Con­serve and Pro­tect

In our rush to digitally pre­serve in­for­ma­tion, we could be for­feit­ing the emo­tional con­nec­tions that drive our re­search

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by David Sax

In our rush to digitally pre­serve in­for­ma­tion, we could be for­feit­ing the emo­tional con­nec­tions that drive our re­search

Li­brar­i­ans don’t typ­i­cally cry at work. Their stoic pres­ence at the in­for­ma­tion desk is sup­posed to be a bul­wark of au­thor­ity in an age of in­for­ma­tion over­load and ques­tion­able on­line truths. But, once in a while, Jen­nifer Toews can’t sup­press the tears, even when she knows pre­cisely what will trig­ger them. They typ­i­cally come when a vis­i­tor to the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Li­brary, where Toews has worked for nearly two decades, asks to see the pa­pers of Fred­er­ick Bant­ing, the U of T doc­tor who played a key role in the dis­cov­ery of in­sulin. “Peo­ple come from all over the world to see our ma­te­rial,” Toews says, sit­ting in a brightly lit of­fice on the ground floor of the li­brary. “They never stop be­ing ex­cited about hold­ing it in their hands.” The li­brary is a multi-storey bru­tal­ist con­crete silo, the walls and cel­lars of which are filled with ap­prox­i­mately 740,000 rare books and four kilo­me­tres of manuscripts, if they were lined up down the street, in­clud­ing such prized items as a copy of Shake­speare’s first fo­lio, a man­u­script writ­ten by Galileo, and the col­lected pa­pers of Leonard Co­hen. But few items elicit the emo­tional re­ac­tion of Bant­ing’s work. Most of the visi­tors seek­ing out Bant­ing’s pa­pers are doc­tors. “They want to see how he cre­ated an emo­tional and per­sonal con­nec­tion with the pa­tients he treated,” Toews says. But, ev­ery now and then, a di­a­betic pa­tient comes to see Bant­ing’s work. The col­lec­tion in­cludes let­ters, re­search pa­pers, sketches, and even a crude draw­ing of a pan­creas on Buck­ing­ham Palace sta­tion­ary that Bant­ing drew for King Ge­orge V dur­ing a lunch in 1934. “Peo­ple burst into tears when they see this stuff,” Toews says. “And it makes me cry some­times too.” A mem­o­rable ex­am­ple for her: a ten-year-old pub­lic ad­vo­cate for di­a­betes pa­tients who came in and read ev­ery word of the cor­re­spon­dence be­tween El­iz­a­beth Hughes and her mother. In 1922, Hughes, the teenage daugh­ter of the US sec­re­tary of state, was one of the first pa­tients to be treated by Bant­ing. Prior to ar­riv­ing in Toronto, she had been put on a star­va­tion diet and had with­ered away in front of her par­ents’ eyes. “I know you will be sur­prised when I tell you that I’m ac­tu­ally grow­ing up as well as out,” her let­ter to “Mum­sey” on Oc­to­ber 1, 1922, reads, not­ing her weight and height gain from a short pe­riod of in­sulin treat­ment. “Dr. Bant­ing’s pleased to death over it, and as I once said, I’m his best pa­tient so far.” Hughes then spends much of the next page glee­fully de­tail­ing how much she ate for break­fast, in­clud­ing shred­ded wheat and cream. Un­like the young vis­i­tor whose own tears brought on Toews’s, I didn’t find or read Hughes’s let­ters in the stacks

of the li­brary or hold the pages in my hand un­der the lamp of its cathe­dral­like read­ing room. I pulled them up on my lap­top with a quick Google search and clicked through a few of the let­ters un­til I found a pas­sage good enough to quote. I did this while sit­ting in my sweat­pants in my house, a half-hour walk from the li­brary. This seam­less, sim­ple, and cost-free ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion has been the dream of li­brar­i­ans, re­searchers, and cu­ri­ous minds since peo­ple be­gan pre­serv­ing hu­man knowl­edge in cen­tral places. And now, in many ways, that col­lec­tive goal of civ­i­liza­tion has pretty much ar­rived. Thanks to more than half a cen­tury of com­puter tech­nol­ogy, the seem­ing lim­it­less­ness of the in­ter­net, and the con­stant in­crease in data-stor­age ca­pa­bil­i­ties with re­mote ac­cess (cloud com­put­ing), we can not only pre­serve in­fi­nite things but also pre­serve them for in­fin­ity. This abil­ity goes beyond pre­cious and his­tor­i­cally im­por­tant works to the ev­ery­day per­sonal bits and bytes of our lives: notes, emails, fam­ily pho­to­graphs live on aseries of anony­mous server racks, in an air- con­di­tioned ware­house, in what­ever mys­tery lo­ca­tion Drop­box and Google have cho­sen to domi­cile them. But dig­i­tal stor­age is fal­li­ble. Ev­ery com­puter and hard drive can be re­motely hacked, in­fected with de­struc­tive viruses, erased by elec­tri­cal surges, or just fail for rea­sons that can­not be reme­died. While this dig­i­tal preser­va­tion seems as­sured, and ridicu­lously cheap, it comes at an un­seen cost in ef­fort, in en­ergy, and in dol­lars. Re­mov­ing things from the tac­tile phys­i­cal world to the vir­tual fold­ers I can­not see or hold in my hands also comes at a cost in pri­vacy. The re­la­tion­ship we have to the in­for­ma­tion that in­sti­tu­tions such as li­braries care for on our be­half is one we take for granted, but it is more ten­u­ous than we re­al­ize. And as we push to pre­serve, we stand to lose the in­ti­mate con­nec­tion that lies at the heart of re­search.

Toews is a third-gen­er­a­tion li­brar­ian. Her mother and grand­fa­ther were pub­lic li­brar­i­ans in Saskatchewan, and she grew up in the stacks. “I loved ev­ery­thing about li­braries,” she says. The li­brary’s sin­gu­lar abil­ity to house end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties in its walls and its man­date to keep those pos­si­bil­i­ties open to ev­ery­one, free of charge, drew her to be­come a li­brar­ian. These fac­tors re­main the mis­sion of li­braries ev­ery­where, from the small li­brary in my daugh­ter’s ele­men­tary school to the Thomas Fisher Li­brary. Toews’s mis­sion, along with that of her col­leagues, is to ac­quire and pre­serve in­for­ma­tion in or­der to make it ac­ces­si­ble. With­out preser­va­tion, there is no ac­cess, but ar­chiv­ing doesn’t hap­pen au­to­mat­i­cally. With dig­i­ti­za­tion comes the be­lief that we can pre­serve ev­ery­thing in per­pe­tu­ity, but while com­puter tech­nol­ogy makes some el­e­ments of dis­sem­i­na­tion eas­ier (scans can be viewed and in­dexed on data­bases ac­ces­si­ble from any­where), each step to pre­serve a work is an act that de­mands sac­ri­fice. The truth is that all in­for­ma­tion will die, re­gard­less of the for­mat. In the li­brary of­fice, which fea­tures a col­lec­tion of phrenol­ogy busts along one shelf and rare, price­less books and pa­pers ev­ery­where you turn, Toews picks up a book that is cov­ered in white vel­lum. It is a col­lec­tion of work by the Greek philoso­pher Aris­to­tle, called Dean­i­mal­ibus, pub­lished in Venice in 1498. The book found its way through cen­turies of own­ers and was ac­quired for a small for­tune for the li­brary’s col­lec­tion. “As it is, this will last a re­ally long time,” she says, rub­bing her palms over the smooth calf­skin, which looks to be in bet­ter shape than the cov­ers of some of the books I read to my chil­dren each night. “If it is kept safe from pests, fire, and flood, who knows how long it can last?” Toews notes that the items in the li­brary’s col­lec­tion, in­clud­ing this book, aren’t mu­seum pieces to be kept be­hind glass. They are re­search items, avail­able to be read, in­spected, and pored over in the search for some­thing greater. “Our man­date is for stuff to be used,” she says. Phys­i­cal use leads to phys­i­cal degra­da­tion, and the prin­ci­pal goal of preser­va­tion is to head this off. Nearby, in a work­shop stacked with thou­sands of old book­bind­ing tools, glass vials of hand­mixed nat­u­ral so­lu­tions, and all sorts of presses and ma­chines that would fit right into Guten­berg’s shop, con­ser­va­tor Linda Joy per­forms the in­tri­cate, daily task of keep­ing the works alive. Her most used tool, she says, is a piece of pol­ished whale bone shaped like a tongue de­pres­sor (called a bone folder, to be pre­cise), which she uses to del­i­cately flip, un­fold, and crease pa­per. With this ex­act­ing care, and stored in a tem­per­a­ture-, light-, and hu­mid­i­ty­con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment, a book like De An­i­mal­ibus can last hun­dreds of years or longer. The hope is that, when dig­i­tized, these works can live eter­nally. Once it is cod­i­fied into ones and ze­ros, in­for­ma­tion should the­o­ret­i­cally re­main con­sis­tent in per­pe­tu­ity, which is why li­braries and other in­sti­tu­tions (com­pa­nies, gov­ern­ments, fam­i­lies scan­ning Dad’s old Su­per 8 movies) are in a race to dig­i­tize be­fore it is too late. But dig­i­tal preser­va­tion is a mov­ing goal­post. The lan­guage of bi­nary code may re­main static, but the for­mats we use to store that code are con­stantly chang­ing, and the pace of change ac­cel­er­ates faster each year. Toews points to a bat­tered shop­ping bag with a twenty-year-old lap­top, which con­tains a his­tory pro­fes­sor’s data­base of old So­viet film ar­chives. The com­puter was get­ting old, and IT spe­cial­ists had been called in to copy the hard drive. “We are al­ways scram­bling to fix things,” Toews says of dig­i­tal ar­chives, which re­quire vig­i­lant main­te­nance and mi­gra­tion to new for­mats and stan­dards. Other li­braries have faced sim­i­lar prob­lems. Last April, an ar­ti­cle in IEEE Spec­trum, a mag­a­zine pub­lished by the In­sti­tute

Data on floppy disks, mag­netic reels of tape, and flash drives are vastly more frag­ile than a book bound six cen­turies ago.

of Elec­tri­cal and Elec­tron­ics En­gi­neers, de­tailed how the loss rates of film ar­chives are in­creas­ing quickly, and the tech­nol­ogy needed to save the film can’t keep up. It has been es­ti­mated that the for­mat cho­sen to store films, lin­ear tape-open (think big dig­i­tal video­tape reels), needs to be re­placed by a new tech gen­er­a­tion ev­ery seven years, on av­er­age. Sim­i­larly, re­search sug­gests that non-dig­i­tal video­tapes aren’t ex­pected to sur­vive the next twenty years, lead­ing to a cri­sis of preser­va­tion for any­thing stored in that for­mat. Data on floppy disks, mag­netic reels of tape, old hard drives, and flash drives are vastly more frag­ile than a book bound six cen­turies ago. And while there are on­go­ing costs with a li­brary, of course, for staffing, util­i­ties, and the ma­te­ri­als used to pre­serve col­lec­tions, dig­i­tal stor­age is a ser­vice that re­quires daily feed­ing of dol­lars to stay alive. Those dol­lars are nei­ther in­fi­nite nor with­out their prej­u­dice. Un­less a li­brary owns and op­er­ates its own servers and stores all its dig­i­tal in­for­ma­tion in com­put­ers it owns (a costly en­deav­our that re­quires mas­sive cap­i­tal up­keep), the li­brary’s in­for­ma­tion is at the whim of for-profit cor­po­ra­tions. These com­pa­nies’ in­ter­est in preser­va­tion goes as far as their bot­tom line. The price of dig­i­tal pro­cessers and com­puter mem­ory con­tin­ues to de­cline, on av­er­age, but that of dig­i­tal stor­age for ar­chiv­ing pur­poses may not. In a 2012 pa­per, Stan­ford dig­i­tal preser­va­tion­ist David Rosen­thal, along with a panel of ex­perts, raised the alarm that longterm dig­i­tal cloud stor­age will likely be­come less eco­nom­i­cal over time. “Pa­per as the medium for the world’s mem­ory has one great ad­van­tage,” Rosen­thal wrote. “[I]t sur­vives be­nign ne­glect well. Bits, on the other hand, need con­tin­ual care, and thus a con­tin­ual flow of money.” Then there is the dirty truth of dig­i­ti­za­tion, which is that, in many cases, it can ac­tu­ally aid in the de­struc­tion of phys­i­cal in­for­ma­tion. To be scanned well, pages need to be flat and free of creases. “You can do fifty years of dam­age by open­ing up a text the wrong way,” says Toews. “We al­ways want to save things, but it’s part of our busi­ness to know we can’t save ev­ery­thing.” Not ev­ery­thing wants to be pre­served, or dig­i­tized, or shared with the widest pos­si­ble au­di­ence. Some­times, it is for rea­sons of fragility and value, but other times, it is that in­for­ma­tion is best re­stricted to its ana­log for­mat. When Leonard Co­hen do­nated a col­lec­tion of pa­pers in 2003 to the Thomas Fisher li­brary, he was adamant that none of the con­tents should be dig­i­tized. If you want to see Co­hen’s writ­ing, you have to travel there, re­quest boxes of pa­pers, and flip through the let­ters and worn note­books, writ­ten in Mon­treal, Greece, and on the road, one by one. That may seem ar­chaic and slow, and it is surely less ef­fi­cient, from a time per­spec­tive, than a Google search. But it also is a process of dis­cov­ery that leads the re­searcher to un­ex­pected and re­veal­ing places. It re­quires more ef­fort but may lead to more learn­ing. It slows down the process of in­for­ma­tion ab­sorp­tion and en­cour­ages a con­nec­tion be­tween the text, doc­u­ment, and reader. That can lead to greater in­sights or even a sub­tle sense of one let­ter’s con­text among many. In the case of the di­a­betic child read­ing the let­ters in Bant­ing’s col­lec­tion, this process can bring forth un­ex­pected tears that make those sit­ting nearby cry as well. Un­like the young lady read­ing those let­ters, I didn’t cry when I read them on­line. They were just one more thing flash­ing on my screen, called up and dis­patched with no more ef­fort than scrolling through Face­book. It was not a dis­cov­ery, nor a jour­ney, but an­other quick search by an al­go­rithm. I felt noth­ing. In­for­ma­tion is many things. It is dates and facts and im­ages and words and num­bers. But all of those were cre­ated to cap­ture some­thing about the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence, and the rea­son we seek out and work to pre­serve in­for­ma­tion is to deepen our un­der­stand­ing of that ex­pe­ri­ence and where we fit into it, as if we were a sin­gle sen­tence in­side a vast li­brary.

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