation where the path-dependence of print has so thoroughly conditioned the access possibilities for the digital that its most salient property – that of non-rivalrous dissemination – must be once more made rivalrous and discarded? And what of the structures of meaning that themselves naturally erode over time, like an entropic process, in the digital space? How, without some form of continuous access, can we ensure that we can still read our digitally preserved heritage over even a decadal timespan?...
But the 909 articles published or supported solely by the platform that I run, the Open Library of Humanities, in its first year accumulated 118,686 unique views. That is, this tiny number of open access articles were viewed by more people than a UK national-level pilot giving on-site access to vast quantities of subscription material across all disciplines over almost double the same time period. This kind of study is most often used to show that “very few people want to read this material, so why should an industry reconfigure its economics to accommodate such changes?” I think that our platform shows exactly the opposite, though. For this is where my interests in open access coincide with issues of user-centric thinking about non-print legal deposit. In a world where we can demonstrate by example that there is an audience for even the most abstruse types of humanities scholarship, it is becoming increasingly problematic to separate preservation from any kind of distributed networked access...."