Ambitious and monumental projects ranging from the Library of Congress mission to create a world digital library to IBM’s undertaking to digitize the Vatican Library’s archives, or Google’s mission to scan every book every published, have made it seem that one day, all of recorded history will be available via computer to practically everyone, everywhere. A long article in the NYT, however, casts serious doubt as to whether all but a tiny fraction of history’s collected information will ever be cataloged in digital form. Even some of the most important items make it to the digital scanner will contain considerable gaps.
The reason, of course, is that companies and institutions can’t afford the technology to create electronic resources of everything they possess. Meanwhile, the musty, physical archives that house the past’s analog information — whether it’s drafts of a Steinbeck novel, a letter written by Lincoln, a 1920s blues recording — are withering in the shadows of digital enterprises. As a result, non-digital material faces neglect, as do the archives themselves — which, at the risk of sounding tautological, need the funding to digitize their works, among other things.
Even major entities like Google and the Library of Congress seem dwarfed by the task at hand.
For example, the piece notes that little more than 5,000 of the Library of Congress archive of 1 million photo prints from The New York World-Telegram & Sun have been digitized. Of the 1.2 million images from U.S. News and World Report, the library has digitized only 366. A plan to digitize a Washington, DC-based newspaper from the 19th century has been put on hold because of higher expenses related to equipment that can read the paper’s colonial-style script. Works from the last 30 years face a different challenge: copyright issues. In the area of music, recordings made before 1972 are protected by state, not federal laws. Under a provision of the 1976 Copyright Act, such material can be protected under state law until 2067.
In order to draw attention to items that may never become fully digitized, the Library Congress will index certain materials in hopes of enticing interested parties to examine the content in person. As for Google’s perspective on the issue, David Eun, Google’s VP for content partnerships, took an appropriately philosophical approach with the NYT: “We’re talking about a huge, huge universe of content. If you look at the glass as half-empty it becomes too overwhelming.”
— Library Of Congress Proposes World Digital Library; Google Provides First $3 Million In Funds