net.wars: No library deposit, no civilized return

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 18 April 2003

The despicable and disastrous destruction of the library and museum of antiquities in Baghdad again raises the question of what our digital heritage will be.

Wendy M Grossman

Yes, if the huge archive of destroyed documents had been digitised we'd still have copies now. On the other hand, the likelihood that those copies would be readable, as the originals were, for thousands of years would be vanishingly small. So what's an archivist to do?

(And, in passing, can I just say what barbarians the people were, who allowed this to happen - despite warnings?)

This appalling catastrophe for culture, civilization, and scholarship has some immediate relevance in the UK, where the Legal Deposit Libraries Bill seeks to require publishers in "non-print media" to deposit copies of their productions in the six copyright libraries. You may wonder why Dublin is included in the list, and the answer is of course that the list was last looked at in the Copyright Act of 1911, before Irish independence. So it's been a while since it was updated.

The Legal Deposit Libraries Bill is a private members' affair, sponsored by Ipswich Labour MP Chris Mole. It had its second reading in mid-March, and is headed for a standing committee. I know people always say private members' bills almost never pass, but there's a lot of agitation about this one nonetheless.

First problem: the bill includes software, as in, any software necessary to access the work deposited. How far does this go? Does it mean including only proprietary software, or things like Java and Perl? Do you have to provide the hardware to run it on if it's proprietary? If not, how will the libraries make the material accessible? What about licensing?

Next problem: how do you define what is a publication? I have no problem with saying that net.wars or The Inquirer are publications, or electronic science journals, or health encyclopedias on CD-ROM. But is my blog a publication? With all those stupid lists of movies I've been watching and neighbours' cats who've been shorn? Doubtless to future historians these drivels will be hugely valuable, shedding a unique light on the culture of our times. Do I need to deposit six copies with the libraries every time I add an entry? Wouldn't it be more logical for LiveJournal, which hosts my and many other blogs (yeah, I know, pathetic laziness on my part) to do the depositing?

But are they publishing in the UK, given that they're based in Beaverton, Oregon? Can they be convinced to care about British copyright libraries? One of the complaints about the bill is that it is extremely vague on this point, and could conceivably be taken to mean anything down to SMS messages. Which, you know: one of these days doubtless there will be SMS performance art.

It might be more logical to leave archiving the Web to the expert, Brewster Kahle, whose Internet Archive project has the very useful Wayback Machine. You can search the archived Web by date and/or URL. Time travel!

But of course that's not the solution, any more than Google's extensive archive of Old Usenet is. As grateful as I am for the existence of those privately owned archives (and both Kahle and Google give every indication of being absolutely trustworthy stewards), the point about public archives is that they are a society's record of itself and its roots and not subject to the whims of private owners.

The bigger concern for publishers, as always, I suppose, is financial. Who is going to pay the cost of depositing all the mass of information – and who is going to fund the libraries to archive and manage it all? Anyone who's ever run a computer system knows how much housekeeping attention data needs to make sure it's backed up, transferred to new formats as old ones expire, and managing access.

On the publishers' side, there is also the problem of the laws on defamation and libel. Let's say the bill is interpreted in such a way as to require publishers to deposit a new copy of their Web sites every time they change. Let's say there is a statement that could be considered defamatory embedded in one of the site's articles. There is a one-year limitation on filing suit – but will publishers be able to withdraw material or will access by the public through a library many years later open the way to the claim that the publisher is recirculating the libel? Will filing copies in Dublin mean there will be a second set of lawsuits in the Irish Republic?

None of these seem to be unanswerable questions; but a quick reading of the bill suggests that folks like the Digital Content Forum are correct in saying that they have not been answered yet in this piece of legislation. So, ultimately, while requiring the deposit of non-print publications is a good idea, this version needs a rewrite. And while you're at it, folks, the libraries could use some funding for books, http://www.kb.nl/infolev/liber/articles/12campbell.html maps, and all those other non-digital publications.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).