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Information Pulls a Disappearing Act

by on February 14, 2017

Several have sounded the alarm that information is disappearing. We’ve known for a long time that some of our oldest materials were deteriorating and that we  needed to microfilm (now digitize) the items for preservation. What’s happening now is that new information is disappearing from current databases and resources.

Some of this is due to contractual agreements between the content holder of copyright and the aggregator database provider such as ProQuest and EBSCOhost. We also find individuals lose their rights-to-access because print content that was once available on the Internet Public Library is now only available digitally as part of aggregators such as Project MUSE and JSTOR. Unless the individual has a library nearby which subscribes to these databases, individuals would have to subscribe to the databases when in most case, they only wanted to read one article. This makes libraries indispensable to access, yet perhaps because of the contractual agreement they are not able to give access to the person wanting the information because they are ‘out of bounds’ of the region or the academic institution. I remember once paying $30 gain access to a book my daughter needed for her master’s degree work. Interlibrary Loan system used to work, but with current licensing, that is not always the case.

There is another disappearing act of websites being taken down, though these are sometimes available through the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine. The archive doesn’t capture everything, nor do they capture at any regular interval some of the websites with valuable information and data. I found one university website which was deleted but had come back as the same URL with totally different information. This sort of thing has happened with ISBNs as well; the reuse of them is a serious breach of the program, but it happens frequently enough to be wary of what you are trying to get. In one scenario, a student can’t get access to a certain music methods publication because the database subscribed to by the university dropped the magazine due to their contract with the content owner. In another, the information on Climate Change and Civil Rights was taken down from White House shortly after Trump took office as President.

There have been efforts to save this disappearing data. DataRefuge is one group trying to preserve climate data. GitHub is also working on a method to save digital content from extinction. The Library of Congress, the American Library Association, and CLIR have all been involved in what is now known as “born digital’ information and data and are actively attempting to help contain its demise. Yale University is involved as are many other institutions.

I’m not sure if this loss of digital content will change what our future populations will know as history or not, but some of the information loss will surely change some of the data available to researchers and historians and possible conclusions brought to that research. We do live in a strange universe where we now have researchers trying to replicate standing research to see if it was done correctly with the right conclusions specifically, on health issues. Without that older information, this action would not be available to us, leading us to new information and understanding.

It may be a smart idea for public libraries to update the knowledge found in older work the way law books and encyclopedia’s yearbooks receive updates.  This helps citizens and consumers with information to update their current understanding. With some articles on the net, we often see announcements “updated {date}” but I wonder how many people go back to review the old article (possibly bad or erroneous) or even that updated article, but continue to tell others; spreading the erroneous message/information. And, are libraries capturing this changing information?

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