collections, documenting the lives and works of important cultural, political,
intellectual, or creative organizations or individuals, research libraries will also
face a possible convergence or competition with national history museums,
disciplinary data archives, and other scholarly memory organizations over
massive scholarly and scientific data sets coming from e-research and e-science
initiatives. Sayeed Choudhury has argued eloquently, and (in my view)
correctly, that these will be an important part of the special collections of the
future, though different libraries may choose to place very different levels of
commitment on these materials.14
Let me close by returning to the responsibilities of stewardship. Digital
content—whether it be digital representations created from collections of physical
materials, or collections of born-digital objects—is both fragile and robust in ways
that are very different from purely physical collections. The long-term challenges
of preserving digital objects so that they can be meaningfully used in the future
are now documented through an extensive literature, and engaged by vibrant
worldwide research and development and practitioner communities; steady
progress is being made on these very difficult challenges at both technological
and operational levels. While the capability of making and distributing perfect
digital copies at very low marginal cost offers considerable protection against the
natural disasters that have again and again destroyed great physical collections of
rare and distinctive materials, human error continues to be a constant and very
significant threat to both digital and physical collections.
Less widely recognized are the legal and social challenges within a society
that awards little respect to the preservation of cultural memory, or the ways in
which the networked information amplifies these challenges; allowing search
engines to index a collection on the global Internet attracts legal attacks.
Copyright is only one basis for such challenges; others involve libel, privacy,
rights to likeness, national security, and even trademarks and patents. And
beyond the purely legal, there are cultural conflicts, where some group
somewhere demands that material be suppressed, arguing that it is culturally
insulting, or perhaps that it represents a part of a body of sacred knowledge.
The battles aren’t always legal. As discussed later in this forum, particularly
in the haunting presentation by Fred Heath of the University of Texas at Austin,
digital collections in areas such as the documentation of human rights violations
actually attract sophisticated cyber attacks, the sources of which (state and non-
state actors) remain obscure. Special collections hold many types of evidence
RLI 267
7
Special Collections at the Cusp of the Digital Age: A Credo
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C O N T I N U E D
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DECEMBER 2009 RESEARCH LIBRARY ISSUES: A BIMONTHLY REPORT FROM ARL, CNI, AND SPARC
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